On July 28, 1990, my 17-year-old sister was enjoying the sun and some ice cream on a Tel Aviv beach with her friends. She had been in Israel on an organized tour. There were hundreds of people on the beach that day when a man-made pipe bomb, which had been buried beneath the sand, suddenly exploded and killed my sister, Marnie. She was the only person who died on the beach that day.
A man named Yasser Hijazi accepted responsibility for the murder. I learned that he was affiliated with Izzedine al-Qassam Brigade, which is the military wing of the Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas. A few months after the bombing, he was arrested and tried at the Yehuda Military Court near Jerusalem. He was sentenced to life in prison.
I am a strong supporter of Israel. Always was, always will be. I am also a supporter of Israel’s current Prime Minister, Benjamim Netanyahu. His strength and integrity have always impressed me. His own brother was killed responding to a terrorist attack, and I have always felt a connection with him.
I was overjoyed to hear two weeks ago that Israel had negotiated a prisoner exchange with Hamas. In exchange for the release of more than 1,000 Palestinians from Israeli prisons, Gilad Schalit, a young Israeli soldier who was captured by Hamas in 2006 and who has remained in their custody ever since, would be released and returned to his family and nation. I could only think of his parents at that moment. No one on earth could understand the hell they have lived in for the past five years.
And no one can understand the emotions they have dealt with since they heard that Gilad would be released. I looked forward to seeing the first clips of Gilad in the news and the interviews with family members that would follow.
On the morning of Oct. 16, I woke up to an e-mail sent by a loyal and good friend in Israel. It read: “Dear Jason, Pursuant to the Gilad Schalit prisoner release and the list of Palestinian prisoners scheduled to be released published last night, I checked the Israeli Prison Service, and found that one of them is your sister’s killer. He’s to be released to his home in the West Bank with certain restrictions… I am so sorry I had to contact you under these circumstances, and if there’s anything I can do to help, please let me know.”
This hit me hard.
I’ve read about shock before and think I experienced it for the second time that morning. I was livid. My soul was rocked.
Do I get on a plane to Israel? Do I call Netanyahu’s office? Do I tell my parents, my brother, my zaidy? Do I keep it to myself and hope my parents don’t find out? What would they say if they did?
Without time to rationalize, I responded to my friend by thanking him for contacting me, and I asked that he ensure that Netanyahu’s office call me to explain their decision and thought process. Knowing full well that my request was unreasonable, I figured it could not be more unreasonable than deciding to release a savage beast who killed a beautiful, innocent 17-year-old Canadian girl who was eating ice cream on a beach.
This prisoner exchange is confusing for Israelis and Jews throughout the world, but especially for the thousands of people who have been directly affected by those criminals who are being released from prison. I believe we deserve and are entitled to an explanation.
I am thrilled for the Schalit family. I hope to speak with them one day and tell them that. But as delighted as they are right now, I bet they, too, are confused. I bet they do not know exactly how to feel when they walk past their neighbours whose child has been killed by one of the prisoners to be released. I bet even Gilad himself will have mixed emotions when he hears how many with blood on their hands have been released.
I know that this is an unrealistic proposition given the nature and confidentiality of the negotiations between Israel and Hamas, but if Netanyahu’s office had called me beforehand to ask my permission to release the beast who killed my sister, in exchange for Gilad’s freedom, I would have eventually granted it. I would have eventually worked through the anger and realized that no one is bringing my sister back and if, in some way, my sister’s death could help the Schalits end their nightmare, I would have given the Israeli government my blessing.
But my family was not consulted. We did not have the opportunity to think this through. We were pulled out of bed with e-mail notifications that the scabs on our lifelong and deep wounds were to be ripped off.
I feel ripped off. And confused.
I am writing this for no reason other than the fact that I have so many questions. Questions that have yet to be answered. And I assume I am not alone.
As we celebrate the release of Gilad, let’s remember what it took to bring him home. Remember the families that are suffering through this. Remember that while many Israelis celebrate Gilad’s return in the streets of Tel Aviv, I will be thinking about Hijazi’s family welcoming a cold-blooded killer home and dancing through the streets of the West Bank chanting, “We want another Schalit.”
Dancing on my sister’s grave.
Dancing on the graves of thousands of Israelis who have been murdered by terrorist organizations.
I have recently been advised that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office wrote to many of the families – at least in Israel – of the victims of individuals who were released as part of the exchange. My family has not received the courtesy of an explanation.
My intention is not to stir up emotions. Rather it is to provide some perspective.
I can only hope that people will respect my family’s need for privacy in relation to the news of the past few days. My family is very happy for the Schalits. But our feelings will always be mixed.
Jason Kimelman lives in Toronto.