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Jerusalemites Get the Jitters As False Air Raid Siren Sounds

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Just before 9 a.m. Tuesday, Bus No. 480 was pulling out of Jerusalem’s central bus station bound for Tel Aviv when the ululating wail of an air raid siren shattered the atmosphere.

The signal was an alert, quite different from the single-note “all clear” used when the sirens are being tested.

To Israelis who have heard it before, the banshee sound means only one thing: an air raid is imminent and they must get to the nearest shelter as fast as possible.

But on Bus 480, no one moved. Passengers remained silent as if frozen in their seats. The driver steered reflexively, twisting his wheel to clear the vehicle out of the terminal.

It was exactly then that the bus radio sounded the six beeps that herald the 9 o’clock news. The announcer began with an item about the latest developments in financial scandal surrounding Interior Minister Arye Deri.

If war had indeed broken out, the fellows at the radio newsroom hadn’t heard about it.

The bus driver continued to drive, glancing behind him to see how the others were behaving.

The passengers in the packed bus were visibly frightened, but none uttered a sound. They focused their looks on the driver as if the man at the wheel was supposed to know more than they.

The reaction was typically Israeli. The last time an air raid alarm was heard in Jerusalem was on nearly 17 years ago, on Oct. 6, 1973, when the Yom Kippur War began. It was the real thing then, and people lost no time rushing to the air raid shelters, although no bombs were to fall on Israeli soil.

Now, with general nervousness over the Persian Gulf crisis and Iraqi threats, the logical response would have been to leave the bus and find the nearest bomb shelter.

Then, almost as if on cue, came the roar of jet fighters over Jerusalem, surely a sign that something was amiss.

‘SOMETHING IS GOING ON’

A passenger sitting behind the driver uttered the words on everybody’s mind. “Something is going on,” he said.

But no one responded. Everyone was looking out of the windows at the traffic. Cars slowed down but none stopped. Pedestrians walked more slowly, glancing at each other, but there was no sign of panic.

The bus driver said nothing. If there was an air raid, he probably thought the bus would be safer on the road than in the center of the city.

Ten minutes later, when nothing further happened, a woman passenger emerged from what seemed to have been a catatonic state. “What was that all about?” she asked the driver.

“How the hell should I know?” he replied.

About a half-hour after the bus left the station, the radio announced that a “technical error” had set off a false alarm.

History will record that on the morning of Oct. 2, 1990, an air raid siren in Jerusalem undergoing routine maintenance emitted the wrong signal, striking fear in the hearts of thousands.

Still, no one raced for air raid shelters.

The lack of reaction was typical. The average Jerusalemite apparently would rather be caught by bombs than be thought a fool.

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