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Israel beset by siege mentality
Fear of suicide bomb attacks has affected everything from running a shop to putting on a rock concert, writes Suzanne Goldenberg
Friday August 17, 2001
First it was the Red Hot Chili Peppers, next British Airways. The sense of isolation among Israelis deepened this week as airline crews and pop stars made it clear they do not feel safe in the Holy Land. Many Israelis share their fears - especially this weekend. The security forces have warned that another suicide bomber is on the loose, and will try to strike at Jerusalem, or in northern Israel within the next day or two.
Meanwhile, the Israeli army announced this week that the violence between Israel and the Palestinians could go on for another five years. Many Israelis just feel safer staying at home.
After last week's bombing of a pizza restaurant in Jewish west Jerusalem killed 15 Israelis, Tel Aviv taxi drivers are reluctant to take fares to the city. Some Jerusalemites complain their own relatives will not come to visit them from other Israeli towns.
In the Jewish western part of the city, restaurants, cafes - even small family-owned chemist shops - have taken on private security guards to scrutinise customers for suspicious looking parcels and body packs.
Some cafe owners park their own cars in front of their establishments to block the space off from car bombers. Choosing a table has become much more complicated. In case of attack, is it safer to sit by the window - which is large and plate glass - or at an inside table?
Takings at shops in the centre of Jerusalem dropped by nearly 70% after the suicide attack. Jewellers and other shops depending on tourist traffic saw their trade drop by 92%, according to the Jerusalem Merchants' Association.
Meanwhile, Jewish youth groups visiting the city from Britain had to make do with a simulated visit to the city's pedestrian mall. Instead of roaming around the shops on their own for T-shirts and other souvenir tat, the shopkeepers came to the teenagers, who were safely installed in a hall on the edge of the city. Back home, their parents received daily email reports on their activities.
Such responses to suicide bomb attacks are seen as internal, family matters. But, for Israelis, who are acutely sensitive to their international image, it is another thing entirely when the rest of the world begins voting with its feet.
According to Israeli press reports this week, the appearance of the Red Hot Chili Peppers was seen to be of such symbolic importance that the former US president Bill Clinton was enlisted to plead with the group to conquer their fears about suicide bombers, and keep the concert date.
However, on Monday, the group's manager called the concert off for good; the Israeli promoters said the appearance was "postponed until a later date".
A day later, there was another blow when British Airways announced that its flight crews - like those of other European airlines - would no longer sleep in Tel Aviv, but overnight in Athens.
Swiss Air and KLM took similar decisions last June, after a suicide bomber killed more than 20 Israelis at a Tel Aviv disco, across the road from the high-rise hotels where many airline crews stay. Air Canada sent its flight crews to a suburb north of the city.
Israeli travel agents complained BA was surrendering to panic, and that the stayaway would further hurt a tourist industry damaged by 11 months of violence.
The country's own national carrier, El Al, lost £57m in the first six months of this year, as traffic dropped by 21% from last year. Many hotels have closed off floors, or shut down entirely.
The only people profiting from the sense of dread are the private security firms - who say they have a "crazy amount of work".
"Even people who are having private parties call us up to get security services, and this is something new," Avi Bareket, the director of one private security firm told the Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv. "Every youth recently released from the army can find security work."
That is one piece of welcome news. The Labour ministry reported this week that the unemployment rate in July was the highest in Israel's history, with 186,400 people out of work.
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), August 17, 2001