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August 12, 1998
Somehow I always seem to end up on a bus a few minutes before the hour. If there is a seat I settle into it; if not I moor my backpack between my feet. Then come the six beeps that arrest the attention of every soldier, yeshiva student, and grandmother alike. The beeps signal the start of the hourly newscast, for which nearly every bus driver cranks up the volume.
There is no light jingle to introduce the newscast -- just the unrelenting precision of the beeps, the anchor's name, and the tagline, "Shalom, this is the Voice of Israel, Jerusalem. The heat is as usual. And now for the news."
On a normal day the hush at news time on an Israeli bus is short-lived. Since journalism here follows the universal rule that if it bleeds it leads, as soon as the announcer turns to trial outcomes or political-poll results everyone may rest assured that there has been no bombing and no military action -- in the past hour. On a normal day, then, the cell-phone conversations continue and parents take up scolding their children where they left off before the beeps.
If it is not a normal day -- let us say there is a traffic jam three blocks long in the center of Jerusalem and several police cruisers and a bomb-squad van have flashed by with sirens blaring -- then the bus passengers' silence during the newscast can be wrenching and desperate. I was on the bus during one such day, in mid July, when our hulking chariot ground to a halt behind another, which was waiting in turn behind several other cars and buses, a block and a half before intersecting Jaffa Street, a major downtown artery.
My husband and I were sitting in a seat facing backwards that day, and we saw more buses stopped behind ours. We all waited on the frozen bus, growing frightened at the continuing sounds of sirens and the chop of helicopters overhead. After about ten minutes the driver came onto the intercom (a phenomenon I had never witnessed before, alone sufficient to intensify my inchoate sense of dread) and crackled out something incomprehensible. My Hebrew is fine for, say, ordering a slice of pizza or reading a philosophy article, but it was utterly inadequate for understanding the driver.
Instead of putting our trust in listening comprehension we took our cue from the many people who rushed off the bus in the wake of the driver's announcement. Once we had jostled onto the street I asked my husband where we should go. Shouldn't we run? He calmly observed that no one else was running, and that several people weren't getting off at all. He reasoned that maybe the people who got off the bus were close enough to their destinations to walk the rest of the way; perhaps they just didn't want to sit through the traffic jam. Since our destination was farther off we decided to get back on the bus. After several minutes longer the line of traffic began to inch and then to surge forward. However, instead of allowing the bus to cross Jaffa Street as it normally would, a police officer directed on a detour from the normal route. I looked down Jaffa as we turned and I saw that it was crammed with emergency vehicles and army trucks. A flash, and no more was visible.
All morning I listened for those six radio beeps, hoping to find out what had happened. The downtown area was in a state of alarm. The police were denying traffic entrance to the city center, but there were plenty of pedestrians walking around puzzled. Surmising that there had been some kind of violence, people kept asking one another, "Was it public or private?" (If there were a fire at a private residence we would feel great sympathy, but it would be part of a normal existence, whereas if there were a public bombing we would feel communal terror.)
I caught the news in a café, at the top of the hour. The reporter on the scene was describing a car fire, cause unknown. "No deaths," he intoned, and an entire café full of people sighed with relief. "Injury count unknown," he continued, and breaths were held tightly once again. As the day progressed traffic was again allowed into the downtown district, and life was as normal as ever, except that the morning's events seemed to be shrouded in a thick veil of mystery. Subsequent news reports, oddly blending sketchiness and detail, indicated that some information was not yet being released.
The next morning, in my Hebrew class, we read full accounts in the newspapers, whose headlines screamed of a "great miracle." A Hamas operative had parked a stolen van on bustling Jaffa Street. The vehicle was loaded with explosives and nails. Being a bumbling sort of terrorist, he managed to set his van on fire before exploding his cache. When the police and a bus driver arrived to extinguish the car fire, they discovered the van's contents in time to prevent detonation of the explosives.
There was no bombing on July 19 on Jaffa Street. Technically, that puts the day in the normal category.
Miriam Udel Lambert is a former Atlantic Unbound intern who will be studying and writing in Israel for the next two years.
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