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Saturday, 16 March, 2002, 08:32 GMT
Israel's stay-at-home culture
Aroma cafe, Jerusalem
Some Jerusalem eateries now do takeout only
test hello test
martin asser
By BBC News Online's Martin Asser in Jerusalem

Empty streets, empty cafes, empty restaurants - not many Israelis are willing to run the risk of becoming one of the intifada's grim statistics these days.

The same goes for the tourists, who used to flood through the Holy Land - despite the insidious danger of past Arab-Israeli conflicts. Now visitors are reduced to a trickle.

Tucked behind one of the room's sturdy looking pillars appears to be the most popular place to sit

The recent suicide bombings by Palestinian militants have resulted in the most common piece of advice given to any new arrival being: "Steer clear of crowded cafes and restaurants".

The tension is palpable in Israeli city centres and it is having a disastrous effect on those trying to make a living out of the tourist and leisure industry - restaurateurs, taxi drivers, tour guides, Jews and Arabs.

Collapse of business

The only fully booked up hotel in Jerusalem is the one where the foreign media habitually stay. Tel Aviv's beachfront skyscrapers, meanwhile, are lucky if they are 25% full.

Indeed, the only discernable tourist presence in one of Tel Aviv's biggest five-star hotels was a family of British Jews, expressing their support for beleaguered Israel with a package holiday.

Lion statue in Jerusalem
Lion statues recently placed across Jerusalem are meant to attract back tourists
The dearth of tourists and the fears of Israelis together make an evening stroll through an Israeli metropolis a lonely affair these days.

Early on Friday night - admittedly the beginning of Sabbath - only a few families are out and about in the heart of west Jerusalem.

For these secular Jews, the need to entertain young children is stronger than the instinct to stay at home and be safe from the terrifying prospect of a bomber or gunman bursting in and wreaking death and destruction.

They sit dotted around an American hamburger restaurant - the only place open in a part of town that has been rocked by a series of bombs, the last less than a week ago.

Security concerns

Aspects of this familiar fast-food setting carry a reminder of the appalling violence that could strike at any moment.

A security guard scrutinises everyone who comes in. So do the diners.

Funeral for victims of the bomb attack on Jerusalem's Moment cafe
Recent bomb attacks have come just after the Sabbath, when the streets are at their most crowded
People seem reluctant to eat at the tables in the middle of the room. Lots of take-aways are bought, despite the numerous empty tables.

Tucked behind one of the room's sturdy looking pillars appears to be the most popular place to sit.

But once seated, diners appear relaxed - as though having decided to carry on as normal and suppress the fears that might be passing through their minds.

Normality shattered

Certainly the children are happy, enjoying their complimentary toys and knocking balloons into the air that they have been given by the staff.

Then suddenly, "BANG", one of the balloons bursts with a surprisingly loud report.

Everyone looks around at the source of the noise, their faces filled with anguish, before reason takes hold again and an embarrassed mother comforts the child who popped his balloon.

But for a telling moment, the noise has shattered the facade of normality, the suspension of disbelief that this is a normal fast-food restaurant in a normal town.

See also:

16 Mar 02 | Middle East
Zinni praises Mid-East 'commitment'
10 Mar 02 | Middle East
Suicide attack hits Jerusalem cafe
16 Feb 02 | Middle East
Israel's history of bomb blasts
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