Passover. A time when Jews all over the world celebrate our delivery from slavery in ancient Egypt and our return to the Promised Land.Perhaps nowhere on earth is the holiday celebrated with more joy and fervor than in Israel, where Jewish people of every description – religious, secular, Right, Left, old and young – gather as families and friends around the Seder table to commemorate the historical start of our nationhood and enjoy the feast.Most Israelis gather around the family table at home or at the home of relatives or friends. Others, however, opt out of the rigors of cleaning, cooking and preparing for the holiday and prefer to have their Seder at a hotel that offers this service.On the evening of March 27, 2002, some 250 people were in the midst of a Passover Seder in the firstfloor grand dining room of the Park Hotel in Netanya.
The youngest of these people was 20, but most were elderly – the oldest was 90 – and several were Holocaust survivors.At around 7:30, 25-year-old Abdel-Basset Odeh, a Palestinian from the nearby West Bank city of Tulkarm, arrived at the hotel, got past the security guard at the front door, entered the dining room and detonated an explosive device. Twenty-eight people were instantly killed by the force of the explosion; two died later. One hundred and forty people were wounded, almost 30 severely. Among the dead were married couples, families and even a Jewish tourist visiting from Sweden. Hamas soon claimed responsibility for the attack, saying through spokesman Abdel Aziz Rantisi: “As long as there is occupation, there will be resistance.”What soon came be known as the “Park Hotel Massacre” or the “Passover Massacre” was perhaps the most spectacular attack of terrorism against Israelis during the second intifada.SURVIVORS OF the bombing contacted by Metro declined to be interviewed for this article, but the initial first responder to enter the dining room after the blast was 25-year-old Muawia Kabha, an emergency medical services technician then with Magen David Adom.Kabha, an Israeli Arab and a Muslim, is now 40 years old and a program director at the Health Ministry in Jerusalem. He recalls that horrific night.
“I remember the call that I got over my radio, that there was a terrorist attack at the Park Hotel. When I got there, there were already three ambulances that were treating people who had come outside the hotel and had collapsed on the street,” Kabha relates.“I went into the hotel. I was the first one in, the first EMS worker to go into the hotel. I will never forget what I saw there,” he tells Metro.“Even now, talking to you years later, I still remember it very vividly. There were a lot of terror attacks, before and after. But this terrorist attack is engraved on my soul and will never leave. I still see it every day in front of my eyes. It was a day that people were very happy, coming to celebrate their holiday. But terror overtook them and turned the happiness into tragedy. As an Arab paramedic, I especially chose that day to work because I wanted to give a Jewish paramedic the day off, to relax and celebrate the holiday,” he says.For Kabha, it was his identity as an Arab paramedic that made the situation particularly complex.“You realize that someone from your own nation, an Arab, came and took away that celebration and actually hurt people, not just those hurt in the attack but the entire Jewish people. When you realize that these people were killed just because they were Jews and because someone hated them for being Jews, it becomes very difficult emotionally,” he explains.“As an Arab paramedic, I get a lot of mixed feelings whenever I go to a terrorist attack,” he continues. “On the one hand, I want to treat people and provide the kinds of services I’m trained to provide, but on the other hand, I’m part of the nation that is doing these attacks, and that is a very horrible feeling to have to bear. I’m trying to treat people and save their lives, and then someone from my own nation is trying to kill them.“And also, at the Park Hotel, at the same time I was trying to save people, kids from the area gathered quickly in front of the hotel and began to shout ‘Death to Arabs!’” Kabha spent a total of 15 years as an emergency paramedic at MDA, and has now been at the Health Ministry for four years. He also works as a volunteer for United Hatzalah, an emergency medical services organization with 3,200 volunteers around the country.He has seen a lot of carnage, he says, but nothing that has affected him as much as that night 15 years ago at the Park Hotel.“The Park Hotel tragedy, because of what I saw when I was there, is something I will carry with me for the rest of my life,” he says. “Every day, I will carry with me the sounds of the place, the smell of burnt flesh and sights like the water pouring out of the hotel from the swimming pool, red with blood. Many things have happened since then, but I can see the scene and even the article you’re going to write in front of my eyes.”Another paramedic has perhaps an even more compelling story to tell. He is Yoram Hamami, who not only arrived at the scene of the attack but soon learned that his own brother was one of the victims.He comes close to breaking down several times as he recalls the night.“On the night of the Park Hotel Seder, I was with my family at my parents’ home in Netanya. We were in the middle of the Seder. My father was on one side, my older brother was next to me,” Hamami tells Metro.“Because I was with MDA, I had a beeper. I got a message from MDA. I looked at the message. I called MDA and was told that there had been a bombing at the Park Hotel. At that very time, I was holding the maror, the bitter herb, and about to dip it into the salt water.The message came at exactly that moment,” he says.
“I knew that my middle brother, Amiram, was having a Seder at the Park Hotel with his family and our relatives,” he goes on. “He was the center of our family.He came to visit my parents every day. Earlier that day, he was at our parents’ house, sitting in a chair, and I said, ‘Hag sameah’ [happy holiday].”It was the last time Hamami saw his brother before the bombing.“So I got the message and jumped up from the table. My sister’s husband did not want me to go alone, so he came with me. I drove to the hotel, put on my MDA shirt and ran into the hotel. I saw my nephew and asked him where my brother was. He told me that he had already been taken to a hospital. I helped bring out one of the dead and went with several of the wounded in an ambulance to Hadera hospital. I didn’t see my brother there, but what I did see I will never forget.Wounded people, blood everywhere,” he relates.“I went with another ambulance going to Netanya and looked for my brother at Laniado hospital,” he continues. “I saw someone I knew who told me my brother had been taken by ambulance to Beilinson for treatment for injuries to his heart.”Amiram died of his wounds two days later, leaving a wife, six children and a large extended family. His funeral was attended, Hamami says, by hundreds of people, many of whom recalled being helped at some point in their lives by Amiram’s acts of kindness and generosity.Inspired by these recollections, Hamami established a charitable foundation in memory of his brother. It distributes parcels of food to the needy, as well as cooked meals at Bnei Akiva in Netanya on Jewish holidays.Asked whether he is angry about what happened to his brother and family, Hamami replies: “What for? Anger will not bring my brother back.”While he may not feel anger, his pain and sadness are evident and palpable.“It becomes a little less with each passing year, but it never goes away,” he says.THANKFULLY – AND not surprisingly – numerous individuals and organizations responded to the needs of the Park Hotel survivors and bereaved. One organization is Navah, which began its work shortly after the massacre.Says Tehila Friedman, founder and director of the organization, which is named after her grandmother: “It started for people affected by the Park Hotel bombing. We understood at that time that the Jewish community got hit quite hard. We thought back then that this was something we had to do something about. There were a lot of terrorist attacks at that time, one after another. We felt that what happened at the Park Hotel was particularly important to the Jewish community.”It wasn’t just any night, she says – it was the “most important night” for the community.“So we called the survivors and their families, and we started to ask them where they were going to be next year. And we heard a lot of pain and hard feelings about the Seder. People were traumatized,” she explains.“We invited them to the Seder and told them that we were going to help them go through this again in the right way. That it was going to be full of love and caring for each other. We brought survivors also from other attacks, like the No. 14 bus in Jerusalem and other things that happened close to the holiday. We all gathered together at the Olive Tree Hotel in Jerusalem. It was a very touching event.”For a young haredi woman with little, if any, experience organizing events like this, that first Seder proved to be quite a challenge.“I was 28 years old at the time, pregnant with my fourth child,” Friedman recounts.“When we got to the place, I realized that I had forgotten to invite a leader for the Seder. I looked around at the people and decided there was no one around who looked like he could do it. So I got up on a chair and told them: ‘Look, I organized this night with all good intentions, but you’ll have to excuse me because I forgot to invite a Seder leader.And then one bereaved father got up, said I needn’t apologize, and proceeded to lead the Seder.”“He took over and looked at the people and said: ‘You lost a leg, and you lost an eye, and you lost a son, and you lost a husband. Let’s all hold each other’s hands and let’s sing.’ And they were singing ‘Am Yisrael Hai’ [the People of Israel lives], very quietly at first. And as it was going along, their voices got stronger,” she relates. “They were hugging each other and giving each other strength. And there and then we decided to continue doing this every year.”In the years since that first Seder, Navah has hosted upwards of 3,200 people. In 2009, the group performed a dramatic display of resilience and renewal.“We decided to bring in a Sefer Torah for 36 bereaved families,” Friedman says.“We had meetings to decide where to bring it, and the decision was to bring it to the Park Hotel,” she says. “So on Hol Hamoed Succot, we had a very big event. I think we had around 1,000 people. And they were dancing in the dining room with the Sefer Torah – all these families at the place where their husbands and children had been murdered. It sent the message: ‘Am Yisrael Hai.’” Although the last Seder attended by a Park Hotel family was in 2012 – Friedman still goes to Netanya every Remembrance Day to visit with some of the families – the Seders continue, now focusing on survivors of subsequent terror attacks.“Every year, we have families that lost members in terror attacks that year. This is a place for those families in their first and second year after the attack, when they are all messed up emotionally.Even if it’s a large family, the empty chair of someone who is missing is very traumatic,” she explains.“We ask: ‘Where are you going to be next Passover?’” she says. “We feel that the Seder is meant to give love, to give strength.”This year’s Seder is scheduled to be held at the Leonardo Hotel in Rehovot, with 160 expected to attend.Navah is a nonprofit organization that relies on charitable contributions to do its much-needed work. To learn more and offer support, visit www.navah.org.il.