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The Boy with the Duffle Bag

Friday, November 14, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Mike Kelly wrote about looking into the bombmaker who built the bomb that blew up a bus on Jaffa Road in 1996 and his journey from 9/11 to Jerusalem's Jaffa Road. His newest book, The Bus on Jaffa Road: A Story of Middle East Terrorism and the Search for Justice, chronicles the aftermath of the Hamas suicide bombing of a commuter bus in downtown Jerusalem on Feb. 25, 1996. The book traces the capture of the key bomb-maker and the efforts by the families of two Americans to hold Iran accountable for financing the bombing and training the bomb-maker – only to discover that the American government was trying to block them. He has been blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Majid was was nineteen and learning to lay tile at a trade school. On a Friday in February 1996, his cousin – an older man with ties to Hamas – asked if he wanted to “do a mission.” Two days later, Majid stepped aboard a commuter bus on Jerusalem’s Jaffa Road, carrying a duffle bag filled with twenty pounds of explosives and wired to detonate with the press of a button. After the doors closed, he stood, yelled “God is great” in Arabic and pressed that button. Twenty-six people died – twenty-seven if you include Majid.

Why did he do it? How did an otherwise ordinary nineteen-year-old Palestinian decide so quickly on a Friday to kill himself so brutally on a Sunday?

Those questions troubled me as I researched The Bus on Jaffa Road.

And so, on another Sunday, almost seventeen years later, I drove to Majid’s home in the Palestinian refugee community of al-Fawwar in the Judean hills near the ancient city of Hebron. Like any writer, I suppose I was hoping for some sort of clear answer to a crucial central question of why this young man killed himself. And yet, as I approached al-Fawwar, I sensed that such clarity may still be impossible.

I found Majid’s family home – actually a vacant lot now. Soon after he had been implicated in the Jaffa Road bombing, his home had been destroyed by the Israeli army. I asked where the family was now. A young man guided me through a series of narrow lanes and up a hill where I met Majid’s father, Muhammad.

I introduced myself and said I wanted to speak about Majid. Muhammad led me into his family’s new home, a two-story, concrete structure that sat on a hillside and overlooked a lush valley of small farms. We entered a room with only one photo on the otherwise bare walls. The photo was of Majid.

I asked Muhammad why Majid killed himself. Muhammad shook his head. He did not know why and explained that if he had known of his son’s plans he would have tried to stop him. He said he understands why some young men participate in suicide bombings. He cited the Israeli occupation, the lack of jobs and the overall feeling among some Palestinians that there is no future for them. But then his voice trailed off.

“As a father I couldn’t bear dealing with this issue.”

I pointed to the photo of Majid on the wall.

“Why do you keep his photo there?” I asked.

“Because he is my son,” Muhammad said.

Our conversation continues for another hour or so. Muhammad said that Majid would have been in his mid-thirties by now, probably married and the father of children.

“Do people in al-Fawwar talk about him?" I asked.

Muhammad shook his head.

“Not very much,” he said. “Things like that go into oblivion.”

For more information about The Bus on Jaffa Road as well as a video and an excerpt, please check out www.mikekellywriter.com.

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The Eyes of the Bombmaker

Wednesday, November 12, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Mike Kelly wrote about his journey from 9/11 to Jerusalem's Jaffa Road. His newest book, The Bus on Jaffa Road: A Story of Middle East Terrorism and the Search for Justice, chronicles the aftermath of the Hamas suicide bombing of a commuter bus in downtown Jerusalem on Feb. 25, 1996. The book traces the capture of the key bomb-maker and the efforts by the families of two Americans to hold Iran accountable for financing the bombing and training the bomb-maker – only to discover that the American government was trying to block them. He will be blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I needed to meet the man who built the bomb that blew up the bus on Jaffa Road – the bomb that killed Matt Eisenfeld and Sara Duker in 1996.

On a Sunday morning, a decade after that devastating explosion, I walked through the gates of an Israeli prison in the Negev Desert. A prison official shook my hand, then led me to a room. Minutes later, amid the shuffle of feet and the chunky clank of leg irons, a door opened and I looked into the eyes of Hassan Salameh.

He is serving 46 consecutive life terms for the murders of 46 unarmed and innocent people aboard three commuter buses that were attacked by suicide bombers who carried explosive-filled satchels that he had designed. Salameh looked at me and smiled faintly.

A prison official motioned to me that I could begin.

Salameh had no idea who I was. Israeli prison officials do not tell an inmate anything about a visitor. They merely tell an inmate that a visitor has arrived and would like to talk. After meeting the visitor, the inmate can then choose to talk or return to his cell.

I figured I could ask at least one question before Salameh decided whether to speak to me.

I decided to try for two.

“Do you know the name of Sara Duker,” I asked.

Salameh nodded.

“Yes,” he said in English.

He did not get up to leave. Nor did he seem to object to my presence or my question.

So I asked my second question:

"Why did you kill her?"

So began what I can only describe as a transformative experience – not transformative in a positive sense, though. It was really the beginning of a journey into the heart of darkness, an experience that led me to write my book, The Bus on Jaffa Road: A Story of Middle East Terrorism and the Search for Justice.

On that day at the prison, Salameh was unrepentant, not showing even a trace of regret. I was not surprised and had been warned that he might exhibit no remorse. But being warned is one thing; the actual experience of seeing Salameh’s behavior first-hand was something else entirely.

He stared at me with blank, cold eyes. But what stunned me the most, I think, was his sense of joy in what he had done. Yes, he acknowledged that he had killed unarmed people. But he insisted that his murders were “God’s will.” And from that, he not only seemed satisfied but happy.

I wrote a newspaper column about my confrontation with Salameh and moved on to other assignments. But the experience haunted me. Salameh’s words echoed those of the al-Qaeda killers of 9/11 and far too many Islamic jihadists who were trying to justify their murders of innocent people by claiming it was God’s will.

Several years later, over lunch with a trusted book editor, I mentioned my desire to write about terrorism. Then I described my interview with Salameh and his twisted theology. My lunch companion paused, then looked at me. “You have to write about this more,” he said. “This is where you can start to really probe the horrors of terrorism.”

It was then that my book was born.

For more information about The Bus on Jaffa Road as well as a video and an excerpt, please check out www.mikekellywriter.com.

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From 9/11 to Jerusalem’s Jaffa Road

Monday, November 10, 2014 | Permalink

Journalist Mike Kelly’s newest book, The Bus on Jaffa Road: A Story of Middle East Terrorism and the Search for Justice, chronicles the aftermath of the Hamas suicide bombing of a commuter bus in downtown Jerusalem on Feb. 25, 1996. The book traces the capture of the key bomb-maker and the efforts by the families of two Americans to hold Iran accountable for financing the bombing and training the bomb-maker – only to discover that the American government was trying to block them. He will be blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, not long after the twin towers of the World Trade Center had collapsed in a pile of twisted rubble that was seven stories high, I leaped from a Hudson River pier in Jersey City, New Jersey, to the deck of a tug boat. An hour later, after crossing the choppy Hudson on the tug, I walked into the smoky landscape that came to be known as “Ground Zero.” Little did I know that my Hudson River trek would eventually lead me to a street in Jerusalem and more rubble.

Terrorism is personal. Yes, we speak of terrorism in sweeping, impersonal terms – of body counts of the dead and wounded, of the names of groups that claim responsibility for an attack somewhere, of the geo-political issues that may change in the aftermath. But ultimately, terrorism is about losing someone – of a sudden, murderous death taking someone’s life and leaving a family with an eternal hole in its collective soul.

I knew this, of course. Certainly, I instinctively sensed it. (We all do, don’t we?) But it took time for me to embrace the full dimension of how personal terrorism could be.

As a journalist, I have covered my share of terrorist incidents. But in the years after the 9/11 attacks, and as I traced the story of terrorism from Ground Zero, to Southeast Asia, to the West Bank and Gaza and Israel, to Iraq and to Washington, D.C., I felt I was missing something. Yes, I had written about the larger issues of terrorism – of the numbers of dead and injured, of the rising number of terrorist groups, of the difficulties facing political leaders in America and elsewhere in dealing with this phenomenon. But I felt I needed to go deeper.

And so, I went back to a corner on Jerusalem’s Jaffa Road, where a suicide bomber from the Palestinian terrorist group, Hamas, detonated a bomb aboard a commuter bus on the morning of Feb. 25, 1996, killing 26 people and wounding more than 40.

Two young Americans died in that bombing, Matthew Eisenfeld of West Hartford, C.T., and Sara Duker, of Teaneck, N.J. They were in love and talking of getting married. They are together now, eternally buried, side-by-side, in a Connecticut cemetery. Years later, I decided to return to their story. In the unfinished lives of Matt and Sara, I found a deeper story of unremitting pain and the still unfinished search for justice by their families.

It was a story that took me to the streets of Jerusalem, to the Gaza Strip and to a dusty West Bank refugee camp where a 19-year-old Palestinian man (a boy actually) was recruited as a suicide bomber. From there, I followed the story to the White House, to the U.S. Department of Justice, to Congress, to the FBI, to the State Department and to a federal courthouse. But ultimately, it was in the living rooms and kitchens of the families where I found the heart of this story – and the fact that each life taken by terrorism becomes a deep wound in the life of a family.

This is the real story of terrorism – a story all too often overlooked.

For more information about The Bus on Jaffa Road as well as a video and an excerpt, please check out www.mikekellywriter.com.

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