Dispatch Five: Is that a rocket in your pocket?
Pilgrims at the Damascus Gate on Good Friday

The more I travel the more I realize that everywhere you go, people think the way they do things is normal, the baseline against which everyone else on the planet is measured.

For example, in the United States, where an unbelievable number of people own guns, folks are often shocked when I explain that, no, I'm not taking a gun to protect myself on my next overseas trip. Apart from that fact that I do not own a gun, other countries don't let us bring our guns across their borders for the express purpose of shooting their citizens, go figure. Back home, where shooting people is your God-given and Constitutional right, having guns is normal, the baseline by which many Americans measure this subject; so not having guns (and not letting us have them when we're in your country) is just weird.

When I was in Zaire, hunting monkeys, eating grubs, and using Bic pens as currency was normal. When I lived in Sicily, sleeping in the middle of the day was normal. In the Muslim world, stopping to pray five times a day is normal. In many societies, polygamy is still normal. I've been to many, many countries where my not being married, not having children, and not asking my parents' permission to travel (well past my eighteenth birthday) is considered weird, even wrong. Years without rain is normal in the desert, and weeks without sunshine is normal in the British isles. Treating the dog as part of the family is normal in some countries, and eating the dog is normal in some others.

What's "normal" is always strictly a local phenomenon.

And living in a state of high security is what's normal in Israel.

As I write this, it's been only two days since nine people died in a bombing in Tel Aviv. It was the worst terrorist attack here in 20 months.

I was in Tel Aviv at the time, attending Olamot (Hebrew for "worlds"), one of the country's annual sf/f conventions. (You can read the article I wrote about it by linking from the main Dispatches page.) Tel Aviv is a big city, so I was unaware of the bombing until it was announced in the news soon after it happened.

All the Israelis at the con got on their cell phones to check on friends and family, and to assure everyone that they themselves were okay; we all paused for a moment to acknowledge the dead; and then we went on with our day.

After years of the second intifada, which shed rivers of blood, that's what's normal here. When this country is stabbed now, as it was that day, no one lies around hemorrhaging. They patch the wound and keep going about their lives. It's how the society kept functioning as the chaos and death tolls rose during the second intifada, in a country so small that everyone here lost someone, everyone here buried friends or family or colleagues or neighbors or acquaintances.

Which is not to say that people here don't alter their lives in response to the security situation.

Many Israelis won't take buses anymore. (I sometimes have to take coaches between cities, but I won't get on a city bus. I walk or take cabs.) Some Israelis try to avoid even driving near a bus that's on the road. A lot of people I know here divert their path to avoid crowds, because a crowd is an obvious target. There are places that some people I've met say they won't shop, such as the Makhane Yehuda, a large, crowded, open market that was targeted by bombers more than once.

Some people I've talked to will only eat at a restaurant or café that has a guard at the door checking people for weapons and explosives before they enter. (This may be a fallacy, though, since the guard who was checking the bomber two days ago in Tel Aviv was blown to bits.) This is the only country I've ever been to where locals have recommended some eateries to me based on how secure they are. (I know an Israeli who likes to eat at government ministry cafés; he tells me they're so secure, not even a car bomber could get to them.)

This is what's normal here.

Like everyone here, I undergo a search of my belongings every time I enter an office building, an intercity bus, a holy site, a bank, a big store, a hotel, etc. And certainly every time I enter any kind of government building. (As a foreigner, I also undergo questioning and sometimes a body search at government buildings.) As already mentioned, many cafés and restaurants also have security checks at the door. You can't get into a major bus station here without passing through a metal detector.

Every single day for my first two weeks here, I had to explain my business at the main entrance when I arrived at work. ("My business? I work here." Now, however, they recognize me and I can pass by with just a wave.) I have a friend who runs a company here, and she is stopped and searched at the door every time her staffers hire a new security guard—even though she is the boss.

I pass through two army checkpoints on my daily walk to work. I also regularly bump my knees against army rifles when I'm buying food in the marketplace or waiting to see a bank teller. Every place in Israel is chock full of armed soldiers everywhere you go, whether on- or off-duty. (I assume it's one of the reasons that there's so little street crime here. Walking home late at night through my neighborhood is considered perfectly safe even by cautious people. In fact, I often come home late from work, and the scariest thing I've seen so far is some Hassidim harassing people for not observing the Sabbath with the same strictness they do—though you'd think such energetic harassment would count as work, wouldn't you?)

Jerusalem, which is bitterly contested in the Israeli-Arab dispute, is a particularly tense city. While in Tel Aviv for two days this week, I realized how rare it is for me to see people smiling in Jerusalem or to hear voices raised in laughter (instead of prayer, anger, argument, or complaining—all of which I hear all of the time in Jerusalem). The city is surrounded by the Palestinian Authority on three sides. I only learned where the so-called Green Line (the 1967 border) was after I'd already crossed it a dozen times. And I could walk to the Barrier (aka the Wall, aka the Security Fence), if I wanted to; it's plainly visible from many balconies around here.

Israeli and Palestinians aren't separated by half a world and the nightly news the way Americans are typically separated from our antagonists. They're living in each other's pockets. They see the whites of each other's eyes every day.

Meanwhile, Israeli security personnel in Tel Aviv have seen not only the whites of my eyes, but also my underwear—while I was wearing it. For whatever reason, I tend to get singled out here as suspicious. (A colleague assures me that I am the first person he'd pick out of any crowd as a likely killer.) I have been body-searched and questioned extensively several times. Even my hair has been searched twice. (Okay, just how frightening is my hair?) I don't know if I look like a terrorist or, more likely, I look stupid enough to be a terrorist's unwitting mule.

However, to their credit, Israelis are very professional about all these procedures—well, at least in my experience. (I'm guessing that a seemingly suspicious American woman like me gets somewhat more restrained treatment than, say, a young Arab male whom they find suspicious.) I can't say I'm comfortable with strange men looking through my tampons and strange women patting down my bra (while I'm in it), but no one has ever offended me, and these procedures have generally been as unembarrassing as possible under the circumstances.

But while I experience the tension of life in Israel daily, I can only imagine what it's like in the Palestinian Territories. Border closings, food shortages, a disastrous unemployment rate, military air strikes, various well-armed militant militias, a controversial elected government that the international community doesn't recognize, international aid halted... I can't easily picture how hard life must be for an ordinary person in the Territories who just wants to work, marry, and send their kids to a decent school.

Finally, one thing that is very different in Israel and the Palestinian Territories from almost anywhere else I've ever been: People here are well aware that what's normal here—this high-security lifestyle and daily tension—is far from normal by most other standards.

Until next time,

April 19, 2006