Al-Ahram Weekly Online
13 - 19 December 2001
Issue No.564
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Days of fear

The Israelis seem to have caught the malady that the Palestinians have been suffering from for long -- fear. Jonathan Cook writes from Haifa

Drivers arriving in Tel Aviv are being greeted with a giant message of reassurance. Some 24,000 light bulbs have been draped over one of the Azriela Towers -- Israel's very own version of New York's now-departed Twin Towers -- to form a huge Star of David. The Azriela company is also handing out 25,000 miniature Israeli flags and half a million stickers bearing a slogan demanding steadfastness from the Israeli public: "It's up to us."

The purpose of all this jingoism, says the firm, is to prevent the country yielding to "an exaggerated prophecy of destruction that will become self-fulfilling." Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is surely delighted: he believes that Israelis need to demonstrate the same patriotic spirit that has so rapidly infected the American public realm since 11 September.

What comfort the light show in Tel Aviv will be this week to the people of Haifa, the largest city in northern Israel, is in some doubt, however. They are still in shock after a suicide bomber, 20-year- old Nimr Abu Sayfien from a village near Jenin in the West Bank, injured 29 people on Sunday when he partially detonated himself at a busy road intersection and bus stop on the edge of the city. The number of casualties would have been far higher had he not been stopped from exploding a second, more powerful bomb by a police bullet.

Haifa has yet to come to terms with the fact that it appears to be acquiring an unwanted reputation as the suicide bomber's destination of choice, displacing traditional locations such as Netanya and Tel Aviv. In another bomb attack, exactly a week before Sunday's explosion, Maher Habashi, a 21-year-old plumber from Nablus, detonated himself in a bus in the city's mixed Jewish-Arab neighbourhood of Hadar, killing 13 elderly passengers and two passers- by and wounding dozens more.

During this Intifada, Hamas and Islamic Jihad have extended their reach to areas of Israel that were previously assumed to be relatively safe. They have even selected a bus route running through the mainly Arab Galilee area. This new trend, combined with a recent death toll that compares with the darkest hours of the winter of 1996, when Hamas last went on a bus bombing spree, has ensured that Israelis are rapidly absorbing the lesson that nowhere in Israel can be considered safe.

The fear discernible at the highest levels of government has also added to sinking public morale. Since the assassination by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine of the racist tourism minister Rehavam Zeevi in mid-October, security officials have been advised not to dry their uniforms on clothes lines in their gardens for fear that this might alert terror cells to their location.

Much of the concern about a suicide bomb in Jerusalem last Wednesday which injured six people, focused on the fact that the public security minister, Uzi Landau, and the mayor of Jerusalem, Ehud Olmert, were staying in a hotel nearby.

And Shin Bet has adopted a policy of smuggling the families of government ministers believed to be the intended targets of assassination plots to safe houses.

The new measures to protect threatened public officials are damaging public confidence, both because they suggest that the security services are losing the battle against the terror onslaught and because they underline the fact that officials, far from leading the nation by example, are hiding as far from danger as possible.

And the danger, at least as far as ordinary Israelis are concerned, passes by their homes and workplaces every few minutes -- in the form of the humble bus.

Whether reasonably or not, many Israelis are convinced that travelling by public transport is now the riskiest activity open to them. Buses are the favourite target of suicide bombers for a simple reason: they are the easiest targets. Israel has stepped up security at most public buildings: it is almost impossible, for example, to enter a shopping mall without enduring a strict check on one's bags and belongings. The only physical contact involved in getting on a bus, on the other hand, is the financial transaction with the driver. Although there has been a growing clamour for security agents to be stationed on buses, the government has yet to act.

For Hamas and Islamic Jihad, targeting buses has an additional bonus: there are likely to be soldiers among the victims. In an attempt to stop military recruits from hitch-hiking, the Israeli government has inadvertently contributed to the problem. An agreement this month with the bus companies means that all soldiers now travel free.

The suicide bomber who recently selected the number 823 bus from Nazareth to Tel Aviv, in which three people died, probably knew that although its route passed through the Arab-populated Wadi Ara region, it is almost always packed with soldiers either travelling to or returning from their bases.

For the time being at least, Israel has cancelled all police leave. On most major highways there are regular roadblocks at which buses are stopped and passengers' ID cards checked. This has led to long snarl-ups on many of Israel's already badly congested roads in the central region between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

The traffic jams have been made worse by the all too human decision by those Israelis who own a car to stop using public transport.

In the traffic jams and roadblocks, Hamas and Islamic Jihad have succeeded -- if it was their intention -- in giving all Israelis a tiny taste of how their own government's policy of closures on the towns and villages of the occupied territories has damaged the lives of Palestinians.

The other lesson the two groups want to teach the Israeli public -- about the daily suffering and loss of life in the occupied territories -- will continue to be a far more painful one to learn.

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