Difficulty of forgiving, forgetting

Sun Journal

Terror: Statements by PLO faction chieftain Nayef Hawatmeh, hinting that he might not have abandoned violence, raise objections to Yasser Arafat's plan to welcome him back to the West Bank and Gaza.

November 03, 1999|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MA'ALOT, Israel -- Peacemaking always requires forgiving and forgetting, on both sides. But in the case of Nayef Hawatmeh, one of the most notorious Palestinian terrorists of the 1970s, forgiving and forgetting are practically impossible.

Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, hoping to bury the hatchet with old rivals within the Palestine Liberation Organization, wants to welcome Hawatmeh into the West Bank and Gaza so he can join the Arab consensus as final negotiations get under way with Israel.

Israelis, who carry indelible memories of the blood spilled in attacks against their people in places such as Ma'alot, want to keep him out.

The Israeli government, which controls the borders, at first consented, rejecting the protests of Hawatmeh's Israeli victims and their families.

But then Hawatmeh started making public comments suggesting he had not abandoned terrorism, and Israel "suspended" its permission.

Statements modified

Hawatmeh has softened his tone. Speaking from Damascus in a telephone interview, he says, "We say nothing in this period, at this stage, about armed struggle. We said very clearly that our national struggle, the intifada, depends on a mass political and diplomatic struggle."

But he says he cannot rule out a return to armed struggle if negotiations with Israel fail to yield a comprehensive settlement.

Nowhere is this drama being watched more closely than in this community in northern Israel near the Lebanon border. Here, the specter of Hawatmeh coming to the West Bank stirs painful memories of what happenned here when his men attacked a quarter-century ago.

In the pre-dawn hours of May 15, 1974, three terrorists under Hawatmeh's command broke into a house and killed most members of a family before climbing a hill to the Netiv Meir religious school.

There, they kicked awake a group of 110 high school students on a field trip from nearby Zefat, pressed them into a classroom and held them hostage throughout the day.

When Israeli soldiers stormed the school in early evening, 22 of the students died in gunfire and a grenade explosion and about 70 were wounded. The three terrorists were killed, too.

"This whole thing, it comes back, it hurts," says one of the hostages, Naftali Cohen.

Shoshana Amrusi, who lost a 15-year-old daughter in the massacre, says her chest ached when she began getting calls again from journalists.

For Cohen and the Amrusis, the trauma is still too recent -- even after 25 years -- to contemplate reconciliation.

Cohen, who was then 16, leapt from a second-floor window in the final violent minutes of the crisis. Good friends of his were shot before they could jump.

Shimon Maymon, another survivor, also escaped -- but with a searing memory:

"When I jumped out of the window, one of the girls who was with me was crying incessantly. She said she saw one of her girlfriends with her whole face shattered."

For Israelis who followed the hostage drama on transistor radios through the day, the pain was doubly acute because of the human and governmental frailty it exposed.

It came only seven months after the confidence-shattering Yom Kippur war of 1973.

When the terrorists burst into the school, several teacher-chaperons were among the first to escape. The teachers later told parents they left to seek help.

But Shalom Me'arati, who was then principal of Netiv Meir, said three or four teachers fled in "a moment of fright."

The government of then-Prime Minister Golda Meir dithered through the day on whether to abandon its counter-terrorism policy and negotiate with the hostage-takers over release of Palestinian prisoners.

When it finally decided to negotiate rather than fight terror "on the backs of children," signals and messages were disastrously crossed, with the result that Israeli soldiers commanded at that moment by Defense Minister Moshe Dayan stormed the school as the captors' deadline approached.

Once inside, they initially went to the wrong floor, giving the hostage takers valuable warning time.

Murder and friendly fire

Maymon, now a teacher in Zefat, vividly recalls the terrorists firing on their hostages in the final moments.

But officials later admitted that students also were hit by bullets from Israeli weapons.

After the wounded were helicoptered out and the dead removed, the "rivers of blood" were washed away, Me'arati says. Then survivors, school authorities and townspeople grappled with the long-term emotional impact.

For Cohen, it took the form of sleeplessness and fear of closed places. For Maymon, it brought 17 years of nightmares, of waking soaked in sweat and seeing "bodies torn on the ground."

Teachers were frightened to walk back into school. Some of the pupils returning to elementary school started wetting their beds. Soldiers were sent to stay overnight in the homes of frightened residents.

Maymon maintains his own memorial inside a school dedicated to the 22. Among his exhibits is a letter written by Elana Ne'eman to her parents in the hours just before she was killed:

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