Domingo 28 de Abril de 2002, Ip nº 13

Israelis mourn their dead in long search for solace
When rescue workers here arrive at the scene of a suicide bombing and jump out of their ambulances amid the carnage, the first sounds they hear, more often than not, are the musical jingles of cellphones lying with the dead.

Parents, spouses, siblings and children are calling, praying for a simple hello. Aviva Raziel was one of those. She was at work last August when word swept through the country that a suicide bomber had attacked the Sbarro restaurant in central Jerusalem. Right away she called her 16-year-old daughter, Michal.

There was no answer.

By the government's count, 319 people, including Michal, have been killed in terrorist attacks since September 2000, when the Palestinian uprising began. The state social security agency is providing benefits to just over 2,000 direct relatives of the deceased, said Chaja Eichler, a social worker with the agency. It is a group suffering trauma whose depth can barely be measured.

''I can't even describe how our family has been destroyed,'' Nili Hafsadi said through sobs. Her 20-year-old son, Nir, was killed last December in a suicide bombing in downtown Jerusalem. ''My joy in life has died. I am only a body walking. I don't understand how a mother can continue to live like this.''

For the relatives of anyone dying suddenly, unexpectedly, the trauma is excruciating, the recovery protracted. But this group, relatives of people who have died in suicide attacks, faces a particular dilemma: how to classify the death?

Is it a stupid, pointless loss, like a death in a traffic accident? Or should they consider their relatives heroes of the state, like soldiers killed in battle?

''People look for a meaning behind the death,'' said Roni Berger, a clinical psychologist who has treated more than 20 of these bereaved families. ''They want to look at it as more of a national thing.'' For some, that is a salve.

Every one of the survivors interviewed, members of five different families, wholeheartedly supports the Israeli military campaign now under way in the West Bank.

More Angry Than Vengeful

They are angry, often newly convinced that any peace with the Palestinians is impossible. Not one, however, spoke openly of hoping to exact revenge for the death of a loved one.

People are dying on both sides in large numbers as Israelis and Palestinians battle on, now well into the sixth decade of their conflict. The deaths can be refracted in strange ways through the psyches of those involved.

Arnold Roth lost his 15-year-old daughter, Malki, in the Sbarro bombing.

''I do not see her death as random,'' he said. ''If there was any justice in the world, all the clocks in the world would have stopped ticking on August ninth. She died al kadush ha Shem.'' That Hebrew phrase means, literally, ''the sanctity of God.'' But in Israel it is used to denote holy martyrdom.

''It's kind of like shaheed,'' Mr. Roth added with an embarrassed smile. Shaheed is the Arabic word for holy martyrs and is applied by Palestinians to suicide bombers, like the one who killed Malki Roth.

Moshe Bartov, a deeply religious man, lost his elderly parents, Altel and Freida Britvitz, in the bombing at the Park Hotel in Netanya on Passover three weeks ago. The couple were among 28 people killed by a suicide attacker carrying a large, weapons-grade bomb.

For Mr. Bartov, the emotional wound is still fresh. Whether his parents died as martyrs, he is not sure. ''It's very hard; it's still too close,'' he said. But he does know that as a result of the attack that killed them, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered a major military assault on the West Bank.

''Because of the tragedy at the hotel, the government woke up to do something drastic about Arafat and his gangs,'' Mr. Bartov said. ''That, in a way, is of comfort, maybe.''

Not everyone is soothed. Mr. Roth said his conclusion that his daughter died a martyr provides him no comfort. As for the the Hafsadis, their son, Nir, was in the army when he died, on leave for a few days. He was downtown with friends buying a pizza.

''The ironic thing,'' his father said, ''was that he was killed here, not in the army.'' His wife was more vehement. ''The fact that he was not killed in combat but when he went out to buy a pizza hurts a million times more.''

On Memorial Day on Tuesday, the government held a special service for relatives of people who have died in terror attacks, on Mount Herzl, the nation's graveyard for the honored dead, akin to Arlington Cemetery in Washington.

President Moshe Katsav spoke from a podium set in the angle between bleached stone walls bearing stark, black plaques. They are inscribed with the names of Jews killed here by terrorists starting in 1860.

The plaques for the period from 2000 to today already appear to hold more names than those from any previous decade.

''Here on the hill of remembrance,'' President Katsav proclaimed ''lie the buried heroes of Israel, the great ones of Israel, and it is here that the government decided to put up a memorial to the victims of enmity and terror.''

Hardening Opinions

Listening in the audience were several hundred of the bereaved. Some of them nodded.

Israel encourages them to think of the victims as the state's honored dead. The relatives are eligible for government benefits like counseling, monthly payments for life, reduced taxes, help with college tuition and assistance buying a car.

''It's like being a soldier who is killed; there's a certain aura, a certain glory'' said Ms. Eichler, the social worker. ''They died for the country, and so we give them that respect.''

Immediately after a death, survivors often get calls or visits from the mayor, the president, the chief rabbi or other senior officials.

Often the bereaved are interviewed for news stories, in newspapers or on television. Psychologists say the death and the attention often increase the relatives' political awareness. Another natural byproduct of the loss is anger, and many of the bereaved become more political. ''Suddenly they are more politically expressive,'' said Ms. Eichler. ''All of a sudden they are the spokesman for the neighborhood.'' Not surprisingly, their views harden.

Mr. Roth said he and his family had ''absolutely zero interest in politics'' before his daughter's death. Now, he said, ''I am in a different state of mind altogether. I am appalled.''

His voice fiery, he inveighed. ''I demand that the Israeli government protect me and what remains of my family at all costs. And if they can't, they should step aside and let someone else do it. I don't care about the political process; I don't give a damn about the Palestinians' grievances.''

Mordechai Hafsadi, a soft-spoken man, has supported the left-leaning Labor Party all his life. Now, after the death of his son, he raises a clenched fist as he says: ''If the government had taken the correct action back then -- if they had done then what they are doing now in the territories, then his death could have been averted. This is a slap in the face!''

Ms. Raziel, whose daughter died in the Sbarro bombing, said: ''The left, they say there has to be a political solution. I don't agree. I don't think there can be a political solution because the Arabs, they just don't want us here. ''Before last August,'' she added, ''I did not believe that.''

All of this may comfort, or distract, the bereaved. But beneath it lies the grief. Ask any of them to talk about the one who was lost and a passionate monologue seems to rise from the core of their pain.

''Nir was a special boy; he was a good, honest, humble, beautiful boy,'' his mother, Nili Hafsadi, said through tears. ''He never hurt anyone in his life. People always called to say beautiful things about him. He didn't drink, he didn't smoke. He was a smiling bashful boy. All his teachers loved him.''

Ms. Raziel, asked about her daughter Michal, looked up as she said: ''She was a very happy person; she made a point of saying hello to everyone. A very responsible person. She would never tolerate it when wrong was done to someone else.''

Victims of this sort of traumatic stress also often suffer physical symptoms. ''They have problems eating, sleeping; some are afraid to go outside,'' said Jonathan Pearlman of the Israel Trauma Center for Victims for Terror and War. Ms. Eichler added, ''It's also typical to suffer loss of memory.''

Mrs. Hafsadi said she had lost 45 pounds, and her black mourning dress hangs on her like a bed sheet. ''I can't stand to eat anything that Nir liked to eat,'' she said.

Ms. Raziel complains, ''My memory is kaput, and my ability to concentrate on anything is gone. I just can't fix on anything for a long time. My mind wanders.'' She is a nurse, but was afraid to return to work because of this trouble staying focused.

Many of them are afraid. ''Their fear is that losing one child does not make you immune from terror,'' said Danny Brom, the director of the Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma. He has worked with between 30 and 40 of these bereaved families.

A Tremendous Fear

Nicky Cregor is a social worker for the City of Jerusalem. Her job is to work with families who have been the victims of attack during the first 24 hours after the incident.

''People who live downtown have been through three, four, five attacks,'' she said. ''The fear is tremendous. They are just sitting in their house, afraid, and then all the windows break from another bomb. It's a very new thing, these more powerful bombs.''

Voices quaking, they tell her: ''Now the bomb is in my house!''

''People are just in shock,'' Ms. Cregor added. ''Where do you go from there emotionally; what choices can you make on a rational basis?''

Mrs. Hafsadi said, ''I don't go anywhere anymore.'' Ms. Raziel added: ''Now I'm afraid of my own shadow.''

For as long as Jews have lived and died here, the bereaved have comforted themselves with the hope: May this death be the last for Israel. Some of the survivors of suicide attacks hold the same hope -- for a very short time. New deaths quickly overtake hope.

Of her daughter, Ms. Raziel said, ''I wish she could have been the one whose death ended all this.''

Mr. Bartov said his parents ''died for a national cause.'' But then he seemed to wonder about the price of this cause. ''So many people die for the good of Israel. How many more do we need?''

  19/12/2008. The New York Times.


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