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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Letter from Israel

By Paul Adams
Globe and Mail Update
Friday, June 21, 2002
From the Field
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Pictures from Israel

Religious volunteers evacuate a body from the site of a bus bombing in Jerusalem Tuesday June 18, 2002. A Palestinian man detonated nail-studded explosives on a Jerusalem city bus crowded with high school students and office workers, killing himself and 19 passengers.
Photo: Zoom 77/AP

An Israeli man and woman look out of a bus window at a memorial being set up at a nearby bus shelter for the victims of the June 18 suicide attack, as they take the very same route in southern Jerusalem the next day. Nineteen people were killed and some 50 others injured in the attack which was claimed by the radical Palestinian Islamic group Hamas.
Photo: Gali Tibbon/AFP

HERZLIA PITUACH, ISRAEL - I was sitting by the shore of the Mediterranean the other day, sipping a beer and sharing a plate of chicken nuggets and French fries with my four-year-old son, Alexandre.

Alexandre is obsessed with vehicles - planes, trains and automobiles - so when I saw a big Israeli military helicopter chugging down the coast, I pointed my finger and said: "Look."

Alexandre scanned the horizon, slightly bewildered, unable to discern what it was that I thought worth his glance. "The helicopter," I said. He shrugged and turned back to his French fires and ketchup. For him, it seems, military helicopters are as unremarkable at the beach as seabirds, sailboats and the occasional summer cloud.

Wherever you go in this small country, there are the echoes of war, often blended bizarrely into routines of daily life that would otherwise be familiar to any North American. As you enter the bank, a guard checks your bag and inquires whether you are carrying a gun. When you line up for ice cream, you may notice that the customer in front of you has a pistol jammed in the back of his belt.

Just across the street from where we live in Herzlia Pituach, a prosperous suburb just north of Tel Aviv, there is an old hotel that houses a school for industrial chefs. The army must send some of its cooks there for training, because some days you will see a group of young men and women standing outside wearing white coats and tall chef-hats, gossiping and smoking, with M-16 rifles strapped over their shoulders.

Alexandre doesn't notice them either.

You may think that in these days of suicide bombings, I was being reckless with my own life and my son's by even being out at a beachside restaurant. It is a thought that occurred to me as well as we sat there. In fact, every time you go out here, you automatically run through a set of morbid and improbable calculations.

I would never have sat there on a Saturday night, for example, the most common time for suicide-bombings. Nor would I ever take my son to the popular restaurants in downtown Tel Aviv or Jerusalem - areas that have become frequent targets. When we do go to a restaurant, I survey the place, as almost everyone here does, reckoning where it is safest to sit: Away from the door, for example, and away from the biggest concentration of patrons - the places most likely for a bomber to detonate his load.

But the real reason I was comfortable - more or less - sitting with my son by the beach the other day was that we were in Herzlia Pituach. This small community is favoured by diplomats and other foreigners living in Israel. It has never suffered a terrorist attack, most people assume because it would not be in the interest of even the most extreme Palestinian group to provoke the Americans or Europeans by blowing up their emissaries.

People here talk about the 'Herzlia bubble' as if we are protected here from the mayhem around us by an almost invisible membrane.

When we set out for Israel a year ago, some of my journalistic colleagues said that it was a shame that I would be living in the Tel Aviv area, rather than in Jerusalem. That's where most foreign journalists live. It affords access to the West Bank in a matter of minutes - provided the Israelis haven't closed the roads, that is. But in our case, because of my wife's job, we had no choice about where we would live.

In the year since we arrived I have watched the family lives of my colleagues in Jerusalem grow increasingly sour. Take one vivid example. Many of them have children attending the French-language Lysee there. In December, just as the children were arriving for school one morning, a man disguised as an orthodox Jew was approached by security men just outside the school-gates. Seeing that the jig was up, he detonated the explosives around his waist. His head vaulted the school wall and landed in the school playground, where a staff-member covered it up with a garbage can to protect the children's sensibilities.

That is life in Jerusalem these days, and many journalists with families are thinking about getting out. If any journalist coming here to Israel with a family asked my advice, I would say that the hour or hour-and-a-half commute from Herzlia Pituach to Jerusalem is well worth the (relative) peace of mind.

But -- and there is always a 'but' in this country if you start talking about peace or security - here too, the bubble is shrinking.

Last month, a bomb was detonated by remote control in a fuel truck while it was filling up at a huge fuel-storage depot at Pi Glilot, just a couple of kilometres from where we live. Luckily none of the fuel tanks cracked. If they had, the fireball would have killed dozens, hundreds perhaps, thousands even - and the clouds of toxic gas would have descended smack over our neighbourhood.

Then, last week, a suicide-bomber walked into a falafel house in old Herzlia, again within five minutes' drive of our house. Besides the bomber, only one person was killed, so you may not have heard about it back in Canada.

People here comfort themselves with the fact that old Herzlia is almost exclusively Israeli. It does not have the protective aura of foreigners and diplomats that we have on the other side of the highway in Herzlia Pituach.

And that is the slender membrane on which our feeling of security rests as we sit and watch the sun going down over the Mediterranean.

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