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State of Emergency

Those who visit Israel – surely Tel Aviv – can’t really say it’s a war zone. In fact, many of them whose pre-impression of Israel had been shaped by the media reporting from Israel only in times of violent clashes are often surprised to feel here as safe as at home. But give it a try on June 2nd.

I remember being rather surprised to see the routine security measures in Amman. But that doesn’t mean that things are sane on the other side of the Jordan River. I can still recall the times when guards at malls used to check the customers leaving the stores (to see that nothing was stolen), and not those who enter (and might explode).

The fact is – Israel is safe. It’s just that Israelis are not so keen on breaking up with this notion of alert. Call it a Jewish frame-of-mind or whatever, but this ongoing mental state of emergency has been basically serving well decision makers all through the years since Israel’s establishment.

Legally, the Defense Regulations were declared even before and have never been canceled, so they’re actually in effect today. It was then when David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister and the founding father, coined the phrase “the entire people is the army, the entire land – the front”. And this concept still echoes almost in each and every aspect of life here.

In the Passover dinner, we’re obligated to keep on telling the story of the exodus from Egypt and to remember that “in every generation they rise against us to destroy us; and the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hand!” The ostensibly necessary conclusion would be that every Israeli, at the age of 18, must join the army on a mission to protect his (or her) people.

That’s true – Israel hasn’t signed peace agreements with Syria and Lebanon yet – and there enough people, indeed too many of them, out there who would be more than happy to see Israelis slaughtered. They are, unfortunately, victims of massive brainwash. But, so are the people here.

This militaristic mindset is certainly present, and too often abused to justify the most wrong deeds. At the same time, it is this kind of “island doctrine” – also nicknamed “The Siege Syndrome” – which promotes surrounding the Israeli society with the highest walls. Practically it is too frequently fed by artificial threats, but yet extremely useful when it comes to setting the society’s priorities.

At the state level, no matter how much political debate goes on among ministers or MKs, the defense chapter in the state budget for 2010-2011 [HE, PDF file, p.60-62] – recently approved by the government – currently amounts to NIS 46.5 billion (nearly 8.4 billion Euro) and NIS 48.5 billion, respectively.

Eventually, this lion share of the state budget effectively overshadows all the rest of the society’s priorities. In numbers, this defense budget is roughly 50 percent more than the budget of the Ministry of Education, around 170 percent more than the budget of the Ministry of Health and exactly 24,517 percent (!!) more than the budget of the Ministry of Environmental Protection (yes, it took me quite some elementary-school calculations to convince myself this is the right number).

All in all, the share of military expenditures in Israel’s GDP put it in the dubious 6th place in the world, just below Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Jordan and above Yemen, Armenia and Eritrea. And if that’s no clear indicator for a third-world country, then I’m illiterate. Try looking for the Icelandic investment in security.

Croatia's Song of the Siren

But enough numbers. It was only a few weeks ago that I’ve been to quite a remote hotel in Croatia, and was wondering about that colorful sign depicting different kinds of emergency sirens and behavior instructions for each. 14 years have passed since the last war, and this sign was looking brand new.

Meanwhile, on my side of the Mediterranean, the citizens of Israel were recently honored with a new fridge decoration. Showing the map of Israel divided to five zones, each worried person can now see how much time there is to get to a shelter – from “immediately” in red to “three minutes” in dark orange.

Ironically enough, I got this card right on Memorial Day (commemorating fallen The most likely violence here is food fightsoldiers and victims of terrorism), on late April, as a somehow disturbing reminder. But it is about timing. This campaign is conducted towards a five days war drill – the largest of its kind in the history of Israel – with its peak on June 2nd, 11:00am, when sirens will be heard all across the country. Named “Turning Point 3”, this Home Front Command drill is anything but the true turning point required in this region, and surely the last thing that might bring any sense of security.