After Brussels, Will Europe Finally Crack Down on Terror Israel-style?

Israelis have long understood that living with the threat of terror means relinquishing a bit of privacy and convenience in favor of security. They wonder when Europe will learn that lesson.

Police control the access to the central train station following bomb attacks in Brussels, Belgium, March 22, 2016.
Reuters

“I hate to say it, but it looks like Europe decided to dress up as Israel for Purim this year.” 

With a healthy dose of black holiday humor, comedian Avi Nussbaum captured the role-reversal Israelis felt on Tuesday morning as they relinquished their usual position as victims of terror to become observers of the deadly ISIS bombings in far-away Brussels. 

Each March, Israelis anticipate the raucous Purim holiday with excitement – but also with a measure of trepidation and fear: Costume parades, parties and mass gatherings in the streets offer a tempting target for terrorists, and some of the nation’s most traumatic terror attacks have taken place during the spring holiday.

One of the most devastating Purim attacks produced an iconic photograph. The picture was taken on March 21, 1997, when a suicide bomber struck a Tel Aviv cafe, killing a young mother named Anat Winter-Rosen. It shows a stricken policewoman clutching Winter-Rosen’s six-month-old baby daughter, who was dressed as a clown. 

This year, the shocking images come from Brussels. Israelis, like their neighbors in the chaotic Middle East, are still unaccustomed to seeing these scenes of horror relocated to European capitals like Paris and Brussels. Even after 9/11, Charlie Hebdo and the Paris attacks last November, it still feels surreal.

There has been both a bitter and judgmental tone to Israeli media commentary on the attacks. The bitterness stems from the sting of jealousy that each terror attack in Europe unleashes a flood of shock and sympathy around the world, while similar violence in the Middle East and Africa, from stabbings to bombings, are considered so common they often barely register beyond the region.

The judgment comes from a sense that Europe, unlike the United States, and certainly unlike Israel, has not yet fully grasped that the threat of ISIS and other extremists will not go away soon, and that long-term changes need to be made to tighten security in so-called “soft-targets,” like theaters and restaurants, and to improve security cooperation across Europe. 

One Israeli television commentator rolled his eyes after watching the reactions of Europe’s leaders to the attacks and said condescendingly that there seemed to be a lot of emotion but little action proposed to prevent the tragedies from reoccurring. 

“They said after Charlie Hebdo that Europe would never be the same. Then they said it again after the November Paris attacks. In both cases, nothing really changed. They’ll say it again now. But why should this time be any different?” 

After the most recent Paris attacks, Israelis admired the joie de vivre that drove Europeans to vow that terror wouldn’t stop them from living their lives, attending concerts and football games, and gathering in cafes. Israelis have long responded with similar defiance. 

But they also view it as naive and dangerous that the same Europeans - and more importantly, their leaders - don’t seem to understand that in order to do so safely under the threat of ISIS, a measure of privacy and freedom must be sacrificed, and that they can no longer afford to breeze across borders or enter airports without scrutiny, particularly at a time when immigrants from unknown backgrounds have been flooding into Europe. 

Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport has been invoked in several of the European analyses of what went wrong in Brussels. The explosions occurred at the check-in area - a “soft target” where, in most western countries, travelers enter unimpeded. 

Not so in Israel. As any vehicle approaches the airport, several kilometers away from the terminal, they must go through a checkpoint that requires every car to stop, while an armed guard peers into the car and exchanges a few words with drivers and passengers to get a quick read on who is entering. Anyone who appears suspicious is pulled over for more extensive questioning. Then, while approaching the terminal on foot, anyone who enters comes under the scrutiny of security guards at the entrance to the terminal. Full security screenings take place before check-in - one waits in a security line before the check-in counter in addition to the standard X-rays of carry-on baggage. 

It is just one example of the grand sacrificial trade that Israelis are willing to make daily – trading total privacy for increased safety. Israelis submit to inspection everywhere and anywhere - from shopping malls to restaurants to soccer stadiums, obediently opening car trunks, handbags and briefcases when asked, because they know it’s worth the slight inconvenience and mini-invasion. It is the behavior of a population that has felt too much loss and pain to object. 

Certainly, nobody in Israel likes or enjoys it. And there is something refreshing about leaving behind the constant inspection when they escape to vacations in London, Thailand, and even the United States. It’s certainly nice to pretend there’s nothing to worry about.  

But underneath that freedom, they also feel a bit nervous in its absence, and more recently, impatient with the reluctance of Europe to recognize that such measures are necessary. 

For the foreseeable future, Europe may have to continue wearing its Israel Purim costume and start behaving like a country threatened by dangerous enemies, where high-level security is a fact of daily life. Without it, the next large-scale attack is simply a matter of time.