Breaking death's grip

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL — TEL AVIV, Israel - I learned something new the other night in Tel Aviv. I learned that your neck is actually the weakest part of your body. The Israeli police spokesman taught me that as he explained why the Palestinian suicide bomber's head was blown straight up, like a champagne cork, and was still sitting on a ledge atop the bus stop, like a human gargoyle.

It was Tuesday night. I was on my way to Tel Aviv when the Hamas bomber blew himself up outside the Tsrifin base, near my route, so I dashed over. By the time I arrived, other pieces of the bomber were on the street, including his hairy leg. His shoe had been blown off, but his brown sock was still daintily on his foot. Israeli rescue workers calmly carried away the dead on stretchers, with an odd mixture of horror and routine.


You always notice absurd things at such moments. Nurit Betzer, a 20-year-old Israeli medic who had worked five previous suicide attacks, told me that her commander had just lectured their unit about the importance of keeping their boots polished. When she arrived on this scene, she said, "I saw this soldier, and he was dying, [but what I noticed was that] his shoes were clean and neat." And then she started to weep.

She was one of the few, though. Most others were gripped with routine. "We will have this whole area cleaned up in two hours," said the police spokesman. "By morning, the bus stop will be repaired. You will never know this happened."


Israelis' ability to adapt to, and defy, these bombings demonstrates the amazing strength of this society. When bus bombings first started, for a week after an explosion few people would ride the buses. Now they're right back on them after an hour. The radios used to stop playing upbeat music after a bombing; now they don't hesitate.

I was in a trendy Tel Aviv sandwich shop the other day and my young Israeli waitress had a fun little tattoo on her shoulder. Jews with tattoos - you don't see that every day. Message to Hamas: You may think these suicide bombers will drive Israelis to leave, but they're just digging in, and clinging to normality. The Jews are getting tattoos.

But message to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon: Palestinians are not leaving either, and your iron fist will not make them accept Israeli settlements or a truncated Palestinian state. If you think Oslo was a failure, look at your alternative. In three years, some 850 Israelis have been killed under your strategy.

Yours and Hamas' are two failed strategies that add up to a human meat grinder. You want Israelis to believe they have no other choice, but they do. It is to use Israel's amazing inner strength to take a different set of Israeli actions, such as really uprooting settlements, to stimulate a different set of Palestinian reactions, such as controlling suicide bombers.

And some of the smartest people here know it. Efraim Halevy, Israel's former Mossad chief who just quit as a Sharon adviser, said to me: "For there to be a chance for Israeli-Palestinian coexistence, the Palestinians will have to get their act together. For them to get their act together, Israel will have to invest heavily in them - without any guarantee of success." Once Palestinians get their act together, he added, they would have to do the same vis-M-'-vis Israel.

A Palestinian pollster, Khalil Shikaki, puts it this way: "Sharon wants Palestinians to take the ultimate risk - a civil war - without promise of the ultimate reward": removal of settlements and concrete steps toward statehood. It won't happen.

Israel is in such a strong position now. The people have gotten tougher, America has destroyed Saddam Hussein, and Israel-U.S. ties have never been tighter. What better time for Israel to try something new? But instead of wanting America to solve the problem, Mr. Sharon seems to want America to do nothing.

"We have all these chips in our hands," Mr. Halevy said. "For God's sake, let's do something with them. This is a unique time to be creative."


Amen. Suicide bombing is becoming so routine here that it risks becoming embedded in contemporary culture. America must stop it. A credible peace deal here is no longer a U.S. luxury - it is essential to our own homeland security. Otherwise, this suicide madness will spread, and it will be Americans who will have to learn how to live with it.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.