Friday, March 23, 2007

In Israel

More foreign reportage... published in the thefirstpost this week...

The World's Biggest Fire Drill

The siren rings out across the Armenian quarter of Old Jerusalem. I've been expecting it, so I am unfazed, but passing tourists look alarmed. Their fear grows, as other sirens join in.

It's 2pm, on Tuesday March 20th, and these sirens are wailing throughout Israel: along the beachfront boulevards of Tel Aviv, in the ancient streets of Nazareth, in the sun-baked villages above the Dead Sea.

Thankfully, the sirens aren't for real. Today Israel is conducting the "largest civil defense exercise" in its history. Along with the klaxons, teams from the army, the Home Guard, and the emergency services are rehearsing their response to "mega-terror" and "non-conventional" scenarios. Which is code for chemical or nuclear attacks.

It seems a little extreme. But as I have discovered - travelling around Israel in the past two weeks - Israel as a nation is extremely anxious.

These feelings extend from left to right. During this fortnight I've talked to hippies, peace activists, soldiers, and Likudniks, and they all give the same impression. They sometimes talk tough but they always act frightened.

The reasons for this fear are threefold. The perceived defeat of the Israeli Army in last year's war with Hezbollah has shaken the once solid faith in the Jewish army's invincibility. As one soldier ruefully put it to me, 'when you look at it, we haven't actually won a war since Yom Kippur'.

Another factor is Iraq. Israelis believed that the removal of Saddam, who funded Muslim terrorists, would benefit their security. Instead it has created more chaos, and weakened Israel's great protector, the United States.

Finally, there is Iran: emboldened and energised, and soon to have nukes. This last is the chief worry gnawing away at Israelis. The Jewish state alone cannot take on Iran. The USA might be unwilling to strike at Tehran, following the Iraq debacle. In a few years Israel might be facing the first proper threat to her existence since the war of independence in 1948.

Yesterday I had lunch with a top Tel Aviv civil servant. He admitted he used to be a hardcore Zionist. But now? 'For the first time', he told me, 'I wonder if we will survive. Now I think the only hope is peace. Just give us someone, anyone, to talk to. We are desperate for a solution.'

Here in old Jerusalem, the sirens are over. The monks go back to their monasteries. And the tourists shuffle once more along the Via Dolorosa. Some may wonder if Israel is taking the same route.

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