And Darkness Covered the Land
Life Under Intifada II
I first started coming to Israel about twenty-five years ago. On a recent visit, I was struck by the pervasive bitterness and despair. In the streets of Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, life goes on, but not as it was before the second intifada--one of the worst calamities to hit the two peoples since the 1948 war.
Until the breakdown of the talks at Camp David in July 2000, many Israelis believed that peace was at hand. It was said that Ehud Barak offered more to Yasir Arafat than any Israeli prime minister before him. The Israelis blamed Arafat for refusing the deal of the century. The Palestinians thought Barak's proposal, which would have cordoned them off into four cantons, was unacceptable. Then one day in September 2000, Ariel Sharon and a delegation of hawkish legislators, accompanied by about 1,000 police and soldiers, took a stroll on the Temple Mount, the grounds of Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest place in Islam. This move triggered the new intifada, helped bring down the Labor Party and destroyed prospects for peace. The sudden rage of the intifada left Israelis reeling, forcing them to live with the random horror of young Palestinian suicide bombers detonating themselves in pizza parlors and shopping malls. Unlike in the first intifada, which broke out in December 1987, even women and children have been deliberately targeted. So far, at least 225 Israelis have been killed.
In this climate, Israelis have changed many of their daily routines. In West Jerusalem, many people are afraid to go downtown. "It's horrible," says Janet Aviad, a leader of Peace Now. "Downtown Jerusalem is half empty. You can get a parking place anywhere you want. You wouldn't bring babies downtown." Private security guards prowl the shopping malls and the cinemas with a new intensity. Parents insist that their kids take cell phones to school and call when they arrive.
Many Israelis feel betrayed by the Palestinians. The prospect of peace, especially during the years of Labor Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, seemed tangible. Israeli and Palestinian entrepreneurs who had moved to other countries were coming back to take advantage of potentially profitable new business opportunities. A so-called peace industry sprouted.
"I actually lived in the illusion that Peace Now would close its offices in 2000, and I'd move on to another agenda," Aviad says. "In fact, friends of mine told me, 'Why are you still in this business? We're living in a post-peace age.'"
Mammoth hotels were built by Israeli companies in anticipation of a burst of tourism in the new millennium. But tourism dried up soon after the violence started. Even Israelis are not doing much traveling within the country, fearing Palestinian roadside ambushes. The sparkling-new, posh Novotel and the Olive Tree hotels, which tower over East Jerusalem, are shuttered. Tourism revenues are expected to plummet by two-thirds this year--from $3 billion to less than $1 billion. Meanwhile, the intifada, the lost tourism dollars and the crash of the high-tech industry have sent Israel's economy spiraling into a recession. The recent contraction in the country's GDP is the worst recorded since 1953.
Not surprisingly, many Israelis are considering abandoning the country. "I know from the kids I talk to that if they could get a chance to get a job in the United States, they'd take it," says Aviad. They believe "there's no hope here." In a recent poll, 35 percent of Jews between ages 25 and 34 said they wanted to depart. "People are tired," explained Colette Avital, a dovish Knesset member of the centrist Labor Party. "You get up in the morning and you think, 'What's next? What's going to happen today? It can only be worse than yesterday. There is no way out.'"