A view of the aftermath of the Sbarro Pizza bombing in Jerusalem on Aug 9, 2001. Credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO.
by Jonathan Tobin
(JNS) — Next month, Americans will mark the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. The trauma lingers in the memory of everyone who was then alive. But while that day of terror will never be forgotten, as an event that informs foreign and defense policy, it is fast becoming as irrelevant as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The last American troops are withdrawing from Afghanistan as Washington is reacting with indifference to the evidence that the Taliban — the group that hosted and enabled the Sept. 11 attackers — will soon be back in charge in Kabul, two decades after U.S. troops routed them as part of a response to the terrorist attack.
But a little more than a month before Sept. 11, Israel suffered a terrorist attack that, while smaller in scale than the assault on New York and Washington, was also traumatic. And, in contrast, to the American reaction to the efforts of Al-Qaeda, what happened on Aug. 9, 2001 is still crucial to understanding not only Israeli attitudes toward the notion of a peace process with the Palestinians, but the Jewish state’s need for defensive measures to ensure that the events of that day won’t be repeated.
One year into the Palestinian war of terrorist attrition that became known as the Second Intifada, Palestinian operatives strapped a device including explosives, nails, and nuts and bolts to a suicide bomber. Their objective was a branch of the Sbarro pizzeria chain in Jerusalem’s Zion Square at the busy intersection of King George Street and the Jaffa Road.
The crime was planned by Ahmad Ahlam al-Tamimi, a then 20-year-old Palestinian who chose the site to attack and led the bomber to the pizza parlor. She thought the restaurant was a good target because it was a popular spot for families feeding children lunch on Friday afternoons during the pre-Shabbat rush.
Along with the murderer, 15 Israelis and tourists, including seven children, in the restaurant were killed by the explosion. Another 130 were wounded, including many horribly maimed by a bomb designed to inflict not just death but gruesome injuries.
In an interview broadcast on Palestinian television in 2012, Tamimi remained proud of what she had done — and, in fact, reveled in the memory of being on a Jerusalem bus when the news of the bombing was broadcast and hearing the other Arab passengers celebrating as the rising death toll became known.
Of course, 20 years is a long time ago. Thanks to the building of the security barrier between much of the West Bank ruled by the Palestinian Authority and Israel, events like the Sbarro’s bombing, which had become commonplace during an intifada that focused on such atrocities, are now a thing of the past. Subsequent efforts at Palestinian “resistance” in which the slaughter of Jews is the objective are limited to random stabbings, as well as the largely futile firing of missiles and rockets into Israel by Hamas and Islamic Jihad (though most are intercepted by the Iron Dome and Arrow air-defense systems with many projectiles often falling short of their targets), more Arabs than Jews may be hurt by them.
Why then should we still remember the Sbarro bombing, except to honor the victims?
There’s more to this sad chapter than merely a tragedy to be commemorated. There is a problem with so much of what passes for informed commentary about the conflict in the mainstream media. Those who mindlessly demand Israeli concessions and territorial withdrawals, including in Jerusalem, have seemingly forgotten the slaughter at Sbarro’s, as well as other terrorist attacks that eventually left more than 1,000 Israelis dead. They’ve also forgotten what preceded the Palestinians pointless, if bloody, five-year campaign, and why there is a broad consensus among Israelis that stretches from the center-left to the right that rightly understands that there is no plausible partner for peace of any kind to be found among the Palestinians and their leaders.
In July of 2000, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak went to Camp David where, along with host President Bill Clinton, the pair offered PLO leader Yasser Arafat the fulfillment of the promise of the 1993 Oslo Accords formula of “land for peace.” Arafat was presented with a deal that would have given the Palestinian independence in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza and a share of the city of Jerusalem. In exchange, all he had to do was agree to end the conflict for all time. Arafat’s answer was “no.” It was still “no” a few months later when Barak sweetened the offer in talks at the Egyptian border town of Taba. Contrary to the expectations of many Israelis and most foreign observers, the goal of the Palestinian nationalist movement he led wasn’t an independent state alongside Israel, but a Palestinian state instead of the one Jewish one on the planet.
But by the time Arafat had turned down Barak for the second time, he had given a more definitive answer to Israeli peace offers by launching the orgy of terrorist murder that was sanitized by the neutral-sounding term “Second Intifada.”
In the years that followed, subsequent U.S. administrations tried the same “land for peace” formula again with similar lack of success because Mahmoud Abbas — Arafat’s supposedly more “moderate” successor — was no more capable of making peace even if he was inclined to do so.
The same sort of incitement to murder of Jews on the part of official Palestinian media and educational institutions that led to massacres like Sbarro’s continues. And in a touch of cruel irony, Tamimi now sits free as a bird in Jordan as a result of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 2011 decision to release more than 1,000 terrorists, including those with blood on their hands like her, in order to gain the freedom of Gilad Shalit, a soldier kidnapped by Hamas in 2005.
Just as bad, President Joe Biden’s foreign-policy team still acts as if the assumptions about “land for peace” and a two-state solution are as valid as they were when Bill Clinton thought he was about to win a Nobel Peace Prize in the summer of 2000. For them, it is as if the Camp David peace offer and the subsequent bloodshed never happened. They and the base of the Democratic Party that would prefer an even more hostile attitude toward Israel, still act as if Israeli security control of the otherwise autonomously ruled Palestinian areas in the West Bank is an act of oppression rather than necessary self-defense.
The Palestinians and their leaders may understand that those Israeli efforts make a return to intifada-style bombings a non-starter. But they, too, still act and speak as if recognizing the legitimacy of a Jewish state — no matter where its borders might be drawn — is something they will never do. Israelis know that a withdrawal from the West Bank and the uprooting of hundreds of thousands of Jews from their homes in Jerusalem and in the territories won’t bring peace. It would, like the retreat from Gaza in 2005, only make their country less safe.
Sbarro’s still matters not so much because of its horror but because the foolishness that set the series of events in motion towards that bout of terrorism is still alive and well in the unrealistic demands for an end to the “occupation” and for support of BDS campaigns inspired by anti-Semitism by those who claim to be only advocating for peace and human rights. Decent people should not only hold the memory of the victims of 8/9/01 for a blessing but also never allow the lessons of the failure of Oslo to be forgotten either.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.