Killers' capture spurs mixed feelings

Yoel Tzur's wife Etta and son Ephraim z"l were killed ten years ago.

etta, ephraim tzur (photo credit: Courtesy)
etta, ephraim tzur
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Yoel Tzur was not surprised to be awakened at 3 a.m. on Wednesday morning by a call from the IDF, informing him of the capture of the two terrorists who killed his wife Etta, 42, and son Ephraim, 12, a decade ago. "I was waiting for this phone call. I knew the security forces were close to finding them because they kept me informed of their work," Tzur told The Jerusalem Post in his Beit El office later in the day. "On one hand, I'm very happy. On the other, it brings out all the memories from the attack on December 11, 1996. But the reality is that in Israel, joy and sadness are often intertwined," he said. He spent the afternoon fielding calls from well-wishers, the media and queries from his co-workers at the Arutz Sheva radio station where he is a general manager. The news did not erase the pain of the loss or even relieve it, Tzur said, but it eliminated the burden and injustice of knowing that the killers were free. Following the attack, both gunmen - Ibrahim Alikam, 34, and Ibrahim Hani, 35 - were arrested by the Palestinian Authority and sentenced to life in prison but were released several years later. Since then, the defense establishment has invested vast resources and utilized some of the most elite IDF units in trying to apprehend the two. It was a mission that ended Wednesday morning when Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) agents, backed by troops from the Engineering Corps, arrested the pair in Ramallah. During a search of their home, soldiers found two loaded pistols and a large knife. "We completed a saga that began in 1996," said Lt.-Col. Oshri, a battalion commander in the Engineering Corps, adding that the troops searched a large number of homes before entering the one in which the terrorists were hiding. He said that Hani and Alikam had been living "like dogs" and were found sleeping on mats and on top of cigarette butts. Tzur said that the only news which could have made him happier would have been to hear that the IDF had killed the two. "Justice, integrity and morality have now seen the light of day," he said. Tzur recalled how on that fateful evening 10 years ago he drove to Beit El from Tel Aviv by the Dolev road with his wife Etta and five of their eight children. They had hoped to make it home in time to light Hanukka candles. To help illustrate the event, Tzur took out a piece of paper and drew a diagram of the Dolev intersection near Beit El and Ramallah. There were three terrorists in a car ahead of theirs, he recalled. He believes the terrorists ignored the car that passed by them in the opposite direction because they had already noticed that his car, which was behind the gunmen, was filled. Later he learned that the driver of the passing car was the wife of MK Benny Elon (National Union-National Religious Party). In a later conversation between the two, Tzur recalled, she told him that she had a bad feeling about the car that passed her and sped away. Tzur didn't have that option when the car with the gunmen made a U-turn and came in their direction. Tzur remained calm as he described the sense of panic he felt as he saw one man in the front of the car and a second in the back put automatic rifles out the windows in advance of shooting. "There was no way of escaping them," he said. He could not even try to push past them because the first shots killed the car's electricity. "I pressed on the brake and nothing happened," he said. His army experience caused him to instinctively duck slightly when the shooting started, a move he mimicked as he described the event. He felt a bullet whiz over his head. In retrospect he believes this is the bullet that killed his son Ephraim, who was in the back seat with four of his sisters. The gunmen were firing from a 2.5-meter range, he said. They shot 120 bullets at the car, of which 49 actually hit their target. The entire attack probably lasted no more than 10 minutes, but it felt like an eternity, he recalled. "The car was filled with smoke and blood and the sound of everyone screaming and all you can do is pray. There is nothing else to do," he said. Then, having used up all their ammunition, the gunmen sped away. Tzur tried using his cellphone to call for help, but there was no reception. "I got out of the car and stood there. It was quiet and dark and no one was around," he said. "I vowed to myself that, no matter what, this wouldn't break me. It's a promise I've kept." Tzur was able to hitch a ride with a car driven by a Palestinian who dropped him off in Beit El. While he was away, his family was able to call for help using a two-way radio in the car. Upon his return with some soldiers, Tzur's natural instinct to direct and organize events took over. He was so composed as he directed the emergency vehicles that the security personnel were surprised that he was among the victims. Tzur said he knew his son was dead, but he had hoped that his wife, who was shot at least 13 times, might survive. She died during surgery after being rushed to Hadassah-University Hospital in Ein Kerem. His four daughters, who were also in the car, were lightly wounded. Tzur's oldest son, Menahem, who at the time was 18 and studying in a hesder yeshiva, recalled how a rabbi pulled him out of class to tell him of the attack. By the time he arrived at the hospital, he knew that both his mother and younger brother were gone. Tzur said that in the last decade he has worked to help his family move forward with faith and courage. "Our home is a happy one," he said. As a family they recall with fondness and laughter stories of Etta and Ephraim, said Tzur, who added that he not one to cry easily. Yet every celebration and holiday is less complete, he said: "The memories are always there, you live with them." Even simple things like seeing a friend of his son's on the street make him recall his lost family members. When Ephraim died he was a child, said Tzur, adding that now he would of been a man of 22 years. "His friends are grown men who have served in the army. We remember Ephraim as a small boy." Since the attack the family has continued to grow and thrive, said Tzur. Three of the children are married and he has seven grandchildren. Menahem added that "it's not sad to remember, it's sad to forget. The memories are our last remaining connection to them." Yaakov Katz contributed to this report.