They meet once a year. They smile, they laugh, they hug and they cry. They're alive - 35 of their loved ones are not.
This year is the 30th anniversary of what has become known as the Coastal Road Massacre. On March 11, 1978, 35 Israeli civilians lost their lives in a terrifying hijacking of an Egged bus on the coastal highway between Tel Aviv and Haifa.
Masterminded by Abu Jihad and executed by the Fatah PLO faction, the attack began when 11 terrorists, including two women, left Lebanon and landed in Zodiac boats on the stretch of beach at Kibbutz Ma'agan Michael, located some 30 km south of Haifa.
At day's end, the bus the terrorists hijacked was a burnt-out shell. So were the lives of many Israelis.
Metro spoke to some of the survivors of the hijacking at their annual ceremony, held at the monument on the coastal road opposite Cinema City in Herzliya. "I was 11 years old at the time," says Dani Boskanitz, who - together with his brother Eran - was left an orphan in the attack. Boskanitz had been forced at gunpoint to board the bus at Ma'agan Michael, while Eran was one of the last to jump from the vehicle as it was consumed in flames at the spot where the monument stands today.
"I have a beautiful wife and a wonderful son," Boskanitz says, "but there's this black cloud; it's always lurking in the background, and when I get together each year with the survivors and their families, it consumes me."
Another victim revisiting the horror was Ruth Drori, a tour guide who spends part of each year in Israel and part in Holland. She was 30 years old when she last saw her husband alive. "He was lying on the ground at Ma'agan Michael and he screamed at me, 'I'm fine; just take care of the children,'" she recalls. She had no idea he had been shot, so when he said "take care," she didn't understand that he meant forever. On the bus, one of Drori's children sat next to her while the other two crouched under the seats. Later, when the grenades went off, she says, "I found myself lying on the floor under dead bodies. I managed to scramble off the bus, but couldn't find my children. I was convinced they'd been killed in the inferno. Covered in blood, I was quickly placed in an ambulance and rushed to hospital. At some stage, I fainted. At Meir Hospital in Kfar Saba, I later heard the names being read over the radio [of people who] had died." The tears flow as she tells of hearing her husband's name. "I had thought my kids were dead and my husband was alive." Fortune had decreed otherwise. All three of her children had miraculously survived.
Drori remarried and had two more children. All five were at the ceremony and watched their mother walk to the microphone and address the gathering.
She was followed by Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog, representing the government. Not only their personal losses were at the back of people's minds. From Herzog to the survivors themselves, everyone was asking, "What has changed?" Only three days before the ceremony, an Arab gunman from east Jerusalem had opened fire at Jerusalem's Mercaz Harav Yeshiva, killing eight students. "We come here today to pay our respects to those who died in a massacre 30 years ago," says Bobby Shapiro from Moshav Ben Ami near Nahariya, "and the nation is mourning another massacre fresh from today's headlines."
Shapiro and his wife, Brenda, were new immigrants from South Africa on that fateful morning in March 1978. It was pure chance that their lives became intertwined with the horrific events about to unfold. The Shapiro family was driving north on the coastal highway when they saw a bus at the turnoff to Ma'agan Michael. Thinking there had been an accident, Shapiro stopped suddenly. "Next thing I saw was this frantic woman running towards us, screaming, with a baby in her arms covered in blood."
Brenda jumped out of the car with their two young daughters and two of their friends. "I'll see if I can help with the injured. You take the mother and her baby to [the] hospital," were her parting words. Shapiro sped off. A kilometer on, the mother became hysterical. "Look what the terrorists have done."
"Terrorists, what terrorists?" a puzzled Shapiro screamed frantically. Then the enormity of the misunderstanding hit him. He had left his family not at the scene of a road accident, but in the clutches of terrorists. In the meantime, the infant in his car had died. "I stopped, hailed down an oncoming car with whom I left the mother and her dead child, did a U-turn, and sped back," he remembers.
No sooner had Shapiro stopped behind the bus when he found himself staring down the barrel of a Kalashnikov and ordered to board. "There were 11 terrorists, although I didn't note the number at the time. I looked and shouted for my family but couldn't see them. I was shoved to a seat. In the front, a woman terrorist was in command and barking orders in English, while another two were positioned in the front and back of the bus, holding grenades. Their fingers rested on the safety pins, waiting for an order to release." That order would come later.
"The female terrorist screamed that they were from Fatah and that we were going to Ben-Gurion Airport, where we would board a plane for an Arab country."
At this point, Shapiro did not know whether his family was alive or dead, but he knew they weren't on the bus. "I also knew that if I was to survive this day, I had to escape. Boarding a plane was not an option for an Israeli with a South African passport. These were the thoughts going through my mind."
New developments soon made escape a far-fetched option. "They began tying us up and I was bound back-to-back with a man (the father of Dani and Eran Boskanitz) whose wife was lying on the floor next to us suffering with gunshot wounds. There was nothing we could do and she died shortly afterwards. By the time we passed the Wingate Institute, I had managed to wriggle free. It took me all the way from Ma'agan Michael to achieve this. The man pleaded, "Tikshor et ze" ("Tie it back on") - fearing they would kill us. I placed the rope loosely back on and waited for the first opportunity to dive out the window. I expected it to come sometime shortly before we reached the airport." His chance came much sooner, near the Herzliya Country Club.
End of the road
The army had set up an ambush. "The next thing we knew, they were shooting from both sides, taking out the tires. The woman terrorist threatened to blow up the bus. We had little reason to doubt her," Shapiro says.
The order came. Both terrorists, one in the front and the one at the back, simultaneously released the safety pins from their grenades. A passenger at the back, Yossi Hochman, seeing what was about to happen, jumped on the terrorist. The grenade exploded, killing Yossi's wife and two children. Miraculously, Yossi survived, although he lost both his legs.
"I was near the front and when I saw what was about to happen bundled myself into a ball. Don't ask me how I survived the explosion. The bus was now on fire. The man that I had been bound to lay dead beside his wife, who had succumbed to her wounds earlier. There was death and carnage everywhere. Instinct took over and I dived out the window. This wasn't so easy. I was caught [up] and found myself hanging there for some five seconds before I managed to drop to the ground. I dashed to a nearby trench, where I took refuge with a woman and her daughter. She was pleading that her father was still in the bus and was about to run back to try save him. I knew that meant certain death and pulled her down. The terrorists were disembarking from the bus and shooting in all directions. I couldn't let her go. It was terrible, and her dad died on the bus."
The girl's mother, Lily Glottman, has headed the Survivor's Committee since its inception, organizing a memorial ceremony every year.
Through all the smoke and gunfire, Shapiro saw a man writhing in agony on the ground next to the blazing bus. "He was holding his stomach and was bleeding badly. I don't know what got into me. Thinking I had lost my wife and kids, I got up and ran to the fellow, picked him up and darting through the smoke and gunfire, hurried back to the trench." The man, Simcha Galon, survived, as did his wife Shosh. Their seven-year-old daughter did not.
But what had become of Shapiro's wife, Brenda, and the girls? As soon as Shapiro had sped off toward the hospital, it quickly became apparent this was a terrorist attack and not a road accident. "I screamed at the girls to run up a hill," Brenda tells Metro. "The terrorists saw us and opened fire. Thankfully, the grass was tall and I screamed at them to drop to the ground and crawl. Bullets whizzed passed us and after a few seconds the firing stopped. I guess they thought they had killed us because they didn't bother to check. To this day we cannot say how long we lay there until we heard Hebrew." They had been found by an IDF commando unit. "I screamed 'anahnu po' - 'we are here'," Brenda says.
It was fitting that the son of Israel's sixth president addressed the 30th anniversary of one of the nation's most lethal terror attacks on home soil. Isaac Herzog's parents were in their first year of the marriage when their young lives were nearly crushed in a terror attack. Chaim Herzog was chief security officer of the Jewish Agency for Israel when on March 11, 1946, a car bomb exploded beneath the Jewish National Fund wing of the agency compound in Jerusalem. The bomber, an Arab employed by the US Consulate, was a trusted figure at the agency. Only two weeks previously, he had supplied weapons to the Hagana. What no one knew was that he was a double agent. That ignorance resulted in 11 fatalities, including JNF Director Leib Jaffe.
"Luckily, my father was in the toilet at the time of the bombing," reveals Herzog. His mother, Aura, was not so fortunate. She was buried under the rubble. "My dad had to dig her out. She was unconscious and remained in the hospital for six months. After riding in the ambulance with her, [my father] then had to leave her and rush to an important meeting with a representative from the United Nations. He had no time to change, so his clothes were covered in my mother's blood." The UN man took one look at the future president of Israel and said, "If this is the way you come dressed to a meeting, no one will stop you people from winning this war."
How right he was, and it's a message the terrorists have still to learn.