Terrorist Attack in Tel Aviv | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Terrorist Attack in Tel Aviv

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on March 18, 1996. Partner content is not updated.

In this holiest of lands, there is nothing particularly sacred about the intersection of King George and Dizengoff boulevards in downtown Tel Aviv. No prophets are buried on the spot. There are no slabs of ancient rock to be worshipped or fought over.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on March 18, 1996

Terrorist Attack in Tel Aviv

In this holiest of lands, there is nothing particularly sacred about the intersection of King George and Dizengoff boulevards in downtown Tel Aviv. No prophets are buried on the spot. There are no slabs of ancient rock to be worshipped or fought over. The site is dominated by jostling cars and that most banal of contributions to 20th-century architecture: a sprawling concrete, glass and neon shopping mall called the Dizengoff Center. So when a young Muslim extremist chose a warm holiday afternoon to lie down on a street corner near the mall's automatic teller machines and blow himself and those around him to pieces, he struck at a target that could have been in any city, anywhere. His victims were an indiscriminate roll call of the innocent: Gail Belkin, shopping for her daughter's wedding dress; Dan Tversky, walking to work for exercise after recent open-heart surgery; 12-year-old Yovav Levy, who was coming out of a movie theatre. They and 10 others died on March 4, just going about their lives. That was the most chilling part of it all.

The suicide bombing was the fourth in nine days by the military wing of the fundamentalist Islamic religious brotherhood called Hamas. In all they killed 57 civilians, and did grievous damage to the ever-flickering spirit of peace and reconciliation in the Middle East. But the Tel Aviv bombing inflicted perhaps the most traumatic psychological wound yet on a nation grown regrettably accustomed - though not inured - to living with violence. Israelis have fought five wars and countless skirmishes since their independence in 1948, been victimized by terrorists and responded with brutality of their own. But most of the violence has occurred where Jews and Palestinians live side by side: in the occupied territories of the West Bank, or Jerusalem, the contested, ghettoized capital. Tel Aviv prides itself on being fun and free. It is a slightly bawdy beachfront city - more liberal and more cosmopolitan (more Philistine, say many spiritual Jews) than other Israeli cities. The bombing at the Dizengoff Center, while hardly representing a loss of innocence, produced a national convulsion of grief and anger that left even the most dovish Israelis questioning the way ahead.

In the past two years, by a slim if shaky majority, Israelis have supported peace negotiations with Palestinians led by Yasser Arafat. They have steadily handed back territories and towns conquered during the 1967 Six-Day War under the premise that peace and security would follow the establishment of democratic Palestinian self-rule. But with demoralized citizens assaulted by images of blood-stained city sidewalks and the tears of wailing survivors, never has that bargain seemed such a chimera. "People are starting to feel like they are victims of a con trick," says Jerusalem teacher David Graniewitz, now questioning his own support for the deal. "This is the first time I have felt such desperation, such helplessness. We are afraid to leave our homes. They know when to strike, where to strike, how to hurt us the most. And we know so little about them."

The peace process appears just as vulnerable. There have been violent interludes throughout its progress, but the reaction to each one had become almost customary. Bombs and shootings were followed by a period of mourning, angry protests ensued from hardline Israelis opposed to any accommodation with the Palestinians, and then the wheels of the peace talks reassuringly ground back into motion. Last week, nothing was being done by rote. The predictable "Death to Arabs" chant of radical Jews was matched this time by a temporary but deep plunge in popular support for Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. After the murder of his predecessor, Yitzhak Rabin, by an Israeli extremist last November, Peres remains the political and personal embodiment of the peace process. The bombs came at the beginning of a three-month general election campaign that is effectively a referendum on whether to continue swapping land for security. With the stakes so high and Israeli cities anything but secure, Peres struck back aggressively, putting his peace deal on hold for now in the hope of saving it later.

Internationally, concern grew so intense that key world leaders, led by U.S. President Bill Clinton, planned to hold a summit in Egypt this week on countering terrorism. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien said he would attend. Clinton was set to travel on to Israel in hopes of shoring up support for peace. But Peres's strategy emphasized collective punishment for Palestinians, a "war in every sense of the word," as he put it. He slapped curfews and closure on Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, effectively locking them up and preventing them from travelling to their jobs in Israel. He then launched military-style raids to try to break Hamas's ability to wage terror, and encouraged Arafat's Palestinian Authority to do the same in areas it controls. Hamas is the main political rival to Arafat's intensely personal rule in Palestinian territories.

Families of the bombers watched as their homes were soldered shut in preparation for the long-standing Israeli practice of demolition. First to come down was the home of Raad Shaghnoubi, identified as the man who blew up a bus in Jerusalem, killing 19, the day before the Tel Aviv bombing. The Jerusalem attack had followed by a week, almost to the minute, a similar suicide blast there that killed 24 on the same No. 18 bus line, as well as a blast in coastal Ashkelon that left one more Israeli dead, along with the bomber.

As the crackdown raged on, hundreds of Hamas sympathizers were jailed. The popular Hamas social network of Islamic schools, community centres and health clinics was closed. "We will not stop until we destroy Hamas down to its roots," vowed Brig.-Gen. Ghazi Jabali, head of the Palestinian police.

That was what Israelis and many Palestinians wanted to hear, but few were buying his sincerity. Israeli security officials gave Jabali a list of 13 Hamas leaders they wanted arrested, but the black-bereted police chief offered only an enigmatic smile when asked how many his force had found. "It's a secret," he whispered one day last week, then quickly broke it, saying: "We've arrested seven or eight of them." His men also showed off the results of their raids for the world's media to view. It was a sorry arsenal: rusted bayonets, a few boxes of bullets and battered home-made guns that looked more dangerous to whoever might gamble on firing them. The seizure would hardly cripple Hamas military cells, which experts say are well funded and supplied primarily from Iran. The Hamas weapon of choice is a vest of explosives strapped inside the clothing of a zealot who, inspired by a vision of martyrdom or perhaps a little cash for his family, willingly walks into a crowd and triggers a detonator. "They are paid small amounts," says Jabali. "They are usually poor people looking to feed their families."

Not even the political wing of Hamas was able to stop the violence - if its public appeals for an end to bombings were, in fact, real. Hamas issued a head-spinning raft of contradictory leaflets claiming that a ceasefire was, alternately, imminent or out of the question. And in such a murky world, there was no clear answer on whether the confusion was deliberate or a sign of internal disarray. "This is a religious war that will not stop with one or two attacks," vowed a nervous Hamas activist in Gaza, first refusing to speak and then launching an emotional attack on Israel's "illegitimate occupation" of Islamic territory. "Every Palestinian wants revenge on Israel," he said. "It is simple: the attacks will go on until Israel is gone from this land."

Others say the true reasons for the recent surge in killings are more narrowly driven. The bombers all appear to have been disciples of Yehiya Ayyash, a charismatic Hamas terrorist nicknamed "The Engineer" for his record of organizing bomb attacks inside Israel. Last January, Ayyash was killed in a Gaza refugee camp when he took a call on a cellular phone that was primed to explode. The blast didn't have to be big. Ayyash was killed, and Israeli agents were universally assumed to have arranged the tactically sophisticated assassination.

"There is a personal element at work here, almost a cult," says Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al-Kuds University in Jerusalem. "These latest bombings were all by students of Ayyash. He taught them, he was killed, and they want to avenge his death. We are talking about a very, very small group of individuals - maybe 10 - of whom four have already detonated themselves. They are not working under the political leadership of Hamas, and it is an exaggeration to look at the bombings as the beginning of a major unfolding pattern. The challenge for Israel and Arafat is to not take actions that will encourage others to become more radical."

Calibrating the use of force - how hard to squeeze Hamas before the repression spawns a backlash - is indeed a delicate task, and the hopes for peace may depend on getting it right. To hardline Israelis like former defence minister Ariel Sharon, now an opposition Likud party parliamentarian, "safeguarding every citizen, protecting every bus, taxi, store or business is patently impossible. We must initiate our own offensive." Sharon has tried that approach before and clearly wants another crack. But the dry, rocky land of Israel remains a cauldron of tit-for-tat violence, with claims and counterclaims having long obscured original sin.

A deafening wind is blowing off the Mediterranean Sea through Gaza City, mercifully dampening Gaza's infamous dust but making a historic day prickly cold. Outside the Rashad Al Shawwa Cultural Center, there is a burst of musical pomp and a heavy presence of Palestinian Authority police as Arafat prepares to open the inaugural session of the Palestinian Legislative Council. He, too, is engaged in a fine balancing act. The ultimate survivor of deadly Palestinian power struggles, Arafat must now contain the Hamas ghoul to prove to the Israelis and the international community that he is an unswerving partner in peace. But in the process, he must be careful not to alienate that minority - which most analysts suggest ranges up to 20 per cent - of Palestinians who are sympathetic to the Hamas vision of an Islamic society.

Arafat clearly is not prepared to inflame either side. "I am greeting all my people, all of them," he intones, still appearing in olive military fatigues despite the peace, his hand chopping the air for emphasis. He extends a special greeting to Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the paralyzed 60-year-old Hamas leader who is in an Israeli jail for leading a murderous attack inside the country. And Arafat slams Israel for its muscular response to the bombings, including Peres's vow to pursue wanted Hamas members into areas under Palestinian control. "The problems of the Middle East cannot be solved by bombs," he says. "But nor can they be solved by closures, or curfews, or collective punishments."

Arafat has gambled that he can bring the middle-class, middle-aged, moderate elements of Hamas into the political arena, trying to convince them that even if they still wish for Armageddon, they should at least postpone it. Hamas did refuse to participate in the elections in January for the 88-member Legislative Council. But they also bent to Arafat's urgings that they not try to enforce a boycott of the polls either. And there had not been a bomb for seven months. "Arafat said to Hamas, 'better you come on board, but if you don't, please remain peaceful,' " says university president Nusseibeh. "And until now, his logic was working."

The Ayyash killing changed that. "The first step in what we are living now was the killing of Ayyash," says Abuhassan Abu Jabr, a respected vegetable farmer in the southern Gaza Strip. He sits in his sprawling living-room, the sun setting behind him, and says that everyone knew that violence was coming. "All of the people liked Ayyash. He was a respected man, and it was sad to lose such a character. When the Israelis killed him, we knew something was coming in the wind. We were angry, but we were also afraid."

Arafat sensed impending trouble, too. He attended Ayyash's funeral, describing him glowingly as a martyr. ("I thought Ayyash was Arafat's enemy as much as my enemy," said Jersualem teacher Graniewitz, describing the confusion in Israeli minds at Arafat's behavior. "Then, Arafat gives him a state funeral. We keep getting these dual messages.") Hamas, unmollified, took its horrific revenge on Israel anyway. In turn, the Israeli border closure has caused financial hardship on working Gazans. "Hamas knew what the effect would be on the rest of us," said Abu Jabr. "Our sole entrance point to the world is through Israel, and they had to know that it is our children who will suffer with less money now, less to eat."

But the Hamas hard core is playing the long game. In a chilly bookshop across the street from the sealed Islamic University in Gaza City, another young Hamas militant sits nervously at a table, playing absentmindedly with a stapler, and expresses as much disdain for Arafat's authority as for the Israelis. "The only people getting jobs are Arafat's loyalists and their families - that is what people in Gaza are talking about," he says, his brow furrowed, brown eyes showing anger. "People are saying that things were better during the intifadeh," he says of the six-year rock-throwing civil uprising against the Israeli occupation. "Now, we have a new occupation - by Arafat's police. They are here to carry out the orders of the Israelis, and everyone is afraid to speak against Arafat. During the intifadeh, the Israelis would put you in prison. But with Arafat, now you can get killed."

Yet Arafat has not been harsh enough with Hamas for the Israelis' liking. "We are giving Arafat a last chance, and a relatively short time, to dismantle these organizations, arrest the activists and disarm them," Foreign Minister Ehud Barak said. "If he doesn't, we will."

In that charged political climate, few inside Israel were willing to criticize Peres for going too far. Yizhar Be'er, executive director of B'Tselem, a human-rights agency that has been the bane of Israeli governments in the past, did urge Peres not to punish the Palestinians collectively for the bombings. "A basic rule of law is the principle of individual responsibility," he said. "But if people are unwilling to look into human rights at such an emotional time, they should ask if the measures will be effective. Is knocking down the house of a five-year-old whose brother was a suicide bomber likely to make him support the peace process when he is a teenager?"

After the second Jerusalem bus bomb, the number of bus passengers fell by half, according to the transit authority, and the sight of near-empty buses travelling past the wreckage of the Tel Aviv blast was eerie. The attacks sapped any spirit or joy from this year's Purim celebrations, the carnival-like Jewish festival. But Israelis themselves are tremendously resilient. "Because of our experience of war and terrorism, most children or adults are familiar with dramatic events and know how to absorb them," says Reuvena Shalhevet, director of the Jerusalem city psychology service. "If we mourn too much, our enemies will win out. We want to live."

Former Israeli president Chaim Herzog reminded others of a host of attacks and massacres on Israelis this century, noting that "in most cases we succeeded in brushing off the feeling of danger, both national and personal. We buried our dead, rolled up our sleeves, and created the Jewish state." That exhortation would appeal to the deep middle ground of public opinion that never regarded the peace deal as cause for jumping into fountains for joy, nor seeing it as ushering in the end of the Israeli state. By week's end, Peres's poll numbers had recovered to a level with Likud, indicating that his calculated hard line was at least paying some political dividends.

But the experience of the last two weeks has shaken whatever faith Israelis had in Peres's hopes of a multiethnic, democratic Middle East. "Israelis perceive Peres as being soft because of all his high talk about a 'new' Middle East, with an intermingling of peoples," said one Western diplomat. "That vision seems finished now."

Yet Palestinians, too, face tough choices, with potentially historic repercussions. Will they allow those people still committed to the violent overthrow of Israel to operate comfortably in their midst? Can they forget old instincts, or will many of them continue to cheer news of attacks on Jews? "I'm cynical about these 'spontaneous' mass demonstrations for peace organized by Arafat," says Graniewitz. "That's the sort of stuff you expect from Saddam Hussein. What I want to see is the average Palestinian saying: 'I know my neighbor. He's a suicide bomber.' And then tell the police." It might not stop every determined martyr-to-be from leaving such crushing sorrow behind. But it would put most Israelis and Palestinians on the same side.

Maclean's March 18, 1996