Mideast mirrored in a father's grief Conflict: Father of a slain Israeli soldier sways between longings for peace and revenge on the eve of President Clinton's arrival in Egypt for an international conference on terrorism.

March 12, 1996|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Yehuda Wachsman buried his son on Mount Herzl 16 months ago. Each week, he goes to the cemetery to recite Psalms over the grave of the young soldier, killed in a kidnapping by Hamas extremists.

"The wicked have laid a snare for me. " the father reads from one of the Psalms.

As the weeks of his mourning have passed, the graves near Mr. Wachsman's son filled with other soldiers killed in attacks, new crying-mounds for other families.

"No one wants to pay this cost, Israelis or Palestinians," he says.

Mr. Wachsman, 49, knows dearly the cost that helped prompt the international conference on terrorism bringing President Clinton and other world leaders to Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, tomorrow.

His son, Nachshon, 19, was kidnapped while hitchhiking from his army post in October 1994. He was held for five days while his kidnappers demanded Israel release 200 Palestinian prisoners. He was killed in the shootout that erupted when the Israeli army stormed the kidnappers' West Bank hideout. Another soldier and three Hamas members also died.

Since then, Mr. Wachsman, a real estate agent, has been an inspiration for reconciliation. He has met publicly with the father of one of his son's slain kidnappers. He has talked to Arab and Israeli youths about the futility of violence. He has spoken out for peace.

"I want people to know that a father who lost his child in such tragic circumstances hasn't lost hope," he says.

And yet, Mr. Wachsman is not a simple idealist. He is not immune from the temptation of revenge or the blind anger of grief. The conflicts he feels are those of most Israelis as they grope for a solution -- any solution -- to the spate of bus bombings in Israel that killed 61 people persons in nine days.

"If they bomb one of our buses, we should bomb 20 of theirs," said Mr. Wachsman in an interview yesterday.

It is a cold prescription from a man who appealed for restraint after his son's death and was called "an example to the people of Israel" by President Ezer Weizman.

Mr. Wachsman pauses, retraces carefully the thread of reasoning that leads from the plea for peace to a call to war. He occasionally touches his bushy beard, as though to find in it the right words to explain this contradiction. "A Palestinian needs to have rights, and he should have them in his own country," says Mr. Wachsman. "The mistake of every Israeli government was it did not give the Palestinians their rights.

"I am for the peace process. I have been saying that for 20 years," he says. "But the peace process can continue only if there is no terror."

If attacks continue on Israelis, Israel should respond in the same fashion, he says.

"If there are people that endanger the existence of my people, I will fight them with the same coin they fight me," he says. "When we feel we have no other way, and we feel there is a danger to our nation's existence, we can turn into a very dangerous people. We have the instinct to survive."

Mr. Wachsman's family came here from Romania in 1959. He met his wife, Esther, an American from New York, at Hebrew University. She is an English teacher, and they had seven children. Nachshon was the middle son.

He says that Israel is playing by different rules than its Arab neighbors.

"They believe in family honor -- if someone kills your family, you should kill them. They just can't understand a country that doesn't have a death penalty."

He says the crackdown on Islamic fundamentalists, demanded of Mr. Arafat Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat by the Israeli government after the recent bombings, should have come long before. Israel was too intent on securing a peace accord agreement to force Yasser Mr. Arafat to act, he says.

"The Israeli government was so tied to a vision of peace that they didn't want anything that would destroy that vision," he says. "They wanted to push the mourning aside. They didn't even declare a national mourning period, because they feared it would be seen as a sign of national weakness.

"We did nothing. We were not standing and insisting. I think we should not continue the peace process until we are safe from the people who would harm us."

One whom Israel insists that Mr. Arafat must arrest is Mohammed Dief, who is alleged to have planned the Wachsman kidnapping.

"I know from very good sources Mohammed Dief in these 16 months has walked around Gaza," says Mr. Wachsman.

"We should make sure they give us these people. I am only sorry there is no death penalty in Israel. We should extradite him, and ask for the death penalty.

"This is what should have been done to all the planners, all those who send the suicide bombers, the religious leaders and the spiritual leaders who brainwash the youngsters," he says.

Mr. Wachsman concedes he does not have much confidence that tomorrow's conference in Egypt will accomplish anything.

"I have only hope. I hope they will decide on an international treaty to fight terror, and the nations of the world will exchange information, and will help with equipment, and put an end to the terror.

"To my great regret, we have let this cancer of terrorism grow here," he says. "If we do not cure it locally, it will destroy our people."

Pub Date: 3/12/96

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