BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Two years after Eli Ben Zeev, a security guard working for the Foreign Ministry, left the Israeli embassy in Ankara and moved to Buenos Aires, his replacement in Turkey was ripped to pieces by a bomb placed under his car.
“It could have been me,” Ben Zeev told his wife Miri at the time.
Ten days later, on March 17, 1992, Eli Ben Zeev was killed when an Iranian-sponsored suicide bomber blew himself up at the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires.
Twenty-nine people were killed that day, among them four members of Israel’s foreign service, in what remains the deadliest attack on an Israeli diplomatic mission.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday was set to attend a ceremony in Buenos Aires to mark the attack’s 25th anniversary. Argentina’s Vice President Gabriela Michetti was also expected to attend the event, together with three Israelis who lost loved ones in the attack.
The Ben Zeevs had hoped that after an intense time in Ankara, full of threats and tight security measures, the Argentine capital would bring them some peace of mind, Miri Ben Zeev told The Times of Israel on the prime minister’s plane en route to Argentina.
On the day of the explosion, Miri, who was a secretary at the embassy, finished her work at the embassy at around 1 p.m., she recalled. Eli walked her to the car and, a short while later, called her at home to discuss how to spend the evening with his mother, who was visiting Buenos Aires.
“A few minutes later, a friend of mine called and said that someone had told her about a blast at the embassy,” Miri recalled. “She had tried to call the embassy, but no one picked up.”
The two women jumped into a taxi because they were wary of using their own vehicles, which were clearly marked as belonging to Israeli diplomats. Arriving after a half-hour drive, Miri and her friend, whose husband also worked at the embassy, had to plead with the local authorities to let them near the site. “They didn’t let us in at first, until we explained to them who were were. We didn’t have our diplomatic passports on us,” she said.
“We heard what you usually here when there’s a terror attack: sirens, police,” she remembered bleakly. “There was a large Sony tower nearby. We immediately saw shattered glass from its windows.”
The explosion had been indeed devastating. The five-story embassy building, at the corner of Arroyo and Suipacha streets, “was little more than a shell and a pile of rubble from the impact of the blast,” The New York Times reported the next day. “Trees that previously had shaded the stretch of Arroyo were lacerated and blown down. Amid frantic and often panicky activity, the smell of dust and freshly shredded leaves permeated the air. Thousands of windows were shattered for six city blocks.”
Miri Ben Zeev frantically searched the debris for her husband. “‘Eli, Eli, where is Eli,’ went through my head constantly,” she remembered. The authorities later asked her to wait in a provisional office in a nearby hotel. “I just sat there and waited and waited.”
At one point, an embassy staffer told her that someone who looked like Eli was carried out, alive, on a stretcher. “That’s when I started running from hospital to hospital, and started to make countless phone calls,” she said. In vain.
The attack occurred on Tuesday afternoon. On the night between Thursday and Friday, an Israeli official finally notified Miri that her husband was dead.
“It took three days until they found him,” she said. “I wanted to see him, but they didn’t let me,” she added bitterly. “It really bothered me that it was decided for me that I couldn’t see him. I am a strong woman, I could have handled it. I think they shouldn’t have decided this for me.”
Until Eli Ben Zeev’s death was confirmed, his firstborn son Eylon, who was six at the time, kept on asking on which part of the body his father had been injured. “He kept on asking this question. He really didn’t want to hear anything else,” Miri recalled.
When the bitter truth emerged, she didn’t really know how to tell her son. “It was difficult to talk to him. I really didn’t know what to say to him.”
Eylon did not attend his father’s burial, which took place in Shoresh, Eli’s hometown. “I think I decided that one trauma was enough for him. He didn’t need another trauma of a funeral,” his mother explained. “I don’t remember him ever expressing regret over the fact that he wasn’t there. It never came up.”
Miri, Eylon and his one-year-old brother Omer soon moved back to Petah Tikva, where her mother lived. “We continued living. We had no other choice.”
During a memorial ceremony earlier this year at the Foreign Ministry, Netanyahu hailed Eli Ben Zeev as an “uncompromising security officer who demanded much of himself and was meticulous and reliable.”
He was “full of humor, very intelligent, and a man of the earth,” his widow added Monday, hours before the prime minister’s delegation touched down in Buenos Aires. “He was a true farmer in his soul.”
When the Prime Minister’s Office invited her to join Netanyahu’s trip to Argentina to commemorate the terror attack’s 25th anniversary, Miri didn’t hesitate for a second.
“I love this city. Whenever I am in Buenos Aires, I feel closer to Eli. In Shoresh, he’s dead. In Buenos Aires, this is where he’s alive.”