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This Too is Israel
Eilat--This too is Israel
by Judy Lash Balint
Jerusalem Post
August 25, 2005

Sunday, 6:45 a.m outside Jerusalem's Central Bus Station. I'm with a bleary-eyed friend as we try to elbow our way past dozens of soldiers hauling gigantic backpacks as they hurry to make their way back to base after a weekend of momma's cooking and caring. I run into an anxious neighbor kissing her 18 year-old soldier daughter goodbye.

The beautiful, slim, blond soldier nonchalantly picks up her backpack, adjusts her hipster khaki pants and is off into the crowd. "She's stationed at Kissufim," her mother tells me. This week it'll be a breeze--monitoring the moving trucks trundling out of Gush Katif with the possessions of 1500 families on board, bound for storage in Beersheva. No more pesky protestors or pushy journalists to monitor.

We finally squeeze ourselves in past the security guard, haul our bags onto the X-Ray machine and finally make our way up toward the bus to Eilat.

My friend is a veteran tour guide and we have a gig updating the Fodor's Guidebook to Israel--our luck, we get to do Eilat in the middle of August. Why not the Golan, or Jerusalem?? Still, it's work, and there are evicted families being housed in Eilat too that I plan on visiting.

This Sunday morning there are four full buses making the 4 hour journey past the Dead Sea, through the Negev and on into Eilat. The Eilat Jazz Festival is happening this week, plus it's the last gasp of the summer vacation before school starts on September 1.

Still, we are unprepared for the teenage hoodlums that made the journey with us. Their behavior is reminiscent of Animal House with a Middle Eastern accent. Suffice it to say that we're very glad to see the Gulf of Eilat come into view.

My last visit to Eilat was a VERY long time ago--when the only place to stay was the Youth Hostel or the beach. Today, the resort that's just yards away from the Jordanian and Egyptian borders, is exactly that--a real resort filled with luxury hotels and fancy restaurants and upscale tourists.

French and Hebrew are the predominant languages heard in Eilat today. Almost all the charter flights that used to arrive from Europe and Scandinavia in the good old pre--2000 war days stopped coming long ago. Today there are just six charter flights per week from overseas.

We go about our business checking on all the hotels and as many restaurants and tourist sites as we could take in in two days--it IS work, believe me, when it's 97 degrees outside. Neither of us even bother to bring swimsuits, since we know we will never have the time to use them..

Anyway--we check out the minimal damage caused by the Katyusha rocket sent over by some Al Quaida maniac last Friday that landed on the road just next to the Eilat airport, and peer over into Aqaba a few hundred yards away in Jordan.

On the promenade by the beach we spot several of the pained refugee families, looking quite incongruous amongst the holiday revelers.

Traveling back to Jerusalem, the bus stops at a rest stop at Ein Hazeva slap bang in the middle of nowhere in the far eastern part of the Negev desert. Along with the 7-11 style store, a new Cafe belonging to the Aroma chain has just opened. Never one to miss a latte opportunity, I make a bee-line for the counter. I'm stunned to see the barrista from my neighborhood Aroma cafe in Jerusalem standing behind the counter.

She laughs when I greet her--several of her Jeruslaem customers have done a double take when they see her there out of context, she says. The company sent her down to the desert for three months to train the staff of the new branch and make sure things are running smoothly before she gets to go home. "Work and sleep," she tells me--that's all there is to do here, she adds.

Back in Jerusalem, the craziness continues. I stop in for another visit with Moshe and Rachel Saperstein, formerly of Neve Dekalim, now of the Jerusalem Gold hotel. We share a laugh as I point out that the hokey picture on their cramped hotel room of waves crashing is just like the view of the Mediterranean from their former home.

The latenight TV news update announces that two 21 year old yeshiva students have been stabbed near Jaffa Gate in the Old City. An hour later, Shmuel Matt, a British citizen and student at the Mir Yeshiva who was to be married 11 days from now has died of his wounds.

This morning a Katyusha landed in a community in the Galilee causing little damage and no injuries, and a Kassam rocket slammed into the southern town of Sderot.

Welcome to the post-disengagement country of Israel.