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'Yassin Effect' Ripples Throughout Israel

In the aftermath of the slaying of the Hamas leader, the stock market, commerce, tourism -- even professional sports -- are being disrupted.

March 27, 2004|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — This is not the March madness Israel's fervent basketball fans had in mind.

Here was the country's top professional team, Maccabi Tel Aviv, riding a great season. Better still, they looked forward to playing in the European championship tournament -- known as the Final Four -- on their home court because it is Tel Aviv's turn to host.

But in another sign that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has left almost no realm of life unmolested, the team's fans find themselves fighting to keep the tournament on Israeli soil. It is one aspect of what media here have dubbed the "Yassin effect," the rippling byproducts of the military's assassination of Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin and the resultant vows by his militant Palestinian followers to retaliate.

Since Monday's missile attack on Yassin, the Israeli stock market, which had been on a roll, has dropped nearly 2%. Many skittish Israelis stayed away from the malls, crimping commerce during the shopping season for next month's Jewish Passover holiday. Tourism executives fret that visitors will stay away because of travel warnings, including one issued by the United States.

And Maccabi Tel Aviv's devoted fans are battling to keep the Final Four, which will begin in late April. They were stung when a Spanish team from Valencia chose not to board the plane for Thursday's game in Tel Aviv out of concern for security.

Officials of the Euroleague, the basketball federation, are to meet next week to decide whether to move the Final Four. Israeli officials, including Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, plan something of a full-court press to keep the tournament from being taken away.

"We're going to fend off any attempt to do that," ministry spokesman Jonathan Peled said.

Security remained tight around Israel by week's end, with soldiers and police out in force in some of the busiest commercial areas of Jerusalem, which has suffered 23 suicide bombings during the 3 1/2 -year intifada. Officials warned this week that the state of high alert might last for weeks.

Even in a place hardened to the possibility of sudden attack, the threats of massive retaliation by Hamas took a toll. Officials expressed concern that the effect on the economy could extend into April.

The stock market had yet to make up ground lost since Sunday, when the Tel Aviv 25 index hit its highest level since October 2000, at the beginning of the current uprising. Israeli media reported that overall business was down by half, puncturing the high hopes of many merchants for a brisk Passover shopping season.

"Merchants told me that they hope to succeed in getting rid of at least some of the goods they purchased," Ezra Attia, chairman of the National Trade Federation, told the newspaper Yediot Aharonot.

Hoteliers were estimating that security fears could cost Israel as many as 350,000 guests this year.

Tourism officials said, however, that they remained hopeful that by year's end the number of visits would be higher than last year, when slightly more than 1 million people came.

"We are optimistic, said Golan Yossifon, spokesman for the Tourism Ministry. But the tensions already had translated into nervousness abroad.

The government of the Philippines said it would send security experts next week to assess the dangers faced by an estimated 75,000 Filipinos working in Israel, many as nannies and personal attendants. Thai officials urged the 400 Thai agricultural workers employed at a Jewish settlement bloc in the Gaza Strip to leave.

The State Department earlier issued a travel warning for Israel and urged Americans to stay clear of the Gaza Strip.

Some Israeli music lovers, who have watched big-name foreign acts stay away for much of the conflict, worried that Madonna might cancel a summer performance.

More violence broke out in the Gaza Strip on Friday, as two Palestinian gunmen were killed during an amphibious attack on a beachside Jewish settlement. The men, wearing wetsuits, emerged from the Mediterranean Sea and fired upon Tel Katifa with anti-tank weapons before they were shot by Israeli soldiers, the military said. A third attacker escaped.

In the West Bank, a Palestinian was killed during a clash with troops near Rachel's Tomb, a Jewish shrine in Bethlehem. Another Palestinian died in Nablus when a bomb he was preparing blew up prematurely, according to Israeli television.

Despite the violence, there were signs Friday that cautious Israelis were beginning to return to their routines.

Along upscale Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, the cafe crowd was again taking its place on the sidewalks.

"It is slowly getting to normal," said a patron who gave her name only as Maya. "I don't mean normal from a Parisian point of view -- I don't think that a Parisian feels he's brave by going to his local cafe. I stayed at home for a day or two, but now I'm back, bravely drinking my coffee."

For members of the Yellow Heart, the Tel Aviv basketball team's fan club, normalcy will require that the Final Four not be tugged away. About 100 fans demonstrated outside the team's arena Thursday night, hammering at the Spanish team for failing to show.

"We feel humiliation," said Zvika Weil, the club's spokesman. "Just two weeks ago in Madrid there was terrorism. Now they're using it as an excuse."

The group planned to send a delegation to the league's meeting in Barcelona, Spain, next week as part of the lobbying effort to save Tel Aviv's hold on the tournament.

"More than for the sport, it's for the country. It will be a great event that will show Israel is a safe place," Weil said. "It's not as dangerous as it looks on CNN and the BBC. Life here is as it is in Italy or Spain."

*

Times special correspondent Tami Zer in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.

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