The Baltimore Sun

Wary Israelis either pack up or hunker down

By Helen Schary Motro

February 17, 2003

KFAR SHMARIYAHU, Israel - A few days before the Persian Gulf war broke out in 1991, my friend from the Hungarian embassy in Tel Aviv phoned to say goodbye. My heart sank when I heard Ilona was being evacuated with her children. More than any headline, it was watching foreigners leave Israel that made danger tangible.

The exodus began again last week. On Feb. 7, the State Department recommended the departure of nonessential personnel and dependents from Israel.

Following their lead, other nationalities are folding their tents to steal away. Rumor has it that Canadians may be flown by charter to nearby Cyprus.

Students are streaming out of the American International School, where my daughter is a student, in this Tel Aviv suburb just a few minutes' drive to the Mediterranean coast. As a result, the school has decided to suspend classes for a month, deeming it a "vacation calendar adjustment." The school will keep its doors open, though, offering informal tutorials for the small minority of students like my daughter who remain in the country.

That's welcome news for working parents, but from my daughter's adolescent perspective she would beg to differ: While her friends will be abroad on vacation, she will still be expected to show up daily at her near-deserted school.

Grownups face more serious dilemmas. Most pressing in this time of mega-uncertainty: to stay or leave?

Will the U.S. attack against Iraq, which appears to be increasingly inevitable, take place? Then its corollaries: Will the next step be for Israel to absorb counter-hits by Iraq, as it did in 1991? And what nefarious advances in technology in the last 12 years make extensive damage more likely this time?

Yet there is a sea change in the attitude of the authorities toward civilians. Whereas in the gulf war the mayor of Tel Aviv could slap the term "deserter" on residents who chose to leave the city, this time everyone agrees that the caution of leaving the center of the country may be the better part of valor.

In fact, the mayor of nearby Ramat Gan, which absorbed most of the Iraqi Scud missiles in the last war, publicly suggested evacuation of his entire town should the 1991 scenario be replayed.

So where are Israelis going? Those of means have their eyes set abroad. But plans to spend the war seeing theater in London or New York are tempered by the experience of 9/11 and al-Qaida's warnings of resumed terror hits.

Many are planning temporary relocation to "safer" locations in Israel. Jerusalem, beleaguered by intifada violence, suddenly appears a haven. Because of its large Muslim population and Islamic holy sites, an Iraqi attack on Jerusalem is deemed unlikely. Reservations are flooding hotels in remote locales such as the Galilee region in the north and the Red Sea tourist resort of Eilat in the south.

My friend is making final plans for the short-term rental of a house in coastal Ashkelon, an hour's drive south of Tel Aviv. She and her family won't feel alone there because reservations are being made by others from Tel Aviv, who otherwise would never deign do more than drive through provincial Ashkelon on their way to somewhere more interesting. Ironically, as locals look to leave Tel Aviv, others are eager to take their places. The foreign press, expected to descend in droves, will be an economic bonanza for the recession-swept city.

Virtually empty for the last two years, Tel Aviv hotel rooms are suddenly in high demand. During the gulf war, TV crews filmed missile attacks from the seaside roof of the Hilton, but any tardy news agency would be too late for the Hilton; its roof has been parceled out and reserved for three months. Newer hotels with even higher roofs and better views are scrambling for the spill-off.

We recently installed steel doors, hermetic sealing and an expensive air filter system in our makeshift storage-room-cum-bomb-shelter. The filter company is symbolically named "Noah's Ark," perhaps hoping to plant the soothing message that its product will protect us from rising waters of danger.

Helen Schary Motro is an American lawyer and free-lance writer who divides her time between New York and Israel.

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