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Lessons From The Sbarro Bombing

Lessons From The Sbarro Bombing

Wisdom can be gained sometimes from one's enemy.

by Frimet Roth

Four years ago, Hamas taught the world some valuable lessons. On Aug. 9, 2001, the terror organization dispatched a suicide bomber to the center of Jerusalem where my family and I live. Fifteen innocents were killed, and 150 wounded at the Sbarro restaurant. My precious 15-year-old daughter, Malki, was one of the dead.

The Sbarro massacre shattered the following myths about terrorism and how to thwart it.

First, conventional wisdom holds that terrorists are deprived individuals, desperate and with nothing to lose. But my daughter's murderer was a privileged university student, the son of a prosperous, land-owning restaurateur, and a newly religious Muslim who lacked for nothing.

Second, members of terror organizations are depicted frequently as fringe elements unsupported by the establishment. But the father of my daughter's murderer, speaking in a May interview on NBC, freely admitted he has been receiving compensation payments since the massacre. He said he was instructed to go to his local Arab Bank branch, where he found an account with a substantial cash gift. Similar monthly sums have been deposited there over the past four years. NBC noted that the bank branch is festooned with posters glorifying suicide bombers.

Arab Bank steadfastly denies what it calls "awareness of the existence of an organized program to fund terrorism," insisting it considers suicide bombings "an abomination." But these empty pronouncements do not convince everyone: Arab Bank, dominant in Jordan, operates extensively in the United States and is finally under criminal investigation by the FBI.

Third, Israel's policy of security roadblocks draws bitter rebuke from critics who term the checks pointless violations of Palestinian human rights. They were especially vocal in 2004 when soldiers at an Israeli checkpoint ordered a Palestinian to play his violin before allowing him to pass through. My daughter's murderer carried a guitar case full of explosives over his shoulder, yet managed to cross Israeli lines into Jerusalem and on to Sbarro. Had his instrument been subjected to a thorough check, my Malki would be alive today.

Fourth, Israel's responses to terror attacks are frequently criticized by the media as excessive and unwarranted. Time magazine's report of the bloody attack at Sbarro, for instance, opened with a graphic account of Israel's raid on the PLO's offices in East Jerusalem, calling it a "retaliation." I fail to see how shutting down an illegal and hostile office amounts to a "retaliation" for the massacre of children.

Fifth, the channeling of government money to institutions that support terrorism is illegal under U.S. law, but enforcement has been strikingly lax. Case in point: in September 2001, a replica of the bombed Sbarro premises was constructed on the grounds of Al-Najah University in Nablus. Streams of Palestinians, including children, visited the display paying homage to the perpetrators of the atrocity. Meticulously accurate down to the "kosher" sign in English and Hebrew on its wall, it included, according to The Associated Press, fake "body parts and pizza slices strewn around the room."

The U.S. Agency for International Development has been funding Palestinian universities, including Al-Najah, to the tune of $41 million. Five of these, Al-Najah included, have on-campus Hamas and Islamic Jihad chapters, though they are deemed terror organizations. A USAID spokeswoman stated that "procedures are in place to make sure that [those] in-kind donations ? are not diverted to terrorism." Fortunately, Capital Hill didn't buy that line and recently summoned USAID to respond to the findings.

Six, I used to think that in a democracy, we citizens are empowered to make decisions about our own safety. Aug. 9, 2001 taught me otherwise. That morning, Israeli secret intelligence informed the government that a terrorist was loose on Jerusalem's streets. Police and soldiers combed the capital while government officials pleaded with Arafat for his assistance - all in vain. Jerusalem residents went about their usual business unaware they were sitting ducks. The Israeli government's failure to share this intelligence with us is a gross violation of our right to be informed when our lives and our children's are endangered.

Burying the painful memories of terrorism makes it harder to summon the strength to fight it.

The Sbarro attack was a turning point. Heightened security alerts are now regularly publicized. Ignorance is rarely bliss; often it brings grief.

Seven, many Israelis think the best way to cope with terror and its aftermath is to put it behind us and move on. This approach underlies a decision taken in Israel about a documentary film called "Impact of Terror," which focuses on a single terror attack in the current intifada - the one at Sbarro. CNN has aired it six times. The film was also offered to all of Israel's television networks at a low price, but all of them rejected it. Most Israelis, consequently, have not seen it and probably never will.

Burying the painful memories of terrorism makes it harder to summon the strength to fight it. That lesson has not yet been learned here.

Eight, some assert that terror can be tackled only with all-out war. The day after the Sbarro attack, restaurants, cafes and supermarkets throughout Israel began stationing private armed guards at their entrances. Within a week, unsecured entrances like Sbarro were a thing of the past. Inspections of every customer are now routine. Suicide bombers keep trying to gain entrance but, by and large, have been forced to settle for outdoor attacks and casualty figures have dropped commensurately.

So much for the "big guns" approach to fighting terrorism. Four years and numerous terror attacks later on their own soil, Europe and the United States have yet to implement this effective "small gun."

Nine, choosing the right way to honor the memory of the victims is a serious challenge with no simple answers. But insensitivity is still a problem.

After rebuilding its incinerated Jerusalem store, the Sbarro chain held a gala reopening that coincided with the shloshim, the 30th day after the massacre. No mention was made of why the branch was rebuilt or of the 15 people who perished there. And it took two years for the building owner, under pressure from the victims' families, to allow a plaque engraved with the names of the dead to be mounted at Sbarro.

I want to believe these two incidents are isolated, that Israeli society has come some way since then. Hopefully there is now acknowledgement of the need to remember the terror attacks, their lessons and their victims.

This article originally appeared in The Jewish Week.

Published: August 19, 2005


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Visitor Comments: 11

(11) Ben W., September 10, 2005 12:00 AM

I still remember the day it happened

I was on a school camp, in year 11 in High School, and some of the boys had switched on the television to watch football, when a news update started showing the aftermath of the bombing. The madrichim, most of whom were living or studying in Israel at the time, and the students (of which I was one) were in shock. Never before had a terrorist attack struck any of the students so deeply. We all went into the Shule to say Tehillim and sang the song "Acheinu Kol Beit Yisrael". Madrichim, teachers and students were crying. That night everyone present felt the deep connection that unites the entire Jewish people. Malki and all those who died in the Sbarro pizza bombing were not just victims of terror. They gave strength to literally hundreds of Jewish people all around the world. I can tell you that of the 120 students and 20+ madrichim on the Counterpoint camp in Sydney Australia, people, who had never met any of the victims, changed their lives, deciding to forge a deeper connection with the Jewish people, whatever that meant for them, such as keeping kosher, keeping Shabbat, not intermarrying or just choosing to affiliate with the Jewish people. Malki's and the other victims' Kedusha effected so many people, changing their lives for the better.

(10) Tammy Berman, August 29, 2005 12:00 AM

I wear a memory bracelet baring the name of Malka Roth. I have told her story to many people when they ask me about the bracelet. KolHakabod to you and your family for writing about her and keeping her memory alive. I also know about the room in Yad Sarah that is dedicated in her memory.

(9) Anonymous, August 24, 2005 12:00 AM

Dear Frimet

I read all your articles that appear on the internet. I can't even begin to imagine the terrible pain of losing a wonderful child like Malki to a murderous animal terrorist. From your stories about her she was a tsadeket, who felt the pain of all victims, agonizing even at her young age. I have no words of nechama, I only hope G-d will be with you, help you in every way in life.

(8) Shoshana Jordan, Germany, August 23, 2005 12:00 AM

It still hurts...

I still remember that day. I was "safe" back in Belgium, where I lived, but I had been to Sbarro just the year before, during the summer. Everyone who went to jerusalem used to stop at Sbarro. It was famous for it´s good kosher food, and known as a nice place to go with friends.
When I heard about the bombing, I first didn´t want to believe it, then I felt so hurt as if I´d been there.
It felt as if, somehow, those butchery bombers crossed a line as never before.
It was supposed to be a safe place, where a lot of families, children, students, tourists where going.
It may not be the bombing having had the most casualties (or is it?), but it´ll probably stay the most horrifying one ever in my mind.

I´m so sorry for your daughter. And for you.

May Hashem give you strength to go on.

Thank you for your article, or should I say testimony, and congratulations for the clear, concise and lucid way you wrote it.

(7) alan, August 23, 2005 12:00 AM

what terrorists understand

what do terrorists understand? violence. why doesn't the IDF go in and wipe them out now. they know the locations.

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