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Vivian Bercovici: Despite the constant threat of attack, Israel is a vibrant and exhilarating place to live

Israel at 75: What’s it like to live in Israel? Every day is a miracle

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As Israel marks the 75th anniversary of its founding this year, the National Post is hosting a five-month celebration of the “startup” nation, telling the remarkable story of its rebirth and resilience against all odds.

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“What’s it like living there?” is probably the question I am asked most frequently.

I have resided in Israel since 2014. For the first two-and-a-half years, I served as Canada’s ambassador to the country, having been appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Upon leaving office in 2016, I remained in Tel Aviv, which is among the most spectacular cities anywhere, by any measure — including cost. In 2021, the Economist ranked it the most expensive city in the world.

It is also among the safest, as the sort of crime that plagues many North American cities is much rarer in Israel. But there is a different sort of threat: terrorism and the occasional war. Having lived through terror attacks, wars and sporadic rocket fire, as impossible as it may sound to Canadians, I’ve adjusted to the environment, out of necessity.

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Living in Tel Aviv, with a highly concentrated population and developed infrastructure — including bomb shelters — is a very different experience from the far north of the country, which borders on Lebanon, or the southern communities clustered along the border with the Gaza Strip.

For example, Sderot, a hardscrabble southern town of just over 25,000 that is a kilometre from the Gaza border, has been pelted with tens of thousands of rockets and mortars, most having been fired since 2005, following Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Strip. Following the election of Hamas to govern Gaza in June 2006, attacks on Israeli civilians intensified.

Residents have 15 seconds, if they’re lucky, to scramble to a shelter once an alarm sounds. There is no effective early warning system for incoming mortar rounds. People are left dead or traumatized; a 2015 study found that 40 per cent of children living in Sderot suffer from anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and related maladies.

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In the mountainous north, the borders with Lebanon and Syria bristle with constant tension; Hezbollah and other hostile militias are dug in and heavily armed. During one excursion I made to the Golan Heights to meet with United Nations peacekeepers in 2015, we could see black ISIL flags planted on barren, windswept hilltops less than a kilometre away, in Syria.

As the ISIL lookouts noticed us with our telescope, within 30 seconds, scores of fighters appeared seemingly out of nowhere, likely emerging from tunnels and trenches. They watched us watch them, perceiving a possible threat.

We quickly ducked into a crude, cave-like dwelling half-carved into the hillside, half exposed. Warning shots from the ISIL fighters were not uncommon, I was told. The whole “escalation” lasted about 90 seconds and passed without incident. Tempers are hot in the Middle East.

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ISIL has since been replaced by other Syrian-based militias. Along with the very powerful Hezbollah forces in Lebanon, they are well-funded, trained and armed proxies of Iran. Cross-border attacks are rare but the threat level is always high.

The West Bank, which I visited a month ago, is a very different reality. Israel Defence Forces checkpoints are common but cars with Israeli plates are rarely stopped. In these areas, more common attacks include random car rammings at bus stops and raids on Jewish settlements, which tend to end in gore and carnage. For this reason, many Israelis living in this area are licensed to carry firearms, for legitimate self-defence.

In fact, shortly after the Nov. 1 election, Ayala Ben-Gvir, the wife of National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, attended a lunch in Jerusalem for the spouses of coalition party leaders, hosted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wife, Sara.

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In a group photograph, it was clear that Ayala Ben-Gvir was packing heat, as her hip-hugging pistol was clearly visible. A minor stir ensued, with many clucking that this was inappropriate, to which she retorted, on Twitter: “I live in Hebron, a mother of six, sweet children and travel through terror-infested roads and am married to the most threatened man in the country. So, yes. I have a gun. Deal with it.”

Israel — within its 1967 borders — is less than 15-kilometres wide at its narrowest point (called “the waist”), which happens to be in the centre of the country where the majority of the population is concentrated.

In the West Bank and Gaza, terror groups like Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Islamic State, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and others oversee intensive training bases and terror operations. The long borders are porous and often breached. Much is made in the international press of the so-called “apartheid wall” separating Israel from the West Bank, but that bit of pernicious propaganda is particularly untrue.

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The security barrier was only erected in several spots where Palestinian towns abutted highways or Israeli cities and which became the preferred locations from with Palestinians would shoot at motorists or enter Israel to conduct terror operations. When the walls went up, terror attacks declined. Most of the border is an electrified fence adjacent to a patrol road, similar to how boundaries are demarcated in much of Europe and elsewhere.

And then — as was the case on Jan. 27 — there are periodic big attacks. One week ago, a 21-year-old resident of a town on the outskirts of Jerusalem murdered seven Jews outside a synagogue before being killed by police. He is being celebrated by his mother and Palestinians throughout the West Bank and Gaza as a martyr.

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In celebration of his murderous rampage, Palestinians set off fireworks and indulged in sweets in spontaneous street gatherings. His family will receive a generous monthly allowance from the supposedly moderate Palestinian Authority, in appreciation of his resistance murders. “Pay for slay,” it is called in Israel.

What’s it like to live in Israel? Every day is a miracle. People live hard. Nothing is taken for granted. Every family, every person, knows people who have been touched by tragedy. We adapt.

At the end of each day, I feel wrung out, but not from security-related anxiety. Israel — and especially Tel Aviv — thrums with positive, intense energy.

Think Silicon Valley meets Miami meets New York meets Italy. Israel is a multicultural society with a vibrant economy, thriving tech sector, heavenly food and booming café culture. Meetings are more often taken on a restaurant patio than in an office tower. It’s Mediterranean, so the day starts late. Surf boards, electric scooters, bicycles, motorcycles. You name it.

Creative energy is exhilarating and exhausting. Most Israelis don’t obsess about their personal vulnerability. That would be paralyzing. We just hope for the best and live each moment as it comes.

National Post

Vivian Bercovici was the Canadian Ambassador to Israel in 2014-16 and is the founder of stateoftelaviv.com, an independent digital platform covering Israel and the Middle East. She resides in Tel Aviv.

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