Saturday, January 12, 2019

Terrified of terrorism?

When people find out that I've lived in Israel, one of the first questions I'm often asked is whether I was scared of terrorist attacks. 

The short answer is no. In total, I spent about 2 years there. The number of times I felt uncomfortable or wary was very low. In fact, I feel like it was one of the safest places I've ever visited.

I felt very secure as a woman walking around alone. One of the things my parents commented on was that they knew it was safe because kids take city buses alone and women walk around at night freely.

I felt very safe at this moment lol

This is due to a few reasons.
1. Israel was not going through a major period of unrest while I was there.
2. There is a massive amount of security everywhere. Bags are searched anytime you go inside anywhere (grocery stores, my college campus, restaurants etc).
3. Israelis were forced to become experts in terrorism prevention. Everyone is hyper-aware and everyone has military training. Their whole infrastructure is based around security- all buildings have fences and guarded entrances. My dorm had a bomb shelter. Devices designed to safely detonate bombs are strategically placed around the city.

The low white building is a bomb shelter in Tel Aviv.
A safe place to detonate bombs in the Old City of Jerusalem. I googled 'bomb detonator'
to find this picture and now I'm probably on a CIA watchlist. 

4. I felt safer knowing the character of Israelis. There is really a spirit in Israel of helping each other out. I always felt like if something bad happened when I was there, people would do their best to help and protect everyone. Random Jewish grandmas on the street always expressed concern when I didn't wear a coat. When I hurt my knee stepping off a bus, half the bus including the driver got off to see if I was ok. Security guards drove me home on a golf cart and carried my bags inside.

That said, there were a handful of times when I was reminded of the reality of life in that region.

Once when my dad was with me in Jerusalem, we waited in a small crowd for the Garden Tomb to open. It is Christian site on the Arab side of the city.

A man came speeding down the road and parked his car haphazardly halfway on the sidewalk directly in front of the tourists. Then he got out quickly and seemed to rush off away from the car. My dad got nervous so we went to stand a few blocks away just in case.

For most of the time that I lived in Israel, things were very calm. There was one wave of violence that some people called the "Stabbing Intifada" in the fall of 2015.

Most of the violence was in the West Bank, but there was a fair amount that spilled over in Jerusalem's Old City as well. I lived in Haifa but went to Jerusalem for seminars a few times during this period.

I felt fairly safe because thus far the attackers had only specifically targeted soldiers and outwardly religious Jews. There was also a big increase in police/soldier presence all over which made me feel better.

Also, it seemed like more people started carrying their Uzis around?

I did venture into the Old City once but took more precautions than usual. I usually don't like to look like a tourist but I tried to this time. I also stayed in the Jewish Quarter (none of the incidents happened there) and didn't stay out after dark alone.

I posted this picture that day leaving the Old City with the hashtags #didntgetstabbed #winning

Israelis are great about having a sense of humor in difficult situations, so I had to participate.

The next day, 2 teenage girls stabbed a man (with scissors) and tried to kill others in the nearby Mahane Yehuda food market. Ironically, the man they tried to kill was an Arab that they mistook for a Jew.

One of my professors, who was born and raised in Jerusalem, had already offered to take some other students and I on a tour of that market later that night. I waited to see if it would be cancelled but it wasn't. I figured if the Israelis thought it was safe than it was, so I went along.

The market was just as busy and lively as ever- life goes on.

Nobody has ever asked me if I was scared of living in France, but the reality is that during our most recent sojourn there, I felt a lot less safe than I did in Israel. Nowadays when you see a European city trending on the news, you know it's either because of soccer or terrorism (both are terrible, in my opinion).

Memorial to victims of Paris Nov. 2015 attack- I was in France a few weeks afterwards.

I didn't used to get jumpy in France. Now I do sometimes when I'm in a crowded city situation, especially on public transportation.  

Pretty soon after moving to the Riviera, I found a seat during rush hour on the crowded train that goes from the Italian border all the way to Marseille. I just needed to ride it for 2 stops- from downtown Cannes to Mandelieu-la-Napoule, the little village where we lived.

Train station in Cannes suburbs.
Two Arab men stood at either end of the train car. One held a big duffel bag. They stood about 20 yards away from each other and were making eye contact while texting. It seemed strange that they appeared to know each other but were standing on opposite ends of the compartment, and both in front of a door.

My heart skipped a beat and I got a bad vibe. I stood up, walked past one of them, and left the compartment just in case. I walked to the other end of the train and breathed a sigh of relief when my stop came up 5 minutes later.

Later that year, I was shopping in the touristy part of Nice.

6 months earlier, 87 people were killed and an additional 458 injured in a terror attack on France's national holiday. That attack had happened just a block or two from where I was walking.

The streets were fairly empty because it was the off-season. I felt a shiver as someone walked closely behind me. I turned and let the person pass.

It was a tall man wearing a keffiyeh (a black and white checkered Arab scarf). The strange part was that it was wrapped around his face and only his eyes were poking out. I have never seen that before, either in France or the Middle East.

He made eye contact with me and his intense expression scared me.

I would not have been one bit surprised if he started shooting.

Without looking at what it was, I went into the closest store. I went to the back corner of the store just in case. I pretended to browse fabric for 10 minutes. Then I left the store and went the opposite direction that he had gone.

Those were the 2 times that I wondered if I was about to die. I do have a very active imagination, to be fair.

The culture in France has really changed over the last few years. They are being forced to become hyper-aware of threats like the Israelis. I have been entertained to overhear several of the new security guards popping up everywhere in France speaking Hebrew. France is hiring Israelis to help them learn to protect themselves.

You used to be allowed to just walk up to the Eiffel Tower, but now a barrier surrounds it and you have to go through security to get close. They are actually in the process of building a bulletproof glass wall around it as a more permanent solution.

For at least the last 10 years, there has been a monument on the Champ de Mars
 that says 'peace' in many different languages.

After an incident in 2016 when 2 ISIS members walked into mass and beheaded an 86 year year old priest in northern France, our church doors had to be locked during the meetings. 

It used to be extremely rare to hear strangers speak to one another on French trains, but last year I had several experiences with people asking around to make sure all bags were spoken for and none were abandoned bombs.

It's sad that changes need to be made, but it's good that France is working toward being more secure. 

I'm not afraid of visiting France- I'd actually really like to visit soon haha- but I do believe in being aware of your surroundings. Sometimes being cautious/paranoid like me isn't a bad idea.

You might be interested in:

My response to the Paris November 2015 attack

Visiting Jerusalem during the 'Stabbing Intifada'

Being interrogated by Israeli airport security


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