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by Judy Lash Balint
October 7, 2003

The New Year season in Israel is marked by a unique set of sights, sounds and smells.

Markets burst with color. The bright scarlet of bulging pomegranates, deep shiny purple eggplant, huge green grapes and succulent chocolate colored dates line the stalls. The sharp sound of the shofar (ram's horn) reverberates through the slightly damp air of the early morning, as the faithful heed its plaintive call to repentance during the days leading up to Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement). The scent of the last of the summer flowers lingers in the air, mixed with the fragrant odors of traditional holiday food wafting out of kitchens all over the city.

It's hard to believe that in the midst of such vibrancy, Israelis faces the fourth year of a war that has claimed the lives of hundreds of unarmed civilians and contributed to a devastating economic crisis.

The latest terror attack no longer surprises anyone. When 19 Jews, Christians and Arabs including two entire families are slaughtered at a Haifa restaurant on a sunny Saturday lunchtime the nation doesn't come to a halt. We had barely recovered from the shock of the loss a few weeks ago of a revered physician and his daughter who were buried on what was to be her wedding day, and more recently, a 7 month old baby Shaked Avraham, murdered while sitting down to New Year's dinner with her family in Negohot.

It's hard to fathom the base hatred that motivates those who perpetrate such atrocities in Israel. And even more difficult to understand the reaction of much of the world who criticize Israel for attempting to eliminate the terrorist threat. Would it be termed a "cycle of violence" if any other nation pursued the murderers of its children?

Just what should be our reaction? Is there any point in even contemplating further conciliatory moves when we find out that the UNRWA "College of Science Education" (a teacher's academy in Ramallah), instructs the geography teachers of the next generation of Palestinians to exclude any reference to Israel, the Jews, Jewish towns, Jewish holy sites or any Jewish historical contribution to the area taught as being Palestine - from Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea.

What are we to think when we discover that the murderer of the infant Shaked Avraham was among those prisoners released in a goodwill gesture two months ago from Israeli detention?

Still, in Israel there are no wild cries on the streets to avenge the murders. No calls for anything more than effective self defense. The political debate centres on the most efficient way of protecting innocent lives. Some believe the security fence will do the trick; others support a more sustained campaign to eliminate known terrorists. The ten Arab Knesset members have their say too and are frequent guests on the TV political talk shows that dominate prime time on Israeli TV.

Many Israelis have arrived at the conclusion that there is little we can do to effect change in Palestinian society. The fundamental adjustments in attitude that must occur before Palestinians are ready to accept Israel's right to exist in the region and abandon terror as a means of political discourse have to come from within. Israeli Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu puts it this way: "The test of whether we're moving toward peace will come not when we fight the terrorists, but when the Palestinians fight the terrorists among them."

As the only non-Moslem country in the region, Israel is on the front lines of the global war against Islamic fundamentalism. If the Arab war against Israel were to dissolve tomorrow, the problems of the Middle East would not be solved. The threat of Iran and the instability of so many dictatorships and monarchies in this part of the world would still make the area a tinderbox.

It's impossible to argue that land is the contentious issue since Israel is surrounded by 21 Arab countries with 800 times as much territory as Israel. Territory that contains all the oil reserves in the region. Territory where women's rights are non-existent, the rule of law is absent and freedom of speech and freedom of the press are unrecognized concepts.

Even during this time of protracted Arab-Israeli tension, many Israelis struggle to ensure that the Arab minority inside Israel enjoys these rights. Israeli civil society boasts organizations dedicated to achieving Arab equality. Their continued activity parallels other efforts to maintain normal life in the face of extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

It's hard to get dressed up to celebrate a wedding when neighbors are mourning a child lost in a terror attack. It's difficult to go to a concert in Tel Aviv when three people are killed in a bomb attack at your neighborhood bar. It's a major hassle to pass time in your idling car waiting in a long line for the security guard to check every vehicle entering the local shopping mall. But because of Arab violence, this is what passes for normal life these days.

The Jewish New Year is a time of reflection and self-examination. This year, the prayers and hopes of Israelis are no different than they've been in the past. A year of peace and tranquility where those distinctive New Year sights sounds and smells may be fully savored and we may look forward not in dread, but in anticipation of better days to come.