Passover massacre: 20 years later, Israel's terror response has changed

After the Passover Massacre, Israel mobilized forces to go after the terrorists where they live, in an operation called Defensive Shield.

 NETANYA BEACH: Both Clara and Lola loved the sea. (photo credit: FLASH90)
NETANYA BEACH: Both Clara and Lola loved the sea.
(photo credit: FLASH90)

I was with my family in Tiberias that night, the eve of Passover 2002. I noticed that extra guards were reinforcing the hotel entrance. That’s before I heard there had been an attack in a hotel in Netanya. Even on a night without radio and TV, bad news spreads like spilled ink staining everything it touches. 

“In every generation someone tries to eradicate us,” we sing on Seder night. How many times in our history have we been targeted on our holidays? 

The date was March 27. Passover was “early” as we like to say about the interaction of the Hebrew calendar with the Gregorian. This month would earn the name Black March because 131 Israelis were killed in terror attacks. 

Among them, in Jerusalem where I live, terrorists struck a bar mitzvah celebration in Beit Yisrael; a supermarket in Kiryat Hayovel; and the Moment Café, near the Prime Minister’s Residence. Like Black March, the Passover attack on the Park Hotel would also get a name: the Passover Massacre. A terrorist in drag walked through the lobby with a suitcase full of explosives.

Thirty men and women would die from that explosion, that night or later. Clara Rosenberger, whom I visited frequently at Hadassah’s Rehabilitation ward at Mount Scopus, became number 30.

 The entrance of Auschwitz-Birkenau (credit: WIKIPEDIA) The entrance of Auschwitz-Birkenau (credit: WIKIPEDIA)

That wasn’t the first time Clara was known by a number. She had one tattooed on her arm in Auschwitz.

She was paralyzed from the waist down, but was willing to speak to as many reporters as she could to tell our side of the story.

When we were alone, we talked about other things, like her childhood in Munkacs, a city that was at different times part of Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Ukraine, and its rich Jewish life. She described the Nazi roundup and deportation. She survived because she was assigned the grisly task of sorting the personal items of men, women and children who were burned in the crematoria. 

In the refugee camp, she received a prized possession: a new pair of shoes. On the Aliyah Bet immigration ship, she went barefoot to save the shoes for her first step in the Land of Israel. The British intercepted their ship near Haifa. “New shoes?” smirked an officer, grabbing one and tossing it into the Mediterranean. The memory was still hard to bear.

She fell in love with Zvi in the Cyprus internment camp and was joyfully pregnant when they arrived in Israel after independence. Zvi went off to fight in the War of Independence. They brought up their two children in the embryonic state, through hard times and through war. 

In 2002, Clara, a widow, turned down her children’s Passover invitations. Her friend Lola suggested they treat themselves to a modest beachfront hotel for the holiday. They both loved the sea.

AT THE Park Hotel, Clara put on her prettiest skirt and blouse. She and Lola regretted not getting to the beach, but decided they’d stroll the Netanya walkway in the morning. They went down early to take their seats in the dining room before the Seder.

The explosion killed Lola. Metal shrapnel, or maybe part of the ceiling, severed Clara’s spine.

I was with Clara when she spoke to one of many reporters, this one from Mexican television.

“Why would they want to do it?” she asked the young journalist. “You’re an intelligent young person. Can you explain it to me?” Then came a reporter from London. “I know you British,” she said. She told him of her lost shoe.

Clara would take no more steps on the land she loved. Now she would be confined to a wheelchair, no longer able to live in her third-floor apartment.

The situation was too grim. “Young people dying every day, and soldiers. I have a soldier too, a grandson, and I’m so afraid for him. I was in Auschwitz and I thought I’d finished with all the trouble,” she said.

Her granddaughter drew a picture of Clara outside in the park in a wheelchair to encourage her to rebuild her life one more time. But Clara’s resilience was gone. The injury had penetrated her heart and soul as well as her spine. The reality of her dependence was more than she could bear. A downward spiral of depression, immobility and illness brought about her death soon after she left the hospital.

AFTER THE Passover Massacre, Israel mobilized forces to go after the terrorists where they live, in an operation called Defensive Shield, which began on March 29.

Which brings me to my friend and neighbor, Dr. David Zangen. He is a Sabra born to Holocaust survivors from Holland. Nazis gassed his grandparents in Auschwitz.

Always Auschwitz.

Zangen, his wife Sara and their four children were packing the car for a Passover hiking vacation when the call came for him to join Operation Defensive Shield as chief medical officer of infantry’s Brigade 5, going to Jenin, the booby-trapped capital of terrorism. As they drove into the city, pediatrician Zangen noticed the dearth of playgrounds despite the generous contributions of European NGOs.

Despite knowing about the network of snares and tripwires to trap ground troops, the IDF decided against aerial bombardment. Twenty-three soldiers, many of whom Zangen knew, lost their lives in the fighting. Seventy-five others were injured. In an only-in-Israel moment, one of Zangen’s Hadassah patients learned he was in Jenin and phoned him asking him for an appointment. 

Major Zangen wound up creating an IDF clinic for the Palestinians. Zangen was present, too, when the UN Special Envoy to the Middle East, Terje Larsen, came to investigate the supposed “massacre” in Jenin. Zangen, who is fluent in English, Hebrew, French and Dutch, was asked to escort journalists and officials.

Back in Jerusalem, Zangen happened to hear Larsen condemning Israel on Army Radio when he was driving. He called in to challenge the supposed peacemaker on his version of the facts and his lack of peacemaking.

Confronting the lies about Jenin turned out to be a sacred cause for Zangen.

When Israeli actor and film director Mohammed Bakri produced a so-called documentary called Jenin, Jenin, Zangen’s fellow-soldiers turned to him to lead the response.

“I was there during the fighting, and I saw up close what was happening. I know that the IDF did everything it could to prevent civilian casualties,” he said.

Not all of Bakri’s many audiences were interested in hearing the facts. But even in Israel’s liberal court system, Zangen and comrades proved the film was a blood libel and stopped its screening in Israel and in most of the world.

Nineteen years after the film was made, Bakri lost a court case to Lt. Col. Nissim Magnani over defaming him in the film, and owes Magnani NIS 225,000. Bakri has appealed to the High Court and a verdict is expected in 2022.

Today, David Zangen is a full professor, and heads the pediatric endocrinology department at Hadassah Medical Organization. He sees Israel’s response to the bombing of the Park Hotel as a turning point. 

“We decided to confront the terrorist networks on their home turf. We also showed that it’s possible and important to shut down libelous lies no matter how long it takes. In the memories, those who died in the Park Hotel, we have to fight on all battlefields.” 

The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest books is A Daughter of Many Mothers.