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Israelis Adapt to Annoying Searches, Ubiquitous Guards

Mideast: Constant fear and loss of privacy have driven people to find innovative solutions. Mental health experts are watching closely.


JERUSALEM — Having your purse, your pockets and your body poked, prodded and squeezed up to a dozen times a day has put Israelis at the cutting edge of what populations must endure in the name of security.

Not only is this spurring interest among mental health experts worldwide as other countries move in the same direction in the post-Sept. 11 world, it's prompting innovation among Israelis as they learn to bear the unbearable.

Tali Alon, a 35-year-old manager in the hotel industry, says she and her friends now open their purses in an almost Pavlovian response when entering a shop--not only in Israel, but overseas.

House painter Mike Whelan, 49, no longer drives into underground parking lots because he's tired of explaining what's in his trunk. Some women have switched to transparent purses that show everything. And Sheera Serbin, a 25-year-old ceramics student, has stopped using a bag altogether.

"I used to carry everything in my purse," she said. "There'd be seven types of tape, pliers, enough to survive in the desert for a week. Now I only carry what fits in my pocket."

While this nation has felt threatened one way or another for much of its existence, the past several months have brought the country to a new low as suicide bombings hit civilians where they live. And Jerusalem has become Israel's "ground zero."

Everywhere you turn here, there are security guards. Walk across the street, enter a parking lot, drop into a grocery store, stop for lunch--with each of life's daily activities comes another search. Tamar Samet, 60, a piano teacher, says she's been through so many, she dreams about them.

Mental health experts say Israel's stress, its adaptations and its mass trauma are turning it into an international laboratory.

"There's growing interest in the U.S. and the world in how we're coping and what measures we're taking here," said Hanoch Yerushalmi, a psychologist and head of the counseling center at Hebrew University. "Americans are looking more carefully at how Israelis handle terror--not just how we're shrinking in fear, but how we're really living with it."


'What a Life'

Yerushalmi has helped scores of students, faculty members and administrators with post-traumatic stress after a bomb in the school's cafeteria a month ago killed nine people, including five Americans.

Most Israelis say they readily accept the constant intrusions on their privacy as the price for living here. "At first, it's strange. Then it irritates you. Eventually, you just stop thinking about it," said Dov Sirkis, a 50-year-old laborer on disability leave. "But what a life: There are now more security guards downtown than civilians. The police station has moved into the streets."

With more Israelis arming themselves, the airport authority has started warning people to leave their guns at home before heading overseas. More common are run-of-the-mill humiliations--the tampons or condoms that tumble out unexpectedly, your dirty laundry being pawed through.

"My hash pipe fell out one time," said Eiall Bandero, a 20-year-old student. "It was rather awkward."

Security companies acknowledge that they see some strange, smelly, even illegal things. But most say they turn a blind eye to almost anything other than weapons or bombs.

This is a necessary adjustment as the boundary shifts between public and private life, experts say. "The guards pretend not to see it, and people pretend it didn't happen," said Gabriel Ben-Dor, sociologist and head of the National Security Studies Center at Haifa University.


Skeptical of Security

In Israel's battered economy, jobs as security guards are among the few on offer these days. While most are doing a heroic job for little money, the economy has attracted others for whom security isn't a lifelong calling.

"I look at some of these guards and think: They're the last ones who are going to save us," said Dina Bar Menachem, a 22-year-old studying literature at Hebrew University. "Many are old. Some don't speak Hebrew. If there was an actual terrorist, I don't know how well they'd do."

Ola Kuchles, 45, the owner of a small neighborhood restaurant in Jerusalem that doesn't use a security guard, recalls a recent trip she took to the beach. Her husband didn't have a bag, so she put his gun in her purse, then forgot about it and went through a security check. She breezed right by.

Cafe and restaurant owners acknowledge that the quality of guards varies, as with anything else. But they add that it's as much about mental peace of mind as physical protection.

Some restaurants now advertise their security, and customers often check out the guards before the menu.

"I'm very happy when they search closely," said Batya Azo, 51, an insurance company manager. "And when they don't, I'm nervous. I won't go to a place that doesn't have security, and I'll call ahead to check."

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