Hesitant Jerusalem returning to routine

Back in public places, shoppers support Sharon, but are doubtful of peace

April 14, 2002|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - The sun was setting yesterday on the Jewish Sabbath when Naomi and Joseph Palla ambled down Ben Yehuda mall, pushing their 5-month-old twins in separate strollers.

The cafes and shops on the mall - businesses no fancier than fast-food outlets and T-shirt shops - had not yet opened for the evening. The walkways were nearly empty. Even the police were temporarily invisible. Jerusalem, though, was slowly coming back to life.

"In the middle of the week, we never walk together," Naomi Palla said. "I take one baby. My husband takes the other. If something happens to one of us, then the other will live."

The "something" is, of course, a suicide bombing.

Parents can't help but think about it, remembering the unsettling equation: the more people at a location, the more attractive it becomes to a bomber. And so their anxiety grows. A walk becomes a daring act.

For a few days, it seemed the bombers had been contained as the Israeli army battered its way into the Palestinian cities of the West Bank, territory that begins less than a mile from the mall. Then the bombers returned.

On Wednesday, nine people were killed and 19 were injured in the suicide bombing of a bus in the coastal city of Haifa. The militant Islamic group Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack.

On Friday, just before the start of the Jewish Sabbath at sundown, Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda food market became the target of a suicide bomber, who killed herself and six Israelis, and wounded 80 others. The Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, the armed wing of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, claimed responsibility.

People know how to interpret the shriek of sirens: One siren means nothing more than a traffic accident; a chorus of them signals that a blast occurred somewhere in city.

Judged by a random sample of shoppers and strollers at the mall, the latest bombing did not alter Israelis' mixed feelings toward Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the results of the military offensive - there is strong support for the prime minister but growing worry that the military offensive, no matter how large or how prolonged, cannot end the bombings.

"I like what the army is doing, but I don't like the violence," said Naomi Palla, who moved from Czechoslovakia to Israel 10 years ago. "They kill us. We go to kill them. It is not good. There must be peace."

Police woke the mall from the Sabbath yesterday evening. They arrived armed with shotguns to stand watch over the stores, apartments and pedestrians. Two women on balconies separated by two floors chattered loudly. Below them, a female soldier bearing an M-16 checked garbage cans and peered into store windows.

Police cars with flashing lights worked the side streets. An army jeep slowly drove down the mall. Someone parked an ambulance on a nearby street. A police motorcycle arrived, one officer driving, another riding shotgun.

An ice cream stand opened, the staff members placing tables on the street. The night had begun.

About two dozen people strolled where there used to be thousands.

"We trust God, but we don't feel safe here anymore," said Avi Sababa, a 27-year-old gardener who was window shopping. He supported the army's actions - "Sharon is doing what he can to stop terror," he said - and wondered why the United States insists that Israel withdraw.

"They do things in Afghanistan, and no one has a problem with it," he said. "We do what we need to, and they tell us to stop. This is not fair."

Rafi Sherdsky stood on a street corner with three friends, all in their 30s, only one of whom had a job. "Every time there is another bomb, it's kind of a jolt," he said. "You have a bomb here, so you say, `Let's go to another street.'"

But he took comfort in seeing so few people on the mall. A bomber, he assumed, wouldn't bother striking a nearly empty street.

Friday's bombing troubled Sherdsky. "To die on Friday, it's not a good day to die," he said. To die hours before the Sabbath means that, contrary to usual Jewish practice, the funeral would be delayed more than 24 hours. "It's better to die in the middle of the week."

Would Sharon's crackdown make a difference?

"He is doing his best," Sherdsky said. "The only problem is that we don't know if anyone wants peace."

Eddie Dweck, selling T-shirts from a prime location on the mall, calls himself a pacifist. He has lost count of the blasts he has heard, but he can count the losses to his business. He used to own two shops and employ six people; now, he's down to one shop and he's the only employee.

"We used to make jokes with these T-shirts," he said. "But this time, there are no jokes. We have no customers."

He expressed confidence that the army was doing a good job. He likened the roundup of weapons and suspected terrorists to taking away a family car. "We took their big car," he said. "But they will get another bicycle. It's not possible to close everything down. But you have to try."

At Coffee Time sandwich shop, a blast last fall blew the staff onto the floor. Jessica Barsheshet, who runs the shop, commiserated last night with a customer about his 15-year-old twin brothers. One of the boys was wounded in the leg in a suicide bombing; the other barely survived a shrapnel wound in his head.

The army's offensive in the West Bank? "Let them continue," Barsheshet said.

Until the Friday bombing, the week had seemed promising. The mall was getting busier. Barsheshet's customers were returning. Then came the blast.

"It killed all of us," she said. "We know after a bombing that no one will go out."

Barsheshet served two motorcycle policemen, who sipped coffee while keeping their assault rifles at the ready.

"Come back at 11:30," Barsheshet said, exhibiting a fatalistic sense of humor. "There'll probably be a bomb."

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