11 years ago: How the Guardian reported 2002 Netanya Passover Massacre

The attack

On March 27, 2002, a Hamas terrorist named Abdel-Basset Odeh broke into a Passover Seder at the dining hall of the Park Hotel in Netanya, Israel, and set off powerful explosives in a suitcase he was carrying, murdering 30 of the 250 people (mostly elderly Jews) in the crowded room.  One hundred and fifty more people were injured in what would become known as the bloodiest attack of the 2nd Intifada.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TjdjAYH-zFc]

Several of the victims were Holocaust survivors.

passover
Photos of those killed in the Passover bombing

Guardian report:

One of the most remarkable elements of the Guardian’s initial report on the Passover Eve suicide bombing is how relatively little space was devoted to the actual attack and to the victims.

The opening sentence of the March 28, 2002 report on the bombing, by Suzanne Goldenberg (in Beirut) and Graham Usher (in Jerusalem), is telling.  Note that the immediate focus is on the diplomatic ramifications, not on the Israeli dead and injured.

“A Palestinian suicide bomber walked into a hotel lobby crowded with Israelis gathered for the ritual Passover meal last night, dealing a crushing blow to efforts at the Arab summit to open a new chapter with the Jewish state.”

Goldenberg continues:

“Police said 16 people were killed and more than 140 wounded after the bomber detonated a large bag of explosives in a dining room of the Park hotel in the seaside town of Netanya. It was one of the deadliest attacks in 18 months of fighting.”

Actually, 22 civilians were killed instantly in the blast and another 8 died of their wounds over the next few days. 

Goldenberg:

“The explosion tore through the hotel, blowing out walls and windows and overturning tables and chairs. “Suddenly it was hell,” said one of the guests, Nechama Donenhirsch, 52. “There was the smell of smoke and dust in my mouth and a ringing in my ears.”

Televised scenes showed screaming women, wailing ambulances, cloaked bodies and shop awnings buckled by heat. Israeli police reported that several of the wounded were in “life-threatening condition”.”

The murderer’s bag was packed with 20 lbs of explosives, as well as ball bearings and metal pellets to maximize the carnage from the blast. 

Metal pellets and metal pieces added to the explosives to increase casualties
Metal pellets and metal pieces added to the explosives to increase casualties

Goldenberg continues – again expressing concern for the diplomatic fallout, and the potential for Israeli ‘revenge’.

“The Islamic militant group Hamas told an Arab satellite television station that it was responsible for the attack. The bombing threatened to derail the latest US truce mission, which survived two suicide attacks last week. George Bush denounced the bomb attack as “callous, cold-blooded killing”.

The Palestinian Authority said it “strongly condemned” the bombing and Palestinian security sources said Yasser Arafat had ordered the arrest of four key militants in the West Bank.

Many in Israel saw yesterday’s attack as an event which could goad the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, into launching a crushing military offensive on the West Bank and Gaza. An Israeli government spokesman talked of a “Passover massacre”, vowing “far-reaching responses against Palestinian Authority facilities”. “

Again, Goldenberg:

“The bomb went off at about 7.20pm, as dozens of guests settled down for the Passover Seder in the dining hall.

Netanya has been targeted several times by Palestinians during the 18-month intifada, due to its proximity to the West Bank border. On March 2 Palestinian gunmen killed two Israelis, including a baby, in the same area as last night’s attack.

The town had been put on maximum alert after warnings of attacks during the Passover holiday. But it is impossible to prevent suicide attacks, said Netanya’s mayor, Miriam Feyerberg. “This is a city that can be infiltrated from many different directions.” Ms Feyerberg, who witnessed the carnage, said: “I saw little children, bodies. And I want to say something to the Arab leaders in Beirut. This is not resistance. This is murder.” “

And, then the Guardian story strangely changed focus.

Almost all of Goldenberg’s next 663 words (out of a 1072 word report) pertains not to the savage murder of dozens of innocent Israeli civilians but to Arab regional politics and infighting.  The final sentence of the story, in bold (emphasis added), is simply surreal in the context of the Jewish suffering which had just occurred.

“The bombing offered a cruel contrast to attempts by Saudi Arabia to contain the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by conjuring up the prospect of a broad Arab peace.

Minutes after Crown Prince Abdullah outlined for the first time his ideas for a land-for-peace deal with Israel in Beirut yesterday, the summit was thrown into chaos with the Lebanese hosts blocking Mr Arafat from addressing Arab leaders via satellite link.

The Palestinian delegation marched out. It was eventually persuaded to remain in Beirut overnight, but the outburst exposed the internal rivalries among the 22 Arab League states.

While the crown prince appealed to the Israeli public to put their trust in peace, Syria’s Bashar Assad called on Arab leaders to support the Palestinian uprising, and condemned the Jewish state as a “living example” of terrorism.

An Arab newspaper said last night it had received an email it believed to be from Osama bin Laden, denouncing the Saudi peace initiative and praising Palestinian suicide attacks. Associated Press said the language of the email, sent to al-Quds a-Arabi, a London-based daily, resembled that used in previous statements by Bin Laden.

The two-day meeting opened in Beirut with two key moderate leaders distancing themselves from the proceedings after Israel barred Mr Arafat from leaving his headquarters in Ramallah. Jordan’s King Abdullah withdrew early yesterday, and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak stayed home.

Palestinian officials said Mr Arafat waited in a Ramallah television studio for hours yesterday listening to a succession of speeches before giving up on his fellow Arab leaders and delivering his speech to al-Jazeera television.

“He was kept waiting from 11am to 2.30pm,” said Majdi Khaldi, an adviser to Mr Arafat and a member of the delegation. “We cannot accept that.”

After the Palestinian leader was put on hold for a speech by Mr Assad, “we understood the message: that the summit chairman will not allow Mr Arafat to make his speech – even if he wants to”.

At first the Lebanese organisers said they pulled the plug on Mr Arafat because they feared a live broadcast could be hijacked by Mr Sharon. Later, they blamed technical reasons and egos.

“Our Palestinian friends wanted their chairman to speak first, and when they saw the list was long, they lost patience,” said Ghassan Salameh, Lebanese summit spokesman.

The explanations suggest that more radical states such as Syria and Lebanon were working behind the scenes to deflect attention from Prince Abdullah’s peace proposal.

In his speech on al-Jazeera, Mr Arafat endorsed the Saudi initiative. However, Mr Assad and Lebanon’s President Emile Lahoud were deeply unsettled by the gesture towards their sworn enemy.

Some of those reservations were acknowledged by Prince Abdullah yesterday, who toughened the original conditions of his proposal and down graded its reward for Israel.

The changes are a reversion to traditional Arab positions: a full Israeli withdrawal from lands occupied since the 1967 war, a Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees – which was absent from the original proposal.

In an unusual appeal to Israelis, Prince Abdullah said that if their government accepted the plan: “We will not hesitate to accept the right of the Israeli people to live in security with the people of the region.”

Hopes that other states would rally behind the Saudi initiative to produce a collective Arab vision for peace were undercut by Syrian and Lebanese addresses.

“The real danger resides in our collective submission to ‘pressures’ to put an end to the resistance and intifada in return for halting aggression, totally discarding the occupation,” said Mr Lahoud. He called for the return of all Palestinian refugees to their homes.

In a rambling discourse on terrorism and the aftermath of September 11, Mr Assad called on Arab states to support the uprising and to sever – or suspend ties – with Israel until peace was achieved.

It’s time to save the Palestinian people from the new holocaust they are living in,” he said.” [emphasis added]

Aftermath:

Shortly after the attack, at Al-Baset Odeh’s home in the West Bank town of Tulkarm, “the suicide bomber’s father, brother, uncle and other relatives sat at a wake, and received congratulations from friends and neighbors“. ”Everyone’s proud of him,” his older brother, Issam Odeh, reportedly said.

The following week, in early April, the Guardian’s Suzanne Goldenberg was one of the journalists who covered Israel’s military response to the Passover Massacre, Operation Defensive Shield.  Her report on the especially hard fighting in the West Bank town of Jenin, which involved house to house fighting in a neighborhood known to be a terrorist enclave, advanced the lie that an Israeli atrocity against innocent Palestinians had taken place. Her dramatic report on April 16, which used terms like “massacre” and “summary executions”, and accepted the most risible Palestinian claims at face value, were proven wildly inaccurate by a subsequent UN investigation.  Goldenberg never apologized, nor was a retraction ever published.  

Less than a year later, the Palestinian Authority named a football tournament after Shahid Abd Al-Baset Odeh.

A poster in which the Hamas movement in Tulkarm announces the death as a martyr of Muhammad Abd al-Basset Oudeh.
A poster in which the Hamas movement in Tulkarm announced the martyrdom of Abd al-Basset Oudeh.

Among the Palestinians released in the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange deal in 2011 was Hamas terrorist Nasser Yataima, who was sentenced to 29 life sentences for having planned the 2002 Passover Massacre.

Arafat’s terror war from 2000 to 2005 claimed 1064 Israeli lives.  Over seven thousand more were injured. The overwhelming majority of the Israeli victims were civilians.

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