(June 17, 2012 / JNS)
Having experienced hijackings, cross-border incursions, gun attacks and suicide bombings across several decades, Israelis also know too well that the damage wreaked by terrorist atrocities can reverberate for years after these insidious acts are committed.
Internal divisions often accompany that lasting damage. In the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack, the country invariably unites in grief, but splits emerge when the feelings of those families scarred by terror attacks conflict with decisions that the government deems to be in the national interest.
A prime case in point involves Arnold and Frimet Roth, whose 15-year-old daughter, Malki, was murdered along with 14 others when a suicide bomber struck the Sbarro pizza restaurant in downtown Jerusalem on Aug. 9, 2001. Ahlam Tamimi, a Palestinian woman who transported both the bomb and the bomber to the restaurant, was subsequently captured and sentenced to 16 life terms in prison.
In October 2011, as part of the deal in which 1,027 Palestinian prisoners were exchanged for Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who spent more than five years in Hamas captivity, Tamimi walked free. Now living in Jordan, Tamimi has become a celebrity in the Arab world, hosting her own weekly show on the Hamas satellite TV station, Al Quds. In between extolling the virtues of “martyrdom attacks” against Jews, she celebrates her own monstrous achievement; on one famous occasion, when she learned that she had enabled the killing of eight children at the Sbarro restaurant, and not three as she had previously thought, she turned to the camera wearing a broad grin of pride.
Six months before the Shalit deal, the Roths and their many supporters implored Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to consider Tamimi’s release as part of any exchange. Netanyahu, they say, did not respond then. Nor did he respond when the Roths challenged Netanyahu’s claim that the families impacted by the Shalit deal had been sent a letter explaining the government’s position; they could find no evidence, they insisted, that such a letter had been sent.
Now the Roths are accusing Netanyahu of ignoring them for a third time.
The occasion was the news that another convicted terrorist, Nizar al Tamimi, had crossed the Allenby Bridge from the West Bank into Jordan to join his cousin and ertswhile fiancée—none other than the murderer-turned-TV star Ahlam Tamimi. Nizar, who was serving a life sentence for the murder of a Jewish resident of the West Bank in 1993, was also released under the terms of the Shalit deal. While Ahlam and Nizar’s victims will never recover from the grief inflicted by their grotesque crimes, the Arabic press is reporting that the couple is currently planning their wedding.
This month, the Roths wrote an open letter to Netanyahu pointing out that Nizar al Tamimi’s release “was conditioned on the requirement that he remain at all times within the areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority.” His reunion with their daughter’s murderer came, therefore, as a massive blow to the Roths, who were already aware that Tamimi had previously tried to enter Jordan and been turned back.
“I called someone who has a very senior position in the Ministry of Justice,” Arnold Roth told me. “He said, ‘it’s never going to happen,’ but advised me to check nonetheless. I chased the Shabak (Israel’s security service) for two and a half weeks. When I finally got a reply, I was told that there was a decision to allow Nizar to leave, provided that he doesn’t come back within five years.” Roth hired a lawyer to challenge the decision, but it was too late—Nizar al Tamimi arrived in Jordan on June 7. “I felt like I’d been hit over the head with a cricket bat,” Roth, an Australian who made aliyah, recalled in his conversation with me.
I contacted Israeli government officials to find out their reasoning. After encountering some initial reluctance, I received a call from Mark Regev, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s spokesman. “I understand Arnold’s pain and the pain of those whose family members have been killed by terrorists, when they see those guilty of these horrendous crimes being released,” Regev said. However, he stressed, the current situation is a direct outcome of the Shalit deal. “Everything flows from that,” Regev said. “Arnold’s position is a legitimate one that we respect. Ultimately, the government chose the path of getting Gilad Shalit out of captivity.”
Though he was unwilling to discuss the specific details of Nizar al Tamimi’s case, Regev did explain the strategic principle behind the government’s thinking. “Israel does not have a problem with terrorists leaving,” he said. “It’s easier for us when hardcore terrorists actually leave. Their ability to hurt us in the future is much more limited.”
Arnold Roth is not persuaded by this argument. In an email to me subsequent to our conversation, he pointed out that another terrorist released through the Shalit deal, Ibrahim Abu Hijleh, had been rearrested. “If they want terrorists out of the country, why did they explicitly restrict more than 100 of them, including Nizar al-Tamimi, to the area controlled by the PA?” Roth wrote. “That’s a decision they took in October 2011. Since they made that decision then, why did they change it now? And without any announcement? And without consulting any of the victims?”
Lack of consultation with the victims is a recurring theme among critics of the Israeli government’s actions in this sensitive area. “Israeli government decision-making related to the release of terrorists and related issues continues to be highly secretive, often inexplicable, and entirely insensitive to the families of the victims,” Professor Gerald Steinberg, the President of NGO Monitor, a leading Israel advocacy organization, told me in an email. “The mass release in the Shalit exchange, and now facilitating al Tamimi’s ‘family reunification,’ has continued the cruel pattern of shutting out the families of the terror victims, while eroding Israeli deterrence against the perpetrators of mass terror.”
It is against this charged background that the Roths are demanding answers. The Israeli government can, of course, say that it is providing answers; but the problem with those answers is that they raise even more painful questions. Clarity is needed, and that’s why Prime Minister Netanyahu should finally sit down in person with Arnold and Frimet Roth.
True, such an encounter may well turn out to be a fractious one. That is better than a continuing silence that comes across as cold indifference.
Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.