Victims' families torn on releasing terrorists for Gilad

Bereaved mother to Schalits: I know what it's like to lose a daughter, I don't want you to lose your son.

Schalit 248.88 (photo credit: Channel 10 [file])
Schalit 248.88
(photo credit: Channel 10 [file])
Five years ago, as she sat in a Haifa courtroom and watched the sentencing of a Palestinian terrorist involved in the March 2003 Haifa bus bombing that killed her 14-year-old daughter, Heidi Litle knew he could be part of a future prisoner swap. "It was a thought that flashed through my mind," Litle told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday. But she did not know how she would feel if that day actually came. Over the last few weeks, she guessed that the terrorist might be among the some 1,000 prisoners Hamas has demanded for the release of Gilad Schalit, who was kidnapped in June 2006. On Wednesday, the security cabinet is set to meet to discuss details of a possible prisoner swap, along with an overall cease-fire. Though she doesn't know whether the terrorist is on the list or not, Litle already knows where she stands. She wrote a letter to the Schalit family this week to tell them personally that she supported a deal, even if it meant her daughter Abigail's murderer would be released. Litle said she had no illusions about this man or any of the other terrorists who might be on the list. It was clear to her as he sat in court five years ago that he had no remorse for his actions and that he had been part of a coldly calculated plan to blow up the bus. "I understand that these prisoners would want to be involved in terror again," said Litle. Her oldest son was in an army unit that worked to capture such terrorists, she said, so she understood the effort involved. As a bereaved mother, she also knew that her four remaining children could be a target of such an attack. "It could happen to me again. I know this more than the people who have not had this happen to them," said Litle. Still, she wrote the Schalit family, "I am willing to take that risk to have Gilad come home again." "I am willing to trust the government and the security forces and to pray that it won't happen again," said Litle. She told the Schalit family in her letter, "I know what it is like to lose a daughter, and I do not want you to lose your son. He has been gone long enough." Litle and her husband Philip came to Israel from the US on March 4, 1989 with two children, including Abigail, who was only seven months old. They soon moved to Haifa so her husband could study at the Technion, and they remained there so he could work as a Baptist minister. On March 5, 2003, a suicide bomber blew himself up on the bus that their daughter had taken home from school, killing her and 16 other passengers, many of them children. Litle said she had tried to call Abigail on her cell phone, but there was no answer. "We didn't hear from her, but we started to hear from her friends. They asked, 'Where is Abigail?' and 'Has she made it home?' Obviously we had the television on, and my husband saw her coat on the bus." A short time before the attack, amid a spate of suicide bombings, the family had talked about the possibility of leaving, but they had opted to stay. Abigail's death had the impact of an atomic bomb on their family, said Litle. "Everything was completely destroyed," said Litle, adding that in the aftermath, "you are a survivor picking up the pieces." Now, six years later, she said, the family is healing. "But each person is different from who they were. There are more smiles, but it is not like it would have been." It is because she knew the impact of this loss so deeply that she believed the government must do everything in its power to free Schalit, she said. In his home in Shilo, Moshe Kenan said he, too, believed that Schalit should be returned to his family. But he believes it should be through a military operation, and not a prisoner exchange with a terrorist group. It's a move that weakens the country and endangers lives, because these terrorists are likely to be involved in future attacks, he said. Prisoner swaps have become almost like a business. "Give me one, and I will give you 1,000," he said. With each swap, the incentive grows for terrorists to capture more soldiers, he said. As the father of a 22-year-old soldier, Avihu, who was killed two days short of Rosh Hashana on September 25, 2003 as he tried to capture a terrorist in Gaza, the whole issue was intensely personal. "My son gave up his life to capture these terrorists and now they want to free them," said Kenan. "It's not just my son whose sacrifice the government would dismiss with this move, but all the soldiers who have worked hard to capture these terrorists." Avihu, he said, was killed at 3:30 a.m. on a Thursday. But when he woke up that morning, Kenan knew nothing of the disaster that had already befallen his family. He left for work at 7 a.m. as if nothing had happened. As he drove he heard on the news that soldiers had been wounded in Gaza. He called his wife, and she checked in with her son's commander, who said that Avihu had been wounded. "I turned the car around and went home," recalled Kenan. By the time he got there, an officer had arrived to inform the family of Avihu's death. Avihu had been the only son in a family of five children. The child of Holocaust survivors who arrived in Israel from Romania with his parents in 1951, Kenan took a trip to eastern Europe after his son's death. He took a stone from Avihu's grave that he placed on a furnace in Auschwitz. As he stood there, he addressed his late relatives who had been gassed to death, and said: "Here you fell because they killed you, but [Avihu] fell with a gun in his hand." Kenan said he did not believe that his son's death had been in vain. "He died young, but he did a lot. He was a giant. He was not just a warrior, he was a counselor and a teacher," said Kenan. No matter what happens with Schalit, Kenan said he remained firm in his conviction that his son died for a cause. But should the government release the terrorists that his son and other soldiers had captured, it would be making a public statement that such efforts and risks were meaningless. On Tuesday, Kenan sat down in his living room, and spent hours composing a hand-written letter to Olmert and his cabinet ministers to urge them not to free terrorists for Schalit. In the letter, distributed by the terror victims organization Almagor, Kenan wrote of his anger at a government that would risk his son's life to catch a terrorist but would then release 1,000 terrorists to avoid risking the life of a captive soldier. "Why did you send my son to die against one terrorist when you are willing to free hundreds?" he asked. "I am turning to you from the depth of my heart to ask that you stop speaking of the release of terrorists, which only causes pain to the families of soldiers who have risked their lives and are now being told that their actions were in vain," he concluded.