Tel Aviv loses its famous vibrancy as air raid sirens take over the night WAR IN THE GULF

January 29, 1991|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

TEL AVIV, Israel -- The routine of nighttime missile attacks has changed the face of this once-vibrant metropolis to that of a city under siege.

By day it assumes an appearance of normalcy: Work has resumed, schools are slowly reopening, and shops fill with customers for shortened daytime hours.

But the night belongs to the air raid siren. The roads out of Tel Aviv are snarled with residents fleeing to Jerusalem or safer outlying areas. Whole city neighborhoods are dark. Restaurants and nightclubs are locked, their windows crossed with tape against a missile blast.

Those left in their homes huddle and wait, imprisoned by fears of random death from above and insidious chemicals in the air. They wait anxiously for the siren and the all-clear signal before they can finally get some sleep.

Last night, the seventh missile attack in 11 days fell east of the city but caused no casualties. Israeli military authorities refused to release details about the attack, although they confirmed no Patriot defensive missiles were fired.

A single fiery arc, seen near the unmarked boundary between the outskirts of Tel Aviv and occupied Arab territory, ended in a flash of light where it landed at 9:11 p.m.

These attacks are now a part of the fabric of life in Tel Aviv, the usual target. Residents are learning to live with the missiles. .

Already, 2-year-old Gil Belkin is sleeping through the air raid sirens.

Her father would, too, but Efrat Belkin always nudges her husband awake.

"I'm still afraid," admits the 29-year-old mother. But after the attack and the all-clear siren, "I go right to sleep. I'm exhausted."

A psychological survey showed fear among citizens, very high after the initial attacks, has dropped somewhat, according to results released yesterday by the Israeli Institute for Military Studies.

But nearly a third of the respondents still said they found the situation "very frightening." Nearly two in five have difficulty sleeping; many feel angry.

The missile attacks have resulted in four deaths, nearly 200 injuries and damage to about 3,300 buildings in Tel Aviv.

Dr. Nathaniel Laor, who runs the Tel Aviv Mental Health Center, said he has gotten "hundreds" of calls each day on the center's hot line.

"There's a lot of indecision," he said. "A lot of people ask, what should we do? Should we stay here or should we go? One couple asked, should we get married or not? These are all symptoms of anxiety."

To help restore normalcy, the government has ordered employees back to work, and those who do not return risk being fired.

But in many offices and businesses, employees are just going through the motions.

"At work we spend 90 percent of the time talking about the war, and 10 percent getting ready to leave early," said one engineer.

Yesterday, at the world-famous Tel Aviv Diamond Exchange, a manager said the store now gets only two or three customers a day. They do not put the jewels in the showcases for fear a missile might scatter them, said Nira Lieberman.

She remained optimistic. "Diamonds don't break with the Scuds," she said.

But fear of attacks has made a mockery of the city's unofficial slogan, "The city that never sleeps." The busy night life and cosmopolitan pace have surrendered to apprehension.

Pubs and restaurants normally full at 2 a.m. are now open only for lunch. Shops that used to stay open until 8 p.m. are closing at 4 p.m. to allow their employees to get home before dark, when the missiles generally come.

"I'm supposed to close at 5 p.m., but the minute it gets a little dark, I get scared and go home," said Zaava Kessler, a clerk in a chocolate store.

In conversations with dozens of people around the city in the last two days, all described the anxiety of the wait. Some said nights when there is no attack are worse because they stay awake waiting for it all night.

"We are living completely differently now," said Shontal Mazig, a 26-year-old mother of one. "We are so frightened and under pressure. I don't sleep all night. Or if I do, I sleep with the radio on full volume and I wake up every half hour."

"Every little thing they hear, they think it's a siren," said Mareta Hafizov of her three young children. "Every moment, they ask, 'Mommy, when will the siren go off?'

"I'm not sure I can handle it," she said. "My husband also is scared, but he keeps it inside."

Many have decided the pressure is best handled from farther away. The nightly exodus on the highways has gotten so heavy that half-hour trips have ground to two hours.

The scene so angers Shlomo Lahat, the mayor of Tel Aviv, that he has branded these new commuters "deserters," and harangued them in Tel Aviv newspapers.

The mayor's broadside has provoked a barrage of criticism, some from those who already have felt the sting of the rockets.

"It's just idiotic," said Yehuda Mualem, 34, who scooped up his two young children from his living room couch Jan. 22 and ran to another room just moments before a missile blast filled the couch with shattered glass.

"My children and wife were in terrible hysterics," he said. They have been to a psychologist, and "they are scared all the time. They are shivering. Anything that falls, they jump."

He has taken the family to a relative's house out of town, he said as he swept up the debris from his shattered apartment. He will keep them there until they feel safer.

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