Israelis Nervous About Terrorism at Beginning of New Year Holiday

Nervous about Palestinian terror attacks and pessimistic about the future, Israelis headed for synagogues and vacation spots Friday to mark the Jewish New Year.

"The new year can't possibly be worse than this past year," said Moshe Mizrahi, 43, surveying his empty restaurant on a main street in Jerusalem.

Fear of bomb attacks have kept Israelis off the streets and tourists out of the country altogether.

Israeli-Palestinian violence began on Sept. 28, 2000, two days before the Rosh Hashana new year holiday that year. By the time the holiday was over, it had escalated into a full-scale conflict.

A poll broadcast on Israel Radio showed that almost 70 percent of Israeli adults fear for the future of their country. Nearly 60 percent said they were most concerned about the security situation, while 30 percent pointed to Israel's worsening economy.

However, about half felt terrorism would decrease in the coming year, as opposed to a quarter who expected it to increase.

More than 250 Israelis have been killed in more than 70 Palestinian suicide bomb attacks in the last two years. Overall, 1,850 people have been killed on the Palestinian side and 610 on the Israeli side.

The Panorama poll questioned 502 Israelis and quoted a 4.5 percent margin of error.

Crossing a street in Jerusalem. Aharon Tsion, 58, quantified his prediction. "I'd say there's a 60 percent chance things will be better this year," he said.

Police and soldiers were on patrol, but unlike previous years, there was no noticeable increase in security. Israeli Defense Ministry spokesman Yarden Vatikay said: "The readiness is so high that there really is not much more we can do."

In past years, Israel has closed its borders to Palestinians during holiday periods, but since the violence erupted, almost all Palestinians have been banned from entering Israel anyway.

In the West Bank, however, soldiers were clamping down even more, said army spokesman Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz. Restrictions on travel between parts of the territory would be increased, he said.

Since mid-June, Israel has held control of most of the main Palestinian population centers in the West Bank, imposing frequent curfews, in addition to roadblocks and checkpoints that have become a routine part of the West Bank landscape over the past two years.

While Palestinians charge that the measures are meant to wreck their economy and break their spirit, Israelis say they are necessary to prevent attacks.

Police say they foiled a huge bombing timed for the beginning of the New Year holiday, when volunteers spotted two suspicious vehicles on Wednesday. One was carrying a bomb with 1,300 pounds of explosives. Police detonated it in an open field, raising a huge cloud of dust, smoke and flame.

Police said Palestinians apparently planned to set off the bomb in a nearby Israeli city. Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said an attack of that size could have changed the Mideast political equation in an instant.

Early Friday, police stopped cars entering an outlying Jerusalem neighborhood and checked each driver, explaining that they had a warning that Palestinians would try to stage an attack there.

For observant Jews, the New Year holiday, called Rosh Hashana in Hebrew, marks the beginning of a 10-day period of introspection, prayer and apologizing to fellow Jews for slights during the year, ending with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when Jews ask God for forgiveness of their sins.

Secular Israelis, the majority, count the New Year as a rare two-day break, heading with their families to beaches and other vacation spots. Despite security fears, hotels at the Sea of Galilee and elsewhere in Israel's north reported high occupancy rates for the holiday.

However, Jerusalem hotels were less than half full, reflecting concerns over terrorism. The city has been a frequent target of Palestinian bombers during the conflict.