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The Agony and the Ecstasy

The electrifying news that a deal had been reached to free kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit came a day before the Sukkot holiday. The initial euphoria that this national nightmare was finally coming to an end soon gave way to a mixture of emotions, from outrage over the dangerous murderers to be released as part of the deal to fear of allowing Hamas to claim a major victory, setting a precedent for the future.

For me, there was a particular anguish: Nasser Batima, convicted of planning the 2002 Passover suicide bomber attack on the Park Hotel, was one of those to be released.

My mind went back to 2002. There I was in the Park Hotel in Netanya moments before the Seder. I watched the lobby filling up with families like ours. It was a hotel known for its cheap prices and bad food, a place that catered to elderly survivors on a tight budget who wished to invite their families to join them for Seder night.

That’s what we were doing there, my husband, my two sons and my daughter-in-law. It was too hard for Bubbe and Zayde to travel to Jerusalem to join us, so they’d invited us to join them.

“My children are so late,” a woman turned to me and said. “It’s the traffic,” I remember comforting her. Later, when the bomb ripped apart the building, turning it into a literal sea of blood and dripping electric wires, I wondered if her family had shown up and what had happened to them.

A few months after the bombing, some of us survivors gathered in Caesarea to discuss that night. Although the ostensible purpose of the meeting was to consider suing the owners of the hotel for lax security, I think the real reason was just to vent our grief and outrage with others who had been there. I was the rare lucky one whose family had escaped death or injury: We had had a private table on the second floor of the hotel. The only other family upstairs was that of the hotel owner, who was killed in the attack.

Of the hotel’s 250 guests, 30 had died and 140 had been injured, 30 of them seriously. At this meeting I sat next to the Kormans, who had lost both of their elderly parents. The worst hit had been the Viders, who lost their son Sgt. Sivan Vider, 20, and their father, Ze’ev Vider, 50, and whose other family members had been badly injured.

We were unbloodied, but not untraumatized. My new daughter-in-law, who wanted to start a family, lost her period for a year (they now have four kids, thank God). My father-in-law temporarily lost his hearing. And the scenes of devastation are forever etched in our memories.

When Batima and the other terrorists responsible were caught and tried, they received 29 consecutive life sentences plus 30 years. And now, after serving barely nine years, Batima was going free, probably to murder again.

I felt sickened and furious.

As I examined the list further, I saw to my shock that the killers of Nachshon Wachsman, the soldier son of my friends Yehuda and Esther, were also going to be released: Yehiya As-Sinwar, who was one of the founders of Hamas’s security forces in Gaza and was involved in Nachson’s abduction and murder, and Jihad Yarmur, who drove the kidnap vehicle and participated in the killing.

I knew this would be much more complicated for Esther than it was for me. First, she had lost her son, and second, from the beginning of Gilad Shalit’s abduction, she had been deeply involved with the Shalit family.

Hesitantly, I picked up the phone.

“How are you?” I asked her, almost afraid to find out.

She told me she’d been there, in the protest tent with Noam and Aviva Shalit, when the word came that the government had struck a deal to free Gilad.

“They’re letting out the Park Hotel killer. And my son’s,” she acknowledged.

“How do you feel about it?”

“Of course, I have mixed feelings. It’s complicated. But when I hugged Aviva Shalit and saw the joy in her eyes, I had no mixed feelings. Her son is coming home to her.”

We talked a few more minutes. We needed to get together more often, she said. “I need your hug.”

“And I need yours,” I told her.

I hung up the phone with a knot in my throat, but somehow feeling comforted. If Esther was all right, I would also be all right. If her heart was large enough to hold both the never-ending grief for her son along with the joy for Aviva Shalit’s boy’s release, whatever the personal price, then perhaps I, too, had underestimated my own heart.

Tomorrow, I thought, we will have to talk about government policy. We will have to talk about the death penalty for heinous crimes so that this never happens again. We will talk about our government issuing warnings to Hamas that the next time they try this, we will carpet-bomb Gaza. But today, we could rejoice that Gilad Shalit was coming home.

This article was first published in the November/December 2011 issue of Moment.

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