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What A Country!
by Judy Lash Balint
February 7, 2003

Did you hear the one about the man who picked up 25 gas masks? No joke. Owad Alukla, resident of the Beduin settlement of Murwad in the Negev, drove his pick-up truck to the Home Command Center in Beersheva yesterday to collect free Iraq protection gear for his 22 children and two wives. Gas masks have also been offered to Arabs living in Area C, under Israeli security control. I suppose the Arabs who climbed up to the rooftops to cheer the arrival of the Scuds in the Gulf War won't be picking up theirs.

The Home Front Command is moving into high gear in preparation for events of the coming weeks. Today, according to a friend, elementary school kids in Jerusalem were told to start bringing their gas masks to school after February 14. On an English speaking Jerusalem newslist, one enterprising mother advised parents to sew an attractive cloth bag to cover the brown, sharp-cornered cardboard gas mask box and prevent it from disintegrating through overuse.

Can one describe the Israeli national mood at present ? Depressed, afraid, panicking? Based on a few observations, conversations and a little statistical data I'd say not. Friday's paper ran a poll indicating that 66 percent of Israelis consider the chances of a missile landing in their area either low or considerably low. In the Tel Aviv area, 89 percent of residents say they have no plans to leave their homes in the event of a US-Iraqi war. 59 percent of Israelis claim they are not afraid of being injured in any kind of Iraq war related incident.

But there are other items dominating the news--Yediot Ahronot, the most widely read Israeli daily, inserted a 15 page supplement into yesterday's paper in remembrance of astronaut, Ilan Ramon. Every possible angle of this tragedy is covered, with double-page spread photos of Ramon and his fellow space travelers.

From the celestial to the mundane--a devastating ecological disaster is taking place on Israel's beaches this week. 200,000 tons of raw sewage are running into the Mediterranean Sea every day due to a burst sewer main near Tel Aviv. Beaches have been closed for days, and the fishing industry closed down. Fish restaurants are deserted as the Health Ministry bans the sale of fish caught off the coast. One Jaffa fish dealer told a reporter that the over-the-top levels of pollution (50 times the permitted level) detected were just hooey--it's always like that, he said, this is just the first time the media has latched on. The Dan Region Sewage union is purposefully diverting the raw sewage into the sea to enable repair work to be completed on the burst sewage pipe. "Just a few more days," promises the Sewage Union director.

The pre-Shabbat shoppers out and about in the center of Jerusalem on a bright, sunny Friday morning have other things on their minds. Down in Zion Square the bloodmobile has its doors open and a few early morning donors step in before their morning coffee. The pedestrian shopping streets just off the square, reflect conflicting signs of the times. Many cafes and gift shops have closed, but there's a new mini supermarket open, and Rachmi's, a kosher home-style resturant has opened up in larger quarters a few hundred yards up the street from its original location. Inside Beit Agron, home of the Government Press Office, a few dozen soldiers are using the empty lobby to stretch out on the stone floor to rest. They've been on a night exercise "close by," one of them tells me. Probably in Bethlehem, just ten minutes down the Hebron Road, is my guess. While the others doze, one young man stands off to the side concentrating on winding his tefillin around his arm.

Just outside, a bus with a Haifa phone number on the side creeps slowly along in the traffic jam on Hillel Street. As I glance up, I notice that all the passengers are teenage girls holding siddurim (prayer books) and mouthing their morning prayers. One or two are standing in their places, reciting the Amidah (silent prayer, recited while standing facing east--the direction of the Temple Mount)

For those sweating it out in the gym of one of Jerusalem's largest health clubs, the major concern seems to be getting their heart rate into target range as they pound the stairmaster or the treadmill. The facility at historic Kibbutz Ramat Rachel in southern Jerusalem boasts an almost Olympic size pool and some of the best views around. In the jacuzzi, which looks out over Gilo on the next hill, half a dozen retirees shoot the breeze as they stew. The conversation centers on weekend plans, the weather and adult children who are still unemployed. Someone raises the tragedy of the two soldiers killed near Shechem (Nablus) yesterday and the steam rises.

No one talks of the political machinations in full swing as Prime Minister Sharon wheels and deals his way to a new coalition. Just one week after announcing his departure from the government supposedly to focus on revamping his battered Yisrael B'Aliya party, Natan Sharansky has his seat back at the Cabinet table after committing the party's two seats to the Likud and securing a promise to be Sharon's Minister of Diaspora Affairs.

It's just normal life in Israel. After I completed a radio interview with KFSO Radio in San Francisco earlier this week, a non-Jewish listener wrote back to say how much he admired Israelis for the calm and deliberate manner that we have in dealing with our various traumas. I was stunned. Calm and deliberate is not how Israelis would describe themselves. Yet, viewing our behavior from the outside--our compassion for the other in our midst; our faith in God; the ability to grieve over personal and national tragedies, but then to look forward and continue to build and develop--I can say, what a country!