Miriam Shaviv
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Learning to live with the daily prospect of Terror
Date: Friday, July 24, 2007
Publication: The Glasgow Herald

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It was the evening of March 9, 2002, and the second Palestinian intifada was at its height. Some 44 Israelis had already been killed that month in various suicide bombings and gun attacks; a week earlier I had been to the funeral of a young immigrant from South Africa who had been shot in the neck.

As I put on my trainers to go for a jog in Jerusalem, where I was living at the time, I was interrupted by a loud boom. I had just overheard a suicide bomber killing 11 people and injuring 54 others in Cafe Moment - right on the route along which I had been preparing to run.

I was petrified.

Five years later, it is looking increasingly likely that we may experience our own prolonged campaign of terror here in the UK. Miriam Shavi

The Israeli example may be instructive. Between 2000 and 2004, about 1000 Israelis were killed and 6700 injured in terror attacks. In a country with fewer than seven million people, almost every single person either knew a victim or had a close call themselves. Yet although 58% of Israelis were depressed about the security situation, according to a 2002 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, they were remarkably resilient. Only 5% felt the need to seek professional help, and more than 80% of Israelis felt optimistic about their personal futures. Malls, restaurants and nightclubs continued to thrive; something approximating normal life really did go on.

The key for most people was to develop their own set of survival rules, which were intended to reduce the risk of being hit. We all knew deep down that our rules were random and contradictory, and did not really make us any safer. But maintaining the fiction that they did is what stopped us becoming paralysed with fear. I, for example, completely gave up travelling on public transport in Jerusalem after a series of bus bombs, and took taxis I couldn't really afford instead. However, I continued taking inter-city buses for lack of other options; somehow I managed to persuade myself that because they hadn't been targeted - yet - they were safer. My now-husband, meanwhile, also avoided getting on buses, but was perfectly comfortable drawing up next to one at traffic lights - although that would have put him in as much danger, should the bus explode, as any of the passengers.

Everyone I knew carried on going to restaurants and cafes - but which ones? They had to have a security guard to check handbags at the entrance - that was a given. Some of my friends preferred establishments which were off the beaten track, or which were so small they weren't worth the bombers' while (they hoped). I preferred the opposite tactic and went for coffee shops which had already been bombed. Inside, I generally avoided sitting by a window - many injuries were from broken glass - and always sat facing the door, so I could see who was coming in. Others insisted on placing themselves by an exit. Corners were usually unpopular.

Another important factor was learning to trust our instincts. If this meant leaving a shop or getting off a bus or train when someone suspicious entered, so be it (signs to watch out for were coats in warm weather, backpacks and wires protruding from clothing or bags, but a gut feeling was good enough). Better to be paranoid than to stress, even for a moment, about dying.

Inevitably, we all developed a macabre sense of humour. One friend of mine loved to joke that he frequented a certain restaurant because "their cakes are so good, if I'm blown up at least I'll die with a smile on my face".

And we all had a good laugh at the skit on the television show Only in Israel, in which two of the characters turned up for a date in a restaurant wearing flak jackets; whenever a glass was dropped or a champagne cork popped, they both dived under the table.

The sad truth, however, is that, eventually, terror became so commonplace that it lost its power to shock. You didn't turn the TV on following an attack unless at least five people were killed. The stories of the terror victims had to be particularly poignant - such as that of Nava Appelbaum, 20, who was killed the night before her wedding - in order to really move.

As a journalist, I couldn't avoid the news - many of my friends did - but effectively we turned off and tuned out as much as possible. It was, at the end of the day, the only way to really survive a weekly, and often daily, onslaught of horror.

Let us pray that here, in Britain, it never comes to that.

Miriam Shaviv is the Comment Editor of the JC

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