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At-Home with Gila Svirsky

March 1996

Bombs, Revenge, and One Iota of Hope

On Sunday, March 10, I awoke to the second bomb in Jerusalem. This time “only” 18 dead, “only” seven seriously wounded. But Sunday was the last day that my friend Nahum would sit in official mourning for his son, killed in the first bomb a week earlier, so I felt I had to see him, although I was afraid to use the buses. I decided not to take the bus #18, the target of the two previous bombs, but to take the longer route. Longer but safer, I felt. There was a guard standing on the steps of the #19 bus checking every person who got on, which made me feel better. I sat down facing the back of the bus and saw a woman crying in her seat. I got up and stood next to her and put my arm around her. Someone else passed her a tissue. Then I saw tissues passing around the bus.

I had to transfer to the bus #4, but that bus had no security guard. Two stops later a young man got on, aged about 25, wearing a heavy backpack, with nobody to check him. I thought, should I tell the driver? Should I tell another passenger? I thought, if he is carrying a bomb, he would blow us all up the minute he knew someone was suspicious of him. So I got off at the very next stop and watched the bus pull away, dreading to hear an explosion. I walked the rest of the way to Nahum’s house, about half an hour, wondering if I had done the moral thing by trying to save only my own skin.

Nahum and his wife appeared very “strong” in the presence of the company. They made everyone feel welcome and god-forbid not have to exert any compassion, serving coffee and cake. There was one tough man who talked about everything but the death, though that’s supposed to be the object of the mourning period. Then he pulled out a poem he had written on the day of the bomb, mumbled apologetically that he never ordinarily writes poetry, and gave it to Nahum. Nahum read it and started to say what a nice poem, I mean, just from a literary point of... And left the room to compose himself.

After I left Nahum, I decided I was brave enough to take the bus 18 home. After all, about 5 hours had passed since the bomb, and they wouldn’t put two bombs on the same day on the same bus line, would they? I was scared, but the bus was about half full, the passengers sitting very quietly. No guard, but everyone looked safe. One teenage girl pored over a book of Psalms, her lips moving silently. Everything was quiet until we got to the area of the bomb, where a mob was gathered and beginning to get violent. They were shouting, “Death to Arabs,” “Death to Peres,” and the like. The mayor of Jerusalem was in the center trying to calm them down by shouting over them. (If decibel levels are a criterion for public office, this man is outstanding.) But by now the mob had flowed onto the streets and blocked the traffic. Everybody inside the bus then lost their surface calm. One man started shouting “Peres is a whore, the peace process is a whore, the whole country is a whore, it was better in Russia.” Another woman was shouting, “Separation, separation, we can never live together!” And a little boy, about eight years old, was slapping his chest with his open hand, his eyes wide with fear, as if he were an aged grandmother speechless with grief beating her breast. After about 15 minutes, the police got the mob to let the bus through. I felt safer after having passed the two sites of the bombs and reaching my own neighborhood.

The next day, I heard two wonderful items of news at noon: (1) The head Muslim Sheikh in Israel declared that terrorism was against the Koran and called upon clergy throughout the Muslim world to demand an end to it; (2) A mass demonstration of several thousand Palestinians in Gaza came out to support the peace process and call for an end to the bombs and terrorism. I was looking forward to seeing these on the main news of the evening. But something upstaged these items.

At 4 p.m. another bomb went off. The newscaster said that so far there were about 15 dead and over a hundred wounded, some of them children. But before my little heart was completely wrung out, he said that this bomb was in Tel Aviv. Forgive me, dear loved ones in Tel Aviv, but for a few minutes, all I could think of was relief that it was not in Jerusalem again.

Then the next blow: The government announced its “defense” measures against terrorism, Prime Minister Peres trying to out-Likud the Likud (i.e., appeal to the swing vote) with an iron-fist policy. This included total closure of the territories, including blockading the entry of foodstuffs and medical supplies, the demolition of the homes of the families whose sons had been the suicide-bombers, and possible expulsions of the male members of the families. The gross inhumanity and stupidity of this decision! All of these are large extended families with nowhere else to go. Demolition of their homes would mean another 60-80 people, perhaps more, most of whom had nothing to do with the bombings, would now lose their homes and become dependent upon Hamas support and incitement. and all their friends, relatives, and neighbors who witness the house demolition would also become sworn enemies of Israel. Collective punishment — the perfect way to get a civilian population to hate you.

I called the B’Tselem human rights organization (where I was about to step down as chair) and we talked about how to stop it — advocacy of sympathetic Knesset members, rallying international protest, appealing to the High Court of Justice for stay orders, etc. But bad precedents made all of this a struggle doomed to failure. Not a single case to prevent collective punishment of Palestinians has ever been won since the occupation began. After considerable soul-searching, I finally decided to call the mother of someone who was just killed — who I knew would be sympathetic — to ask if she was willing to speak out against the house demolitions. If she as a mother could bring herself to sit in the home of the family whose son placed the bomb that killed her son, to protect them with her own body, I was fairly certain that the army would not be able to destroy that house. Well, although she agreed with the principle, she didn’t agree to do it for various personal reasons, especially not “exploiting the death” of her son to advance any form of ideology. I do understand and respect that, but what a lost opportunity. It also makes me want to say right here out loud, in writing:

If I get hurt or killed in a terrorist act, I refuse to sanction the use of my injury or death by the government of Israel to justify harm to innocent people. Furthermore, I hereby authorize the use of my injury or death to advance the cause of peace, including blatant use of my funeral or mourning or death, and especially all acts of kindness, compassion, and humanity to all those responsible for my death.

That night, a Peace Now demonstration was quickly organized and I went bearing a homemade sign: “Peace = No more revenge! Do not harm innocent families.” The organizers became incensed at the sign and asked me to stand apart from everyone else. Some of them objected because they were afraid it would sound like criticism of Peres (it was!!), who the demonstration wanted to support, but others objected because they disagreed with the message! I was shocked to learn that so many thought the homes of the families should be destroyed, that this is an excellent deterrent measure. When I asked if the homes of the families of Yigal Amir (Rabin’s assassin) or Ami Popper (the Israeli Jew who machine-gunned dead seven Arabs) should also be destroyed, YES, they said in unison — a testimony to the liberal mind.

When I got home, I gathered the courage to call a man whose son was killed in a terrorist act a few years ago, and who was said to be “outspoken” in favor of peace and territorial compromise. Well, I asked as gently as I could, do you feel that you can speak out against the home demolitions? “Not only should their homes be destroyed,” said mr. outspoken, “the parents should be shot in public for raising their sons to do what they did.” So much for that.

It all seemed disheartening. The consensus in Israel is overwhelmingly in favor of maintaining the closure of the territories, blowing up the remaining homes, and deporting “male family members.” Closure is not a mild sanction, don’t forget, as it means 70% unemployment in Gaza, no access to medical systems across the border (Gazans can’t even get into the West Bank, where medical care is better), and limited foodstuffs. Even the fishermen off the coast of Gaza are not allowed to take their boats out, as a siege by the Israeli navy seeks to prevent the escape of terrorists. And the famed left-wing author, David Grossman, whose book Yellow Wind did so much to raise awareness of the oppressive nature of the intifada, spoke out publicly in favor of the house demolitions, calling them “painful but legitimate.”

The only ray of hope — as usual in Israel — is the women’s peace movement. A dozen Jerusalem women got together and decided to put an ad in the paper of women who condemn the collective punishment. We managed to get signatures from 250 women from all over Israel (Jewish and Arab) decrying the government actions. The newspaper Davar actually carried it on their first page (we only paid for an inside page), probably because it seemed so newsworthy that 250 people were flaunting the consensus on this issue. Just about all the names on the list had been women peace activists during the years of the intifada, almost all in the Women in Black vigils. Peace activism, it seems, is an educational experience.

Here’s a copy of the ad we placed:

To the government of Israel:


We, Israeli women,

  • Express our sorrow at the suffering of the victims of terrorism;
  • Support intensified efforts to achieve a permanent peace; and
  • Recognize the obligation of the state of Israel to defend its citizens.

    Nevertheless, the measures taken by the government against the Palestinian population at large do not ensure security, and inflict harm on innocent people.

    The closure has raised the threat of starvation in some segments of the population and has prevented access to vital health services, with sometimes fatal results.

    Measures of collective punishment — closure, demolition of homes, deportations — are immoral, are not a solution for terrorism, and indeed serve to strengthen support for the perpetrators of terrorism.

    Only a just peace will bring security.

  • Someone told me that Mahatma Gandhi said that if we all believed in an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, we’d all be walking around blind and toothless. Well, there are quite a few people who are already blind and toothless, but they still haven’t learned a thing.

    Back Introduction
    January 1991: War Is a Crime
    March 1996:  Bombs, Revenge, and One Iota of Hope
       2 Nov 1996: Hand in Hand in Hebron
      4 Apr 1997:  Children Still Alive and Abdallah
    25 May 1998:  So We Won’t Die in Any More Wars
    10 July 1998:   Lena Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
      2 Aug 1998:  Lena’s New Home... Destroyed
      3 Jan 1999: Rifle Grenade #400
      9 July 1999: A Housewarming for Peace
    23 Jan 2000: The Politics of the Tree
    18 Oct 2000: On Violence by Israeli Arabs
    10 Nov 2000: Peace Efforts in Israel
    22 Nov 2000: We Refuse to Be Enemies
    23 Nov 2000: Meeting of Women MKs for Peace
    26 Nov 2000: Views of Faisal Husseini
    28 Nov 2000: Lack of coverage for women’s events
      1 Dec 2000: Principles and Action
      8 Dec 2000: Women in Black today
    30 Dec 2000: On the Way to Crowning Jerusalem with Peace
    Letters from Jerusalem, 2001
    Letters from Jerusalem, 2002
    Letters from Jerusalem, 2003
    New & recent letters from Jerusalem (2004)
    Resources and Links

    © 1996 Gila Svirsky.

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