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Securing a target of convenience

As she boards the No. 405 bus from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Maya Levy seems the essence of carefree youth, legs encased in skin-tight jeans, ears covered by Sony headphones.

It's the eyes that give her away.

Levy, a student at Tel Aviv University, glances up and down the aisles at passengers already seated. Does this one look like an Arab? Is that one carrying an unusually large package? Is anyone acting suspiciously?

Her surveillance completed, Levy sits down by another woman. "Yes, I'm afraid to ride the bus," she says. "There have been so many attacks."

In 1989, a Palestinian shouting Allahu Akbar _ God is Great _ seized the steering wheel of a No. 405 bus on this very same route and sent it plunging down a ravine, killing 14 passengers. Since then, more than 100 other Israelis have died when suicide bombers blew themselves up on or near buses. And just last Sunday, two teenagers in Jerusalem were killed when a young Palestinian sprayed their bus with gunfire before he was fatally shot by police.

Of course, fear discriminates against no one in this embattled part of the world. In the latest round of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, hundreds of Palestinian civilians have been killed or wounded. Others have seen their homes and property destroyed.

Still, Israelis have a long history with the kind of random terror that Americans now dread. And to see how a nation guards against terrorist attacks in everyday life, there are few better examples than Israel's bus system.

Buses are to Israel what airplanes are to the United States: a convenient and common form of mass transportation. In a country that is just 260 miles long and 70 miles wide, many of Israel's 6-million residents routinely take the bus from city to city.

The vehicle's popularity also makes it an attractive target. Officials of Egged, which operates the intercity service, estimate there have been more than 13,000 attacks on buses by rioters and terrorists since 1987, when Palestinians first rose up against Israeli control.

On this Friday afternoon, with the Jewish Sabbath starting at sunset, the No. 405 between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem is a crowded microcosm of Israeli society. Orthodox Jews in black hats and suits. Secular Jews with spiked hair and spandex tops.

Like Levy, many passengers are college students headed home to see their parents for the weekend. And in a country where military service is compulsory for most 18-year-olds, about a fourth of the seats are taken by fresh-faced male and female soldiers of the Israel Defense Force. They shove their rucksacks into the belly of the bus, then clamber aboard with M-16s slung across their shoulders.

The 405's comfortable interior looks like that of a passenger jet. There are foot rests and individual light and climate controls. An electronic display at the front of the bus shows the time, speed and outside air temperature. As she settles back for the 45-minute ride, Levy describes what it's like living with the constant threat of terrorism.

"I look around all the time. On the buses, on the street, everywhere. I don't like to go to crowded places, like clubs or concerts or malls."

Levy, 21, makes one exception: movie theaters. Security at theaters is heavy _ as it is in most public places _ and there have never been any terrorist attacks against movie-goers.

"You can't stay at home and do nothing," she says.

At 2 p.m., the bus pulls into Jerusalem's gleaming new Central Bus Station. Built at a cost of $70-million, the station opened Sept. 14 _ just three days after the terrorist attacks on America _ and is about as safe as any place in Israel can be.

The sidewalk is lined with concrete bumpers to keep terrorists from driving a car or truck bomb into the building. At the two pedestrian entrances, guards check identification, open every purse and parcel and use hand-scanners to detect guns or other metal objects. Nearby, there's a small enclosed booth for doing strip-searches.

Guards also scrutinize every passenger getting off a bus to make sure nothing has slipped past security along the way.

"I check everybody the same _ I don't care if they're Jews or Arabs, we're not racist," says Amir Edri, as he rummages through backpacks and shopping bags.

"I check even the oldest woman or the youngest kid. You never know when somebody might have put a bomb in a book bag."

In the two months he has been on the job, Edri has yet to find anything more dangerous than a knife.

"We do this for intimidation," he says, "so terrorists won't come here. I believe if someone had found some explosives he wouldn't be here talking to you today."

Edri, a 22-year-old ex-soldier, says this in a jocular tone. He doesn't seem too worried about the threat of terrorism in general.

"Now that you've been attacked in America, there is a certain panic. In Israel, there's terrorist activity every day. We're used to it, this is the routine here."

Inside, Israelis clearly feel safe in the four-level station that more closely resembles a modern airport terminal than the dreary bus depots found in U.S. cities. There are restaurants, clothing and gift shops, a book store, a hair salon and a flower stand.

At Cafe Net, even non-travelers stop by to have a cup of latte and check their e-mail on one of 18 Internet-connected computers.

"They like the atmosphere, and there's very good security," says the owner, Igal Mor. "We understand that it's very important for people to feel secure, because if they feel secure more people will come."

As Mor notes, there are "tons of guys" with hand guns and walkie-talkies patrolling the station, quick to clear an area when any suspicious object is found. (There are four or five alarms a day, but so far all of the suspect items have turned out to be lost or misplaced luggage.)

Although the bus station has two levels of underground parking, only Mor and others who work in the terminal are allowed to park there. Security is exceptionally tight. Dozens of cameras monitor every movement, and each time a car enters, guards search the inside and check the undercarriage for bombs.

The guards themselves are rotated every 30 minutes so they don't become too complacent or too chummy with those they're supposed to be watching.

"Even if I go out for just 10 minutes, they'll check my I.D., the number of the car, and if I have a box in the car, they'll check that," Mor says. "It's not that we're going to bring in a bomb _ it's the one in a billion chance that somebody would put a bomb in your car without your noticing it."

No one _ passenger, employee or visitor _ is allowed in the bus station without a passport or Israeli I.D. card. Although pressure for a national identity card is growing in the United States as way to spot foreign terrorists, the idea is still anathema to many Americans. Not so Israelis, who have long since carried the cards.

"As an officer in the Army, I think people should put chains around their necks with I.D. tags," jokes Mor, a captain in the reserves.

Mor has two sisters living in New Jersey, not far from where the World Trade Center used to stand. Both are still nervous and upset about what happened Sept. 11. His advice to them and other Americans is to try to get on with their lives, as Israelis have learned to do over five decades of terrorist attacks.

"I told them Christmas is coming, and Christmas will bring happiness," he says.

"It's going to take a long time for people to understand what happened. But times change, and people will get back to normal. The free world will win this war, there is no other choice but to win or die."

_ Susan Martin can be contacted at susansptimes.com.

Susan Taylor, Martin Jamie

Francis This visit to Israel is the fourth international trip senior correspondent Susan Taylor Martin and photographer Jamie Francis have made as a team. Working together, the two provided comprehensive reports from Kosovo and Macedonia during the NATO attacks on Yugoslavia in 1999. Last year, they produced a three-part series on medical problems in Iraq since the Persian Gulf War. Most recently, they spent reported from Pakistan as the U.S. military campaign against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban began. Watch for more of their coverage from Israel in the coming days.

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