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Friday, July 6, 2007

How Israel copes with terror

The Sunday Times of India, July 23, 2006

After the Mumbai blasts, a TV anchor asked, ‘Should India go the Israel way?’ An Israeli pioneer in the study of stress has an unexpected answer

Nina Martyris

Last week in Jerusalem, we were drawn by the warmly lit window of a Chinese restaurant tucked away on fashionable Ben Yehuda Street. The door was inhospitably bolted from within, but a sign assured us that it was open. We rang the bell. A waiter answered, gave us the once-over and asked us in. Then began the routine procedure: Any weapons? A gun? Could he check our bags? Did we have an ID? Once we had been seated and profuse apologies proffered, the prickly reception receded as the table disappeared beneath platters of chicken and shitake mushrooms.

Inquisitions at restaurants and frisking at malls are de rigeur in this security-obsessed country, intensified since March 2002, after the harsh spike in suicide bombings announcing the second Intifada. Every week then delivered images of bombs and body parts. Therapists from the government’s Psychological Services, on constant call, rushed from one bereaved family to another as grief managers and safety-valves for anger.

As the attacks escalated, Ultra Orthodox Jews began an unsqueamish service called Zaka, arriving at the bomb-site within minutes to piece together shattered bodies and enable a dignified burial. Sudden death lurked in the simple act of grabbing a quick coffee. That heightened fear has ebbed — psychologists say that the initial human response to terror is a pervasive fear, which is gradually replaced by defiance and a determination to go on.

Coping with terrorism is now programmed into Israel’s genetic code. An anti-terror eco-system marries Bluetooth espionage with native intelligence and a vigilante citizenry which has learned the terrible price of ignoring an innocuous schoolbag. There are still between 10 and 20 warnings of terrorist intention every day. This daily jangle of alarm bells translates into hypersecurity, with guards poking through boots and back seats like dentists probing for cavities. This comes with its own problems. The authorities might claim that everyone is equally suspect regardless of the shape of his nose or quantum of facial hair, but local Arabs are fighting mad about racial profiling.

Even someone as venerable as Ziad Abu Zayyad, a minister in the Arafat government and now an editor, tells of the humiliation of being ordered to surrender his keys to a young Israeli soldier, probably a fresh migrant from Europe or Africa, and have his car frisked in Jerusalem, the city of his forefathers. Zayyad’s feeling of debasement and anger articulates that of the Palestinian people. A community in crisis thrust into the arms of extremism by historical circumstance and its own cynical leadership. “All the violence you see now is a symptom of Israeli occupation,” Zayyad continues, referring to the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948, a state based on biblical entitlement, sanctioned by the UN, and catalysed by the Holocaust.

To understand what the world believes to be Israel’s unbridled belligerence in dealing with its situation, academics summon their favourite word, ‘existential’. Eniat Wilf, a foreign policy expert, says that two ideas underpin Israel—the first is its pre-ordained journey through catastrophe and redemption, the second is a sense of existential fear, the legacy of 3,000 years of invasion and persecution which culminated in the Nazi gas chamber. “There is a feeling that any moment all this, everything, can disappear,” says Wilf. Iranian president Ahmadenijad played these fears like a violin with his “wiping Israel from the map” rhetoric.

“When we read the rhetoric of Ahmadenijad or Naserallah (the Hezbollah leader in Lebanon), I see the same powerful ideas that I see in Hitler. My children have a grandmother with a number on her arm,” says Arnold Roth, whose daughter Malki went to a Jerusalem restaurant and thought nothing of the young man who entered with a guitar strapped to his back. Within minutes, Arnold and his wife had become members of a club they didn’t want to belong to — the Victims of Terror.

“To be a victim of terror is not romantic, not beautiful, not transcendental, not heroic,” says Arnold. “It is not like going to a movie that has an end. By being merciful to terror we are being intolerably cruel to ourselves. When victims of terror meet, the obsessive interest is not to kill Arabs, but to find ways to ensure that our grief does not cripple our children.”

Dr Nazmi Al-Jubeh, a moderate Palestinian, attempts an explanation. “They are starving in Gaza,” he says. “There is no employment, nothing. All they do is bring children into this world and become suicide bombers. Mentally they are in siege. They have no plans when they reach 22, so they think the best is to become a martyr, get a picture on the wall or in the paper.” Both Al-Jubeh and Zayyad condemn the extremism of Hamas, but are equally clear that Israeli tanks will only worsen, never solve. And many Israelis know this too. Despite the barbed wire, the espionage, the military might, terrorism has not been defeated.

Moderate voices on both sides say that the redemption lies in dialogue, and they quote the words of the prophet Isaiah, often cited by Israel’s founding father Chaim Weizmann, “Zion shall be redeemed with justice.”

After the Mumbai blasts, a TV channel asked: “Should India go the Israel way?” Should our tolerance level be zero? Listen to the wisdom of Shlomo Breznitz, the 70-year-old professor who in 1979, started the world’s first institute to study the impact of stress on the nervous system, in Haifa. “Israel is the natural laboratory to do research,” he says drily. “I would gladly give up this advantage for a little peace of mind.” An old India hand, he continues, “One thing that Israel can learn from India is patience. Today, the role of your country as a large democracy presenting this patience to the world is very important. Please do not ever lose this.”

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