Efrat, Israel: Standing at an empty bus stop on Hebron Road under a bright hot sun, an American traveler leaving Jerusalem for the West Bank community of Efrat suddenly feels his senses turned up a notch.
Waiting for the 167 bus heading south, the traveler watches four Israeli soldiers at a makeshift military checkpoint stop taxis, passenger cars and commercial trucks, delaying the Friday "have to get home for Shabbat" rush hour traffic.
One soldier stands atop a ridge overlooking the roadway, a strategic vantage point for identifying questionable vehicles. His three comrades patrol the street alongside the concrete barriers that force the traffic heading into central Jerusalem into one lane so that they can inspect suspicious-looking vehicles.
The traveler, a New Yorker, can’t help but think of police checkpoints at the Brooklyn Bridge and other New York City cross points set up after Sept. 11 to monitor traffic into Manhattan.
Suddenly a young brown-skinned teenager sits down on a concrete bus bench behind the traveler. The New Yorker grows cautious. He tries to check the boy out without appearing too obvious. Is there a bulge under the boy’s T-shirt, near his waist, where a suicide belt could hide?
How about his pants cuffs? Anything there?
The American decides to ask the boy if he speaks English. "A little," he responds in Hebrew.
It turns out the boy operates a roadside flower stand near the bus stop, selling his wares to the Orthodox Jews heading home to their West Bank settlements for Shabbat. The traveler feels some relief.
The public Egged bus arrives a few minutes later, filled mostly with teenagers.
The traveler is assured the bus is bulletproof. That was done some months ago to protect passengers from sniper fire by Palestinian gunmen who come from Arab villages that dot the landscape between Jerusalem and Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
More than a few innocent Jews driving along these roads have been fatally shot since the intifada was launched in September 2000, including American citizens who recently moved to Efrat.
The road killings, and several recent horrific incidents in Efrat itself (a Palestinian construction worker known to the community suddenly becomes a suicide bomber and tries to blow up the local supermarket before he’s killed by a brave resident) have left psychological scars on citizens here.
But while they may be shaken, Efrat Chief Rabbi Shlomo Riskin says the community on the whole "is very strong, very resolute."
"There’s a sense of tremendous purpose," explains the rabbi, who helped found Efrat in 1983, and for years was known for building good relations with neighboring Arab villages.
"Overwhelmingly, people feel proud where they are." No one has moved out of the community, he says.
Rabbi Riskin observes a sense of vindication among Efrat residents who warned during the Oslo peace process that Palestinians would not be content with only the territories and the dismantling of settlements like his own.
The intifada has shown that "all of Israel is a settlement," Rabbi Riskin insists.
He says the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is at the heart of a "war of civilizations" between fundamentalist Islam and democratic societies. "We are fighting for the civilized world against people who don’t have any value for life."
Also at risk are Jews, who have become verbal targets of a new and dangerous strain of anti-Semitism infecting nations around the world. It is spread, Rabbi Riskin says, by Islamists, the practitioners of this new anti-Western political Muslim ideology.
"We are fighting for Jews all over the world," he asserts.
Rabbi Riskin says he knew the Oslo peace process would fail when even during its heyday, neighboring Arab village leaders ordered their youth to stop playing basketball with Efrat’s teenagers.
Instead of a hoops game on Friday afternoon, one could walk to the road alongside Efrat and see three Israeli soldiers manning a checkpoint and barricade placed there just two months ago to check vehicles heading into Jerusalem. They check all Palestinian and Israeli Arab cars ó but not Jewish ones, a soldier explains.
Shimon Goodman, 18, who lives in Efrat, and his two sisters, Miri, 8, and Racheli, 6, visit the soldiers, bringing ice water and fruit.
Despite the presence of the checkpoint, the commander insists, "It’s not so dangerous here. Most of the villages around here have not been a problem."
As if on cue, a herd of sheep led by Palestinians appears on the road 50 feet away, ascending from the valley below the hill on which Efrat sits.
The commanding soldier explains they are leading the sheep to water; the ritual occurs every day. He often lets them pass without questioning.
"We know them. It’s not a problem," he says.
‘First A Jew, Then Israel’
The day before he was announced as Israel’s new ambassador to the United States, Danny Ayalon, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s top political adviser, met with a group of Hillel students who were learning how to defend Israel from pro-Palestinian propaganda on American campuses.
Ayalon called Sharon "one of the real leaders of the Jewish people in this century," who "feels himself intensely to be a Jew. Everything is motivated by his being a Jew, first a Jew, then Israel."
Ayalon touched on many topics:
On PA President Yasir Arafat: "We cannot trust him. We cannot take any risks as long as he’s there. He is part of the problem, not part of the solution."
On Operation Defensive Shield: "It proved there is a military solution to terror."
On Palestinian refugees and the demand for their right of return to Israel: "It’s not Israel’s problem; it’s an Arab problem. We have no moral responsibility for this issue."
After being rigorously questioned by Hillel students who wanted details of Sharon’s peace plan, Ayalon revealed no specifics. Instead, he listed general preliminary terms. First, terror stops. "There is no political negotiation under terror," he said.
Then, discuss a cease fire and end the incitement of violence. After those terms are met, Sharon would enter negotiations for a series of long-term interim agreements. "We don’t want to keep the process hostage to the core issues" like Jerusalem and refugees, he said.
Border issues would wait while Israel and Palestinians enter joint projects such as desalinization of the water.
"In the future when things are much better, we can reason and talk about hard-core issues," Ayalon said. "It’s a simple and realistic plan."