It is a well known phenomenon in meteorology that the very center of a major storm — particularly a hurricane — is the quietest, calmest part. The "eye of the storm" can be a sunlit, severe oasis to the swirling terror that revolves around it.
Such was the case with the swirling terror that swept over the Middle East over the past week as it looked likely that "Desert Storm II" was about to be launched in the ongoing battle of wits and weapons between the U.S., the U.N. and Saddam Hussein. Caught in the epicenter of the potential firestorm was a group of Americans on a long-planned fact-finding tour of Israel, which included Queens Borough President Claire Shulman, City Comptroller Alan Hevesi of Forest Hills and Queens Courier publisher Victoria Schneps.
For almost two weeks their group toured Israel from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, from Haifa to the Golan Heights. But despite the fact that gas masks were being given out to Israeli citizens as a prelude to a possible terror attack by Hussein in response to the threatened U.S. bombing of Iraq, the U.S. delegation felt no sense of panic or desperation. "It was amazing how peaceful it seemed over there," Shulman said upon her return this past weekend. "When we arrived and the Iraq crisis escalated, we turned on the TV to CNN every chance we could. But we found the Israelis were taking it all in stride. They totally seemed to be accustomed to living with this situation and they were matter of fact about it," Shulman said.
"If you remember how New York was say ten or fifteen years ago, when crime in the City was rampant and out-of-towners would be fearful of walking the streets of our City," Schneps said. "Yet we New Yorkers still went about our lives. We lived with it. That’s how the people in Israel live with the constant fear of a terror attack," ‘Schneps said.
The Queens group, however, got a close-up, wake-up call at the very beginning of their journey. Upon arriving on a Thursday morning, they visited an Arab food market in Jerusalem where people were busy buying food — "exotic stuff" as Shulman called it — for the upcoming Sabbath.
But less than 21 hours later that same market was the target of a terror attack that was meant to upset the peace accord between the Palestinians and the Israelis which was being debated in the Knesset at that very moment just a mile away. "It was a very spooky feeling," Shulman said "knowing that we were there at that spot just hours before." But again the group found that in the midst of this constant state of war-readiness, the people of Israel have "made their peace with this situation."
THE QUEENS COURIER/Photo by Victoria Schneps
The Arab market in Jerusalem was bombed by terrorists just 21 hours after this photo was taken by the Queens group who visited the crowded site.
Photo by Dolly DeThomas
City Comptroller Alan Hevesi at Yad Mordechai with Claire Shulman. Mr. Hevesi was leading the mission as President of the 90-year-old B’nai Zion, a U.S. group that has supported many projects in Israel.
Schneps said that the group heard two sides of the argument about the recent peace accord. "We met with Benny Begin, the son of former Prime Minister Menachim Begin, who said that Israel has already given up too much in the previous peace accords, and with former Prime Minister Shimon Peres who believes the peace process is the only way to a better future for the Middle East." Schneps and Shulman were proud to boast throughout their trip that the modern State of Israel was actually created in Queens when the U.N. declared it a State in an historic vote at Flushing Meadows in 1947.
Just as the world was holding its collective breath last weekend as the U.N. and Saddam Hussein were poised on the brink of conflagration, the U.S. delegation returned to New York to the news that once again Iraq backed down and war was averted.
"It of course was a relief," Shulman said on her return, "but except for a few instances, we rarely felt fear or apprehension over there."
The next day Shulman, whose daughter is an astronaut who has flown aboard the space shuttle a number of times, attended the gala New York reception for John Glenn and the crew of the Discovery. "It puts it all in perspective," Shulman said, "from up there, it is really one earth. One precious earth."