A massacre revisited

Ten years after Passover blast, survivors return to Park Hotel

On March 27, 2002, a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 30 people at a Seder meal. On Tuesday, survivors marked a personal tragedy, a national trauma and a turning point

Dalia Falistian lights memorial candles for her parents at the Park Hotel 10 years after the Seder night massacre (photo credit: courtesy One Family)
Dalia Falistian lights memorial candles for her parents at the Park Hotel 10 years after the Seder night massacre (photo credit: courtesy One Family)

Precisely 10 years ago Tuesday evening, a 25-year-old man walked up a short flight of stairs and crossed through the lobby of a modest hotel near the beach in Netanya, a city on Israel’s Mediterranean coast.

It was the first night of Passover, and the hotel’s dining hall was packed with guests celebrating the Seder meal at tables set up among the room’s six round pillars. The man, Abdel-Basset Odeh, who grew up in a Palestinian city a short drive away and had been dispatched by Hamas terrorists, detonated the powerful bomb he carried among the diners, killing 30 of them and himself and wounding 140 others.

Palestinians carried out hundreds of attacks against Israelis in the onslaught of violence generally known in Israel as the Second Intifada. But the Park Hotel bombing stands out both as the deadliest of them all and as the turning point in the violence of those years.

On Tuesday, the tenth anniversary of the attack, survivors of the bombing and relatives of the dead gathered in the hotel’s dining hall for a memorial service.

While the memorial was under way, dozens of Russian-speaking guests passed through the lobby, seemingly oblivious to the significance of the date. The Park Hotel did not close after the attack, and did not cancel the Seder meal the following year or on any occasion since. This year’s is nine days away.

One of the hotel’s current staffers, and the daughter of its owners, is Corinne Hamami, a mother of six. Her husband, Amiram Hamami, the hotel manager in 2002, died in the blast.

After the attack, Hamami said before Tuesday’s memorial, “You want to die. You don’t want to live.”

Among the dead, the oldest was Chanah Rogan, 90. The youngest was Sivan Vider, who was 20.

From the beginning of the wave of Palestinian attacks in the fall of 2000 and until that night 18 months or so later, Israel’s military had tried to battle terror groups in the West Bank with small-scale operations and arrests, refraining from invading major cities ceded to Palestinian Authority control as part of the Oslo peace process of the 1990s. Among Israelis, the headiness of the years when peace appeared to many as a genuine possibility had already been replaced by hopelessness and disillusionment, but the country’s response was still unfocussed and ineffective. There was still debate over the nature of Yasser Arafat’s role, and that of his Palestinian Authority, in fomenting the violence.

That changed in the immediate aftermath of the bombing at the Park Hotel, which stunned Israelis but also seemed to bring them a grim clarity of purpose that had not existed before.

The next day, prime minister Ariel Sharon’s government mobilized infantry and tank reserves and launched an invasion of West Bank cities. Troops placed Arafat under siege in his government building in Ramallah, where he remained until shortly before his death. In Nablus, armored units rolled into the city from either side, and infantrymen blew their way through Palestinian homes, wall by wall, to avoid sniper fire in the streets.

In a town near Nablus, troops trapped and killed one of the men responsible for the Hamas bombing network that had sent Odeh to the Park Hotel, burying him under the rubble of his house. The conflict began to manifest itself on the landscape: Soldiers at an Israeli base near Ramallah stretched a few coils of barbed wire around an area set aside to house the swelling number of Palestinian prisoners, the beginnings of what eventually became a hulking prison ringed with concrete and guard towers. The West Bank security barrier was built.

The death toll mounted among Palestinians, armed men and civilians. The Park Hotel bombing had brought the war into their own streets and neighborhoods, and the cities of the West Bank would not recover for years.

Despite some skepticism about the army’s ability to successfully squash a threat like the one posed by Palestinian terrorism, a year after the Park Hotel bombing the attacks had slowed. A year after that, they had all but ceased.

Dalia Falistian, 52, spoke to her parents, Dvora and Michael Karim, just before the Seder meal began 10 years ago.

Falistian was with her boyfriend that night, she recounted Tuesday. Her parents, both of them in their seventies, would be celebrating the holiday at the Park Hotel. At midnight, her boyfriend turned on the television and heard the news.

She rushed to local hospitals but did not find her parents. At 5a.m. she was called to identify them at the Tel Aviv morgue.

Falistian spoke of her struggles in the years since. She credited an Israeli organization, One Family, which assists terror victims and organized the hotel memorial, with helping her regain her bearings.

She said she counts her age not from her real birthday but from the moment she learned of the bombing at the Park Hotel.

“At this time, my life was finished,” she said.


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