With War On, Small Talk No Longer so Small

Times Staff Writer

As they do every Friday, crowds of Israelis elbowed their way through a landmark open-air market, buying the makings of family meals to mark the start of the Sabbath. But on this day, the knowledge that the nation was once again at war hung heavily in the air, along with the mingled scents of sweet loaves and scallions, fish and pickle brine.

The Israeli military offensive in Lebanon had just started when last week's Sabbath began. For this Sabbath, however, there was no mistaking the mix of casual bravado, tribal solidarity, argumentative outbursts and existential fears that characterizes Israel in full battle mode.

"They started this, and now we have to show them," said Rami Bin-Nun, a soft-spoken 35-year-old who owns a small restaurant on the edge of the sprawling Carmel Market. He was talking about the guerrillas of Hezbollah, who captured two Israeli soldiers in a border raid last week and quickly became the targets of a devastating Israeli air onslaught.

"But so far, we're not doing a very good job of showing them," said Bin-Nun, grimacing. "And that's a big problem."

Hefting ripe tomatoes and haggling over the price of parsley, shoppers in the market's narrow lanes and alleyways weighed the military risks and moral consequences of the offensive, which has claimed the lives of nearly 350 Lebanese, most of them civilians, and battered the infrastructure of Israel's northern neighbor.

A poll published Friday in Israel's Maariv newspaper found 90% supported the war aims of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his lieutenants. But in Israel, even what appears to be a rock-solid consensus somehow leaves plenty of room for disputation.

"Hezbollah needs to be hit, and hit hard," began Nachrieli Amrani, a spice merchant.

His customer, Osnat Trabelsi, interrupted, "No, no, what's happening there is a war crime!"

With Israeli tanks rumbling north to the border in preparation for what could be a massive ground incursion, and with rockets falling on towns across the country's north, many took pride simply in staying sanguine.

"I fought in five wars. Scuds fell on my neighborhood. Terrorists bombed this market," said Amrani, the spice vendor. "I'm not panicking."

Tel Aviv, with its sandy beaches and hip cafes, can sometimes seem like a hedonistic haven in a country brimming with tensions. But Hezbollah has boasted that the seaside metropolis lies within range of the group's most powerful rockets, and Israeli military officials acknowledged that could very well be the case.

The response to the threat was laced with Israel's trademark black humor. One vegetable seller joked about giving discounts to anyone from Haifa, the port hit hardest by Hezbollah rockets. Previously, it was thought to be beyond the reach of the Shiite militia's weapons.

But there also were somber assessments of what many feared could be a long military entanglement in Lebanon, where the country fought an 18-year war that is sometimes called Israel's Vietnam.

"This will go on and on and on," Tzion Nisanov, a 68-year-old watchmaker, said bleakly. "Sometimes our wars are fast. I don't think this one will be."

Amrani, the spice merchant, disagreed. "They'll shoot, they'll negotiate, and it will be over," he said.

Some gave their endorsement, albeit reluctantly, to a ground offensive even though Israeli commanders have predicted substantial military casualties if troops confront Hezbollah in its stronghold of southern Lebanon.

"I think they will go in with force. They have to, even if the cost is very high," said vegetable seller Amir Hasid, who then broke off his discourse to inform a customer that she really ought to make pesto with the fresh basil she was buying.

Many people brushed aside complaints that Israel was wielding disproportionate force in Lebanon, arguing that Hezbollah, with its chief patron, Iran, poses a threat to Israel's existence.

"If they could exterminate us from this Earth, it would make them happy," said 42-year-old olive seller Rina Sassi.

"We won't survive for one second if we don't fight," added Akiva Pressman, a retired pilot.

Some saw an almost dreamlike inevitability to the confrontation.

"We had six years of quiet in the north," said Felix Asher, who sells jeans and T-shirts from a corner stall, referring to the period since Israel's unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000. "Now we are paying for that time of quiet."

Others believed the seeds of even more intense violence were being sown in Lebanon.

"It's a never-ending story," said Bin-Nun, the restaurateur. "Maybe we are right, or maybe we can't say for sure whose fault this is. But now there are a hundred thousand people in Lebanon who have children who will grow up to hate Israel."

In the early afternoon, the market crush began to thin as shoppers headed off for family gatherings. As often happens in times of national crisis, the rituals of daily life seemed somehow weighted with greater meaning.

Ilana Meidani, whose son is serving on the northern front, picked out the last of the vegetables she would need for the evening's meal. She hoped her son would text-message soon to let her know he was all right.

"So it is Shabbat. Tonight we will light candles," she said. "And say a prayer."

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