I was last here in early January when then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had a stroke and went into a coma.Â He is now the former prime minister, he remains in a coma and his condition, according to his doctors, has deteriorated in recent days.
At the time I went there, there was widespread fear in Israel that he was on the verge of death. That was the story then. Yes, there were tensions with the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. But there was no talk of the dangers to Israel lurking from south Lebanon.
That has clearly changed over these past two weeks. Now, the talk of Israel and much of the world is the warfare between Israeli forces and Hezbollah militants in Lebanon.
People here in Jerusalem do not believe they are in any immediate danger of those Hezbollah rockets and missiles — in large part because they don’t think the Islamist militants would fire their inaccurate rockets at Jerusalem.
That would automatically endanger Muslim holy sites in the Old City of Jerusalem and the tens of thousands of Arabs who live in this city. Israelis do say they continue to have their “usual” fear of terror, including suicide bombers. Driving from my hotel to the CNN bureau this morning, that history is very apparent as we go past the former pizza restaurant at the corner of Jaffe and King George Roads, where 15 people were killed by a suicide bomber in 2001.
Security in this city is very tight, especially since Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is here. Watching the security guards positioned all over the place, I fear, could be a preview of what we would expect to see in the United States if those kinds of “soft-target” terror targets — restaurants, movie theaters, shopping malls — start to be hit in the United States.
Let’s hope that never happens. Tens of thousands of Israelis have moved south from their homes in Haifa and other cities and towns in the northern part of the country near the Lebanon border. They have come here to Jerusalem and to Tel Aviv and even farther south to Eilat, Israel’s southern-most city.
They are trying to escape the frightening sounds of the sirens and the rocket attacks. They don’t want to live in underground shelters. In the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, one photo caption reads: “No room at the inn,” referring to the fact that all the hotels in Eilat are full.
The story says an estimated 120,000 residents from the north have come to Eilat, which has a population of about 50,000.
It’s a sign of the times in Israel.