This is Personal – Gilad Shalit and the Terrorist I’ve Sought
Do I have the strength to sit down with the Hamas terrorist who tried to kill my wife? To sit across from him and ask, Why, Mohammad? Why?
These are the questions that surfaced after reading, this morning in Haaretz, that Hamas has agreed to an Egyptian proposal for the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who has been held captive in Gaza for the past five years.
The deal is this: exchange Shalit for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, one of whom is Mohammad Odeh, the man who bombed my wife. The man who I’ve been trying for years to meet in prison. The man whose family I visited in East Jerusalem.
The man I may be afraid to meet if released.
Allow me to explain:
Part 1 – Then
In the summer of 2002, Hamas terrorists, targeting both Israelis and Americans, struck a cafeteria at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The blast threw my wife across the blood-streaked linoleum floor and killed the two friends with whom she was sitting.
The bombing sent me on a psychological journey which, years later, led me to East Jerusalem and the childhood home of the Hamas terrorist who set everything in motion.
Not out of revenge. Out of desperation.
My story (about which I’ve written a book currently seeking publication) is about my personal attempt to psychologically heal by understanding my enemy – an enemy who inexplicably expressed remorse upon being captured by Israeli police. It is the story of reconciliation between an American Jew – made uncomfortable by his leftist quest – and the terrorist’s East Jerusalem family.
Why did I feel compelled to seek meeting with this terrorist? Why did I travel to Israel to sip tea with his family? Because of this: upon being captured and imprisoned by Israel, news reports surfaced that Odeh expressed remorse for his actions, for the fact that so many died (nine in all, five of whom were American) in the bombing. And I thought, Impossible. There’s no way. Hamas terrorists do not express remorse. They do not apologize. They praise the struggle, extol the resistance, fists raised and words unequivocal.
And I knew one thing: I would try to confront him, to sit down across from him – unable to square the words “Hamas terrorist” and “remorse” – and ask one word: Why?
And that one word, the question, the psychological need to understand in order to move beyond what occurred, led me to this:
Five years after the bombing, I found myself slack-jawed in a Jerusalem Toys “R” Us looking at plastic squirt guns and Hebrew-talking Elmo figures thinking, “What do I buy for the children of the man who tried to kill my wife?”
A visit had been arranged with the Odeh family by my Palestinian translator, Mariam — the family had invited me to their home in East Jerusalem, which is why I was wandering the aisles. I needed an offering, something to demonstrate that I was not coming for revenge.
When Mariam picked me up, I was holding a Rubik’s Cube and a stencil set. She eyed them and smiled. “Not necessary,” said her expression as I opened the door to a silver Peugeot. What she didn’t know is that I was also carrying a knife. And though I had told myself, while placing the knife in my pocket, “Not necessary,” I had brought it anyway. Just in case.
When we arrived at the house, I was served spiced tea. With Odeh’s mother, brother and children watching, I took a sip, ceremoniously burned my tongue and smiled. Mariam nodded. They wanted me to speak.
“I’m not here for revenge,” I said. “I’m simply here to meet you and try to understand what happened. That is all.”
There was silence. And then, suddenly, a flurry of Arabic as Mohammad’s mother and brother began speaking simultaneously, Mariam doing her best to keep up:
“His mother says, ‘We didn’t know what he was doing, we would have stopped him if we only knew.’ ”
“His brother says, ‘He broke. He would watch Palestinians being beaten on the news. He used to sit in front of the TV for hours.’ ”
“His mother says, ‘When they told us what Mohammad did, we were in trauma. We didn’t believe it.’ ”
“And then, the words I had come for appeared as Mariam turned to me and said, “Mohammad has told them he is sorry, that if he could turn back time and change everything, he would.”
I nodded internally, understanding nothing as his brother looked at me and said, “We don’t understand why you have come without a gun. Why don’t you have a gun? If it were me, I’d be angry.”
“This may sound cliche,” I said, “but I’m sick of the violence. I’m sick. I just want understanding and, perhaps, peace.”
“I want peace, too,” he said. “We all do.”
As he spoke, a toddler — his daughter — plucked a photo album from my backpack. She began flipping pages, giggling at pictures of my daughters as the Odeh family squawked for her to return my property.
I pulled out an orange rubber ball, rotated it before her eyes and gently pulled the album from her grip as she grasped the toy. The family clapped. And I realized, I would never get my ball back.
Part 2 – Now
I never met Odeh, never was allowed by Israeli authorities to sit across from him and ask, through the bars of a maximum security prison, Are you really sorry?
And now comes the hard part: there is a strong possibility that Odeh is on the list of prisoners Hamas is demanding be released in exchange for Shalit. (My source tells me it is a near certainty.)
I know, deep within, that I still have the psychological need – inexplicable and irrational – to understand how this man could have set a backpack filled with explosives down amidst a crowd of international students and remotely detonate it after escaping in a getaway car. How he could have done such a thing and then, weeks later, express remorse. Express sadness. Express regret.
I need to know if his words are true. If they are honest.
I have no idea – the need is emotional, beyond language, beyond explication.
But it exists. I simply don’t know if I have the strength to go through with it should the opportunity arise, should he be released.