In the Georgian Capital Tbilisi, Only El Al Planes Dare to Land

Georgia's capital remained glum, as crowds united to rally against the 'fire-breathing' Russians.

TBILISI - The moon peeked from beyond the darkening clouds that covered Tbilisi's sky Tuesday night, and an eerie silence prevailed in the city's streets. The winds of war. Even a foreigner, who had just landed in the Georgian capital, could immediately discern the restrained tension that encompassed the city, despite all the declarations and promises of a cease-fire.

On Tuesday night, no one thought to celebrate its achievement. Here, most think the Russians will not be satisfied by the humiliating blow dealt to Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili. No one in Tbilisi was certain on Tuesday night that the worst was behind this relatively small country that dared irritate the Russian bear.

Opposite the parliament building stands a megalomaniacal building of arches illuminated by bright lights and decorated with flags covered in red crosses, in front of which masses stood quietly for many hours listening to speeches. Their faces glum, no one dared to criticize, and the scary silence that permeated the air was interrupted only by the repetitive calls of "long live Georgia" and "we will fight for our freedom."

It was not a smooth landing for the nearly empty El Al plane sent to evacuate the hundreds of Jews and Israelis who crowded together at the airport - and not just because of the old and rough runway. Only El Al dared land in the deserted airport of this capital Tuesday. The captain had even suggested Ankara or Baku as alternate landing spots, in case the plane could not descend in Tbilisi.

In truth, more than anything I had hoped the captain would turn around and retrace his route and return in the same way he came. Who wants to land in a city that, just two days before, had been bombed by the Russians as a sign of what was to come? As the plane lowered, a Georgian shepherd raised his eyes skyward, amazed by the miracle: a plane full of passengers in Tbilisi's skies, as if the Russians never existed.

At the airport, a legendary quality of Israel and the Jewish world revealed itself: Dozens of staff members from El Al, the Israeli embassy, the Jewish Agency and the organization Nativ worked to do everything possible to get hundreds of waiting people onto the two planes that landed here Tuesday. All this, done opposite other airlines' shuttered counters. Israel is here, as is the Jewish world.

"Welcome to Georgia," greeted the cell phone company. "Enjoy your stay." I have not experienced such strange feelings since I landed in besieged Sarajevo in 1993. The first news we heard disembarking the plane was about injured Israeli journalist Zadok Yehezkeli.

The current feeling in the city is one of vast national unity. Even if there are those who criticize Saakashvili's hasty and dangerous steps, everyone is now united against the fire-breathing Russians. "Wanted for war crimes and crimes against humanity," read a poster with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's picture handed out at the rally.

Opposite the parliament stood the throngs, nearly the entire city, some wrapped in the national flag. Flags of the United States, France and the European Union, the great hopes that disappointed, waved above the speakers' stage. Nevertheless, hope pierced through for a moment, when it was announced that French President Nicolas Sarkozy is on his way to the city and that two International Red Cross planes carrying humanitarian aid had just landed.

"Welcome, it's good that you came," whispered a young smiling Georgian woman. "You will not be able to destroy Georgia," shouted a parliament member, one of the speakers on stage who raised doubts about whether he believed his own words. "We will fight in the name of our ancient history," called a Georgian spiritual leader who spoke afterward. "Long live the free and complete Georgia," he shouted. But some of the crowd that night seemed skeptical about whether their country would remain complete and sovereign as they had hoped, and as it had been not so long ago.