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Life during wartime in everyday Israel

The army is a constant presence on the streets of Tel Aviv, which is really good. And really scary.

TEL AVIV, Israel--Eyal Niv, a vice president at venture firm Giza Venture Capital, gave me two bits of advice about personal security in Israel.

"Don't take the bus, and don't go to outdoor cafes like this one," he said, pointing at the cafe outside his own building. "Then again, I eat there myself. I like being outdoors. And there's a security guard here, and one over there, and there's probably one walking around in civilian dress."


Niv knows his subject. Before funding companies, he served in 217, the elite espionage unit where members serve as undercover agents in Arab countries. Until a few years ago, you couldn't even mention the unit.

But his attitude expresses the ambivalence Israelis have about living in, or at least very close to, a war zone. On one hand, a terrible explosion can occur anywhere. At the same time, the sidewalk cafes, most without personal security guards, are full late into the night, even on weekdays. During your morning swim on the beach, you can wave hello to the patrolling army helicopter.

Anxiety was ratcheted up earlier this week when Palestinian militants tunneled under the Israeli-built fence around the Gaza Strip and captured a member of the army.

"We are on the verge of an invasion," a CEO of a start-up company said with an unnerving glee. His friend at the same company, however, seemed downcast.

For a visitor from the U.S., it's a lot of anxiety to absorb. One is literally bewildered by contradictory statements. Before coming here, en route to a summit sponsored by investment group Silicom Ventures, I asked a group of Israeli-American investors living in Silicon Valley about safety. They laughed and threw up their hands.

On watch
Upon arrival at my hotel, I eyed the building across the street from me. One room appeared to be occupied. The rest were dilapidated, yet people scurried around inside them. The outside surface of the building showed exposed rebar and big chunks of missing plaster.

Was this building bombed, I asked the manager of my hotel.

"No," he said. "They are remodeling it to be a gym."

Farther down the block, at another hotel, a person has been sitting on a sun deck for several days staring at traffic. She's there whenever I look out. At first, I thought it might be a lookout for perhaps a subversive group. It dawned on me later that she might be in the police or army. But the possibility that the army would have someone so close by constantly on the watch is both a comfort and a cause for alarm.

If there is a silver lining, it's the constant presence of security guards. Want to go the Estee Lauder store? You first have to show the contents of your backpack to the muscled security guard packing a .45. Need to go to the mall? First you walk through a metal detector and get a scan with a metal-detecting wand.

I wanted to get pictures of this but was waved away by a guard. He then followed me for two blocks. The weird part of the incident was that I kept losing track of him, despite my efforts to see if he was still following me.

You'd think it would be tough to hide if you're wearing a DayGlo green vest and toting a machine gun.