Letter from the war zone - All Israel is 'on the front line'
The San Francisco Chronicle, June 10, 2001
by Samuel G. Freedman
We were staring down four deserted blocks of Shahada Street in Hebron, my friend Yossi and I, weighing the danger of walking that dusty flume between the disputed shrine called the Cave of the Patriarchs and the controversial Jewish enclave in this Palestinian city. The shops that had once thrived, making harnesses, peddling vegetables, selling crafts to tourists, were all silent behind metal grates. Elsewhere in the city, shooting had already flared this day, despite Yasser Arafat's call for a cease-fire. So we asked the Israeli soldiers patrolling the nearest corner about the wisdom of proceeding. As they mulled the answer, as if calibrating the momentary quiet against the town's bloody history, Yossi tried to break the tension by saying, "I thought, it's Tel Aviv out there." To which one of the soldiers replied, "Tel Aviv isn't safe anymore."
That exchange summed up the experience of Israel this past week, the somber understanding that the intifada has come to challenge the existence not merely of settlements in the occupied territories but of the Jewish state itself.
In the wake of the deadly suicide bombing outside a Tel Aviv disco last weekend, the Palestinian Authority can hardly claim that the intifada is aimed solely at Jewish settlements on Palestinian land. Along with the 20 dead Israelis, one of the chief casualties of the Dolphinarium attack is any remaining belief that the Authority, which condemned the blast only belatedly and under foreign pressure, has any desire to live with the state of Israel itself.
While Hebron has long been a place of dueling grievances and dueling massacres the Arab pogrom against Jews in 1929, Baruch Goldstein's slaying of 29 Muslim worshipers at the Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994 Tel Aviv is supposed to be the safe Israel, comfortably nestled inside the Green Line, part of the nation since its birth in 1948. Unlike Jerusalem, religious, conservative and much disputed, Tel Aviv is the domain of cosmopolitan yuppies and limousine liberals, the type Jewish religious-nationalist settlers deride as "Hebrew-speaking gentiles." The bomb detonated outside the Dolphinarium blew apart not "Greater Israel" zealots sporting rifles and yarmulkes but immigrant teenagers so secular they had gone dancing on Shabat.
Even before the Dolphinarium killings, the opinion poll known as the Peace Index found that 70 percent of Israei Jews believed Arafat would never sign a treaty. As if to underscore the reason for such pessimism, a survey of Palestinians by Palestinians showed that three-quarters approved of suicide bombings. In fact, the successful Dolphinarium attack followed two failed attempts in settings that similarly drew young people of a secular, liberal bent, the Russian Compound nightclub district in Jerusalem and outside a high school in Netanya. Poll numbers, though, cannot evoke the strange mixture of dread and shared purpose here, a contemporary version of what the late Orthodox rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik once called the "brit goral," the covenant of common fate. That mood is starkly different from Israel's spirit the last time I was here, the week in May 1999 when Ehud Barak was elected prime minister.
Then peace seemed so imminent that the coolest young Jerusalemites went to Ramallah for nightlife, their elders shopped for furniture in Bidya, Israeli gamblers flocked to the Jericho casino. Last week, I returned to a nation where mothers avoid shopping malls, drivers tense up when stuck behind a bus in traffic, and nobody assumes any sanctuary exists from the next bomber because, as the mayor of Tel Aviv put it, "The whole country is on the front line."
Between my two visits, Barak offered Arafat 96 percent of the West Bank, 100 percent of the Gaza Strip and a share of Jerusalem only to be answered with the "new intifada." The Jewish settlements that purportedly stand in the way of peace might have been undergoing evacuation and dismantling by now. Instead, Israeli television spent an entire day last Sunday broadcasting the sequential funerals of the Dolphinarium victims.
"Good evening, despair," goes the lyric to a hit song by the Israeli rock star Yehuda Poliker. 'Who's next in line?' the verse continues, meaning who is next in line to be killed. One of the founders of Peace Now, Edna Shabbtai, recently wrote an open letter to Geula Cohen, the doyenne of the radical settlers, suggesting that Israel "immediately use its full force and declare that we are in a state of war." If not, Shabbtai wrote, "we'll find ourselves with our back to the wall." Throughout Israel, meeting colleagues and visiting friends, I heard variations on the same emotions. "I'm on the left," said Hana, a literature professor at Tel Aviv University, as we dined a short walk from the Dolphinarium the night after the blast. "I go to Peace Now demonstrations. When I hear the right say the Arabs are animals, I say humans are all the same.
But to target children? Who would do that?" My friend Marcy moved from Cleveland to a West Bank settlement last year, just before the intifada, not out of ideology but because housing was cheap and she would be close to relatives. She fully expected to see most communities like hers handed back in a final-status agreement. "I came here as a peacenik," she told me wistfully in her apartment the other day. "Now I don't know what my politics are." She does, however, know her fears. "Every time I go to Ra'ananah," she said of a liberal, affluent Tel Aviv suburb, "I get scared." Because the university there hasn't been targeted yet, like nearby Netanya and Kfar Saba, she assumes it is on the suicide bombers' list.
I spent an evening in Ra'ananah, catching up with a former classmate from our New Jersey hometown who had emigrated more than 20 years ago. She doesn't allow her teenage son, the eldest of three children, to ride the bus any longer. The boy told me the restriction bothered him. "I think my odds are good," he explained, as if taking public transportation requires an actuarial table to determine one's odds of survival.
Life here abounds in such risk-analysis. A couple seated next to me at a conference in Tel Aviv turned their eyes from the speaker to the window, to the line on the horizon, where they spied a formation of army helicopters, tiny as mayflies in the distance. Is this a retaliatory strike in the making? Is this the beginning of all-out war? Most Americans, including Jews, would just as soon stay away. Last week, KLM, Air France and Delta suspended flights to Israel. The Reform Jewish movement in the United States canceled summer trips for 1,500 young people. When I went to Jerusalem's Old City a few days ago, it seemed as empty as a resort town the day after Labor Day. "I have the honor of driving the only tourist in all Israel," said my cab driver, in mock reverence.
Perhaps the saddest commentary on this desolate moment in contemporary Israel's ordeal came from my hometown friend's two younger children, aged 7 and 12. They were talking about the fact an American friend would not be coming for the 12-year-old's impending bar mitzvah. "Why not?" asked the 7- year-old.
The 12-year-old, with a gravity no child of that age should possess, answered, "Because of now."