On the morning of Thursday, August 9, 2001, Malki Roth, 15, knocked gently on the door of her parents’ bedroom at their home in Jerusalem’s Ramot neighborhood and stuck her head in.
“I’m going out with Michal [Raziel, 16, her friend from next door],” she told her mother, Frimet. “Love you.”
This would be their last conversation. Frimet, who was in bed with a migraine, didn’t even open her eyes.
That same morning, Ahlam Tamimi — a 21-year-old Jordanian woman studying journalism at a West Bank university while working as a newsreader at the Islamist TV station Istiqlal — met up in Ramallah for the first time with Izz al-Din Shuheil al-Masri, 22, from Aqabah near Jenin, the son of a successful Palestinian restaurateur.
Together, Tamimi, a former Fatah activist who had joined Hamas, and al-Masri traveled by taxi to the Qalandiya checkpoint north of Jerusalem, where they got out and walked across into Israel. It was the height of the Second Intifada, but Israeli troops were looking out for suspicious single men, not happy young couples. He had shaved and gotten a Western-style haircut a couple of days before and was carrying a guitar case; she was dressed in summery clothes; they evidently looked enough like a pair of young Israelis or tourists to attract no scrutiny from the soldiers on duty.
From there, the pair took a second taxi to Damascus Gate, and then walked along Hanevi’im Street into the heart of Jerusalem. Shortly before 2 p.m., at the crowded junction where Jaffa Road meets King George Street, they separated.
Tamimi walked back to Damascus Gate and took a bus back to Ramallah, where she was due to read the news that evening. Al-Masri walked into the large, crowded Sbarro pizza restaurant on the corner where she had left him and, to devastating effect, detonated the bomb that was hidden inside the guitar case — a horrific concoction of explosives, nails, nuts and bolts that ripped the flesh off his victims’ bodies.
The only question al-Masri had asked before they parted, Tamimi would say later, was, “Are there religious Jews in the place where we are going to conduct the attack?” She had assured him that, yes, indeed there would be.
Fifteen civilians were killed in the blast — 13 Israelis, a pregnant American tourist, and one Brazilian. A hundred and thirty more people were injured; one of them, Chana Nachenberg, remains hospitalized in a permanent vegetative state to this day.
Among the dead were Malki Roth and her friend Michal Raziel.
Malki used to call herself “the meat in the sandwich of the Roth family,” says her father Arnold — their first girl after three boys, with three more girls to follow. “But we came to learn she was the glue that held the family together. Empathetic. Practical. An agent of change.”
He is sitting across my desk in the first of two lengthy interviews for this piece. Frimet joined him for the second — clarifying his account, adding her perspective, correcting him when she thinks he’s misremembered something, but generally letting him tell their story.
The Roth parents are manifestly warm people, fine people, loving people, with two decades of suffering etched into their features.
To say that they have never recovered from the murder of their daughter is, of course, an understatement. Malki’s loss has dominated their lives for almost 20 years. But it is not just the loss of Malki. It is that the finality of Malki’s death does not mark the end of her story. The gaping wound of her loss, which they had thought, in their newly bereaved naivete, just might begin to close with time, has been kept open to this day by a series of cynical betrayals and affronts, interspersed with faint glimmers of unrealized hope.
And as they have suffered, Ahlam Tamimi — the woman who scouted the location for the attack, escorted the suicide bomber to ensure the atrocity went ahead, and speaks of the bombing as “my operation” — has thrived, has been allowed to thrive. She has been able to marry, to talk of starting a family, and to become something of a celebrity on the strength of her murderous exploits, while expressing regret only that more people were not killed. She cast their lives into darkness. But hers has been bright.
Only in the last few months, just possibly, are there indications that Ahlam Tamimi’s unconscionable freedom could be curtailed; that justice, so long delayed, may yet be delivered. Faint indications, nothing more.
Arnold speaks succinctly throughout our conversations, with a brisk dispassion entirely at odds with the words he is saying. Frimet, too, when she joins him, is reining in emotion. The saga they describe is so terrible, so wrenching, and so littered with acts of viciousness and cynicism, that clearly the best way for them to get through the necessary ordeal of having a journalist understand it is to minimize the drama
In an Australian accent mixed with whatever years in New York and decades in Israel have done to it, Arnold tells me he is appreciative that I’m taking time to listen to all this, even if I don’t end up writing anything, as though I’m doing him some kind of favor.
He speaks succinctly throughout our conversations, with a brisk dispassion entirely at odds with the words he is saying. Frimet, too, when she joins him, is reining in emotion. The saga they describe is so terrible, so wrenching, and so littered with acts of viciousness and cynicism, that clearly the best way for them to get through the necessary ordeal of having a journalist understand it is to minimize the drama. I’ve tried to reflect that dispassionate tone in what you’re reading, using a lot of Arnold’s and Frimet’s direct quotes, letting them tell the story unadorned wherever possible.
Remember that as you read on. These are the words they said, but they are weighted with searing grief.
So here is Arnold, elaborating on Malki’s role in their family: “Our youngest daughter, Haya, was born perfect and beautiful. But after a few months, we became aware that she was blind. At age one, she was hospitalized, and found to be profoundly brain damaged. Frimet was and is devoted to her. She saw herself as Haya’s life, and that’s as true today as it was then. And Malki, nine years older, was her right hand. Frimet and Malki were very close; she was closer with Malki than anyone else.”
Malki, says Arnold, took her empathy and her practicality with her to the Horev school, where “she catalyzed mainstreaming, reaching out to the special needs children the school was taking in.” As a counselor in the Ezra youth movement, she also became friendly with kids from the former Soviet Union, the kids there who maybe needed her most.
In the summer of 2001, Malki and a schoolmate went, unannounced, to an Etgarim summer camp in northern Israel for physically and cognitively disabled kids. “She and her friend just showed up at the gates, and asked to help. Two 15-year-old girls,” says Arnold. “The camp did not take volunteers. Needless to say, within minutes they were in.”
People from the camp would, only days later, come to her shiva. “They told us how impactful the relationship with a couple of 15-year-olds was for the kids. She left a big footprint, little Malki.”
Arnold says he doesn’t know if Malki would have gone on to work with people with special needs. “It was her nature; I don’t know if it was her vocation.” But he has no doubt that in her life “she would have wanted to continue to influence people for good.”
The previous year, in the summer of 2000, Arnold recalls, “Malki, then aged 14, said to Frimet, ‘I’ve learned so much about Haya; I want to help someone else.’ Frimet suggested she speak with a young woman who lived close to us. Frimet had recently gotten to know her a little. This was a single mother whose husband had walked out of the marriage when their baby son was diagnosed with Canavan disease. It’s a progressive, fatal neurological disorder that begins in infancy. Malki talked her way into an unpaid mother’s helper job and spent weeks with Ro’i — who had a feeding tube, was not verbal, had a broad smile — knowing he would die soon.
“He did die. Not long after she did.”
Arnold and later Frimet force themselves to recount the unthinkable horror of the day of the bombing:
Frimet on the phone screaming to Arnold that there’s been a terrorist attack in the center of town and she can’t reach the kids.
Arnold convinced that Frimet is getting unnecessarily agitated. “The odds were so remote.”
Gradually making contact with all of the children. Except Malki.
The phones going down as a nation searched for its loved ones.
Frimet, certain “something really bad has happened,” pleading with Arnold to come from his work in the Har Hotzvim business district. “As I walked to the bus, I started negotiating with the Almighty: Let her be only unconscious. Let her be in an area without a phone,” says Arnold. “I was trying to persuade Him: Please Hashem, don’t let this turn out as bad as it looks.”
Hours passing. The phones now working again. Calling hospitals. Avivah Raziel, Michal’s mother, telling Frimet she can’t find her daughter either. Says Frimet: “The realization gradually built up…”
Frimet and Avivah going together to Shaare Zedek Hospital, where Avivah’s sister is an emergency room nurse. Getting a text on the way: a friend of Malki’s reporting that he had texted her, saying, “Why don’t you meet us at Sbarro.”
In the bedlam at the hospital, the mothers split up. Avivah finds Michal still alive, but barely. Arnold: “She died soon after, in Avivah’s arms.”
Frimet: “A social worker whisked me away, gave me a phone: Abu Kabir (the national forensic institute where terror victims are identified). They asked me what Malki was wearing. I didn’t know. I’d had a migraine that morning. I didn’t even look at her; I just spoke to her. So I couldn’t tell them. I described her; they said nobody here fits that description. That gave a bit of hope.”
Frimet, Arnold and all the Roth kids now at home, praying, saying Psalms, “trying to grapple with the abyss.” Still no sign, no word, no nothing, about Malki. Neighbors, friends, coming to the door. Some ladies to sit with Frimet.
At 7 p.m., five hours after the bombing, a neighbor appearing at the door, ashen-faced, to say the TV news announced Michal Raziel is one of the fatalities.
At 10:30, their friend Dr. Jerry Lafair, a professor and department head at Hadassah Medical Center, coming to the house to tell them he’s been told there’s a girl on the operating table who might be Malki. He and Arnold drive to Ein Kerem, a scene of hell and incredible stress, with dozens of families there in the same situation. “The staff have been working with dying and dead people for 9 hours. Jerry says don’t move; he goes away; he comes back: It’s not your daughter.”
Snatches of conversation: A surgeon telling Jerry, “Go over to that room. There are two girls in there. One is dead, and one we are going to operate on.” And neither is Malki.
Arnold by now “sunk into hell,” abandoning “whatever games I’ve been playing in my mind.”
A social worker coming over, telling him he needs to go to Abu Kabir. He demurs — says he needs to go home and be with his wife but that two of his sons will go.
And at 2 a.m., 12 hours after the bombing, “the younger of the sons called me and said, We’ve found Malki.”
“I said the bracha.
“Frimet screamed and ran out of the house into the night.”
In the following hour, Arnold wrote a letter to the Melbourne Age, his hometown newspaper. He was pouring out his soul from the darkness — “spilling,” he says now.
Published a few hours later under the headline “My daughter was murdered today,” it read as follows:
My lovely daughter Malki was born in Melbourne 15 years ago.
I wish I could tell you more about her wonderful character and achievements.
Today, here in Jerusalem, she was murdered by a fanatic who didn’t know a thing about her.
My wife and I just don’t have the tools to cope with this.
We only want to do whatever we can so she does not turn into yet another statistic.
Here is a photograph I took of her six weeks ago.
I hope you will see fit to publish it so that people of reason will understand the human tragedy.
The shiva mourning period was the first seven-day installment of the particular hell Malki Roth’s bereaved parents have been enduring ever since — an unended journey from the indescribable shock and relentless pain of their bereavement, via the hypocrisies, stupidities and outright lies they’ve encountered from politicians, officials and journalists, to the open wound of abiding injustice.
There were moments of comfort in those first terrible hours and days. Says Arnold: People came to the house in the hundreds, many we didn’t know, “really only to hold our hands and say ‘my heart is with you.’ Some of the really helpful ones were the total strangers who said, ‘I don’t know what to say.’
“Frimet was inconsolable. But she had to take care of Haya. Early on, someone called from California. It was the parents of Shoshana Hayman Greenbaum [another of the dead, who was five months pregnant]. Her mother, Shifra, asked to speak to Frimet, to give strength to Frimet. They spoke every day. Shifra called every day from California.”
“Some people said, ‘You’ll see your daughter soon. The messiah is coming. I stopped them; It wasn’t what I wanted to hear at that moment.”
The funeral was on the Friday.
Arnold: “Of the Shabbat, I have no recollection.”
On Sunday morning, the BBC called. A radio presenter asked Arnold if he would come on her program, telling him “‘we have the father of the young man who blew himself up.’ I could only see black in front of my eyes. She wanted a discussion between… I said, No!
“I didn’t hang up in anger. I was, at that stage, bewildered at the approach.
“Years later, Russia Today wanted Frimet to face off with Ahlam Tamimi. Needless to say, it never happened.”
In those first days and weeks, says Arnold, “my whole existence revolved around helping us get through; how we were going to cope as a family.”
At some point in that week, late one night, they sat together to discuss how they could remember Malki practically, usefully — bearing in mind their experiences with her sister Haya.
The result was the Malki Foundation, a charity dedicated to assisting parents of children with disabilities. The documents establishing the charity were issued barely a month after the bombing… on September 11, 2001.
Arnold: “The foundation has grown to maturity, does really fine things, allowing us to feel some pride, some satisfaction, in knowing that we were connecting Malki’s life — which was strikingly all goodness — to families like us who have a very disabled child. We help them in ways that she was able to help our Haya, like she did with Ro’i from across the street.”
At this stage, and for several years afterwards, Arnold and Frimet thought that what lay in prospect was “only” the heartbreaking process of trying to recover from a loss from which there is no recovery, trying to live as best as they could with a grief that is unfading and insurmountable.
Al-Masri, the bomber who blew up Sbarro, was dead. Tamimi, who had orchestrated the attack, was captured by the Israeli Shin Bet within weeks, and was jailed for 16 life terms for murder. The judges put on the record their recommendation that she never be released.
In those first years after Malki’s murder, Arnold spoke at numerous meetings in Israel and abroad with VIPs on behalf of the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry: “My message was that terrorism is a scourge, and has to be seen and tackled as that, not as something to be legitimized or understood.” Unless we change the approach, he would say, “it can and will continue to happen to anyone — not just to us in Jerusalem. We’ll all pay a very heavy price.”
Specifically, Arnold would argue that governments that seek to defeat terrorism must refuse to release convicted terrorists from prisons since this emboldens them and their colleagues. By nurturing the belief that their demands are likely to be met in the future, he would argue, you encourage terrorist blackmail of the very kind that you want to stop. Only the most unrelenting refusal to ever give in to such blackmail can prevent this.
He was paraphrasing from a 1997 book called “Fighting Terrorism: How Democracies Can Defeat Domestic and International Terrorists.” The author: Benjamin Netanyahu.
Arnold spoke to European presidents, to prime ministers and kings — “some of them less tuned in than you might imagine,” he sighs wearily.
But there was “no sharp edge to my message.” Until 2007, that is, when he saw a documentary, “Hot House,” by an Israeli filmmaker named Shimon Dotan — a film that “got a terrific reception in the New York Times,” where it was described as an “absorbing look at Palestinians held in Israeli jails… full of remarkable interviews.”
“It focused,” Arnold says slowly, disbelief still underpinning his words, “on the woman who murdered our child. That woman’s grinning face — a picture of total self-satisfaction — looked out from the front page of one of the sections of the New York Times. It was a documentary filmed inside Israeli prisons. Israel had allowed them to interview Ahlam Tamimi.
“And in the film, she pretends to learn on camera how many children she murdered. Shimon Dotan asks her, Do you know how many [children] died in the attack? Three, she says. No, he says. Eight. She smiles. She had sat through a trial and without a doubt knew the death toll. This was a performance.
“That smile that it was eight and not three was for the benefit of the New York Times; this was a major exercise in humanizing a monster, a barbarian who has never suggested remorse. On the contrary, she built a career congratulating herself and encouraging others to do the same.”
Until they read that New York Times article, Arnold says, they had thought that the battle they had to fight was to somehow keep going after Malki’s death, and to properly honor her memory. The film, and the review, he says, was the first indication that they would also have to battle for justice.
And then came the Shalit deal.
In June 2006, two Israeli soldiers were killed and a third was grabbed from his tank inside an IDF base in southern Israel, by a terror cell that had infiltrated through a tunnel dug under the border from the Gaza Strip.
Gilad Shalit, 19, was dragged back through the tunnel into Gaza, where he was held hostage by Hamas, the terror group that a year later took full control of Gaza. Reveling in Israel’s inability to find and rescue him, Hamas demanded the release of vast numbers of terrorist murderers and other Palestinian security prisoners held in Israeli jails.
And Israel — a country of mandatory conscription with a core commitment to leaving no soldier behind; a country which has repeatedly proved willing to consent to radically lopsided prisoner “exchanges” in order to bring home captured troops despite always also insisting that it will never do so again — ultimately capitulated.
When people started talking about a possible deal for Shalit’s release, the Roths began to get a terrible sense of foreboding. It was, surely, inconceivable that the gloating woman who had orchestrated one of the worst terrorist outrages of the Second Intifada, gloried in the taking of those 15 innocent lives, encouraged others to follow her example, and expressed the very opposite of remorse, could be, would be, set free. Wasn’t it?
Frimet repeatedly contacted the Justice Ministry, seeking assurances that Tamimi would not be released. She was repeatedly told that there simply was no list of prisoners to be freed.
And then, just before the deal was approved and carried out in October 2011, the then-head of the ministry’s pardons department, Emi Palmor, telephoned Arnold “and told us that [Tamimi] was included” among the 1,027 prisoners whom Israel would set free to secure the release of Shalit. (Palmor, who the Roths say was one of the very few Israeli officials who have tried to help them and never lied to them, rose to become director-general of the Justice Ministry in 2014; she was summarily fired last summer by new minister Amir Ohana.)
“We both wrote to Bibi [Netanyahu], three separate letters over some months, pleading with him: whatever you do, just exclude her,” says Arnold. “Not, don’t do the Shalit deal. But, she is unique” — unique in the degree to which releasing her would be so utterly counterproductive, immoral, unjust… and dangerous. “She’s a journalist, charismatic, who took so many victims, who shows the complete absence of any remorse.”
None of the three letters was acknowledged.
This was one of them, translated from the Hebrew, sent to Netanyahu by fax two months before the Shalit deal was carried out.
Letter to the Prime Minister
17th August 2011
We have read about the resumption of negotiations between Israel and Hamas regarding the release of hundreds of Palestinian terrorists in exchange for the release of Gilad Shalit. Reports say that Israel is primed for compromise.
This news concerns us deeply and very personally. It seems likely that our daughter’s murderer, Ahlam Tamimi, is one of the terrorists whose release Hamas is demanding.
Ten years ago, Tamimi transported the 10 kilogram nail-enhanced bomb, handed it to Izzedin Al-Masri, and escorted him through Jerusalem’s city center to Sbarro restaurant, the target she had chosen for its crowd of women and children. She instructed “her weapon,” Al-Masri, the suicide bomber, to delay his detonation until she had time to escape the scene. Fifteen men, women and children perished in the ensuing massacre.
After her confession, conviction and sentencing to 16 life terms, Tamimi declared in an interview: “I am not sorry for what I did. I will get out of prison.”
We plead with you to remember the victims’ precious souls.
Do not trivialize their lives by allowing their murderer to escape punishment. This monster actually smiled when she learned from an interviewer that the number of children she slaughtered was greater than she had presumed. She has been, inexplicably, permitted an interview and an appearance in a documentary film, and on both occasions stated that she feels no remorse.
Releasing Tamimi will, for us, be akin to murdering our daughter a second time. Moreover, it will demonstrate that this is a state where one can truly “get away with murder” and it will unleash a deadly monster sworn to resume terrorist activities against Israelis.
Can you take that risk?
Frimet and Arnold Roth
Arnold: “When Bibi announced the pending release, he said, My heart goes out to the victims. He said he would write to all of them.”
Frimet: “The impression he gave was that we all got a personal letter. I called the Prime Minister’s Office weeks after the deal was done. I’ll never forget the conversation. I said, I never got a letter, and nobody else I know who was a victim got a letter. The woman on the phone (Frimet tells me the woman’s name; she has since gone on to an impressive career in the private sector) said they were brought to the post office. Someone in the background said, Tell her, hundreds of letters. She tells me, Hundreds of letters were mailed out.
“I asked her to just tell me the truth. I said I’ll call again in 24 hours. I could never get back to her…”
Ahlam Tamimi was born and raised in Jordan, and lived there until a year before the bombing. According to the author Barbara Victor, who interviewed her in prison for a book called “Army of Roses,” she was sent by her family to the West Bank after she became pregnant outside of marriage: the child was taken away to be raised by her brother; she was to redeem herself as a Fatah activist.
Instead, she was recruited at Birzeit University to Hamas, and invited to be directly involved in carrying out terrorist attacks — the first-ever female recruit, according to Israel’s military prosecutors. She would later claim to have had Palestinian Authority journalist credentials, ostensibly enabling her greater ease of access, but this is unconfirmed.
She made her new home in Nabi Salah, a small village north of Ramallah, where she had many cousins. Among them is Bassem Tamimi, a supposed human rights activist convicted by Israel for encouraging violence who was sponsored by Amnesty International’s US branch on a speaking tour in 2015 that included appearances before school groups as young as third-grade. Bassem’s daughter Ahed made headlines worldwide for slapping an Israeli soldier in a confrontation in late 2017.
By her own telling, Ahlam Tamimi was already a mass murderer of Jews before she orchestrated the Sbarro bombing. Less than two weeks earlier, she had planted an explosive device — a bomb in a beer can — among the vegetables in the basement supermarket of Hamashbir department store on King George St. She would later claim that the device destroyed the store and killed many Jews, but that the pernicious Zionists covered it up.
In fact, the device went off with a small pop, causing no damage. Tamimi, furious, resolved not to fail again.
Arnold: “She told Hamas, give me a decent bomb.”
The Sbarro bomb was a horrific device, constructed by a Hamas bombmaker named Abdullah Barghouti, who was arrested by the Shin Bet two years later. Barghouti is serving 67 life terms plus 5,200 years in solitary confinement in Beit She’an’s Gilboa jail, for the 66 people killed, and the hundreds injured, in acts of terror in which he and his explosives played a part. The term is the longest ever handed down in Israeli history; Israel refused to release him in the Shalit deal. (Hamas has for years been pushing for Barghouti’s release; his mother told Jordanian television in late 2018 she was optimistic he would be freed soon.)
It was Tamimi who chose and checked out the King George-Jaffa Road intersection for the August 9 attack. She would later brag, accurately or otherwise, about many other aspects of her murderous expertise, but Israeli prosecutors were definitive: “On August 8, the accused went from Ramallah to Jerusalem to find an appropriate location for the attack,” the subsequent Israeli indictment against her would state.
Meet #AhlamTamimi who killed my daughter #Malki and 15 others. Hard not to see the thrill she gets from talking about her massacre. She’s not in prison: #Jordan‘s king can explain why.
Thanks to @MEMRIreports who do non-Arabic-speakers a great service by translating such clips. pic.twitter.com/e9ZtUW6e2Q
— Arnold Roth (@arnoldroth) June 19, 2018
Back at the scene the next day with al-Masri, she told him to walk into the middle of the intersection, and detonate the guitar-case bomb in the heart of the crowds on the crossing there, anticipating that this would cause maximal casualties, including plenty of Jewish children.
Instead, minutes after she left him, he chose to go into Sbarro.
As she made her way back to Ramallah, and news of the bombing broke, “the Palestinians around Damascus Gate were all smiling,” Tamimi said in a 2012 interview with Hamas’s Al-Aqsa TV. “You could sense that everybody was happy. When I got on the bus [to Ramallah], nobody knew that it was me who had led [al-Masri to the scene].”
But she herself was rather downhearted: Al-Masri had ignored her instructions and gone into the restaurant rather than self-detonating outside, and the initial reports were of only three fatalities. “I admit that I was a bit disappointed, because I had hoped for a larger toll. Yet when they said ‘three dead,’ I said: ‘Allah be praised’… Two minutes later, they said on the radio that the number had increased to five. I wanted to hide my smile, but I just couldn’t. Allah be praised, it was great. As the number of dead kept increasing, the passengers were applauding. They didn’t even know that I was among them.
“On the way back, we passed a Palestinian police checkpoint, and the policemen were laughing. One of them stuck his head in and said: ‘Congratulations to us all.’ Everybody was happy.”
Bomb-maker Barghouti, she exalted, “did a perfect job… and the results amazed everybody, thanks to Allah.”
By 7 that evening, Tamimi was reading the news on Istiqlal, reporting on the bombing she had facilitated.
Unbeknownst to the Israeli public, and indeed initially to the Roths, she was tracked down and arrested within weeks, put on trial in an Israeli military court, confessed to multiple charges of murder, and was sentenced to 16 life terms.
Arnold: “Someone who never identified himself phoned and suggested we meet outside the Ofer camp [and prison, north of Jerusalem]. He gave me the protocol and sentencing documents from the trial. We ought to have gotten them as a matter of course but we now realize that was never going to happen. That man helped us greatly.”
Frimet: “Her 16 life terms have been widely misreported in Arabic media as 16 years — implying that she would have been due for parole at some point. Just another of the lies. In their sentencing, the three judges said specifically, Tamimi should never be eligible for pardon, for early parole or any other release.”
Arnold: “Nobody from the government has ever told us anything about any of this, or anything about anything, with the exception of Emi Palmor. She invited me to meet her after the Shalit deal. She gave me papers, which showed that, again contrary to all the reports, nobody was pardoned. Their terms were conditionally commuted, which is a very different thing. The idea that president Peres sat up all night signing pardons, as some news reports said: false. Palmor showed me the actual terms of the release; Tamimi’s term was commuted on explicit conditions.”
On her release in October 2011, Tamimi was bused by Israel along with other freed security prisoners to Cairo, where she was welcomed by the Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal.
She was then “flown as a VIP to Jordan,” says Arnold. The only prisoner freed in the Shalit deal who held Jordanian citizenship and was returned to Jordan, she arrived to a raucous welcome at Queen Alia Airport.
Days later, she was honored with a reception at the Jordanian Law Court building.
Asked in an interview at the time whether, if she could “go back in time,” she would carry out such a large-scale attack, she replied: “Of course. I do not regret what happened. Absolutely not. This is the path. I dedicated myself to jihad for the sake of Allah, and Allah granted me success. You know how many casualties there were. This was made possible by Allah. Do you want me to denounce what I did? That’s out of the question. I would do it again today, and in the same manner.”
Years later, Tamimi would tell Al-Jazeera that her release was like being “born again.”
Tamimi’s release, Frimet would later write in a Times of Israel blog post, felt as though Malki “was killed a second time.”
Arnold wrote at the time: “Everyone wants Gilad Shalit home, safe and well. If we were his parents, we might have done what the Shalits did. But this is not the same as deciding, as prime minister or as the cabinet, what is good for the country, for the people of Israel. The jubilation emanating from the two Palestinian Arab governments tonight, the Hamas and the Abu Mazen regimes, should make clear to Israel’s friends everywhere that something dreadful has happened tonight. We may come to bitterly regret this transaction for years to come.”
Then things got worse still.
Arnold: “Our hope was that she would disappear into the woodwork, and that our concern at her being a toxic focus for terrible things in Jordan would prove unfounded. But the opposite is true.”
Having orchestrated the Sbarro bombing, celebrated it, been celebrated for it, and then been set free, unrepentant, by Israel just a decade later, Tamimi was emboldened, even euphoric. She had, after all, proved herself above the law, and been hailed by fellow Palestinians and Jordanians for her savagery.
Arnold: “The first sign of her new career was that, from February 2012, she became the presenter of a program in Jordan called ‘Breezes of the Free’ broadcast throughout the Arabic-speaking world via Hamas’s Al-Quds satellite TV channel and a vast number of internet streaming sites. It started out with primitive production values, but became a slick production, every Friday for about five years, geared to serve, as she said, as “a two-way bridge between our prisoners and the Palestinian people.”
She traveled widely and often within Jordan and to numerous Arab countries — including repeat visits to Algeria, Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar, Tunisia and Yemen — speaking to school and university groups, trade unions, and on TV — boasting of her central role in the massacre, of the high death toll and of her intention to kill Jewish children, preferably religiously observant, says Arnold. She was disseminating what he terms “her message of redemptive ultra-violence.”
Then followed her celebrity terrorist wedding, to another of her cousins, Nizar Tamimi.
Like Ahlam, Nizar Tamimi is a convicted killer; like Ahlam, he was freed in the Shalit “exchange.” Weeks after the Oslo Accords were signed on the White House lawn in 1993, Nizar brutally murdered Chaim Mizrahi, a student from the Beit El settlement who was ambushed as he went to buy eggs, as he did each week, from a Palestinian farmer in Ramallah. Nizar and yet another relative, Said Tamimi, stabbed Mizrahi to death, stuffed his body into the trunk of his car, and set the vehicle alight.
“I resisted the occupation with my love and my engagement to this prisoner,” Tamimi would later tell Al-Jazeera, in a slick TV report. “The positive side of being in prison is that it helped us become closer.”
The negative side, however, was that under the terms of their release she was barred by Israel from crossing into the West Bank from Jordan, and he was barred from leaving the West Bank. A slew of articles in Arabic media, Arnold recalls, were lambasting Israel for its heartlessness in keeping the lovebirds apart.
Arnold: “It’s summer 2012, and I get a Google alert that Nizar Tamimi, fiancé of Ahlam, is at the Allenby Bridge, trying to cross into Jordan to go marry and live with her, and the Israelis are preventing it.
“We retained a lawyer the same day, seeking an injunction to stop Israel from allowing him to leave. We filed the papers the next morning. For the next three days, we were messed about by government officials, telling us not to involve the High Court of Justice judges, assuring us that they’d sort it all out.”
“On the third day we learned he had been allowed to cross into Jordan almost right away. He was already in Jordan while we were dealing with lawyers. Israel had never opposed it. It was the Jordanians who, initially, had said no.”
Weeks later, in June, the couple were married in a spectacular wedding attended by hundreds and covered live by Arab TV stations, held on the grounds of the Amman Trade Union and Professional Associations Complex, a location notorious for the Israeli flags painted on the floor at its entrance lobby for visitors to trample.
Ahlam Tamimi had orchestrated the murder of their daughter and 14 others. Caught and convicted, she had been released by Israel after less than a decade, and become a role model for Jew-hating Islamic extremists, spewing hatred on a television show. And now, aged 31, she was starting married life — looking forward to raising children of her own — with her fellow-murderer husband Nizar, 38, who had also been freed by Israel.
Arnold: “When she was imprisoned, we thought it was over. But then she was freed. And now she had been given not merely a life of freedom, but a life of privilege and celebrity.
“We decided that she needed to be brought to justice.”
In March 2012, three months before Tamimi’s wedding, Arnold Roth had flown to Washington, DC. He had a lawyer. They made some calls. The Department of Justice agreed to meet with him.
Arnold: “I learned from my own research and reaching out to experts that the US had enacted a law that gave it global jurisdiction to get involved where an act of terror is carried out somewhere outside the United States and an American citizen is killed. The law says the perpetrator has to be brought to US justice, and the various arms of US law enforcement do it.”
(This is the law that explains why the Roths are spearheading the battle for the US to bring Tamimi to justice. “We are leveraging our privileged standing as parents of an American citizen, which enables us to trigger 18 USC Sec. 2332(b). This is a US Federal law that says if an American citizen is murdered by terrorists abroad, the US government asserts jurisdiction and is directed to prosecute the perpetrator to the full extent of the law. There is no statute of limitations.”)
“I also learned that the US has an active extradition treaty with Jordan, since 1995.
“But I learned, too, that the US had never once invoked this global jurisdiction for any acts of terrorism carried out in Israel.”
Clearly, he concluded, DC would need some encouraging.
“I went to the Department of Justice with my lawyer. We spent several hours there. I had recorded Frimet in a video the night before; she can’t travel because of Haya. Our message was that we were desperately searching for the justice that has eluded us in ways that are exceptionally cruel.”
It was evidently an effective presentation.
“The encounter yielded an undertaking to ‘go after this woman if we can.'”
Back in Jerusalem, he tracked down the prosecution file against Tamimi in the police headquarters at the Russian Compound. Working at a photocopier in a corner, he covered his eyes at the sight of pictures of Malki and other victims. A cop looked over, and asked him if he was alright. “I’m reading my child’s murder file,” he replied.
He digitally scanned the copies and sent them to the Department of Justice in Washington; it became the basis for US action, he learned later.
Arnold: “For five years, we heard nothing. We lost hope along the way.”
Frimet: “They did periodically tell our lawyers, things are moving.”
Arnold: “Out of the blue, before Purim 2017, we got a call: We’d like to meet with you in Jerusalem next week.”
They gathered at the David’s Citadel Hotel — a small group of visiting US officials, the Roths, and Shoshana Hayman Greenbaum’s parents.
‘We were overjoyed. We thought this was really something. We were so stupid’ — Frimet Roth
Arnold: “They said, We’ve called you here because we’re about to announce in Washington, DC the unsealing of a criminal complaint. Ahlam Tamimi has been indicted in a federal court. We’ve asked Jordan to extradite her. She’s been added to the FBI’s Most Wanted list. This will be announced three hours from now.”
Hours after the meeting at the Citadel Hotel, a press conference indeed took place in DC, full of what Arnold calls “high-falutin statements about justice not being thwarted.” A press release was issued.
Frimet: “We were overjoyed. We thought this was really something. We were so stupid.”
Arnold: “One of the American visitors said we should view ourselves as now being in the court of public opinion. What he meant, I think, was that the US case was stuck. They’d actually been sitting on it for years. The federal judge had issued the arrest order in 2013 — four years earlier. They had been negotiating with the Jordanians and running into brick walls. As we learned later, Jordan had had no problem extraditing to the US under the treaty [on several occasions]. Until the Tamimi case.”
Less than a week later, Jordan’s supreme court, the court of cassation, ruled that it was unconstitutional for Jordan to extradite Tamimi to the US.
The US said nothing publicly.
And that was that.
‘The US has decided to go after one woman for no obvious reasons’ — Ahlam Tamimi
In 2017, Tamimi was interviewed by Al-Jazeera, which sympathetically noted “her ordeal with the US extradition request.” She complained at having been briefly detained by the Jordanian branch of Interpol while she was driving to visit her father and proclaimed herself “shocked at the American behavior” in seeking to prosecute her. As ever, she made no secret of her role in the Sbarro massacre, but said she’d had no idea that there were Americans among the dead. “The US has decided to go after one woman for no obvious reasons,” she then declared, with a straight face.
A few months later, in January 2018, she paid tribute to her soldier-slapping cousin Ahed at a solidarity event in which, seated beside a former prime minister of Jordan and other public figures, she was the keynote speaker.
Around that time, after much prodding of the US authorities by Arnold, a reward of $5 million appeared next to Tamimi’s face on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. It didn’t deter Tamimi.
A few months later, she and her husband were afforded a lengthy “This is your life”-style tribute on Caravan, a youth TV show on one of Jordan’s most popular channels.
Arnold: “We tried to get people to take an interest in the case. We got nowhere.”
Arnold: “We realized how snookered we’d been. We realized the US knows exactly where she is. She is interviewed in her home by the likes of Al Jazeera and AP regularly. (Last March, Tamimi confidently told Al-Jazeera: “My presence in Jordan has given me power because there is no agreement between it and America to extradite any wanted person.”)
“We started insisting that US officials tell us what was going on. The responses were evasive.
“We started contacting Jewish activists in DC, people in Congress. We were talking to the wall. People seemed unwilling to engage with us.”
The Roths say they were “getting hints in Washington” that Israeli officials were working behind the scenes to ensure the US didn’t “call out Jordan” over the case — for two reasons.
The first reason: Because Israel did not and does not want the king and his leadership undermined at home by a highly publicized US demand that he extradite a terrorist heroine. This is a hugely significant consideration, given the potential for destabilizing volatility in Jordan at any time, and certainly regarding a case as sensitive as this. The peace treaty may be cold, and public opinion in Jordan may be widely hostile to Israel, but the bilateral security and intelligence partnership is a key Israeli strategic interest. The US, too, of course, is heavily invested in its alliance with the monarchy.
The second reason: Because Netanyahu did not want to be humiliated and hurt politically by the US stepping in to demand justice for a mass murderer whom the prime minister had set free.
The Roths say they have no direct evidence of any such Israeli effort, but are convinced that this is indeed what has been going on: Says Arnold: “Someone in the US government told somebody helping us that the Prime Minister’s Office does not want to see Tamimi extradited to stand trial in the US.”
Frimet: “Because it makes Netanyahu look bad. He released her.”
But now, in the last few months, faint reasons for hope have emerged.
The first came in early November, when the US State Department released its annual country by country report to Congress on terrorism. Included in its Jordan entry was a passage that had also appeared in the previous year’s report:
It noted that “A US criminal complaint was unsealed in 2017 charging Ahlam Aref Ahmad Al-Tamimi, a Jordanian national in her mid-30s, with conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction against US nationals outside the United States resulting in death. The charge is related to her participation in the August 9, 2001 suicide bomb attack at a restaurant in Jerusalem that killed 15 people, including two US nationals. Four other US nationals were among the approximately 122 others injured in the attack. Also unsealed was a warrant for Al-Tamimi’s arrest and an affidavit in support of the criminal complaint and arrest warrant.”
Then came these two intriguing sentences: “In 2018, Jordan continued to cite a court ruling that its constitution forbids the extradition of Jordanian nationals. The United States regards the extradition treaty as valid.”
The Roths didn’t quite know what to make of this. Did it signal that the US was about to get tough on Jordan, or was it more mere lip service? They inclined to believe the latter. Plainly, however, it rattled the Jordanians.
Arnold: “One presumably unintended consequence of the State Department report is that Russia Today, in its Arabic station, came out with a distorted version of what the State Department had said, and intimated that the sky will come crashing down over this. That’s a total invention, of course, but then other Arabic media played it up and exaggerated it. And that, in turn, led to a Jordanian MP, Yahya al-Saud, demanding that the Jordanian government clarify that there are no conditions on earth in which Ahlam Tamimi will be extradited to the US.
“Now, the Jordanian parliament is frequently filled with wild, intemperate attacks on Israel — such as the one just a few months ago castigating Jordan’s gas deal with Israel. Most of them go nowhere. This one went further: A week later, Ayman Safadi, the foreign minister, publicly promised that Jordan would not extradite Ahlam Tamimi. Jordan’s hitherto under-the-radar refusal to live up to its treaty obligations became public and clear. We thanked the minister in our blog.”
What Safadi said, at a November 11 press conference at the Jordanian foreign ministry, was: “Jordanian law does not allow extraditing any Jordanian citizen to a third country unless there are agreements. There is no agreement between Jordan and the United States of America to extradite Ahlam al-Tamimi. Therefore, there is no legal basis to extradite her. We are abiding by the law with regard to this case. There were requests from some American parties to extradite her. There is a legal complaint against her. We say that we are acting in accordance with the law. The government law does not allow us to extradite her. We will not extradite her.”
Arnold: “This was the first time the Jordanian government had ever formally, publicly, related to the issue.”
That public refusal by a Jordanian government minister to so much as contemplate honoring the extradition treaty with the US, in turn, found a response in Washington, DC.
Congressman Scott Perry, a Republican from rural Pennsylvania, had in March 2019 signed up 20 colleagues to a bipartisan letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demanding that the US pursue the extradition of Tamimi in “all levels” of interaction with the Jordanian government. He offered an amendment to the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations bill aimed at ensuring that Jordan, a major beneficiary of US aid, risk losing that financial assistance if it failed to honor its extradition treaty and deliver Tamimi for trial in the US.
The amendment was not considered, but, remarkably, for once that was not the end of the matter. What is essentially that same demand — that Jordan extradite Tamimi or risk losing its approximately $1.7 billion in vital US financial assistance — found its way into the “Further Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2020,” which was signed into law on December 20.
In a short section (7055) headed “Extradition,” this new clause states that “None of the funds appropriated in this Act may be used to provide assistance… for the central government of a country which has notified the Department of State of its refusal to extradite to the United States any individual indicted for a criminal offense for which the maximum penalty is life imprisonment without the possibility of parole…, as specified in a United States extradition request.”
Arnold: “Now, the law also gives the secretary of state the right to waive that demand, if it is deemed not to be in the US interest. So, if the US decides to utilize it, it changes the whole US-Jordan dialogue. But it could all just fall in a heap.”
Still, with the US government now formally on record as insisting that the extradition treaty is valid in the case of Tamimi, and the appropriations bill warning of financial consequences for Jordan if the case is not handled properly, the Roths want to believe there’s finally an opportunity for progress.
Last week, encouragingly, seven members of Congress, including Perry, wrote to Jordan’s Ambassador to the US, Dina Kawar, noting the potential threat of US sanctions under the new clause, and urging the kingdom to extradite Tamimi.
“As lawmakers ourselves, seeing Jordan provide a confessed bomber with legal impunity while rebuffing an arrest warrant and extradition request from its most significant ally and friend, the United States, amounts to a deeply troubling scenario,” they wrote.
“The potential seriousness of these sanctions provisions reflect the deep concern of the Congress, the Administration and the American people. We believe it is of the highest importance to US/Jordan relations that an outcome is found that honors Jordanian law while ensuring this unrepentant terrorist and murderer of innocent Americans is brought to US justice. Extraditing Tamimi within the framework of a long-standing, effective treaty is a powerful statement that Jordan will not tolerate terrorism nor its promotion.”
‘I’d spoken many dozens of times at the request of the government of Israel. That all came to an end after the Shalit deal’ — Arnold Roth
The Roths are now reaching out to US Jews via the organized Jewish leadership and the Jewish media, urging them to take up the case. And they’re asking lots of uncomfortable questions, that some people would doubtless rather they not ask, about why Tamimi has been allowed to escape justice for all these years.
Frimet: “So many delegations have trotted off to visit the king — Congressional groups, Jewish groups and leaders — honoring him, and regaling him, and seldom asking him about Tamimi.
Arnold: “On the positive side, I have spoken to Malcolm Hoenlein (the outgoing executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations) and Daniel Mariaschin (the executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International) and others. I say to them, I just don’t see why this issue isn’t being properly pursued. I just don’t see the down side, so tell us if there is. Is it because you all don’t want to embarrass Bibi?
Arnold: “When I have these conversations, I see Malki’s face in front of me. We’re not looking for a tax break or to be appointed an ambassador. This is justice for Malki; this is our highest calling. And people need to understand there’s more riding on this. Justice has not been done in the case of our daughter’s murder. But our daughter was one of 16 people murdered that day. (Arnold is including Chana Nachenberg in that tally.) The nature of the deception that has been carried out to prevent justice being done ought to appall people.”
Frimet: “It’s been this unbelievably uphill battle, even at the level of basic facts. Generally, a murder is recognized as the horrific crime it is. Here you have so many people who contend that it was not murder at all, but a resistance activity. News reports too often describe [Tamimi] as ‘the driver.’ She wasn’t the driver. She scouted it; she brought the bomb. She was looking for the most appropriate target, where she could kill the most Jewish women and children. She’s said that.
“Yet I feel we have to constantly make these facts known. They are swept under the carpet. That makes our fight so much more difficult.”
“And there’s also an elephant in the room: Israeli victims are seen as being in a different category.”
The Roths simply cannot and will not countenance that justice be subverted in the ostensible wider interest of protecting this Israeli prime minister, that Jordanian monarch, or even the strategic cause of enduring Jordanian stability
Arnold: “The media for the most part have come to view Frimet and me as lepers.”
“I’d spoken many dozens of times at the request of the government of Israel. That all came to an end after the Shalit deal.
“But the real reason [for this entire refusal to act properly to bring Tamimi to justice] is that there are people who don’t want the rule of good King Abdullah to be undermined by the obsession of grieving parents who can’t let it go. There are greater issues, of realpolitik, for the adults in the room.”
Those two sentences — along with the belief that those around Netanyahu want to protect him from blame in his handling of the case, and of the entire Shalit deal — go to the heart of the Roths’ desperate grievance. They simply cannot and will not countenance that justice be subverted in the ostensible wider interest of protecting this Israeli prime minister, that Jordanian monarch, or even the strategic cause of enduring Jordanian stability.
They are not only seeking justice for Malki, in other words, but see their battle as one to also expose failures and misconceptions, and abiding dishonesties and hypocrisies and erroneous policies, that mean more innocent lives are being risked and lost
It is their contention, rather, that Israel would be healthier and stronger if it grappled honestly and seriously with what they see as the terrible consequences of the misguided Shalit “exchange.” It is their contention that Jordan would be healthier and stronger if its leadership faced up to the evil of terrorism and to its citizen Ahlam Tamimi’s role in terrorism, and did the right thing and sent the right message to its public by extraditing her.
They are not only seeking justice for Malki, in other words, but see their battle as one to also expose failures and misconceptions, and abiding dishonesties and hypocrisies and erroneous policies, that mean more innocent lives are being risked and lost.
Arnold: “I’ve had enough exposure to the views of senior political figures from pretty much everywhere worldwide since Malki’s murder to know that, in fundamental and dangerous ways, terrorism isn’t understood.
“I can illustrate this by what happened when nightclubs in Bali were destroyed in an Islamist bombing attack in 2002. Among many other victims, some 100 Australian families lost their children. The editor of a prominent Australian newspaper, the Melbourne Herald Sun, contacted me and asked me to write a piece — a personal message to the families who’d lost their children. I wrote it. The newspaper never published it. And the editor never responded to me.”
“People [in power] don’t want to confront terrorism. They pay lots of lip service instead of really relating to it. We have to remind them of the primacy of justice in dealing with the perpetrators of terrorism and the very slippery slope which causes people to reach really wrong conclusions about those who advocate and carry out terrorism. There is an ambivalence which is unjustifiable when the world confronts terrorism in general, and Israelis as victims of terrorism in particular.
“There’s no clearer source of wisdom on what one ought to do about terrorism than the man who wrote the definitive book on the subject, Binyamin Netanyahu, who had a bestseller, multiple editions. The advice he gives is the exact mirror opposite of what he did when confronted by the challenge of the Shalit deal. I understand why he feels too embarrassed to engage with us.”
Today, Ahlam Tamimi lives in Amman — openly, not in hiding, despite that $5 million reward and despite the US declaredly pursuing her extradition. She recently completed a masters in journalism at Amman’s private Middle East University.
She told Al-Jazeera in 2017 that she intended to raise a family.
The Roths have managed to get numerous of her accounts on Facebook and Twitter shut down over the years, and the ADL last week announced that Twitter and Instagram had booted her for the umpteenth time. But she continues to give interviews and write op-eds. She continues to be an inspiration to young, impressionable Muslims.
Arnold: “About 10 years ago, Rym Brahimi, formerly a CNN reporter and scion of a prominent Algerian family who married Jordan’s Prince Ali (a half-brother to the king) and became Princess Rym al-Ali, took upon herself to build a world class school of journalism in Amman: The Jordan Media Institute. This was a welcome move, since Jordan has a very unfree press by world standards. (Freedom House, which calls Jordan “partly free” in its 2019 report, considers its media and civil society groups to be “hampered by restrictive laws and government pressure.”) In 2014, the students at the Jordan Media Institute, who maintained their own website, proclaimed Ahlam Tamimi as their success model, the journalist they wanted to be.
“I wrote about it, and wrote to the management of the JMI. I wrote to the foreign funders of the JMI. A third of them stopped their funding and withdrew their affiliation. The Australian and the US governments chose not to withdraw their funding. Nobody from the JMI ever responded. They shut down the website, and rebuilt it six months later with no sign of Tamimi.
“In a recent op-ed, which was published in about 20 papers, she directly attacked King Abdullah. She said that if this were King Hussein, he would have figured out how to free the Jordanian prisoners in the Zionist prisons by leveraging a Russian Israeli who was tried for crossing illegally into Jordan.
“I wrote about this too: She’s attacking the king! Why is he protecting her?”
Legally speaking, can Ahlam Tamimi ever actually be brought to justice? As in, can she be tried again, after she was convicted of murder, sentenced, jailed, and freed on order of the government of Israel?
Daoud Kuttab, an Amman-based journalist and analyst, insists the answer is no: “There is a rule against double jeopardy. She cannot be punished and pay her price in Israel and then be tried for the same thing in America.”
However, the Roths are adamant that the answer is yes, and other experts who spoke privately to The Times of Israel incline to agree.
Arnold: “She was convicted of acts of murder on her own confession. She has now been indicted with different charges and in a different jurisdiction. There is wall-to-wall agreement among the legal experts at the Department of Justice that there is no ‘double jeopardy’ concern.”
The charge filed by the Department of Justice against Tamimi is one of “conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction against US nationals outside the US, resulting in death.”
The Palestinian Authority has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to eight terrorists involved in the Sbarro bombing and/or their families.
According to figures compiled by Palestinian Media Watch in late 2018, jailed bombmaker Barghouti, for instance, had received some $200,000 in PA stipends; Bilal Barghouti, who recruited the suicide bomber, had received a similar sum; al-Masri’s family was paid some $50,000.
Tamimi herself, prior to her release in 2011, was paid $52,681.
Asked whether he has considered filing a civil suit for damages against Tamimi, Arnold replies: “The only property of hers that interests us is her freedom.”
In a characteristically straightforward telephone interview for this piece, Yaakov Amidror, who headed the National Security Council in 2011 at the time of the Shalit deal, said bluntly that he would not support Tamimi’s extradition to the US because of the risk involved to the stability of Jordan.
“Jordan is highly important to our ongoing security. It has the longest border with us. It has become a buffer zone against all the troubles in the east — ISIS, the Iranians…”
Because of the Jordanians, he added, Israel does not have to maintain major troop deployments to guard against those threats.
Of course, he noted, “We certainly help [the Jordanians] a great deal. But there’s one area where we can’t help them — and that’s if they have internal unrest. So when it comes to issues relating to Jordan, there’s one question I always ask: How much will this or that harm the authorities there?”
“If you’d say to me, the authorities in Jordan will face instability because otherwise Iran will get the bomb, I’d say, ok, so be it. But if you say to me, should we help destabilize the regime there in order to bring some despicable terrorist to the United States, I wouldn’t do it, because it seems to me it would be very difficult for the authorities there; if they extradite her, they would be in trouble.”
In that case, what would Amidror say to the Roths? “It’s not my place to tell the family what to say,” he answered. “The family will keep pressing. And Israel does not get involved.”
Arnold Roth’s response to this line of argument, as set out in a subsequent email to me, is ferocious: “It’s inconceivable that, as a matter of strategy, Israel and the US see (they say) Jordan complying with its treaty obligations to the US as a threat to the security of the world as we know it. Justice, if it means anything, means governments must confront the corrosive effects of injustice and the failure to defend and apply justice. In being ignored and until now defeated, we believe we are being subjected to a good deal of politicians’ double-talk in both the US and Israel. It has been an education to see people shrug this off.”
Amidror’s no-nonsense stance against pushing for Tamimi’s extradition was striking not because of his explanation — which doubtless guides a great deal of Israeli thinking on the Tamimi case — but because he was prepared to discuss the matter at all.
That serving Israeli officials would not easily talk on-the-record about why Israel does not endorse the stated American interest in having Tamimi extradited is not hugely surprising. Why pick a public fight with an ally declaredly seeking to bring a killer of Israelis to justice? But neither were Israeli officials prepared to offer off-the-record guidance — any kind of briefing into how Israel feels about the case.
The Times of Israel sought to discuss the case — including such basic aspects as whether the US has consulted with Israel as it pursues Tamimi’s extradition, and whether Israel supports the extradition effort — with several relevant officials at the Prime Minister’s Office, including those on the National Security Council, and including Netanyahu himself via his spokespeople. All such requests yielded variations of a brick wall
Arnold, who said he holds “the Netanyahu government and especially Netanyahu” primarily responsible for the failure to ensure justice in the case, had told me no Israeli officials would discuss it. But what he called the “wall of silence” he has thumped into for years, he believes, is not constructed to avoid a public standoff with the Americans, but rather to protect Netanyahu politically. It was Netanyahu who ultimately signed off on the Shalit deal, freeing Tamimi and all those other murderers. And it would thus be supremely embarrassing, and damaging, for Netanyahu, Roth argues, if the US does push hard for and ultimately secures the extradition of Tamimi, and puts her back behind bars.
The Times of Israel sought to discuss the case — including such basic aspects as whether the US has consulted with Israel as it pursues Tamimi’s extradition, and whether Israel supports the extradition effort — with several relevant officials at the Prime Minister’s Office, including those on the National Security Council, and including Netanyahu himself via his spokespeople. All such requests yielded variations of a brick wall: No comment. Nothing to say on this matter.
Various calls to specific officials and diplomats, including Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, proved equally unrewarding. The Foreign Ministry said it was not involved in the case in any way, and neither was the Israeli embassy in Jordan.
Several officials shunted inquiries in turn to other officials, who were similarly unforthcoming. Several officials in the PMO and Foreign Ministry, for instance, referred The Times of Israel to the Justice Ministry.
The Times of Israel asked three specific questions of the Justice Ministry:
1. Has the ministry played any role, or been consulted by the US, in the extradition effort? A source had indicated that some kind of consultation would likely have occurred, and that the US would certainly have informed its Israeli counterparts about what it was doing.
2. Does the ministry and the government support that effort?
3. Did the US government, prior to the Shalit deal in 2011, formally or informally ask Israel not to release any prisoners with American blood on their hands? (Although the US at the time stated that it had no role whatsoever in the agreement, the then US attorney general Eric Holder told the Roths in a January 2012 letter that “the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, together with the Department of Justice and the Department of State, urged the government of Israel prior to both of the releases in question not to release prisoners responsible for murdering or injuring US citizens before serving their full sentences.”)
A Justice Ministry spokeswoman responded with a kind of blanket leave-us-alone reply: The ministry, she reported back after checking, “will not react or respond as regards contacts or dialogue between countries.”
Several Israeli ministry spokespeople were initially perfectly happy to try to respond helpfully, promising to seek out the relevant officials. Without exception, all these spokespeople politely came back to The Times of Israel when they had completed their efforts a few days later. Without exception, they now said they could not help in any way.
More than one potential source, after acknowledging that they were quite familiar with the issue, indicated that it was just too sensitive for them to weigh in on, in any way.
Would Netanyahu impose a rule of silence on Israeli government officials and diplomats in order to spare himself potential political damage in the Roth-Tamimi case? Might he even, for the same motive, try to dissuade the American government from pursuing the case? Absolutely, said one former senior staffer at the Prime Minister’s Office. Impossible, said another.
Asked about the case, former Supreme Court justice Elyakim Rubinstein, who played a central role in negotiating and drafting the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty, noted: “We freed her. They may be embarrassed by that in government today. It seems very strange that she was freed, given the terrible gravity of this case… It defies common sense but, I stress, I don’t know the government’s reasoning.”
“It’s essential that relations with Jordan be conducted with respect and honor. Jordan is not a strong state, but it’s very important to Israel,” he added, echoing Amidror, “with the longest common border. If public opinion in Jordan thinks that extraditing an evil woman like this to the Americans is a great sin, it may affect how it acts.”
Rubinstein, one of whose four daughters died of cancer, also took a moment to send his condolences to the Roths. “It is a terrible thing to lose a daughter, as I know in very different circumstances,” he said gently. “A loss that cannot be repaired.”
US administration officials were also tight-lipped on the case. Neither the Department of Justice, nor the State Department, nor the Rewards for Justice section of the State Department, was prepared to comment for this piece — understandably, perhaps. Tamimi has for years evidently considered herself entirely safe from prosecution in Amman; if that is about to change, it would be fairly inept to warn her.
The Department of Justice did tell Fox News in January that the extradition request for Tamimi is an issue of “particular importance.” (Fox described Tamimi as “the most wanted woman in the world.”)
While the US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, preferred not to discuss the case, his predecessor, Dan Shapiro, now a distinguished visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, was definitive that Tamimi should indeed be extradited — ideally through negotiation with Jordan.
“Both the Obama and Trump administrations have been insufficiently focused on pressuring Jordan to extradite Ahlam Tamimi,” Shapiro said. “There’s no question that as regards a terrorist involved in the murder of American citizens, we have every right, the United States has every right to demand her extradition. Jordan is a close ally and should respect that view of the American side.”
Obviously, Shapiro said, “nobody wants to create difficulties for the king of Jordan, because he’s a close ally, because Jordan’s stability is important, and it’s a security partner of the United States and of Israel. But there’s a principle here that has not been observed as it should be.” What’s more, he noted, “the United States has leverage because of all of the assistance we do provide Jordan; that should help us resolve this case.”
Asked about the significance of America now stating that it considers Jordan not to be honoring its extradition treaty, Shapiro said “it suggests that there’s some at least marginally increased focus and perhaps marginally increased pressure on Jordan to extradite her.”
What ought to follow, he said, are “direct conversations with the Jordanian government… about how to achieve our goal, and examination of how we can use the leverage we have to encourage them to do so if they remain unwilling.”
Given how deeply unpopular Tamimi’s extradition would be, and the potential trouble this would cause for the Jordanian leadership, Shapiro stressed that “it’s a legitimate national security consideration to try to resolve this case in a way that does not cause undue instability or political difficulties for an important ally in the Middle East.”
Nonetheless, he reiterated, “there’s a principle involved and it’s a principle that clearly the United States stands by: The charges have been filed against Tamimi and the request for extradition has been made, but has not been sufficiently acted upon to get Jordan to fulfill the request.”
Asked what the US could and should do in terms of pressure and leverage on Amman, Shapiro invoked “the option of conditionality attached to certain streams of assistance” and “various other forms of diplomatic incentives and pressures that can be brought to bear even in close relationships.”
Crucially, he said, the Jordanians should understand that this is going to remain a source of tension in a relationship that is also important for them, and that they should have an incentive in seeing the tension removed.”
Ideally, he said, the US should be working with Jordan to ensure Tamimi’s extradition causes a minimum of friction. “That’s the way this resolution should be achieved — not primarily through pressure and squeezing Jordan, but rather through a conversation between allies in which they understand the imperative of them fulfilling this obligation, and we understand that it needs to be done in such a way that it minimizes the fallout.”
There might be all manner of “creative ways” to help the Jordanians mitigate any damage and the US should certainly give them “time and space to advise us on how they intend to do it,” said Shapiro. “But that’s quite different from the seeming lack of conversation for a long time, where they simply refuse to discuss it and we conduct business as usual.”
Hoenlein and Conference of Presidents CEO William Daroff told The Times of Israel in Jerusalem in February it was outrageous that Tamimi was walking around freely in Jordan.
“I speak to [Malki’s] parents and we are getting more involved in it,” said Hoenlein. “They are right: it is an outrage. Because of the sensitive position the king is in, everybody tiptoes. Rightfully, we have good relations with him, and when he comes to America, he meets with us always and we want to see him strengthened. We don’t want to jeopardize the stability of Jordan, which would have grave implications for Israel, for everyone in the region. But this is really an unacceptable situation.”
‘Jordan’s unwillingness to cooperate with our extradition request is unacceptable, and I fear its resistance will turn them into a safe harbor for international terrorists and thugs’ — Congressman Scott Perry
Along with the simple principle of justice, Congressman Perry, the legislator whose bid to condition US aid on Jordan honoring its treaty led to that extraordinary new “extradition” clause in this year’s Appropriations Bill, raised another central point when considering the balance between pushing Jordan hard for Tamimi’s extradition and preserving Jordan’s internal stability: the imperative that neither Jordan, nor any other country for that matter, be permitted to turn itself into a safe haven for terrorists.
“Delivering justice to the loved ones of the three Americans killed in the August 2001 senseless bombing is a top priority. Under United States law, we have the legal authority to try individuals whose attacks against US Nationals outside the US result in death; as such, we’re seeking the rightful extradition of Al-Tamimi from Jordan,” Perry said in an emailed statement. “Jordan’s unwillingness to cooperate with our extradition request is unacceptable, and I fear its resistance will turn them into a safe harbor for international terrorists and thugs.
“If Jordan is unwilling to allow Al-Tamimi to stand trial in the United States for the actions about which she publicly boasts and brags,” he added, “this is a very dangerous message to other bad actors that consider attacking innocent civilians.”
As of this writing, it is not clear how hard the US is now going to push the Jordanians.
The Roths certainly aren’t holding their breaths. But neither are they giving up the fight.
Arnold Roth acknowledged that even some of their children have sometimes asked them why they don’t, or whether they shouldn’t, just “let it go.” But they can’t, he explained in an email follow-up to our interviews.
“The injustice of the situation by which we lost Malki [and then] Tamimi embarked on a career of stardom and deep, lethal public bigotry was and is unspeakably crushing, painful and unfair. In the same breath, we try always to make as clear as possible… that we don’t want to see Tamimi killed (it’s suggested often, usually along with a sotte voce mention of the Mossad) but rather put on public trial and sentenced to an appropriately lengthy prison term. We say often and absolutely believe that our efforts are about achieving justice and not vengeance.”
In which case, how optimistic should they be?
Daoud Kuttab, the Amman-based journalist and analyst, is flatly adamant: “Jordan will not extradite her. I can assure you of that. It is not a gray area,” he says. “It would be a very problematic issue for Jordan… When things were better between Jordan and Israel, extraditing her still would have been very difficult. But with things between Israel and Jordan being as bad as they are, extraditing her would be suicidal. Jordan will not turn over someone who is seen as a Palestinian patriot to the Americans. Not to mention, the US has put Jordan in a very difficult spot by presenting a plan for the conflict that is very damaging for Jordan. Why would Jordan now extradite her?”
But perhaps the most telling assessment came from Yaakov Amidror, the security adviser to Netanyahu on whose watch the Shalit deal was reached. After he had set out why Israel, out of concern for Jordan’s stability, should not push for Tamimi’s extradition, I noted that the Americans obviously know all about such sensitivities and are nonetheless now publicly contesting Jordan’s refusal to act. “Yes,” he replied, “but the Americans care less, a great deal less, about what happens in Jordan, than we do…
“I’ve never quite understood how it works,” he went on. “But the Americans don’t care what gets harmed when someone in one of their branches of government is out to ensure what they see as doing justice. They are utterly different from us.”
So, I pressed, he doesn’t see the latest developments as mere American lip service to the ideal of justice?
“They have their own approach,” said Amidror. “It’s very hard to come to them and say, Yes, but this or that will get hurt as a consequence. If the White House itself doesn’t stop it, then the mills of justice may grind slowly, but they grind with infinite power and immense patience.”
A few days after Malki Roth was murdered, a senior journalist with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation approached Arnold for an interview. Since it was still the week of the shiva, Arnold put him off, and got back to him a few days later. The ABC journalist, akin to the one from the BBC, wanted to interview him in a double-header together with al-Masri’s father.
Arnold: “He told me, I’m not an American, mate. I’d like to give the appropriate coverage.
“I said, Listen mate, I’m not prepared to do this.
“He said, The father is very opposed to what his son did. He wants peace.
“The father, it actually turns out, had been interviewed five times on that first day after the bombing, and said, I’m so proud of my son, and I hope my other sons kill Jews themselves.
“This reporter, who doesn’t speak Arabic, wants to tell me that the father of my daughter’s murderer is a good bloke…”
Arnold tails off.
We have been talking for a couple of hours, and this is his longest pause.
“It’s all devastating,” he says finally. “Our daughter was such a good person.
“I can discuss it all with a calm face. But it’s devastating.”
With reporting by Adam Rasgon