Violence trumping words in Mideast

Israel attacked Hamas leader Wednesday in response to two suicide bombings Tuesday.

Wisam Srag grabbed his coffee and loped out of the cafe, crossing the street to join friends. That's why he's alive today.

Mr. Srag had just reached the sidewalk when shouting erupted behind him. He turned to see the cafe guard grab a man and fall back inside the popular hangout. The cafe lit up, glass flew like buckshot, and bodies suddenly littered the ground. "It's the first time in my life I felt really afraid," says Srag, who completed army service five years ago.

The Tuesday bombing at Jerusalem's Café Hillel was the second Hamas attack that day. Israel reciprocated Wednesday with a missile strike against a Gaza Strip Hamas leader.

Violence has gained momentum, just as the peace process has stalled and options dwindled. The Palestinian Authority (PA) is in political limbo, leaving diplomatic channels between the two sides all but closed. As the feud between Hamas and Israel escalates, ordinary Israelis are hunkering down and doing what they can to avoid getting caught in the crossfire.

"From today, I'm changing things," says Srag, standing at the dessert counter of the restaurant where he tends the bar. "I saw burnt people and dead people and I don't want to end up like that. So no more buses, no more going out to restaurants. All I've got is this one life."

Restrictions and closures

While Israelis take up self-imposed limitations, Palestinians will endure a renewed series of restrictions as Israel's army reimposes closures on the West Bank this week and rolled its tanks back into Ramallah. Two Palestinians were killed by the army's Gaza strike, and 25 were wounded.

Many analysts expect the language of force to prevail for some time. "We're in a situation where there isn't a political option anymore," says Shmuel Bar, a senior fellow at the Institute of Policy and Strategy in Herzliya.

He notes that former PA Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has resigned, his nominated replacement, Ahmed Qureia, hasn't yet started the job, and that Israel refuses to deal with PA President Yasser Arafat.

The renewal of Israeli-Palestinian talks seen under Mr. Abbas is disintegrating just as Israelis and Palestinians mark the 10th anniversary of the Oslo peace process. Oslo provided the two peoples with a framework for talks. Today, anger on both sides is hardening positions.

"The channels of communication have deteriorated critically," says Mr. Bar, who says both sides see benefits to using force.

"Palestinians have reached Israeli concessions in the past through extreme violence," he says. "At the same time, anything that's perceived by Israelis as counterproductive to daily security will not be tolerated now. A lot of people are saying, 'If we have to get rid of the Hamas leadership, why use a quarter-ton bomb when we could use a one-ton bomb?' So there's at least one area where Israelis and Palestinians are in agreement," says Bar. "They both think that the way to move forward is through extreme violence."

Tuesday's attacks, both claimed by Hamas, left 16 dead. Israel's retaliation killed their target's son and bodyguard and injured 25.

The bombings have left Israelis chilled. In Jerusalem's German Colony neighborhood, where Café Hillel once drew crowds, the streets were unusually quiet Wednesday, and uniformed policemen stood alongside private security guards outside a few cafes.

This well-to-do stretch of cafes and shops relies on crowds, but many residents see a long, slow period ahead as Israelis try to hibernate their way through any coming hostilities.

"We knew this was coming," says Eli Spoor, who sells school supplies a block away from the cafe. He mentions an Israeli attempt to kill Hamas's spiritual leader on Sept. 6. "For sure we know there's more trouble ahead," he adds.

It's the kind of trouble Mr. Spoor knows about firsthand. In the first Palestinian uprising, from 1987 to 1993, his sister-in-law was stabbed to death. His father was recently injured in a Jerusalem bus bombing.

Standing outside his shop in jeans, sandals, and a white shirt, he is matter-of-fact about living in this kind of environment.

"This is a time when you don't go out to shop, to eat, to sit outside," he comments, watching a border police patrol roll slowly by.

The people in Café Hillel were taking an unnecessary risk on Tuesday night, he says.

"They should have been inside," he says. "You have to change your life a bit. So you drink your coffee at home, you get your groceries delivered, you don't go to crowded places or on the bus. You just stay home."

The ordeal of a commute

But for those who don't have the money to get groceries delivered or take taxis, these are extremely stressful times.

"I hate this, I really hate this," says Betty Alampay, a Filipina aide to an elderly woman in the neighborhood. She is out running an errand and clearly doesn't like standing still on the street. Ms. Alampay fidgets, her eyes darting from pedestrians to the bus rumbling by. Her morning commute has become an ordeal.

"I know all the people on my bus in the morning and when someone new gets on, I get so afraid," she says. The security guards that sometimes ride on public transport make no difference to her.

"What can they do? They're human just like me. They can't stop someone and why should they, when they're paid nothing to be like a soldier in Vietnam? What sort of job is that - [four dollars] an hour and you can die while doing it?"

For other Jerusalem residents from overseas, there is the challenge of calming their families' fears. Some call it "pigua etiquette," using the Hebrew word for terror attack. "I always grit my teeth before those calls [after an attack]," says Mark, a Chicago native here for a year of study. "You never know who you should call first and then how to deal with your crying mother."

He's headed for another cafe. "Out of the way places are key," he says, "I scope things out, I'm very careful."

Spoor, the Israeli shop owner, might approve. He says living in Jerusalem these days is all a matter of self-reliance.

"The Torah says to trust in God," he says, "but first, we have to take care of ourselves."

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