Tragedies cross paths at Jerusalem vigils

Protesters call to trade terrorists for Schalit but parents of victims ask PM not to free killers.

noam schalit scratches head 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
noam schalit scratches head 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Every week for seven years, Ora has gone to sit by the grave of her son, St.-Sgt. Raz Mintz, who was killed at age 19 in November 2001 as he manned a roadblock near Ramallah. In early July 2006, one week after Gazan terrorists kidnapped Gilad Schalit - then also 19 - she had something difficult to tell Raz in the cemetery near her Kiryat Motzkin home. "I said that from my perspective, it was all right to free his killers from jail in exchange for Gilad's freedom," Ora told The Jerusalem Post. At the time she did not know the Schalit family. But "from my place of pain, as a mother of who had lost a son," Ora said she believed that everything should be done to prevent another parent from feeling that kind of sorrow. She felt this way even though at the time she had another soldier son, Or, who was risking his life in the West Bank to arrest terror suspects. By the fall of 2006, she had joined the Schalit family's campaign to secure Gilad's release. On Sunday, Ora Mintz was among those who sat with the Schalit family in a protest tent they erected outside Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's residence in the capital. It is part of a last-ditch effort by Schalit's parents to push the prime minister to meet Hamas's demands for the release of 1,400 security prisoners in exchange for their son, and/or take any other action to secure his release before Olmert leaves office in a few weeks. From morning until late in the night, Noam and Aviva Schalit sat in a white tent surrounded by dozens of supporters. Large banners demanding their son's release were plastered all around the tent. One sign noted that Schalit had been in captivity for 987 days. But across the corner, in front of the Restobar - the site of the former Moment Café, where 11 people were killed by a suicide bomber on March 9, 2002 - sat two bereaved parents with exactly the opposite request. In the name of their children, who were among the 17 people killed in a suicide bombing on bus No. 37 in Haifa on March 5, 2003, Yossi Mendellevich and Ron Kehrmann asked Olmert and any other Israeli prime minister to refuse Hamas's demand to release prisoners, particularly those involved in serious terrorist attacks against Israelis. They sat on folding chairs, in a mostly empty corner, behind an old sign with pictures of terror victims that was pasted onto the steel traffic fence. People wearing white T-shirts in support of Schalit walked past without stopping. Only a few paused to express support, including one young couple who handed them wafers and cola. As he sat there wearing a blue flannel jacket to ward off a sudden chill, Kehrmann said their viewpoint was harder to publicize. "We are sitting here as a voice for the many people who feel that they cannot speak," he said. "We are not against the release of Gilad Schalit, but we are against the price," said Kehrmann. The release of terrorists such as the ones that Hamas has demanded, he said, would only lead to further deaths and widen the circle of the bereaved. Already, he said, 180 people had been killed by terrorists released in past prisoner swaps. "We have nothing against the Schalit family, we understand their point of view. So we are appealing to the politicians, the prime minister and the president to make a rational decision and not an emotional one," said Kehrmann. Preventing a prisoner swap for Gilad "will not bring back our children," said Kehrmann, but it would prevent others from experiencing the same loss. He still pauses from the pain of it, when recalling how his daughter Tal, 17, got onto the No. 37 bus to travel to another part of Haifa where friends said she could could find a nice outfit for her high school prom. Kehrmann said he had no idea that she was on the bus, but was still worried about his two children, as any parent would be, upon hearing of the explosion on the news. He immediately got on the phone and found his son, but not his daughter. After endless attempts to reach her he traveled to two hospitals in Haifa, Rambam Medical Center and Carmel Hospital. He was relieved she was not on the casualty lists but still nervous, an anxiety that was heightened by the hospital's suggestion that he take a cab to the morgue to check there as well. On the way, Tal's driving teacher called to say that his daughter was late for her lesson. By the time he got there, he had pieced together enough information from friends and his ex-wife to understand that it was very likely his daughter had been killed. At midnight, a rabbi and a social worker called him into a room and told him, "The identification is confirmed." "I would have given anything not to have heard that sentence," he said. Much like the Schalit family, he too has kept count: It has been 2,196 days since he last saw Tal. But across the street on Sunday, the Schalit family and their supporters said everything should be done to bring Schalit home, because the nation had a duty not to leave soldiers on the battlefield. Since his capture, Hamas has allowed Schalit to send his family a letter and a cassette. Israeli and international officials have told his family that they have every reason to believe he is alive. But at the same time, Noam said, there has been no progress on his son's release. As he and his wife sat in the tent, children in Purim costumes, new immigrants, veteran Israelis and youth groups, including teens wrapped in an Israeli flag, came to shake their hands and to tell the couple that their hearts were with them. Miki and Shlomo Goldwasser, who fought the government for two years to secure the release of their son Ehud's body from Hizbullah through a prisoner swap, also came from their Nahariya home. "The support warms the heart, but it is sad that we have gotten to this point," said Aviva. In back of her, pasted onto the wall of the tent, was a hannukia that spelled, "My Gilad," and, "A miracle will happen here." Gilad's grandfather Tzvi Schalit brought a copy of one of the many letters he has written to Olmert since the kidnapping, asking that his grandson be saved. There is no argument that can be made against a prisoner swap that can hold a candle to the injustice of abandoning Gilad on the battlefield, he wrote. Tzvi Schalit told the Post that he fought both in World War II and the War of Independence, and lost his son Yoel in the Yom Kippur War. So he makes this request to the prime minister as a bereaved father who does not want to suffer a second loss, he said as he sat in the protest tent with his son. Ora Mintz, who sat next to him, noted that many years later, her son Raz had gone to the same high school as Yoel, and so the two of them shared a common bond of grief. She can still recall her last conversation with her son Raz, the night before his death. He had walked a couple of kilometers to watch Hapoel Tel Aviv play against Chelsea and was happy that they had won. He told her he planned to visit on Sunday. But on Friday at 8:45, as she ate dinner with her younger son and mother, officers knocked at her door to tell her of his death. Since then, she has sought breathing spaces between the pain. March is difficult, because it was his birthday month, which is followed by Pessah and Remembrance Day. Then she can focus more on other things, until she nears the anniversary of his death. At one time she felt that the sorrow consumed her, she said. Now she had learned to manage the pain. "I divide my days between tears and air," she said. Her concern here, as she sat in the protest tent in Jerusalem, was both for Gilad and for the families of the many soldiers who serve in the IDF. "As a mother of someone who has to go to reserve duty, I want to know that [the government] would do everything that it could for my son," she said.