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The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

A Tourist's Look at the Edge of Terrorism

By Tina Traster

My husband and I had two plane tickets to Israel, where we planned to stay for a week.

And then, on April 6, Hamas, an extremist Muslim group that opposes peace with Israel, killed seven Israelis in a car bombing in Afula. The next day, a Palestinian fatally shot one and wounded four Israelis in Ashdod. Islamic Jihad, another militant group, claimed responsibility for the second incident, but both groups said the attacks were carried out to avenge the Hebron mosque bombing, which killed at least 29 Palestinians. Hamas promised more violence.

Hamas specifically told the world it intended to make Israel's Independence Day, which would fall smack in the middle of our trip, seem like "hell." Not my idea of a good holiday forecast. I can endure a certain amount of danger and uncertainty. I travel in Third World countries; I ski black runs even though I'm a blue-level skier. But visions of flying shards of glass and scattered limbs can dampen even the most intrepid traveler's spirit.

We went to Israel. We had a superbly interesting time. It was a trip unlike any other because I was denied the luxury of being a carefree, culture-purging, eat-the-local-fare-till-I-burst traveler.

With the Occupied Territories sealed off, with car checkpoints slowing traffic to a crawl, with talk of possible terrorist acts on the horizon, the atmosphere was jittery, or at least I was.

Rather than focus on the country's layers of history and daily curiosities from a tourist's point of view, I wallowed in the day-to-day events that have led to the recent signing of the peace accord granting Palestinians authority over the Gaza Strip and Jericho in the West Bank.

Rather than immerse myself in travel books - as I usually do when I travel - I eyed history being made before me in the pages of The Jerusalem Post and by listening to locals.

Rather than having garden-variety conversation, I forced discussions with taxi drivers or shopkeepers on the pending Palestinian pact.

Witnessing such momentous change from a front-row seat is exhilarating, but it comes with a price tag: the threat of terrorism. If a motorcycle whizzed past with a fierce roar, I jumped. Meandering through a crowded market filled me with apprehension. Seeing phalanxes of soldiers unnerved me, making me wonder whether they were staving off danger or responding to it.

One morning I asked Dorit, a young lady with long crinkled hair and sea-green eyes who worked at the hotel reception desk, whether it was safe to wander through Jerusalem's walled city, where Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Armenians live in a labyrinth of invisible lines and blatant cultural and religious differences. "Why not?" she asked. "Well, you know, with the political situation and all," I stammered awkwardly.

"What are we supposed to do," she asked, raising her voice, "stop living our lives? No, we do what we have to do."

One day before Israel's Independence Day, Hamas struck again, killing five Israelis and wounding more than 30 at the main bus station in Hadera, near Haifa. I listened to the news on CNN. My ears burned and my heart raced.

I would not have reacted this way had I been hearing this report in my apartment back home. I was in Tel Aviv. That bomb could have exploded at a bus station in Tel Aviv. I spread out a map and traced my finger up along the Mediterranean coast to Haifa. There was something surreal about hearing the news because only hours earlier, I had decided against taking a bus ride to Haifa. April 14, Independence Day, is a joyous occasion for Israelis. For a week before the holiday, the light-blue-and-white flags flutter from car windows and fly from buildings. On the day, families picnic and the Israeli Air Force shows off its hardware by performing aerial stunts above neck-craning crowds. When your country is 46 years old and still defending its land, you celebrate the essence of the day.

The day passed with an eerie slowness. I waited for news of another attack. It never came. But I wondered all day how Israelis could celebrate with such abandon. On Jerusalem's King David Street that night, throngs of revelers flowed down the street, which was closed to traffic. They danced the hora, bopped one another with plastic hammers, and sprayed silly string everywhere.

Hamas may have threatened a day of "hell," but these people around me were in heavenly bliss. I, on the other hand, vacillated between two worlds: At moments, I felt moved by the celebration. But I also felt vulnerable and frightened, knowing that this great surge of joy and energy could give way to a terrorist's hand within a second.

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