Babylon & Beyond

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Israel, the Arab world and beyond

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ISRAEL: Shifting rules to live by

October 30, 2007 | 11:11 am

The change was so gradual, I can’t recall exactly when the buses stopped giving me the willies.

I moved to Jerusalem with my wife and our 10-month-old daughter in late 2003, a time when Palestinian suicide bombers were regularly blowing themselves up in restaurants, markets and aboard public buses packed with Israelis. Some friends back home were appalled we would take such a risk. “Have you taken leave of your senses?” a former college roommate chided in an e-mail before our departure.

I assured everyone we’d be careful — or as careful as you can be when violence is random and regular at the same time. We adopted some ironclad rules: Never ride the buses; stay out of crowded markets, choose restaurants with security guards and sit as far from the front door as possible.

Still, during our first three months in Jerusalem, I covered two gruesome bus bombings within a few blocks from our apartment. I began to view the green-and-white city buses as rolling time bombs, and got a shiver every time I was stuck in traffic next to one.

No more. The last time a bus blew up in Jerusalem was in February 2004.

It was, in fact, the last time a suicide bomber was able to carry out an attack on any civilians in Jerusalem, though cities elsewhere in Israel have been bombed.

The lull in Jerusalem stems from a number of factors. Hamas has not carried out a suicide attack anywhere inside Israel since 2004 and committed to a cease-fire with Israel last November. Israeli officials also say the barrier their government has erected in and around the West Bank has made Israel safer. Meanwhile, hundreds of Palestinian militants in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been killed and arrested, so there are fewer potential bombers.

You can gauge the change in the air in Jerusalem through the crowds of sidewalk diners downtown, the return of tourists to the stone-paved pedestrian Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall and the deafening chatter of jackhammers all over as landlords gussy up their buildings to catch the wave of booming real-estate prices.

We’ve let down our defenses somewhat, too. Streetside tables are no longer off-limits, and guards no longer a requirement. On Jerusalem’s traffic-choked streets, city buses are to me merely an annoyance these days, rather than a menace.

But I still haven’t ridden one.

— Ken Ellingwood in Jerusalem