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LIVING WITH TERRORISM IN ISRAEL <br> YOUNG SOLDIERS MATTER-OF-FACTLY SERVE THEIR COUNTRY, ROUTINELY RISKING THEIR LIVES TO PROVIDE HOMELAND SECURITY

JERUSALEM -- For the people of Israel, terrorism is a part of everyday life. Violence is not only expected, but seemingly inevitable. The fear of terrorism in the United States left by the attacks of Sept. 11 is something Israelis have lived with for decades.

Since the latest Intifada, or holy war, broke out last September, terrorists have driven the number of deaths into the hundreds. As the violence escalates and hopes of peace drift further away, this country calls on one group of people to protect its territory -- its youth.

The state of Israel imposes compulsory enlistment for all citizens, both male and female, at age 18. The army operates to defend the existence of the state of Israel and protect its people.

They have barely lived at all, yet they are willing to risk everything for their country. They grew up with the violence, learned about hate and know their responsibility. And when they turn 18, they must be ready for it.

"It's more than something you have to do," said one soldier, who would identify himself only by his first name, Itay. "In Israel, it's part of the growing process."

Itay casually glanced up and down a brick alleyway in the Jewish quarter of the Old City here. His army greens seemed out of place next to the sandy-colored buildings. Yet his rifle looked natural, hanging at his side.

He seems young, with a baby face and clean-shaven skin. But then, he is only 20 years old.

Itay, in his second year of enlistment, works as a guard in the Old City. On a typical day, his main duty is to maintain the army's presence in the Jewish quarter.

"But if we need to act, we're ready," he said.

Since last year, when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, home to one of the holiest sites in Islam, Israel has seen a surge of violence, some instances of which were directed at its young people. In June, a suicide bomber killed 16 people at a dance club in Tel Aviv. In August, another bomber killed 14 people in an Sbarro pizzeria in downtown Jerusalem.

Another soldier, Itamal, 19, started his service around the same time the Intifada broke out. Since then, more than 700 people have been killed in the violence, and more than 15,000 were wounded, according to Amnesty International.

But aside from the rising body count, not much else has changed for those in the army, said Itamal, who also would not give his last name.

"The situation is not any different than before," Itamal said. "It's complicated because in the army, you have a different mind set of thinking about the issues. We have a special situation here."

Itamal said he feels a strong connection to his country, but his devotion came only after a year of service.

Just before his enlistment, Itamal traveled to the United States to visit a friend who immigrated to North Carolina. He saw the young people there studying and partying, laughing and working for a successful future. He did not see blood or violence. He did not see people his own age walking the streets armed with guns and grenades.

A few weeks later, Itamal returned home to Jerusalem to begin his service in the Israel Defense Force. He said he could not help but feel a little bit of jealousy toward his American peers.

"I thought, 'Oh my God, what am I getting into?' " he said. "I felt like I was missing my life. But now I think it's a great job. This is the center of all Jewish people."

While Itamal's feelings match the sentiments of many Israeli soldiers, not all citizens are so willing to serve. The government offers exemptions to some people, most commonly the Orthodox Jews, who request time off to devote to religious studies.

Yet even a government exemption does not change the way the Israeli people respond to youth who do not serve in the military, Itay said, adding that even though many young people use their religion as an excuse not to serve, failure to enlist comes with a certain stigma.

"They are stained for life," he said. "(People) look at you in a different way."

Because most of the country's citizens have spent time in the service and society maintains a strong respect for its soldiers, young people have many career options open to them when they enter the work force.

Along with respect, soldiers here also receive the appreciation of citizens.

"You look at a soldier and you feel proud, you feel safe," Itamal said. "The people make the army and the army makes the people."

Each soldier must serve three years of active duty before the country places him or her on a reserve list. Soldiers train for four months before beginning their service.

"The training is very hard, very intensive," said Olivier Berland, a former Israeli soldier. Berland, a French native, is one of many foreigners drawn to the defense of the Jewish state.

Sipping a beer at a bar table in downtown Jerusalem, Berland's dark eyes tell the story of a bittersweet homecoming.

"I wanted to come to Israel and I wanted to leave France," he said, pausing for just a moment. "If you want to be Israeli, you need to serve in the army."

Having served as a paratrooper in the French army, Berland, 26, enlisted for the same job when he came to Israel three years ago. But two years into his voluntary enlistment, an accident cut his service short. During a practice exercise, a cannon misfired, damaging his eye.

His service ended shortly before the Intifada broke out last September. But despite the changing nature of the army's responsibility, Berland said he wishes he could be on the front lines fighting for his country.

"With all of the terrorism and the bombings and the violence, more people want to get involved with the defense," he said. "People are feeling threatened."

The terror in the streets here is evident. During the day, significant religious sites are vacant. At night, the streets are empty. Many people are afraid to leave their homes, said Israeli Ambassador Colette Avital, who is a member of the Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee.

"We are a small people, and we feel vulnerable," she said. "You can see how fragile the feeling of security for the Israelis is. People feel threatened in their daily existence."

Avital compared the current Intifada to the American war for independence. But the war for freedom in Israel has continued for more than 50 years, she added. "And God knows how long this war will last and how many victims there will be," she said.

Outside the Knesset, the building of the Israeli parliament, a flame burns in remembrance of the more than 20,000 soldiers killed since 1948 while fighting for independence.

For young people, especially those in the military, questions frequently arise about security, Avital said, emphasizing the importance of young people understanding all of the possible outcomes the country may face.

"All these young people are thinking, 'Am I going to be the next victim?' " she said. "They live with a very big anxiety, and it gets to them."

But while Avital said she notices a sense of fear among the young people, many soldiers on the streets accept the violence as part of their lives.

Their acceptance is evident in the puzzled looks on their faces when foreigners ask them questions about their fears. They are no longer afraid of their fears. Their fears have become a reality.

"As long as the war is on, they don't have to think about another kind of state," Berland said.

The Israeli government prepares its students from a very young age for their inevitable military service.

"The situation here is special," Berland said. "It's not like you're taking someone at 18 years old and throwing them right into the situation. They know what's happening."

Until the events of Sept. 11, Israel occupied a prestigious spot in the center of international media coverage and political attention. But sometimes, Berland said, foreigners are ignorant of the Israeli citizens and their convictions.

"We are not talking about a one-dimensional conflict," Berland said. "They are trying to do the best they can and not hurt anyone unnecessarily. It's not so simple."

TIFFANY LANKES is a newspaper and policy studies major at Syracuse University. This summer, she worked as an intern at The Buffalo News.