TEL AVIV — On a wide beach in Tel Aviv, I recently watched two Israeli men — wearing tight neon bathing suits that would make many Americans blush — play a game of paddle ball. They impressively smashed their serves and volleys with decisive forehands and backhands and dove in the sand to make saves.
A few feet away, a couple of young women in skimpy bikinis with tattoos on their ankles and shoulders stretched into yoga positions in the shade of a wooden gazebo.
You can buy ice cream and cold beer on the beach and nobody seems to litter.
If Tel Aviv’s beachfront sounds like a island of paradise in the midst of the turbulent Middle East — that’s because it is. And Israeli officials intend to keep it that way.
While the chaos unleashed by the Arab Spring continues to reverberate across the region, Israel, a small country the size of New Jersey, has been busily building about 500 miles of fence, walls and barricades to keep the surrounding Arab world out.
Keeping a lid on Gaza
Just 45 miles south of the paddle ball players in neon, Hamas runs the Gaza Strip, the narrow Palestinian territory squeezed between Egypt and Israel.
Hamas is a Palestinian political party with an aggressive militant wing. At its rallies, Hamas supporters routinely chant that one day they will destroy Israel and that Palestinians will return to their homes where Jews now live. Hamas has long been Israel's enemy, but in the wake of the Arab Spring, the group is empowered like never before.
Just last November, Hamas and Israel fought a brief war. Hamas launched rockets at southern Israel, and for the first time in the group’s history, at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Many of the rockets were shot down by Israel’s U.S.-funded Iron Dome missile defense system.
More than 150 Palestinians and at least six Israelis were killed in the fighting. But Hamas walked away with significant political recognition.
Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi sent his prime minister to Gaza during the fighting to show solidarity with Hamas. That would never have happened under former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Mubarak didn’t trust Hamas and kept them weak. In fact, during the previous, and far more severe, Gaza-Israel war in early 2009, Mubarak effectively helped Israel target Hamas by cutting off its border, denying escape and resupply routes.
Butever since the Arab Spring reset the Middle East and unleashed anti-Israel passions that Arab strongmen — like Mubarak — once kept at bay, Israel feels threatened. And they are fortifying their defenses.
Now getting in and out of the Gaza Strip is increasingly difficult and bizarre.
When you exit Israel, you must first pass through a series of metal detectors and X-ray machines, before entering a long Israeli-controlled tunnel.
The tunnel is above ground, fenced in on both sides, and with a wire roof. It runs along the ground like a metal snake. It's about 20 feet wide and stretches for about a mile with a dog-leg turn in the middle. There are cement blocks in the tunnel so you can’t drive a car through it. You have to walk, dragging your bags. It feels like you’re passing through a wormhole from a beach community into a prison.
Making the tunnel stranger still is its quiet loneliness. There aren’t any Israeli guards or officers in the tunnel. As you walk with your bags, every few hundred yards you come to a closed gate. A camera and microphone over the gate turn on as you approach. You call out to an unseen guard that you’d like to advance and, if he approves, the gate clicks open and you move to the next barrier.
Beyond Gaza, about 100 miles to the southeast of the gazebos shading women on Tel Aviv’s beach, is Israel’s border with Egypt. For decades, the border was protected naturally by the bare and jagged Sinai Mountains and the open desert.
But now with Mubarak gone, a metal snake is going up along the Egyptian border, too.
Israel is building a 150 mile fence along the Egyptian border. It’s nearly finished — with only 6.2 miles left to go.
The fence has two layers, is 20 feet high and is topped with razor wire. It also plunges several feet under the sand, so you can’t dig underneath it. Israel clearly doesn’t feel the mountains and desert offer enough protection anymore.
Back on the beach in Tel Aviv, few people talk about their increasingly hostile neighbors in Gaza and Egypt, or the fences that keep them out. But other barriers are even closer.
Just 40 miles east of Tel Aviv, a giant wall cuts off the West Bank — the landlocked Palestinian territory surrounded on three sides by Israel, and one side by Jordan. Palestinians call it the "apartheid wall" because it keeps them penned in. Israel built the wall during a spate of Hamas suicide attacks and since its construction the number of bombings in Israel has plummeted.
Keeping Syria out, too
About 100 miles north of the Tel Aviv, a new fence is going up along the border with Syria. Only about 10 miles of that barrier, which looks just like the one with Egypt, is finished. The rest is going up fast.
As I walked along the new fence with Syria with our cameraman and producer a few days ago, we were stopped by a group of Israeli border guards who politely told us to leave.
The border guards, based on a hill overlooking the fence, told me they had seen fighting between Syrian government troops and rebels just a few hundred yards away from their base. The chief of staff of the Israeli military said at a conference this month that he believes it’s only a matter of time before armed factions in Syria turn their attention to Israel.
"We see terror organizations that are increasingly gaining footholds in the territory and they are fighting against Assad. Guess what? We’ll be next in line," said Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz.
'Fear index' down
As Israel waits for the political storm in the Arab world to pass, it has become a fortress nation, what some experts call a "garrison state."
Perhaps it’s human nature, but living in a bubble has some advantages. Fences and walls can be effective and even soothing, at least for those who build them.
A study by Haifa University’s National Security Center published this month in the Israel newspaper Haaretz said Israelis have never felt more secure in their borders. The so-called annual "fear index” is at an all-time low.
"People in Israel are simply optimistic. As a result of a hundred years of Zionism that met with difficult challenges, the public's conceptions are that we have overcome that, and that we will overcome it in the future," Prof. Gabriel Ben-Dor, the director of the study, told Haaretz.
But there’s twist. Israel’s Arab citizens, who may be more in touch with the profound changes in the region that they watch unfolding on Arabic-language television, were far less convinced about Israel’s security than Jewish respondents to the survey.
"It is possible the Arab population is seriously and intensively following what is happening across the border, and they judge the situation differently," said Ben-Dor.
The Israeli military is certainly aware that things have changed for Israel.
But that apparently hasn’t sunk in for most Israelis, or, just like people on the beaches of Tel Aviv, perhaps they don’t want to think about it.