Monday, October 17, 2011

The release of Gilad Shalit and the 405 bus attack in July, 1989

I was visiting Israel in the summer of 2006 when Gilad Shalit was kidnapped, and I remember the two-week mini-war that his kidnapping caused (and which has since been forgotten, since that was also the summer of the Second Lebanon War). I wrote a blog post then, but haven't written anything else about Shalit since then.

In my subsequent visits, I was puzzled by the emotion that my Israeli friends felt about Shalit, and about the many signs posted everywhere calling for his return home. As Ethan Bronner in the New York Times has noted, most Israelis see Shalit as being almost a member of their families - a son or brother who is missing in an unknown location, held by ruthless killers. I still don't quite get the emotion, since I'm not Israeli and don't have the same visceral connection to him. The only thing I can really compare it to in the United States is the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979-1980 - I remember watching "Nightline" with Ted Koppel, with the banner on the screen, "America Held Hostage." Even then, it was nowhere near as personal.

I do, on the other hand, feel more personally about some of the terrorists who are being released in return for Shalit, one in particular - Abd al-Hadi Rafa Ghanim, who attacked the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv bus 405 on July 6, 1989.

I was living in Jerusalem at the time. The bus was on its way to Jerusalem, and had just passed Abu Ghosh. The terrorist grabbed the steering wheel and drove the bus into the abyss. The road is very steep at that point in the climb up to Jerusalem, and there is a deep fall into the valley at that point. The bus tumbled into the ravine and sixteen people were killed, some of them being burned alive.

The attack was a horrible shock to everyone. Anyone living in Jerusalem had taken the 405 to and from Tel Aviv. It was so easy to imagine being on that bus as the terrorist wrestled the steering wheel out of the driver's grip. I remember taking the bus after that and peering out, trying to discover where the attack had occurred.

The Jerusalem Post article published the next day on the attack (retrieved via LexisNexis) is available after the jump:
A bearded Palestinian man shouting "Allahu Akbar" seized the steering wheel of a No. 405 Jerusalem-bound Egged Newsbus from Tel Aviv yesterday and sent it crashing over a steep precipice, killing 14 passengers and injuring at least 27, seven of them seriously.

Among the dead were several who were trapped inside the bus and burned alive when it exploded in flames at the bottom of the ravine. Forensic experts at Abu Kabir were last night still trying to identify some of the dead who had been burned beyond recognition. Names of the dead were not released by press time.

Senior police officers said the attack had been planned, and that this would make it the most deadly terrorist incident in Israel since the Coastal Road massacre in 1978, when 37 people were killed and 76 were wounded.

Police Inspector-General David Kraus said last night that the police had been placed on high alert, especially in the Jerusalem area, to prevent reprisal attacks against Arabs. The alert was announced after the Kach movement distributed leaflets calling for attacks on Arabs.

Kraus's assessment that the attack had been planned was apparently based on the preliminary interrogation of the suspect's father, who was reportedly among the passengers on the bus and was arrested yesterday afternoon. Police and General Security Service officers were interrogating the suspect, under guard at Hadassah Hospital in Ein Kerem, where he is being treated for "moderate injuries." Police reported that the suspect had begun speaking to his interrogators after hours of not cooperating. They said his identity was known. Kraus said that the suspect's father, who had also been on the bus, was also under arrest.

The terror suspect, 28, was a worker in Tel Aviv's Carmel market, and had not been in Gaza in weeks. Arab sources say that the man was a member of the Islamic Jihad. Israel Radio reported at midnight that the suspect told interrogators that he acted out of revenge, saying his family members were beaten by the IDF.

Investigators moved from bed to bed in the two Jerusalem Hadassah hospitals and Shaare Zedek, as well as Sheba Hospital, Tel Hashomer, taking statements from the injured as they recovered sufficiently to speak. Many of them had been asleep at the time of the attack, or had not seen what occurred at the front of the bus.

Medical staff at Hadassah Ein Kerem, where 14 of the wounded were taken, worked feverishly in the emergency ward for hours after the crash. The most serious cases were rushed into surgery shortly after their arrival, while others, bandaged but still covered with drying blood, were tended to in the emergency ward. Among the three most seriously wounded, two men were apparently unconscious. A hospital spokesman said that two of the seriously wounded were being operated on last night - one for multiple fractures, the other for head injuries.

A U.S. Consulate spokesman in Jerusalem said seven American nationals were among the wounded.

The incident occurred when the bus began picking up speed on the long straight stretch after the Abu Ghosh junction.

Driver Moshe Elul, who sustained minor head injuries, seemed dazed as he recounted from his bed at Shaare Zedek the events that led to the tragedy. "A young man approached me suddenly. I thought he wanted to ask a question. (But) he grabbed the wheel, shouted 'Allahu Akbar' (God is the greatest, in Arabic) and pulled the wheel with all of his strength rightward. "I struggled with him and tried to pull the wheel back to the left. But he planted his legs on the dashboard of the bus to gain more strength, and that's how he made us topple over the precipice."

Elul was apparently later flung out of a window. He said he could not recall clearly what happened after his initial struggle with the passenger.

Most of the passengers were thrown from the bus, which disintegrated as it tumbled dozens of metres down a 45-degree slope.

First to provide assistance to the wounded were drivers who stopped by the roadside and yeshiva students from nearby Telshe-Stone. When Air Force helicopters arrived, they found it difficult to land in the wadi and turned the highway into a makeshift landing strip. Scores of volunteers joined Magen David Adom and IDF rescuers in the difficult evacuation operation.... Victims were lifted out of the wadi by rope. Ambulances took 22 of the wounded to hospitals in Jerusalem, while five were evacuated by helicopter to Sheba Hospital.

Dr. Ya'acov Adler, director of Shaare Zedek's emergency ward, where four of the wounded were taken, happened to be driving by the scene when the crash occurred. He rushed to administer emergency treatment.

Police were searching last night for two missing passengers, believed to have made their way home after being slightly injured.

Teams from the Hevra Kadisha burial society worked until nightfall to help evacuate the dead, gather scattered limbs, and search for signs of any other bodies. The burial team consisted of 25-30 ultra-Orthodox men, some of whom crawled under the bus to evacuate casualties. Rabbi Elazar Gelbstein, head of the burial society, said: "After six hours of work, I broke down and cried. I hope that God stops the suffering inflicted on the Jewish people."

Most of the wounded were in shock; those who could talk, did so in a whisper.

A team of doctors and nurses treated the suspect in hospital, while a group of Shin Bet interrogators stood by, waiting for a chance to talk to him. One armed soldier stood guard by the bedside, while other security men with walkie-talkies milled around the crowded ward.

Among the wounded at Hadassah Ein Kerem was Eliezra Ben-Yehuda Cassuto, 53, granddaughter of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew. Cassuto, who lives in New York, was on her way to see her daughter Sigal represent the U.S. in the Maccabiah gymnastics event yesterday afternoon in Jerusalem. Cassuto, with a cast on her leg and speaking through an oxygen mask, said that just before the bus swerved she heard passengers sitting in front of her say that "something is not right. Then we were on our side, it happened so quickly. I woke up outside when there was an explosion and the fire started. I was lying on dry grass and there was fire all around. I wanted to get away but I couldn't move. I heard a woman scream that she couldn't find her son and that he was trapped inside the bus. But people told her not to go near, it was too dangerous."

Another of the wounded was Victor Assal, a 23-year-old American-born soldier from Jerusalem, who had been given a few days' leave and was on his way to see his mother who is here on a visit. Assal, who had been sitting on the left side of the bus near the back, has a broken leg and cuts and bruises on his back and head. Doctors removed large chunks of glass from his back. "I hadn't slept last night and I conked out on the ride up," Assal said from his bed in the emergency ward. "I woke up when the bus veered sharply to the right. I saw people thrown to the side and heard people screaming up front. I grabbed for my gun and then blacked out. I woke up in a sitting position above the bus. I don't know how I got out of the bus, whether I was thrown or whether someone pulled me out. My whole body hurt. I tried climbing up the slope and someone came and helped me."

Netanel Zuberri, 29, of Tel Aviv was lying on his back yesterday evening in the orthopedic ward of Sheba Hospital, counting his blessings. He was lightly wounded. His parents Naomi and Shalom were at his bedside, his mother trying to feed him vegetable soup while his father, pale and tearful, sat slumped in a nearby chair.

"At about 11.45 I was half asleep. I sat near the back door. I opened my eyes and thought I was dreaming. The bus was going straight through the safety barrier into the ravine. It happened so fast, that as soon as I understood what was happening there was an enormous crash as the bus smashed into a boulder on the floor of the wadi and overturned. The funny thing was that on the way down I flew in the air with my eyes open and I saw other people flying. It all happened in a fraction of a second. After the bus overturned I must have blacked out. I woke up and saw I was on my back and smoke was all around me. I crawled through a broken window, and got to three metres away from the bus. The whole time I could hear people screaming and crying. I gathered my strength and crawled 50 metres away where I lay down and saw how the bus was burning. You look and you can't believe it's happening."
"I lay there about 30 minutes, and only then did I realize I was injured. I felt pain in my back and I had a deep and long wound on my knee through which I could see the bone. I was very thirsty and I tried to clean the hole in my knee of all kinds of thorns and dirt. The first people to come to me were a soldier and another fellow who gave me a drink of water from a jerrycan. I tried to talk but I didn't succeed. Afterwards they pulled me up the side of the ravine with ropes and put me on the helicopter. Throughout the flight I prayed: 'God, just make it so I won't be paralyzed,' and I patted my legs the whole time to make sure I could feel them."

An American woman, Pella Fingersh, was dozing next to her 25-year-old son when she was wakened by a scream. "It sounded like some catastrophe had happened. The bus began somersaulting through the air. I felt like a ball in a bingo basket going round and round, being thrown against the ceiling and everywhere. We went around three or four times before I was thrown clear." She could not remember if she was thrown through an open window. "I found myself lying on a rock. The bus was still rolling down the hill. It hit bottom and began to burn. There was a young soldier lying next to me. He didn't move. I hope he wasn't dead. There was also a young girl covered with blood. She said 'Help me. I can't feel anything.'"

Finding herself able to move, Fingersh got up and looked around her. "It was a scene from hell. People lying about, people wandering around, covered in blood. I wanted to look for my son. I began walking. I had lost my shoes. The ground was covered with thorns." She did not find her son and was finally persuaded to leave the scene in an ambulance. She was taken to Hadassah Hospital, Mount Scopus, where she was treated for bruises. Hospital officials informed her that her son had been taken to Hadassah Hospital, Ein Kerem. "They say he has only light injuries, but I haven't spoken to him yet."

A Hadassah spokesperson last night released the following details on the wounded: Haviv Amar and Pella Fingersh, both lightly wounded, were released from hospital. Haya Cohen, aged 12, and Rami Ben-Ami remained at Hadassah Mt. Scopus.

At Hadassah Ein Karem, Rita Levin, Arye Yardeni and Shimon Fahima were all reported in serious condition. Suffering from medium wounds were Iris Peretz, Spanish tourist Sylvia Martinez, Eliezra Cassuto, and Shlomo Dgani. Dov Itkin, Naomi Yardeni, Victor Assal, Eitan Zilberman, Amit Limor and Paul Fingersh were said to have been lightly wounded.

The Egged management asked all their bus drivers and the rest of the drivers on the nation's roads to drive with car lights on today to honour the victims of the attack.

The Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway was reopened to traffic at approximatley 10 p.m. after having been closed since the accident.

Ruth Connell Robertson adds:

Maestro Zubin Mehta and the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra matched the national mood of mourning at their concert in Jerusalem last night by asking the audience to stand in silence for two minutes, and then to refrain from applause during the performance.
Wikipedia supplies the names of the dead:
Shimon Dahan, 27, of Herzeliya
Kinneret Cohen, 14, of Jerusalem
Rita Susan Levin, 39, of Philadelphia
Cpl Tova Maimon, 19, of Or Yehuda
Cpl Shaul Chai Tzur, 21, of Netanya
Nahum Mizrahi, 63, of Tel Aviv
Shlomo Atzmon, 60, of Lod
Miriam Tzerafi, 41, of Jerusalem
Isaac Na'im, 47, of Holon
Esther Na'im, 45, of Holon
Mordechai Rosenberg, 50, of Sha'arei Tikva
Matityahu Gershon Resnik, 25, of Givat Haim (Ihud)
Ya'akov Shapira, 73, of Jerusalem
Emil Gorbman, 54, of Jerusalem
Dr. Shelley Volokov Halpenny, 32, of Vancouver
Fern Rykiss, 17, of Winnipeg, Canada
It is of Abd al-Hadi Rafa Ghanim that I think when I hear of Gilad Shalit's release, and of the sixteen people he killed and the many others he injured and traumatized, one attack of so many during the wars between Israel and its neighbors.

For a disturbing and uncanny perspective on Ghanim and his attack, see an article written by John Hockenberry (NPR reporter in Israel during the first intifada) in Tikkun. Hockenberry had met Ghanim before the attack. When Hockenberry was visiting a young Palestinian friend of his named Radwan in Mokassed Hospital in Jerusalem, Ghanim was also visiting him.


  1. Wow, amazing story. Amazing that even back then, the shout before killing was allahu Akbar. The same, according to Peter Balakian's The Burning Tigris - The Armenian Genocide and America's Response.

  2. Messed up my post. I meant the same was said in Ottoman Turkey, when people turned on the Armenians.

    Dead is dead, though, no matter what the killer says. All pretty awful, no matter who gets killed.

  3. Victor Assal was my cousin's best friend growing up in Bethesda, MD. In the shuttle bus from my cousin's wedding to the airport (in a major US city), someone looked at him and said "Watch out, we're in a bus with Victor."

    There's a Victor Asal who teaches about terrorism at SUNY-Albany. He's the right age (Tufts '87, some grad work at Hebrew U, PhD from an American university. I wonder if it's the same guy?