Israel fights bunker mentality

This week's attack follows 91 suicide bombings this year – a long, wearying blitz.

The first Israeli response to the devastating blow from Hamas was not military.

It was culinary.

Just hours after a bomb ripped through a packed university cafeteria Wednesday, killing seven people and wounding more than 70, Jerusalem municipal officials decided to go ahead with the planned opening of a food fair downtown. Thousands of people turned out, in what was widely viewed as a morale booster.

"The main target of the terrorists is to erode public endurance, to disrupt the routine, to disintegrate the society," says Yoni Figel, a counterterrorism analyst.

"Going to this fair is the ultimate response to them," he says. "It shows we are bleeding, we are suffering, but we continue living because we have no other choice, and no other country."

Israeli analysts from across the political spectrum have come to view the conflict as an endurance test, in which the Israeli civilian population's performance will play a crucial role alongside the government and army.

"Think of Britain and the Blitz. In some ways this is a competition over how much a population can accept and how much a side can inflict," says Hebrew University political scientist Yehezkel Dror.

He says the conflict is unlike other Arab-Israeli wars fought between soldiers in 1956,1967, and 1973, but stresses that during Israel's 1947-49 War of Independence, the readiness of the population to sacrifice and fight was also a crucial factor.

Unlike in that war, however, "Israel's existence is not at stake here. What is at stake is the future of our relations with the Palestinians. If anything, for the Palestinians it is more of a battle of existence."

There have been 91 suicide bombings this year, and 161 since the start of hostilities in September 2000, Avi Dichter, head of Israel's internal security service, told the Knesset on Tuesday. He said there were warnings of another 50 attacks coming up.

Wednesday's bomb, unlike the majority of other bombings, was not the work of a suicide attacker, and, atypically, five of the seven people killed were Americans. Jerusalem has been harder hit than any other area, but greater Tel Aviv and the north have also been targeted frequently.

The economic cost of the conflict has been 57 billion shekels ($12.15 billion), according to Israel's Finance Ministry. This is beginning to hit poorer Israelis hard, as they find their safety net increasingly frayed with cuts in unemployment benefits and social security allocations.

Tourism has been virtually wiped out by the violence, and investment has decreased, but industrial production is very much intact, according to Hebrew University economist Ephraim Kleiman. "The Palestinians cannot break the Israeli economy," he says. But Kleiman adds that he "cannot discount" the possibility that confidence in the shekel could be eroded amid continued fighting, causing a run on the dollar and large-scale devaluation.

Pocketbooks are rarely a top concern, however; the fighting often feels like a struggle for personal survival. Israeli mothers once worried about their grown-up sons who were serving at the front. Now they worry about their children being killed at a shopping mall.

Palestinians have no monopoly on targeting civilians. Aluf Benn, diplomatic writer for the daily newspaper Ha'aretz, wrote yesterday that the "economic siege" the Israeli army has imposed on Palestinian cities is a more potent weapon than the F-16.

"Distress and siege, more than any offensive action, are liable to persuade the Palestinians there is no point to their struggle," he wrote. Still, "Israel should prevent hunger and plague from breaking out in the territories, which would force it to withdraw its troops and to allow the entry of foreign troops under the guise of humanitarian aid organizations," he adds.

Israel's main vulnerability in the war, Figel says, is psychological. He says that the Palestinian groups learned from the Iranian-inspired Hizbullah movement's successful battle to force Israel out of southern Lebanon that Israeli society, which pushed for a pullout, cannot absorb continued casualties over time.

"They think they exposed the weak link in the chain, the public opinion in Israel," says Figel, a retired Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) colonel and researcher at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv.

To boost Israeli fortitude, Figel's institute has begun giving courses to community leaders with the aim of "decreasing the anxiety that results from terrorist attacks."

In addition to stressing that people should carry on with their activities, the course instructs about the goals and tactics of Hamas, Fatah, Islamic Jihad, and other groups in the belief that "having information decreases anxiety," he says. It also teaches how to avoid being manipulated by the televised statements and threats of these groups, he says.

Uri Avnery, a veteran peace activist, says that many Israelis have sunk into apathy, believing – mistakenly, in his view – that there is no escape from the violence.

"They believe that there is nothing you can do about it. It's real resignation, a little like soldiers in the trenches during World War I. You try to keep going on without getting killed."

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