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In Israel, Public Holds Its Breath to See How Hamas Will Respond

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In the eerie emptiness of malls and open-air markets, in the nervous jokes Israelis make before taking their seat at cafes and in the anxious glances bus riders exchange, it’s understood that the waiting game has begun.

Israel is a country hanging in grim suspense — wondering when, where and how Hamas will exact its revenge for the assassination of its founder, Sheik Ahmed Yassin.

As Hamas leaders issue fiery warnings promising to unleash spectacular mayhem on the Jewish state, Israelis continue daily life — but with even more awareness and caution than usual.

Many parents are keeping their children away from crowded public places; others take taxis instead of riding buses. Vacations to Sinai — whose beaches usually are a popular draw during the Passover season — are being called off, with people rebooking for Eilat or Europe instead.

In an open-air plaza between shimmering skyscrapers in Ramat Gan, a private security guard in reflective sunglasses surveys the area with a loaded revolver in his hand.

At an exercise studio in Tel Aviv, the sound of hovering helicopters puts an instructor and his students on edge.

“Could it be? A terror attack, did one just happen?” the students whisper to each other.

But as the days pass since the assassination, people begin to return to the normal flow of life, to the streets, restaurants and cafes.

At the Rivers Noodle Bar, a trendy pan-Asian restaurant a few blocks from the security guard and his revolver, the lunch crowd of businesspeople and office workers has returned.

“The day of the assassination, no one came,” owner Yaron Altit said.

But now they’re back. Some are coming late, assuming the restaurant will be less crowded later in the afternoon, he said. There also is a rise in take-out orders.

“We feel the tension in the air. People are now checking to see that we have a security guard. Before, no one checked,” Altit said.

He jokes bitterly, “When we have peace, we’ll let the guard go.”

Sitting at the sleek, honey-colored wooden bar, Edi Faltz, who works at the nearby Diamond Exchange, says he decided to eat here precisely because it has security.

“We are more careful now,” he said, eating a large plate of noodles and stir-fried vegetables.

Black humor helps people get through, he said.

“We Jews, we have always had humor, have always been able to laugh,” he said.

He points to an article in the daily Yediot Achronot in which Eli Yatzpan, a popular Israeli comedian, is quoted complaining that soon there will be no one left to impersonate.

Yatzpan was well known for his Yassin impersonation — stroking a fake long white beard, he would make light of the conflict and mimic the Hamas founder’s squeaky, high-pitched voice.

Noting reported threats that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon next might try to assassinate Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, Yatzpan told Yediot, “I ask Sharon to act with caution. Otherwise, who will be left to impersonate?

“Now only Nasrallah and Arafat are left” — Saddam Hussein is already out of the picture — “and I hope they will survive, at least until the end of the season,” he said.

Also sitting at the bar is Oded, a lawyer who preferred not to give his last name.

“I’m more aware, but although this week’s action was more extreme” — and might elicit a stronger response — “much to our dismay, it’s not as if before things were exactly calm,” he said.

Hoteliers are not reporting a rise in cancellations yet, but say it’s too early to know how the assassination will affect tourism. But tour operators say they’ve been getting a flood of calls from would-be tourists about whether or not to go ahead with planned trips.

A U.S. travel advisory was issued, advising citizens against visiting Israel or the Palestinian areas.

“It makes a lot of noise, this event, made a much bigger noise than all the terrorist activities, so there is a question mark” about how it will effect business. “So far it hasn’t,” said Jonathan Harpaz, director general of the Jerusalem Hotel Association.

Jerusalem hotels, he said, are booked at about 70 percent occupancy for the week of Passover. Since the intifada began about three and a half years ago, occupancy has hovered between 20 percent and 25 percent.

Tour operators say they have been getting a flood of calls from travelers with trips to Israel booked.

Ady Gelber, president and CEO of Isram World of Travel, one of the major travel agencies bringing tourists to Israel, said most clients have not cancelled.

To encourage people not to cancel, he said, late cancellation fees have been waived and people are being given time to decide what to do.

Outside of Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Center mall, Efrat Arieli, 21, pushes her toddler son in a stroller across the crosswalk — where, in 1996, a suicide bomber blew himself up, killing several pedestrians.

“I’m scared to go outside. I don’t go to places where there are lots of people,” she said. “We are speaking about the” Yassin assassination “at home, on the street, with our families. We are waiting for a major attack in response but we needed to kill him, he was the one behind all these attacks.”

The inside of Dizengoff Center feels like an empty shell. There is only a trickle of shoppers on what normally would be a busy shopping day in the middle of a busy shopping season — the run-up to Passover.

“There has been a major change,” said Miri, 20, a clerk at a gourmet bakery who did not want her last name used.

“You can feel the fear in the air since the day of the assassination,” she said, looking out onto the empty mall. “Everyone is saying we might see” an attack “like we’ve never seen before.”

Her mother doesn’t want her to take buses to work, but she said she has no other way to get here.

Sharon Mor, 38, a secretary, said she doesn’t feel nervous about shopping in the mall. She’s hedging her bets that Hamas won’t strike right away.

“I know now they are grieving, so it will take them time to move to carrying out an attack,” Mor said.

In the strange game of trying to gauge one’s safety in the unpredictable world of terrorism, Israelis like Mor have become fatalists.

“I’m not scared,” she said. “If it happens, it happens.”

On the No. 61 bus traveling along Tel Aviv’s Jabotinsky Street, passengers are both defiant and wary.

“They won’t stop us from living,” said Rivka, a secretary who commutes to work every day by bus.

But then, referring to the security guard on the steps of the bus, she added, “I want to cry when I see this.”

Daniel Tael, 13, sitting in the front of the bus, said that since Yassin’s assassination she and her friends had talked about how scared they are.

“You are simply scared of blowing up, scared for yourself, your family, your friends,” said the girl with long auburn hair and braces.

Vicky Haile, 33, a social worker sitting toward the back of the bus, said she takes five buses every day. She said she was surprised that she wasn’t extra fearful or cautious after the Yassin assassination.

“It’s awful, but you just get used to it,” she said.

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