Shira Alter’s eyes filled with guilty tears as she stood in the chaotic hubbub of Ben-Gurion International Airport, about to obey her parents’ worried command to fly home to the safety of Brooklyn.
“It’s the wrong thing to do,” the shaggy-haired college freshman said. “I don’t think I’ll ever, ever be able to forgive myself, ever. Leaving people I love, who’ll stay and fight for what I believe in--it’s so wrong, so wrong.”
As public tension builds with the approach of today’s deadline for Iraq to get out of Kuwait, Israel’s main airport is an emotional melee of tearful departures and courageous arrivals.
Every day, the slow line for pre-departure security checks stretches dozens of yards, almost the entire length of the terminal, made up mainly of young foreigners and women with children.
Americans in Israel got the official government warning on Friday that they should consider leaving for safer climates, and five planeloads--three of them special flights--left for the United States early Sunday morning. Embassy families have also began to trickle out.
Seventeen-year-old Michele Weintraub, who, like Shira Alter, was cutting off her yearlong study program at Bar Ilan University to fly home to Brooklyn, said most of her 60 classmates were leaving, giving in to their parents’ anxiety.
“Everyone has been on the phone nonstop,” she said. Her own parents argued with her at first, she said, then “three days ago, they said, ‘You’re getting on a plane and coming home.’ ”
Israeli travel agents have reported mass panic buying by foreigners frantic to leave the country by today’s deadline, fueled in part by several airlines’ announcements that they were canceling service to Middle East danger points, including Israel. On Sunday, British Airways added its name to the list.
The crowds in travel agencies have thinned as word got out that all outbound seats before Wednesday have been sold, but the demand is still there. Tickets for a special Pan American World Airways flight to the United States sold out within two hours Sunday.
Alexandra Pasternak, an Uruguayan whose husband is studying medicine in Israel, said she bought open-date tickets to Frankfurt, Germany, in August, soon after Iraq invaded Kuwait, in anticipation of this moment.
“I don’t think anything is going to happen, but it’s a good idea to go because of the children,” she said, looking at her 7-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son.
“I hate this man, really,” she said of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. “He’s breaking all our plans.”
On a recent visit to Ben-Gurion, few Israelis were seen in the departure line. They were to be found, instead, filing out of the terminal’s arrivals gate into the waiting arms of ecstatic relatives and spouses. There was a disproportionate number of young men among them, of the age that would be sure to find an army call-up message awaiting them when they got home.
“Soldiers returning,” muttered one woman in the crowd of greeters. “It’s panic, panic.”
Aldo Coda, an Israeli textiles engineer who returned from Marseilles, France, scoffed at the idea that he might have been afraid to come back. “It’s not dangerous here,” he said. “It’s dangerous for him--Saddam.”
Avi Bendelac of Haifa said simply: “I wanted to get back as fast as possible. It’s my country; my family is here.”
Shoshana Ofir, waiting at the gate to meet vacationing friends who moved up their return to Israel in order to be here for today’s deadline, was so proud of their attitude she raised a sign reading “There Are Israelis Returning Too! Welcome to Those Coming Home.”
A sprinkling of Americans arriving in Israel on Sunday displayed their own brand of defiance.
Dr. Richard Walton of Iowa said that he simply refused to let the Iraqi dictator ruin his presentation at an Israeli dental conference.
He had suspected that media reports of panicked people sitting on their suitcases were exaggerated, he said, and now he was convinced.
“I’m not concerned about the security situation in Israel,” he said. “I believe that the Iraqis could not make any kind of significant attack on Israel.”
Peter Lee, a South Korean accountant who formerly lived in Los Angeles, said he came to Israel specifically to pray for peace and was not worried that the Intercessory Prayer Conference he was attending would be interrupted by bombs.
“God’s going to look after Israel,” he said. “That’s why we don’t have any fear.”
Israeli yeshivas --religious schools--are also sponsoring “pray-in” conferences as their contribution to the peace effort.
Norman Podhoretz, the editor of the conservative magazine Commentary, took the El Al flight from New York to see his daughter and grandchildren, he said, but admitted to a political reason as well.
“I’ve been calling for war,” he said. “And I thought I’d better put my body where my mouth is.”