IT was not yet dawn at Ben-Gurion Airport. And in the soft Tel Aviv night, the steel carcasses - TWA, Air France, Swissair - loomed silently in the dark. At the end of the runway, British Airways Flight 578 had landed. It was late summer, a time when visitors to Israel were expected to be at an all-time high. But this flight, like most of those arriving this year, was less than half full. Even the thin round of applause that filled the plane as its wheels touched the ancient ground could not disguise the fact that in the year that was to have been Israel's finest - its 40th anniversary - a lot of prospective visitors to the troubled Holy Land have stayed away. The year-long celebration that was expected to lure more than 1.5 million tourists and record revenues of $2 billion has been spoiled by civil unrest - the 11-month-old intifadah, or uprising, that has dominated news from Israel since last December.
The conflict has grown even sharper with the Palestinian declaration of independence last week. Televised images of rioting Palestinians in the occupied territories and reports of more than 260 deaths and thousands of injuries have dampened travelers' enthusiasm, particularly in the case of first-time visitors from the United States. Tourism is off more than 25 percent this year over last. And the corresponding decline in revenues will rob Israel of a full 1 percent growth in its economy this year.
While the violence has largely been confined to the West Bank and Gaza, the image many potential tourists have is a country turned into a battle zone.
``Even among staunch pro-Israel Jewish groups, there has not been the numbers,'' says Nick Mansino, president of Compass Tours, Israel's largest tour operator. ``The perception is that it's too dangerous.''
If the perception of Israel during the past year has been one of tear gas and plastic bullets, striking Arab shopkeepers and rock-throwing Palestinians, the reality that greets the casual, and careful, visitor is frequently far different. The tourist is likely to find not so much overt violence but a series of sharp contrasts - both the 40th anniversary celebration and the intifadah, an all too immediate reminder of the fragility of that statehood.
To get from Ben-Gurion Airport to Jerusalem, you take a sherut, Israel's version of an airport limo.
As the taxi climbs into the cypress-dotted hills that form this City of Peace, one glimpses the first vestiges of the ancient city at dawn. A man in white tennis shorts and a gleaming steel watch jogs uphill past rows of white limestone apartment buildings, parked BMWs, and a riot of bougainvillea. Los Angeles, thinks a first-time visitor - Jerusalem resembles Los Angeles.
But cresting the hill, one suddenly finds those sights that exist only in this divided holy city. An Orthodox Jew waiting for his bus is dressed in the traditional black topcoat and thick beaver hat, a dark void in the harsh desert light. Next to him stands an Israeli soldier in rumpled khakis, a dull, black machine gun slung over his chest, his eyes impenetrable behind dark aviator glasses. Behind them, a Sheraton hotel; before them, a Volkswagen bus packed with Arab day laborers in their streaming white headdresses careens by. A triptych of modern West Jerusalem.
In Arab East Jerusalem, the epicenter of the Palestinian protest, the panorama of images changes.
Here, in the labyrinth of long corridors etched by light and shadow, the smoke from open grills spirals into the air.
Small boys greet your arrival with a chorus of ``Hey, lady, 5 shekels, only 5 shekels,'' as they dangle silver-plated turquoise earrings from their stubby fingers. Arab women, their hands outstretched, squat in doorways beside cardboard boxes filled with oranges and lemons. A spice vendor in his checked headdress weighs scoopfuls of fragrant cumin, saffron, and curry. And always there is the low murmur of the other shopkeepers, ``Hey lady, hey lady, what do you want to buy?''
But by noon, this swirl of activity is swept out of sight, the streets deserted, the shops' steel shutters bolted to the stone floor. The striking Arabs are hidden in temples, or at home, or sequestered over endless backgammon games in the shadowy, smoke-filled coffee shops. It is then that a visitor's footfall echoes on the empty stone paths, a reminder of Jerusalem's centuries-old past and its turbulent modern politics.
``Jerusalem overall is quieter now,'' says the Swiss-born manager of the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem. ``Earlier in the summer you saw more incidents in the city, and some taxi drivers refused to come down Salah El Din at night. But Jerusalem has never been as bad as Gaza and Nablus.''
Life in the neighborhoods
If the violence engendered by the current situation is generally beyond the sight of the ordinary visitor to Jerusalem, the suffering and the tension seem everywhere at hand. Talk to Ashi Stein, the owner of the Savion Hut restaurant on Ben Maimon Boulevard in Rehavia, a well-heeled residential neighborhood. Over a slice of pecan pie - ``the only kosher pecan pie in Jerusalem'' - Mr. Stein will tell you, ``It's been a disastrous year. Not so much for us, because we don't cater to tourists that much. But other businesses in Jerusalem are down by 40 percent, and many are closing.''
Or spend an afternoon at the hotel pool in East Jerusalem, where the person lying next to you turns out to be a Palestinian on strike. ``My father's shop is closed, so I cannot work,'' says the 17-year-old student, shading his eyes with his hands. ``I come here because my school, too, is closed and I know the lifeguard.'' When asked about the effect of the intifadah, there is a moment of silence. ``I think America is Israel's best friend. We only have strikes and stones,'' he says quietly.
Beyond Jerusalem, the contrasts grow even sharper: the boisterousness that is Tel Aviv, where a drive through Dizengoff Square at 11 p.m. resembles nothing so much as Paris with its thronged street caf'es, buzzing hordes of mopeds, and flashing neon lights of the late-night cinemas and game arcades. Compare that zestful ordinariness with the drive south from Jerusalem into the troubled West Bank. Here the dusty two-lane road runs by the Israeli settlements, developments that eerily resemble the condo sprawl of California's Orange County, a resemblance that stops short at the skeins of barbed wire glinting in the desert sun.
Here is where the Israeli Army is most evident: Soldiers with their plastic visors pulled down rumble through the streets of the shabby villages in their armored jeeps. This is occupied territory, where even the Egged tour buses bearing Christian pilgrims to Bethlehem have been attacked by Arab residents throwing Molotov cocktails.
Beyond this lies the Arava Valley and more contrasts of cultures and centuries. The Negev Desert, inhabited only by hardy kibbutzim and Bedouin tribesmen, eventually bottoms out at Eilat, the Red Sea resort whose clear waters and coral reefs are internationally renowned, a draw to hundreds of thousands of Scandinavians, Germans, and Americans who sail, wind-surf, and scuba-dive alongside off-duty Israeli soldiers - a riot of color against a backdrop of the sullen, red hills of Jordan.
Life in the settlements
Here, a Miami-born reservist is spending the weekend snorkeling before reporting for a 30-day patrol in Hebron next week; an American citizen now living in Israel and serving in the Army, he confesses he is no longer afraid of the Palestinian stone-throwers. ``It's car engines they are dropping on us now.''
Back in Jerusalem, it is almost dusk. Go now to the Promenade Caf'e, perched on the hills beyond the Mount of Olives. Here you can watch the sun set over Jerusalem, glinting off the Dome of the Rock, bathing the beleaguered city in gold. From here there is no sound except the thin cries of the children running on the grass, the wind in the pines. From here, the City of Peace, the city of passionate dissonances for more than four millennia is still, only its history silently reaching back through the centuries, forward into the unknown. It is the city that inspired the Psalmist, ``O Jerusalem.... For my brethren and companions' sakes, I will now say, Peace be within thee.''