Living with terrorism
In Israel, a day without an attack "is a miraculous day," and a public eager for escapism turns to soap operas.
Jerusalem, 13 September 2001, SALON.COM

Suddenly Israel, the scene of religious intolerance and repeated bloody explosions, has become a model country, a showcase for what perhaps awaits Americans as they learn to live in the shadow of terrorism.

Not that there's much here to envy. In Israel, car trunks and handbags are systematically searched by security guards at the mall. People carrying large objects, wearing loose, baggy clothes or an Arab complexion are viewed suspiciously. And "single young woman, traveling alone" is an airport security profile not a personal ad.

Most of all, living in a country plagued by terrorism means sacrificing a degree of personal liberty for a greater sense of security and constantly calculating the risks involved in carrying out ordinary activities such as driving, shopping and eating out.

After a series of bombs blew up buses in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in 1996, boarding a bus in Israel has seemed foolhardy. For the past year, since peaceful relations between Israelis and Palestinians disintegrated, the "Russian roulette" metaphor has extended to driving cars with Israeli license plates on roads in the West Bank (dozens have been ambushed) and strolling down the shopping areas of Israeli towns.

Each person has his own way of managing fear. Take Menashe Tsabag, 35, a lawyer in downtown Jerusalem, who works about 300 yards from Sbarro, the pizza parlor where a suicide bomber killed 15 and wounded 130 others on Aug. 9, and just a few blocks from Mahane Yehuda, the covered market that has also been a magnet for terrorists in the past. Tsabag went to the covered market recently to buy pineapple (much cheaper than if he had gone to a smaller, safer grocer), but stayed clear of the most crowded stalls. On his walks downtown, Tsabag usually avoids Jaffa Street, Jewish Jerusalem's main artery, too crowded for comfort, but yesterday made an exception to his self-imposed rule to visit a friend. "I walked the street from one end to the other with the sensation of the edge of a knife in my back," he said.

Many Israelis like Tsabag attempt to put order in the chaos wreaked by terrorism by taking what appear to be basic precautions, as sensible as respecting a road's speed limit or driving sober. But that order rapidly crumbles in the face of the randomness of terrorist attacks. "Frankly, every day that doesn't have a terrorist attack is a miraculous day," said Tsabag. "If someone really wants to commit terror, he can't be stopped. Jerusalem is a territorially unified city. The distances are so close between where we work and eat and the [predominantly Arab] Old City."
"I'm not going to leave Jerusalem because of terror," said Tsabag. "There are attacks in Tel Aviv and Netanya too. You live wherever you have to. It's not fatalism, it's real. Wherever you go, you could be hit."

Yaron Ezrahi, a political analyst based in Jerusalem, believes terror attacks have different impacts on different sectors of Israeli society. "People who have a certain sense of the inherent fragility of human existence, people generally with a higher education, have more resources to deal with terror. They go to concerts, read books. They cope with resilience, with fatalism or with escapism," he said.

Escapism, in particular, has become a dominant trait of Israeli society. People in Tel Aviv are famous for "partying on," no matter what, and have earned the sprawling Mediterranean city a reputation for defiant debauch that presumably drives fundamentalists mad. Less flamboyantly, Israeli TV viewers have started to tune out the terror. Soap operas are up, news programs are down. On Sunday, when a rash of Palestinian attacks killed five Israelis and two suicide bombers in three separate incidents, Channel 2, a national TV channel, interrupted its normal programming to cover the bloodletting, only to see its ratings dramatically drop.

For a second group of people, however, escapism is not an option because they lack the necessary resources or cultural habits. "They live constantly with the mood in the street and with the TV news," Ezrahi explained. "They are the most vulnerable to the process of disruption and routine imbalance. They channel their anxieties into powerful emotions of fear and hatred."

These different reactions to terror, in turn, sharply color Israeli politics. The latter group is more "prone to encourage the massive use of force on the premise that it will end their anxieties," said Ezrahi. They are the ones pressing the government for tough measures of retaliation after each terrorist strike and represent the core electorate of the Israeli right. The first group, by contrast, tends to believe that there is no military solution to the conflict, said Ezrahi, and that the injustice at the base of the enemy's hatred must be somehow addressed. After months of bloodshed and grisly terrorist attacks, however, the left's ranks have dwindled and its faith in the possibility of reaching an understanding based on rational discussion with the other side has been seriously shaken.

One idea each side can agree on: Isolate terrorist elements from Israel, be it through military closures imposed on entire Palestinian cities (like the sieges imposed on the West Bank towns of Jenin and Jericho this week) or through a unilateral withdrawal from the occupied territories. The concept of unilateral separation, which enjoyed only marginal support last year, is now supported by over 50 percent of the Israeli population, according to Yossi Alpher, an Israeli strategic analyst. This opinion shift, a result of repeated shooting attacks on settlements, can be seen as a victory for Palestinian militants and a sign that Israelis are "softening" in the face of unbearable casualties (at least 166 Israelis have been killed by Palestinians since last year). But terror has also made Israelis "more hostile and more angry at the Palestinians," noted Alpher. "They don't want to withdraw out of love for the Palestinians but to erect a large fence so that they never have to see them again. To get rid of them. It's a very anti-Arab approach."

Like the war in Lebanon, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, a mixture of guerrilla warfare and terrorism, has had brutalizing effects on Israeli society. Israeli proclivities toward domestic violence, rudeness in the streets or road rage seem somehow linked to what soldiers are taught to do in order to deal with regional and Palestinian threats. "It's a long-term problem," said Alpher. "It's hard to prove the connection but many feel it is there. " And ironically, toughness in the face of tough times has produced a vicious circle. "The first Intifada [1987-1993] broke out in part because of the brutal behavior of our soldiers at roadblocks and elsewhere," noted Alpher.

But Israel's grim scenario is not necessarily one the United States will follow. "American idealism will stand as a huge resource" for coping with Tuesday's devastating blows on New York and Washington, said Ezrahi. "Once a sense of defending a civilization is established, it's easier to withstand terror. It becomes a war."

In dealing with their losses, Israelis have not always had the comforting feeling that they are waging a just and necessary battle. Apart from settlers who live in the West Bank and Gaza for ideological reasons and see their resistance to attacks by Palestinian gunmen as the heroic embodiment of a national and religious duty, many Israelis have been plagued in the past with moral uncertainties. Because of the curse of occupation, "There is no sense of idealism in defending Israeli values," believes Ezrahi. Throughout the 1990s there was a lingering suspicion that if the West Bank and Gaza were turned over to the Palestinians and past grievances were addressed seriously, some of the anger and frustration fueling local terrorism would be defused. Those feelings were at the base of the Oslo negotiations that sought to exchange land for peace and security.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's rejection of a far-reaching Israeli peace plan last summer dealt a first blow to that theory. Tuesday's shocking acts may have buried it entirely. When groups of Palestinians were caught on film cheering the devastating terrorist attacks against the United States, they were destined to be judged through guilt by association with a heinous crime, and many of the doubts and gray areas vanished from Israelis' minds. "What are they going to call the pilots of those suicide planes? 'Guerrilla fighters?' No they're terrorists," said the lawyer Tsabag, usually sympathetic to the other side's arguments. "It doesn't matter if they did it for a good cause. Causes are relative, but death is death."

© Flore de Préneuf