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(photo credit: AP)
Among the Fatah members who congregated in Bethlehem on Tuesday for the movement's sixth General Assembly were old-timers from Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, many of whom have spent most of their lives outside of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but have remained dedicated to their party's ongoing conflict with the Jewish state.
Possibly the most infamous among them was Khaled Abu Usba, a long-time Fatah member who was born in Kuwait and now resides in Jordan, and who was one of the 12 terrorists responsible for the 1978 Coastal Road Massacre, which left 38 Israeli civilians dead - 13 of them children - and 71 wounded.
The attack, which began when the terrorists from Lebanon landed in rubber boats near the Ma'agan Michael beach south of Haifa, included the shooting death of American photographer Gail Rubin, who was taking nature photographs nearby, and the hijacking of two buses - one of which was commandeered by the terrorists with the intent of driving it to Tel Aviv.
Throughout the ordeal, Usba and his accomplices, including Dalal Mughrabi, a female Fatah terrorist who rose to martyrdom "fame" after she was killed during the attack, fired indiscriminately at vehicles traveling on the highway, killed hostages on board the bus and threw their bodies onto the road before ending the killing spree in a wild shootout with security forces at a police roadblock near Herzliya.
Usba and another terrorist, Hussein Fayad, were the only two to survive the shootout; the other 10 were killed by security forces.
The attack, the worst in Israel's history, triggered Operation Litani, which was carried out against PLO bases in southern Lebanon three days later.
At the government's weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak called the move to allow Fatah delegates such as Usba to enter the West Bank "a very correct and important decision," and that the government would judge the conference based on its results.
But for survivors of the massacre, Usba's arrival in Bethlehem rehashed painful memories and served as a reminder of what they called the country's "cowardly" security policies.
"It's indicative of Israel's security policies concerning terror and terrorism," Avraham Shamir, a survivor of the attack, told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday. "These are policies that are cowardly and that do not provide solutions or answers to Israeli citizens or others who rely on the government for their safety."
Shamir also said that Usba's arrival in Bethlehem was painful on a personal level, after witnessing firsthand the destruction and violence he caused in 1978.
"That he's walking around freely in Bethlehem today makes me feel the way the Haran family must have felt when they saw [Samir Kuntar, who murdered Danny Haran and his four-year-old daughter Einat in 1979] parading around Lebanon like some sort of hero," Shamir continued.
Shamir, who was 42 at the time of the attack, was on his way home to Haifa after visiting the Stalactite cave near Beit Shemesh when his bus was hijacked.
He said that other survivors of the attack shared his dismay over Usba's arrival in Bethlehem, along with other moves by the Israeli government that he said were tantamount to "caving in" to terrorism.
"There's no doubt in my mind that [the survivors of the attack] feel the same way, because we're talking about failed policies that have resulted in nothing substantial with regards to our protection," Shamir said.
"Explain to me why I've had to go through four wars, suffer terrorist attacks, and still have to walk around looking over my shoulder. Can you explain that to me?"