JAFFA, ISRAEL—We took Harry along on our trip to the north for the Jewish New Year. We were touring some very desolate areas, going through isolated and possibly hostile Arab villages and admiring the view close to the Lebanese border. We wanted Harry near in case we ran into trouble.
You know, just in case.
Harry is our pet pistol, a big ugly mutt of a gun. Traveling with him is symbolic of the way ordinary life in Israel is shaped by the need for security.
I never imagined I would one day pack a gun as nonchalantly as I pack my
toothbrush. I hate guns. Even during the years I spent in Vietnam and Cambodia as a war correspondent, I refused to touch a gun or allow one in my car. But Harry comes along for the ride more and more often since the second intifada began one year ago. At first he made me uncomfortable. Now he is part of the routine.
Israelis are doubly security-conscious these days. Suicide bombers hit train stations, buses, malls, fast-food restaurants, and even discotheques. Snipers and drive-by shootings make the roads dangerous in sometimes unexpected parts of the country. Scores of people have been killed driving to the supermarket or ferrying their kids to grandma. Once the terrorists have disabled the car, they invariably come close to finish you off. That’s where Harry is supposed to help.
Security is an integral part of our daily lives, even if it often seems frighteningly lax. Go to the mall and without thinking you open your pocketbook for a bored kid with pimples to check it. The top of the bag gets a cursory glance, and if the kid is not talking to his girlfriend on his mobile phone with one hand and smoking a cigarette with the other, he might squeeze the bottom of the bag.
Supermarkets tend to use snoozing pensioners for security. Usually you have to wake them up to check you, and it is safer to do that. If you just saunter by, the guy might open one eye and yell at the top of his lungs for you to come back. So embarrassing.
Airports are the toughest. You have to arrive two hours ahead of the flight and wait in line for a security agent to ask you a set of questions. My Hebrew is horrendous, but I have the answers down pat: yes, at home, mine, yes, no, nothing, yes, of course not. You can smile at the end and say, “Thank you,” but under no circumstances should you smile during the interview.
Of course, airport security is harder on people who do not have the “right profile.” A Jewish friend from Jaffa always answers “Tel Aviv” if they ask where she lives. She says it saves her at least 10 minutes of extra questions, since Jaffa is a predominantly Arab neighborhood. Arabs must bear the brunt of the security measures.
“Everywhere they treat me like everybody else—except at the airport,” says Hani, 27, one of my Arab neighbors in Jaffa. “They ask me what army unit I served in. I tell them I didn’t go into the army because I am an Arab. Then it starts,” says Hani, who runs a thriving business on Yefet Street.
“They call over three more people. They take everything out of my suitcases. They ask many more questions like ‘Where did you get the money to take this trip?’ and then they take me into another room for a body search. I don’t get angry. I just laugh. It only takes an hour,” Hani said.
Some security measures are more disruptive, like those involving hefetz hashud or “suspicious packages.” These crop up quite frequently, causing massive traffic jams while the police close all surrounding streets and call in the bomb squad. I have noticed that they usually appear when I am extremely late for an important appointment.
Almost inevitably they turn out to be a box of garbage or a forgotten briefcase, but no one is upset about the delays they cause. Better safe than sorry. They also give everyone a great excuse for being late. People who keep you waiting in a café for two hours never say they’re sorry—they just shrug and mutter, “Hefetz hashud.”
Over the past year, few Israelis have felt threatened enough to flee the country. But deep in our hearts, we considered the United States a possible haven. The twin towers attack shattered that illusion.
“Now there is no place to run,” said my friend Pnina. “It is like being religious and finding out there is no heaven. Each time we had a big attack, friends would urge me to come rest in the States for a few weeks. They don’t say that anymore.”
Those most affected by the fact that there is no guarantee of safety even with stringent security precautions are people with kids, especially teenagers. “When your kids go out in the evening you get very nervous,” says Pnina, who shares seven children and 37 grandchildren with her husband, Leo. “If they shut off their mobile phones you have a nervous breakdown. You feel you need to keep in touch all the time.”
Faced with these fears, the telephone company now offers a special deal on a phone that receives incoming calls but can only call one outgoing number: home. Parents can stay in touch, but the kid can’t abuse the phone by calling all his friends.
No one lets their kids hitchhike anymore—a favorite mode of transportation in Israel—and fewer and fewer parents want their children on public buses. “I spend a lot more time chauffeuring the kids,” says David Harman, an education specialist who lives in Jerusalem.
“But daily life goes on. You don’t go to certain places and you don’t do certain things. People from Tel Aviv avoid coming to Jerusalem, and there are certain parts of Jerusalem that I avoid. In the old days, I used to go to Bethlehem or Ramallah for the great restaurants. We don’t do those things anymore.”
Pnina agrees: “I used to wander around the old city of Jerusalem at least once a week. I don’t anymore. It’s not so much that I feel scared; I just don’t like to be looked at as if I’m the enemy. I used to hop into the car and drive to Jericho and sit under the trees and sip coffee. No one in their right mind would do that anymore.
“I sued to go to Amman to visit friends, and I can’t do that anymore,” Pnina says.”Once our borders were opening up; now they are all closing again and I’m becoming claustrophobic.”
Only a tiny minority of Israeli Arabs shares the feelings of those who danced in the streets on hearing the news of terror attacks in America. And there has been no increase in hostility toward them because of it. Business in Jaffa is booming, Hani says. During the Jewish New Year, when most Jewish-owned stores are closed, cars clogged Jaffa’s streets, and the restaurants were full.
“Last year, when the trouble started, people were afraid to come to Jaffa to buy fish, pita, and vegetables. But now, look at Mohammed,” Hani grins, pointing across the street to another shop. “He had so many people in his store, he became a millionaire.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 25, 2001