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Memory of Maalot killings fuels Israeli suspicion about peace with Arafat

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MAALOT, Israel -- The fears that haunt Israelis as they watch Yasser Arafat were made in places like this.

Here, 20 years ago, three Palestinian guerrillas seized a school full of teen-age students and held them hostage for the release of Palestinian prisoners.

When the Israeli Army stormed the school, 20 students were killed and 65 were hurt.

"That was a day I'll never forget," said David Aberjal, 58, then a reserve soldier who participated in the siege. "There will never be peace with the Arabs. If we trust them, we will be stabbed in the back."

Many in Maalot, then a raw, new town of only 2,500, blamed Mr. Arafat for the attack, and still do.

"They were Arafat's men," said Pnina Amor, 40, as she pointed out the plaster patches, still unpainted after 20 years, over bullet holes in the pink schoolhouse yesterday.

"I could hear the kids crying during the attack. Crying and shouting," said Mrs. Amor, 40, daughter of the town's chief rabbi at the time.

Maalot became an emotional touchstone for Israelis, an attack on children that became the symbol of the heartlessness of the Palestinian terrorism.

The attack and Israeli response were part of a larger pattern still depressingly familiar today. Israel promptly launched a three-day bombardment on crowded Palestinian refugee camps inside Lebanon, inevitably killing more civilians than the ostensible target, guerrillas. News reports at the time said 48 people were killed and hundreds wounded.

Cycle of retribution

Then-U.S. Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger said the violence threatened his shuttle efforts to get an Israeli-Syrian peace pact.

Premier Golda Meir vowed that Israel would "cut off the hands" of terrorists.

Undeterred, Palestinians struck twice more the next month, killing three women in a kibbutz and four other people in an apartment building in Naharia, 10 miles from Maalot.

"We kill them. They kill us. We kill them," said Mr. Aberjal, with a dismissive wave. "It's a cycle."

Maalot is now a town of 12,000. Trees have grown to take the rough edge off the square block apartment buildings typical of "development towns" like Maalot. They were quick and graceless communities planted by the government to try to funnel Jewish immigrants to the fringes of the country.

Most of those towns have withered or died, experiments that soured in the heat of scrubby lands lacking in jobs.

But Maalot sputtered forward, growing in spurts fed in part by the notoriety of the 1974 attack.

"Paradoxically, some good things came out of it," said former Mayor Eli Ben-Yaakov. "Before the attack, no one knew what Maalot was. Afterward, they couldn't ignore any of our demands. I admit I took advantage of that."

Government aid was no salve for the psychological scars, however.

"To this day, the same thing goes through my head, the same grief. After 20 years, I am angry at the whole world," said Yekuta Madar, who lost two children in the attack.

The students, most of them from the religious town of Zefat 15 miles away, had stopped to sleep at the Maalot school during a class trip. They were held at gunpoint for 13 hours.

When the Israeli Army attacked shortly before the deadline set by the Palestinians, some children leaped though windows; others were killed in the cross-fire.

"It was a terrible time of tension and anxiety that lasted for months," said Mrs. Amor.

Even those too young to know what was happening felt the consequences.

"I was 3. I remember my mother put my brother and me in a cupboard. My father was in the Army, and she hid us there," said Leo Lasri, 23.

He is stridently opposed to negotiating with Mr. Arafat. "We shouldn't give him any respect, because he killed innocent people," the young man said.

The Palestinian guerrillas killed four others before reaching the school, among them three members of the Cohen family. When his father's only brother was killed, Eli Cohen, now 22, watched his father suffer over two long decades until his death this year.

"My father was always very, very sad," said the young man. "I would ask him why, and he said it was because his brother was murdered. I suffered, indirectly, from that."

But Eli Cohen said: "I have no hatred in me. I have Arab friends. When Arafat came yesterday, I was visiting a Druze friend. I was actually excited by what was going on."

Fitful sleep

Rina Sofer, the mother of a 15-year-old killed in the attack, feels differently.

"To this day, I cannot sleep at night without Valium," she said from her home in Zefat. "I couldn't watch Arafat on TV last night because it hurt too much."

The Maalot attack and several others in the particularly bloody dTC spate of the mid-1970s were carried out by a rebellious Palestinian faction headed by Naif Hawatmeh, later called the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

It is unclear how much direction such factions took from Mr. Arafat.

"Without a doubt, I believe Arafat is behind the attacks," said Mr. Ben-Yaakov, the former mayor. "I would be much happier if a more moderate man was head of the PLO instead of a man whose hands are covered in blood. But we don't choose their leaders, and Israel must negotiate with him."

Maalot is not a town with politics easily pegged. For example, it has the country's only joint Jewish-Arab council, joined administratively with the Israeli-Arab town of Tarshiha, just across a small valley. Despite its hard-line sentiments, it has a council dominated by the liberal Labor Party.

The victims of Maalot are much like the rest of Israel: politically divided as to the wisdom of handing over parts of the occupied territory to Mr. Arafat.

"There's an emotional side and a rational side," said Meir Sofer, 28, whose 15-year-old sister was killed in the attack.

"On the emotional side, it is not so easy to forgive.

"But I think we should try to achieve peace with Arafat," he said. "My sister's blood was spilt. I don't want other families to be hurt."

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