In Israel, living with terrorism is a hard fact of life COPING WITH TRAGEDY

April 21, 1995|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- Leave a bag alone in Israel for more than a few minutes, and chances are good that it will be blown up.

Give the wrong answer at the airport about who you are and who you met in Israel, and you may face an hour's interrogation. If you are a woman traveling alone, you may well be strip-searched.

If you look Arabic, you will be stopped regularly on the street by Israeli police demanding to see your identification.

These are the hallmarks of a country that lives under constant threat from the kind of terrorism that hit Oklahoma City.

In their demand for safety, Israelis employ security measures that many in the United States would find grating and intrusive -- and that would largely be illegal in America.

"We are a bit security-crazy here," says Ron Berger, a 36-year-old computer systems analyst in Jerusalem. "It's annoying, but we get used to it. Probably you are going to get used to it now, too."

The questions today in the United States about how to prevent a terrorist bomb attack have long been faced by Israel. In the last year alone, more than 60 Israelis have been killed by a succession of bombs set off in or near public buses and bus

stops.

The explosives have become increasingly powerful, and the Israeli demand for stronger preventive measures has grown accordingly.

Thus, most government buildings, shopping centers and large office buildings have guards who glance into every handbag and briefcase brought inside.

Bomb scares are common. People raise the alarm if they see an unattended bag or package in a public area. Usually it is trash, but the bomb squad clears the area and sends a robot to blow up the bag. The Jerusalem bomb squad did that 6,586 times last year without finding a bomb.

For years, there were no public trash cans in Jerusalem; they were seen as potential bomb holders. Now, trash barrels are made of thick steel, bolted to the sidewalk, with plastic tops designed to direct an explosion upward instead of outward.

Public mailboxes have tiny slits that accept only slim envelopes, not packages that might contain explosives. Postal clerks record the name of everyone mailing a package.

At Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, every departing passenger is ,, questioned about activities in Israel and their plans abroad. Lone female travelers are considered high risks for carrying bombs and are often questioned at length and sometimes strip-searched by women officers.

"We do get a lot of complaints about the treatment at the airport," says Israel police spokesman Eric Bar-Chen, who hastens to add that the security there is handled by the Airport Authority.

"Generally speaking, though, I think most people appreciate the need for security in Israel," he says.

Americans might balk at the sort of security measures that Israel takes, says Yigal Carmon, a former adviser to the government on terrorism. And they might not work.

"A small country like Israel can base itself primarily on defense," he says. "With the one airline we have, we can [apply] all the resources necessary to protect it. But in America, with its scores of airlines and hundreds of international airfields, there is no hope. It's simply impossible.

"There is [also] the necessary mental change [Americans would] have to go through, namely, that freedom of religion and freedom of speech cannot be totally and absolutely unlimited," he said.

Israelis live constantly with the threat of terrorism.

"I don't worry," boasts 10th-grader Efie Rad, 16, at a bus stop. "But I carry a knife," she says. "There's a lot of dangerous people."

"We're always aware," says Taly Bershling, 29, as she shops with her two small boys. "When we get on a bus, we look at who got we look for suspicious articles."

Many Israelis carry guns. Visitors are often surprised by the prevalence of weapons in public: automatic rifles slung over the shoulders of soldiers, pistols jammed in the belts of civilians.

"People don't object to all the weapons," says David Duvekot, 27, an immigrant from Holland now serving in the Israeli army. "We're a little more prepared for terrorism. In America, they say, 'It can't happen to me.' But in Israel, we know it can."

Indeed, Israeli reaction to the Oklahoma bombing was tinged with the suggestion that the attack confirms their fears.

"You've got a taste of what we live with," says Mr. Berger.

"I think it's about time the world feels what the Israelis suffer," says another man.

The daily Yediot Ahronot published an unattributed story that U.S. authorities were warned of a terrorist attack but did not react. A banner headline, in bold red, proclaimed the Oklahoma bombing as the work of Arabs.

An official of the Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas felt obliged to declare that it was not involved.

Not all were so quick to jump to conclusions.

"I know there are enough crazies in the United States," said Efriam Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center of Strategic Studies and who attended the University of Chicago. "They don't need to import them from the Middle East."

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