Wednesday, December 16, 2009

16-Dec-09: Israel's bloody choice

The feature article below, written by The Australian's Middle East correspondent John Lyons, appears in today's edition of The Australian. [Minor editorial changes have been made to the text below, and hypertext links have been added that do not appear in the original.]

Israel's bloody choice
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent, The Australian
December 16, 2009 12:00AM

AT lunchtime on August 9, 2001, the lives of two women intersected at a pizza restaurant in Jerusalem. Malki Roth, 15, from Melbourne, walked inside to have pizza with a friend. 

Outside, Ahlam Tamimi, a Palestinian television news presenter, dropped off Izzadin Al-Masri at the restaurant, which she had chosen as a target for an act of terrorism. Al-Masri walked into the restaurant with a guitar case on his back. What nobody at the scene would have realised, apart from Tamimi, was that the guitar case was loaded with explosives that would tear apart the restaurant in one of the worst attacks of the second intifada. Malki and 14 others were killed and scores were injured or maimed. One woman remains in a coma.

But while the restaurant was being blown apart, Tamimi was on her way back to her TV studio. In one of the most chilling stories from the entire period of bombings, Tamimi walked into her studio and broke the news of the bombing to her viewers. Tamimi was convicted for murder and is serving 16 consecutive life sentences in an Israeli jail.

But she's again making news, this time as one of the 1,000 prisoners who militant group Hamas wants released in return for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been held in a secret location in Gaza since 2006. Tamimi's possible release in the coming weeks has prompted Malki's parents, Arnold and Frimet Roth, to write to the Israeli cabinet to urge Tamimi not be freed.

Referring to the "indescribable pain" with which they read of an imminent prisoner release, the Roths write:
"While she is a woman, and for this reason accorded relatively compassionate coverage by the media, Tamimi is a far more prolific murderer than most of the men she will accompany. She slaughtered seven men and women and eight babies and children in cold blood. Tamimi personally led the suicide bomber, Al-Masri, right up to entrance of the target she had selected, Jerusalem's Sbarro restaurant, made a hasty getaway to save her own skin and then, in effect, fired her weapon."
For Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Shalit issue could be his most difficult decision. The emotions it is evoking both ways are deep-seated. On the one side is Shalit, the 23-year-old staff sergeant who in Israel is a household name. His supporters have a permanent marquee next to the PM's residence where a number is changed each day to show the length of his captivity. The desire to bring him home is powerful because of the country's military culture. Israel has been at war in one way or another from the day it was formed in 1948, and the military culture imbues society. Most young people join the army at 18.

Most parents know the experience of having a child out of contact if they are fighting a war. An understanding the army has with its soldiers is that if they are captured or killed, the government will do everything to bring them home. But as the public has begun focusing on the price that will be paid for Shalit -- the release of up to 1000 Palestinian prisoners -- the debate has become more complicated.

Tamimi's name is in the media as being on Hamas's wish list.

"Take a look at what were about to hand over to them," Arnold Roth tells The Australian. "We're going to release from prison people who not only have done the most hideous, barbaric things but are deeply committed to doing them again. "I can't find a better example of that than the woman who engineered the massacre at the Sbarro restaurant. It's hard for me to say her name.

"She has never made any secret -- and to her great good fortune she's been given plenty of opportunity to say these things -- that she is proud of what she did. She certainly doesn't seek to be forgiven and she will do it again and help other people to do it again just as soon as she has the opportunity. This is not hyperbole. It is literally the case. What are we doing putting people like that back out on the street?"

For Arnold and Frimet Roth the pain of that day in 2001 clearly has not subsided.

"For all practical purposes my daughter's murder took place this morning," Arnold Roth says. "I don't mean that in a hyperbolic way.

"I'm not a morose individual. Nor is my wife, and certainly none of our children are. But the act of losing a child to an act of murder, you can never get your mind around it. You deal with it in a functional way, but you can never fully grasp it. What, Malki's not coming back? I can't believe that. It's not possible."

Arnold Roth's description of that day as "an incredible nightmare" surely is no understatement. For 12 hours the family did not know where she was. They searched local hospitals, given that the scores of dead and injured were taken to different places. The hospitals, says Roth, were like Dante's Inferno. At 11 o'clock that night their neighbour, a senior doctor, ran into their house: "There's a girl on the operating table at Hadassa, let's go." They drove to the hospital, where their neighbour rushed into emergency but returned with the news: "It's not Malki."
Another doctor told them: "There's a dead girl over there, go and have a look, and there's another girl over there who's about to be operated on."

Roth recalls: "I have to say I caught myself at that moment. It was like somehow, right then, it all became real. He's telling me to go have a look at that dead girl over there. And if it's not her, maybe it's the other one over here they're about to operate on. I cannot tell you how difficult that was."

The Roths' lives were changed forever. They grew apart from some friends who were unable to deal with their loss but gained new ones. Arnold Roth estimates the family has "a couple of hundred friends" who have lost relatives to terrorism. "We have a common language with people who have been through this experience," he says.

In the first intifada of 1987, many of the clashes were stone fights between Palestinian youths and Israeli soldiers. But in the second intifada, which began in 2000 under Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, a decision was made to target Israeli civilians. It is an insight into how deeply that intifada has worked itself into the Israeli psyche -- and why trust has broken down between Israelis and Palestinians -- that five children in Roth's street in Jerusalem have been killed.
"People call it intifada but I really resist that," Roth says. "I call it the Arafat War. I think that Arafat single-handedly brought on this war and I want people to relate the war to him.

Roth has developed an avoidance mechanism. "You identify situations and people where you're just not going to talk to those people, you just don't want to hear what they have to say because they don't understand what the effect of the loss of this beautiful child and the hundreds of others like her is," he says.

"On the other hand, you are forced to listen to some of the arguments that are put forward, like: `Why were you here?' or `She's an enemy agent just as much as the soldier in the tank', or `This is what you get for messing with other people's lives and territory' and many other assertions [that] to me are superficial or wrong, or both. So you've got to figure out where you stand on these issues. You've got to figure out avoidance; to figure out how to deal with some of these things. You've got to be careful before you say things and you've got to also remember that no matter what you say many people will simply never understand what you are talking about."

Roth says Israel should look at alternatives to a prisoner swap for Shalit. One option for instance could be that the large amount of money channelled to the Hamas regime through foreign governments could be stopped.

The terrorism that claimed his daughter, he says, has not made him anti-Palestinian. He and his wife have set up the Malki Foundation, which provides therapies to disabled children whose parents choose to keep them at home. So far the foundation has provided about 30,000 therapy sessions, one-third to Palestinian children. [Correction: Overall, about one-third of the families helped by Keren Malki are drawn from Israel's Arab population.] The cause of disabled children was chosen because of the affection Malki had for her disabled younger sister.

"She's very disabled, she's blind, she has no communication with the world. She suffered profound brain damage when she was a year old as a result of uncontrolled epilepsy, so she's a big burden in our lives. Malki loved her and was very involved with her and spent many nights with her," Roth says. "She goes to school, but we were told very early in the piece: `You should institutionalize this child and get on with your lives.' " [Comment: The Roth family refused the suggestion and their disabled youngest child continues to live with her family at home.]

Roth says the release of Malki's killer would be "a deep embitterment".

"We have moved on," he says. "We have rich lives. We're doing a lot of good work in our daughter's name. I have a professional life that gives me a great deal of satisfaction. We made a wedding in August, and another wedding in March, all being well. We have a rich, contributing, loving life as a family. We're not stuck at all. However the release of this woman would be a deep embitterment in our lives. Not just because of the woman but because of the confusion in the minds of other people who say: `Oh well.' That's very upsetting to me, but it's no more than that. Our lives won't stop and if we stop them [the release of the terrorists in a deal] it won't bring Malki back, it won't make us whole. But it's upsetting. It's very upsetting. It's more than upsetting, it's enraging."

Wherever Roth travels he seeks to talk about terrorism. Last year he addressed the UN. "I look for opportunities to come and present in a non-political way, non-ideological way, some things that I think people aren't intuiting or learning from the media or from any other means," he says.

What is his basic message? "That terrorism is a major issue in our lives that's not going away. No matter what direction it's coming from, we've got to put it higher up on the list. It's a major issue and it's going to get a lot worse for all of us before it gets better. Terrorism is a function of education, not of politics, not of territorial arguments. It's a function of education and we've got to deal with the education that produces terrorism. Education towards hatred; I see it everywhere.

"Some of the things that people say about terrorism are plainly wrong. Like: they're underprivileged people at their wits end; they don't have any other direction to go in, therefore you've left them with no alternative. This is rubbish. Everyone that I've ever looked at among terrorists turns out to be someone who's highly motivated. The suicide agents among them are the highest motivated. They're not depressed people, and so on."

The bomber who killed his daughter was from a wealthy family, a fanatic who became religious only in the last year of his life.

"Terrorism is a really serious issue. It's everywhere and it's spreading and we're not doing enough to stop it," Roth says. "And if things aren't worse today, it's only because of our good luck and not because of our good management." 

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