Living with terror, to France from Israel

Living with terror, to France from Israel

In Israel, ordinary citizens, security officials say they have adapted to a perennial, if ever changing, threat

Living with terror, to France from Israel

For many Israelis, the horrifying images of a truck plowing through crowds for more than a mile in the French resort town of Nice struck a macabrely familiar chord.

“We had tractors!” said Ami Zini, 49, who runs a boutique on the shopping street of the leafy German Colony neighbourhood of Jerusalem. “One of them flipped over a bus with its bucket.” He was referring to a 2014 attack, by a Palestinian resident of the city, that killed an Israeli pedestrian.

Nice was an even more direct, if far deadlier, echo of a 2011 rampage in which an Arab-Israeli man’s truck barrelled down a Tel Aviv street for a mile, killing one and wounding 17.

These followed a spate of attacks with heavy construction vehicles and cars as weapons in 2008. And since October, according to Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security agency, at least 32 Palestinians have rammed vehicles into people at bus stops, intersections and military checkpoints.

The French prime minister said after the Nice attack, the nation’s third mass killing in 18 months, that France “must live with terrorism.” That is what Israelis have been doing for decades, through the plane hijackings of the 1970s; the suicide bombers of the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, which began in 2000; and the lone-wolf stabbings and shootings of the past 10 months.

In Israel, ordinary citizens, security officials and experts feel they have seen it all and say they have adapted to a perennial, if ever changing, threat. They speak of constantly staying alert, exercising caution and growing accustomed to what some may find to be intrusive levels of security, but essentially carrying on.

“There were times when we were afraid to stop our cars at a red light next to a bus,” Zini, whose clothing store is named Rendezvous, to lend an air of French chic, recalled of the years in which buses were a frequent bombing target. “We live with terrorism. But we are not fearful. It is part of our daily routine.”

That routine includes opening bags for a check and passing through metal detectors at train or bus stations, shopping malls and movie complexes. At the height of the suicide bombings, customers paid a small surcharge at cafes and restaurants to subsidise the cost of a guard at the door.

Hundreds of armed civilian guards have been deployed to protect public transportation in Jerusalem in recent months amid the wave of attacks, which have been glorified by some Palestinians on social media. The guards stand at bus and light rail stops, and hop on and off buses along main routes, with the same powers to search and arrest as the police. Israel has also invested hugely in intelligence, its tactics evolving as its enemies change theirs.

Several psychological studies in Israel have found that people habituate quickly to threats, making adjustments to daily life – keeping children at home, for example, rather than sending them to summer camp – and adopting dark humour about the randomness of the threat.

“If I don’t get blown up, I will meet you at Dizengoff Centre in about 45 minutes,” a Tel Aviv bus rider told a friend over a cellphone, in a conversation overheard by Israeli psy-
chologists researching the aftermath of the second intifada.

The survey of 458 people, led by Yechiel Klar of Tel Aviv University, found that 55% had changed their behaviour – spending less time outside the house, for instance, or making fewer long trips by public transportation. The other 45% said they had made no changes.

Some Israeli politicians have been disparaging about what they view as European negligence in security matters. After the attacks in March in Brussels, for example, a senior minister, Israel Katz, said Belgium would not be able to fight Islamist terrorism “if Belgians continue eating chocolate and enjoying life and looking like great democrats and liberals.”

In a radio interview on Sunday, Yaakov Perry, a former Shin Bet chief now in Parliament, recommended deeper intelligence supervision of neighbourhoods “where Muslims, refugees, Daesh supporters of various sorts live,” using an Arabic acronym to refer to the Islamic State.

He also suggested that the French police were complacent, referring to news reports that the driver in Nice had told officers he was delivering ice cream. “If the driver says he has ice cream, open the truck and check if he has ice cream,” Perry said.

That the attack occurred at a mass gathering for Bastille Day, France’s national holiday, had Israelis shaking their heads. Micky Rosenfeld, an Israeli police spokesman, said that to secure a major event like Independence Day celebrations, when tens of thousands of people gather along the Tel Aviv seafront to watch an air and naval display, officers gather intelligence for weeks beforehand, and erect a 360-degree enclosure of the area, with layers of security around the perimeter.

Main roads are typically blocked off with rows of buses, and smaller side streets with patrol cars. In addition to a large uniformed and undercover police presence, counterterrorism teams are strategically placed to provide a rapid response if needed.

‘Basic coverage’
For intelligence gathering, Shin Bet has used a “basic coverage” method, which involves homing in on a particular neighbourhood or population sector that is considered a potential security risk. The agency then builds an intimate system of surveillance and a network of local informers who can point to any sign of suspicious or unusual activity.

Lior Akerman, a former Shin Bet division head, said that while an attack like the one in Nice could certainly happen in Israel, “it should be emphasised that the French, like the rest of the European countries, do not conduct themselves intelligence-wise in this way at all.”

Shaul Shay, a former deputy head of Israel’s National Security Council, said Israelis at home and abroad were generally better prepared for terrorism than citizens of other Western societies. “Here, we are living with it since childhood,” he said.

Many here said that even if Israel’s security apparatus could not have prevented an attack like the one in Nice, they imagine it would have been ended far sooner — with many fewer casualties. “It would be impossible here because there is good security,” said Muhammad Anati, 18, a Palestinian resident of the Shuafat refugee camp in East Jerusalem.

Inbal Berner, 37, an Israeli school librarian who was sipping an iced coffee at a nearby bus stop, gave voice to the new normal the French may now face. “I look around; I don’t go to crowded places if I don’t have to,” she said.

It has been that way “forever,” Berner added, or at least since the bus bombings of more than a decade ago. Because while people do get used to terrorism to some extent, she said, “something always remains.”