Jerusalem Diary

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The Independent Online
We did not want the morning to come. Hundreds of thousands of us waited for hours for a chance to take one last look at the simple wooden casket wrapped in an Israeli flag which lay in state in Jerusalem on the plaza in front of the Knesset, Israel's parliament. We wished time would stop so we would not have to let go of Yitzhak Rabin and see him buried, and with him our hopes and dreams.

The sidewalks by the prime minister's official residence in central Jerusalemare covered with wax from thousands of memorial candles placed there by the Israelis holding personal vigils. Large pools of candle wax also covered the pavements along the route to Mount Herzl, Israel's national cemetery. At one spot a girl, aged no more than 10, collected pebbles to create her own memorial, the name Rabin spelt out with little stones.

Jerusalem does not let you forget that it is a city of strong, uncompromising and clashing emotions. At one spot on the main Jaffa Road, crowds placed still more candles. In the early morning of the day of the funeral, three young men suddenly appeared and kicked the candles aside before others standing nearby screamed and jumped at them. Luckily for the three, a police van screeched to a halt a moment later. The policemen, it transpired, had been following the youths after a complaint from someone who had seen them kicking candles elsewhere. The police took them away in the van, but not before the trio had dropped on the street a bunch of leaflets with biblical phrases praising those who kill the "enemies of Israel".

On the day of the funeral we go back to work. I pass hand-painted signs with Rabin's name and a sentence from the Kaddish, the memorial prayer, "He who makes peace in heaven", and yet more candles. Small groups of people gather around holding transistor radios which broadcast non-stop the events of the day. A religious man in black garb, standing on a corner, is holding up a small sign with the words: "I am ashamed". "Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not kill," he repeats over and over again. "I am ashamed because a religious man killed Rabin," he explains when I question him. Then something out of the ordinary happens. A street sweeper, who has been working nearby, goes up to the man, grabs at his hand, and kisses it. The sweeper is an Arab and he says something in Arabic, which I do not understand. He switches to a broken Hebrew and explains: "We also believe that it is wrong to murder."

Shortly before 2pm, I go out into the street. We know that, at two exactly, a siren will sound to mark the beginning of Rabin's funeral. We in Israel are used to that siren sound. Every year it marks Holocaust Day, as well as the day when we remember our fallen soldiers. Traffic stops then, people stand to attention. I want to be out in the street, not inside. A tourist stops me and asks where he can get something to eat. Most restaurants are closed today, so I direct him to a small grocery store. "But wait," I say, "the siren will start any second." He is confused but before I can explain, the wail begins - a long, piercing sound that lasts for two minutes. The tourist looks around and I can see his jaw drop. Moments later he says he has never seen anything like this. Everything has stopped, no one moves, cars halt in the middle of the street, drivers get out and stand to attention.

That night we go up to Mount Herzl with flowers and candles. We tell ourselves that we are doing this for our children, to help them to mourn the loss. But to tell the truth, we are doing it for ourselves. Thousands of Israelis have the same idea. The grave is fast becoming a place of pilgrimage, almost impossible to get near.

The worst security and organisational nightmare on the day of the funeral was faced by Jerusalem's King David Hotel, the city's best, and the only place for visiting dignitaries. Luckily, most heads of state did not want to sleep overnight, but all needed a place to wash, eat and change, and the hotel coped masterfully. A list was drawn up to work out who would get the best rooms, with royalty at the top, followed by presidents in order of precedence according to the size of their rooms.

John Major caused the hotel's chefs a problem when it turned out that the list of his favourite foods they had been given was out of date, superseded by healthier fare. The contents of either pre- or post-diet list remain private - "good, hearty, traditional English foods" apparently, though the strictly kosher King David would certainly not have provided bacon and eggs had they been requested.

Many of the statesmen covered their heads at the graveside, and Israelis particularly appreciated those like Prince Charles who came equipped with their own skullcaps. Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was hatless, but quickly borrowed one from an official - which explains why he was sporting a blue baseball cap.

Jerusalem is a small town. Walk down any street and you'll run into someone you know. Many public figures walk around with little or no security - though this may now change. Everybody is on first-name terms with the mayor - it was Teddy (Kollek) for some 27 years and it's been Ehud (Olmert) for the past two years.

But who would have his job? It is a tradition that the mayor is accessible to one and all - no one would hesitate to ring his house and speak to the mayor himself about any problem from rubbish collection to howling dogs. Call in the evening and you're pretty sure to get the mayor himself. If you have to leave a message he will ring you back promptly.

Jerusalem has known many upheavals - it has been conquered and reconquered at least 40 times in its 3,000-years-plus history. When it expanded past its ancient ramparts in the early 1900s it was lucky that the British were in charge. They declared that only the "Jerusalem stone", a local limestone, should be used to build in the city. The stone was used to build Herod's Jerusalem and the Jerusalem of the Muslims. But some architects are becoming rebellious. They have suggested a compromise - buildings that are half Jerusalem stone and half glass, for instance. But so far the city's naturally conservative residents are resisting. Many feel as I do - the unchanging stone reminds us that people only pass through here, but the city remains constant.

The author is a senior writer for 'Jerusalem Report'.