Ten years ago today, my wife was nearly killed in a bombing at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, an attack that killed the two friends with whom she was sitting and forever changed the trajectory of so many more lives.

Including mine.

That was 2002. Years later, in a desperate attempt to overcome those psychological demons that still haunted me after the attack, I attempted to go back to the source, to understand and — yes — reconcile with the family of the bomber.

This is the story:

In the summer of 2002, Hamas – targeting both Israelis and Americans – struck a cafeteria at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The blast, triggered by a remotely-detonated backpack laden with explosives, threw my wife, Jamie , across the blood-streaked linoleum floor and killed the two Americans with whom she was sitting.

Years later, after her physical recovery and our return to the United States, I embarked on a psychological journey that led to East Jerusalem and the childhood home of the terrorist who set everything in motion.

Not out of revenge. Out of desperation.

It was never my intention to become a reconciler, to become a secondary victim of terror who turns around and, in order to create something positive out of the destruction, works toward peace and reconciliation. In truth, after the bombing – as my wife was tortured by doctors treating the burns that covered portions of her body – I refused to face what had occurred at Hebrew University, pretending as though the attack was some inevitable consequence of the larger Israeli-Palestinian struggle, as though it was impersonal, faceless.

Nobody tried to kill her, I often thought to myself. It just happened.

This is the thought to which I clung as we rebuilt our lives in the United States until, one evening, while digging through archived news clips of the bombing, engaged in a desperate attempt to overcome the terrorist attack by understanding it fully, I learned for the first time the terrorist’s name: Mohammad Odeh. And then I found something strange in an Associated Press article on Odeh’s capture by Israeli police in 2002: Odeh told investigators he was sorry for what he had done since so many people died in the university attack.

At first glance, I thought it was a mistake, a typo. Hamas terrorists didn’t apologize. They didn’t express remorse. They praised the struggle, held up the jihadist’s banner and proclaimed, in the name of Allah, for continued acts against the infidels, repeating the same predictable refrains while marching, faces disguised, guns raised toward the sky. Death to all Jews. Praised be the martyrs. God is great.

Suddenly, things became personal, and just as suddenly, I knew one thing: I would travel back to Israel and attempt to learn if this was true, to learn if Odeh had indeed expressed remorse from those who knew him best – his family.

So this is the story: five years after the bombing, I found myself emailing peace activists from a handful of organizations, looking for someone, anyone who might know the Odeh family, might know how to find them, how to contact them. Twenty-four hours later, my inbox filled with messages from those wanting to help, from those wanting to put me in touch with others who could no doubt help. Almost immediately, I was in dialogue with activists who considered my mission theirs, who co-opted it, putting my request on listserves, bulletin boards and blogs.

As a result, the Odeh family was quickly located and my desire to meet with them relayed. And just as quickly, I received word that the family had invited me to their home in East Jerusalem. They wanted to meet, which is why, months later, I found myself slack-jawed in a Jerusalem Toys “R” Us looking at plastic squirt guns and Hebrew-talking Elmo figures thinking, What do I buy for the children of the man who tried to kill my wife? I needed an offering, something cute to demonstrate that I was not coming for revenge.

When my translator for the encounter, Mariam, picked me up in a silver Peugeot, I was holding a Rubik’s Cube and a stencil set. She eyed them and smiled. “Not necessary,” said her expression.

When we arrived at the family’s house in Silwan, I was greeted with nervous eyes and shaking hands that served me spiced tea. With Odeh’s mother, brother and children watching, I took a sip, ceremoniously burned my tongue and smiled. Mariam nodded. They wanted me to speak.

“I’m not here for revenge,” I said. “I’m simply here to meet you and try to understand what happened. That is all.”

There was silence. And then, suddenly, a flurry of Arabic as Mohammad’s mother and brother began speaking simultaneously, Mariam doing her best to keep up:

“His mother says, We didn’t know what he was doing, we would have stopped him if we only knew.‘”

“His brother says, He broke. He would watch Palestinians being beaten on the news. He used to sit in front of the TV for hours.”

“His mother says, When they told us what Mohammad did, we were in trauma. We didn’t believe it.

And then, the words I had come for appeared as Mariam turned to me and said, “Mohammad has told them he is sorry, that if he could turn back time and change everything, he would.”

I nodded internally, understanding nothing as his brother looked at me and said, “We don’t understand why you have come without a gun. Why don’t you have a gun? If it were me, I’d be angry.”

“This may sound cliche,” I said, holding an empty saucer, “but I’m sick of the violence. I’m sick. I just want understanding and, perhaps, peace.”

“I want peace, too,” he said. “We all do.”

As he spoke, a toddler — his daughter — plucked a photo album from my backpack. She began flipping pages, giggling at pictures of my daughters as the Odeh family squawked for her to return my property.

I pulled out an orange rubber ball, rotated it before her eyes and gently pulled the album from her grip as she grasped the toy. The family clapped and nodded as we all smiled, understanding wordlessly, intuitively, that something important had just occurred.

Follow me on Twitter @David_EHG

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Author’s Note:

Some of this was adapted from an essay for Americans for Peace Now, and this subject is part of what makes up my memoir, due out from Oneworld Publications in 2013.


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