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Conversation with Mike Kelly

Author of “The Bus on Jaffa Road” in West Hartford Feb. 22

By Cindy Mindell

book coverOn Feb. 25, 1996, a suicide bomber blew up the Number 18 bus during morning rush hour in Jerusalem. Among the 26 fatalities was West Hartford resident and rabbinical student Matthew Eisenfeld and his fiancé, Sara Duker of Teaneck, N.J. Later that morning, a second suicide bomber killed two people at a soldiers’ hitchhiking station in Ashkelon. A month later, the Number 18 bus was again the target of a suicide bomber, who killed 19 passengers.

Journalist and fellow Teaneck, N.J. resident Mike Kelly covered the death of Sara Duker for The Bergen Record shortly after that February morning. Nearly 20 years later, after hundreds of interviews with the Duker and Eisenfeld families, the mastermind behind the bombing, and countless others affected by the attack, Kelly revisits the terror attack in The Bus on Jaffa Road, published last year by Lyons Press.

Kelly will talk about the story behind his book on Sunday, Feb. 22 at Beth El Temple in West Hartford.

He spoke with the Ledger about how the book has come together over the last two decades.


Q: Next February marks the 20th anniversary of the suicide bombing on the Number 18 bus. What motivated you to tell the story now?

A: Sara Duker is from my hometown and there’s a statue of her near the town library called “An Unfinished Life,” which I have visited often. I had written about her in 1996 but by 2006, I had done a fair amount of reporting on the Middle East: my paper sent me back to Israel to cover the “road map” plan for peace. I decided to visit the themes that are important to Israelis and Palestinians, and one was issues around terrorism, 10 years after Sara and Matthew had been killed by a terrorist.

I discovered that the Israelis had arrested Hamas operative Hassan Salameh, who had planned the three suicide bombings. I asked to interview him, the Israeli government agreed, and that interview is how I begin the book. I ended up writing a newspaper story about the interview and had no idea that I would write a book.

I came back to the U.S., was sent to Iraq, and was already moving beyond the Hassan Salameh story. After I returned home from Iraq, I was having a conversation with a friend, the editor of my first book, and I told him that I wanted to write about terrorism but didn’t know how to do so. I told him how the interview with Salameh was so disturbing and he said that I should dive into that interview.

I didn’t begin the book until 2010 or 2011, when I had realized that terrorism is very personal. In my business, we cover terrorism as a story about body counts – a bomb goes off and we say that x number of people were killed, and that this group claims responsibility, and we discuss the diplomatic and political implications. We don’t realize that, in each attack, there are sons and daughters and mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters – innocent people – who are killed and that these losses are very personal. So I wanted to explore that personal trauma for the families and how they dealt with it over time. In this particular story, I found that there was a lesson to be learned, not only for America but for the world, on how to deal with it and what families go through.


Q: How was your interview with Salameh “disturbing?”

A: It speaks for itself. I found Salameh to be a sociopath, a stone-cold killer. I was committed to telling the story and allowing it to take me wherever it would. I wanted to show that this was a story about murder. We don’t discuss the Middle East and its problems and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in these kinds of basic terms; we often get into a game where we try to make things equivalent to the other or explain a terrorist attack in political terms. These are important perspectives, but rarely do we talk about terrorism as murder.

The suicide bombings were an orchestrated attempt to kill innocent people and no matter where you fall in terms of your support for Palestinians and Israelis – and I have an enormous amount of support for certain issues of the Palestinian cause – I do draw the line at murder. I wanted to frame the story and reactions to it in terms of a murder story.

Salameh not only built the bomb and organized the bombing plot, but also recruited Majdi Abu Wardeh, the young man who was the suicide bomber on Matt and Sara’s bus. One of the saddest moments of my research was in 2012, when I returned to Israel and went to visit Abu Wardeh’s family. When I asked the boy’s father, “Do people talk about your son?” he responded, “Things like that tend to fade into oblivion.”

Matthew and Sara are still remembered very vibrantly today and nobody remembers this boy, who was about the same age as they were at the time of the bombing. That spoke volumes about this story and why we remember people in this story: because it was fundamentally about murder and nothing else. That trumps the fact that it took place in the context of the Middle East conflict. In the end, it was all about killing innocents. Salameh couldn’t come to grips with the fact that he had killed innocent people, but wanted to talk about it in a larger context.

When you talk years later to soldiers who served in combat, or even to criminals who commited murder, they’ll express some degree of regret or sorrow, they’ll soften or feel sorry about what they did. Pilots who ran bombing missions in World War II regret the fact that some of their bombs killed innocent people.

But Salameh didn’t express any regret and that says something about where this man’s heart is at. I asked him, what kind of soldier kills innocent people? He couldn’t or wouldn’t acknowledge the fact that he had killed unarmed and innocent people and that he wasn’t doing the work of a soldier, but of a mass murderer.


Q: What did you learn about how the U.S. has learned to handle terror since 1996 and since 9/11?

A: One of the themes I speak and write about is the fact that, when you are a victim of a crime in this country, there’s a process you follow: you call the police or the FBI, and investigators basically ask two questions: Who did this? and What can I do to catch the perpetrator?

As a victim of terror – I’m referring to a surviving family member – you have the same questions but who do you call? Your Congressman, the White House, the FBI? The U.S. has no consistent process for victims of terrorism. We may use the military and sometimes it’s effective and sometimes it’s not; we may use the Department of Justice and sometimes it’s effective. But victims of terror end up having to hire a lawyer.

U.S. intelligence forces and people in America realize that terrorism is a danger and could happen any time, anywhere, particularly in the U.S. and perhaps some of us are surprised that there haven’t been more lone-wolf attacks in the U.S. like Charlie Hebdo – a couple of guys with automatic weapons.

I’m frankly surprised that terrorism hasn’t happened more in the U.S. and thank God it hasn’t. We are a little bit separate from it, in part because we haven’t had as many attacks on our soil. If the U.S. had proportionally the same number of terrorist attacks that Israel does, based on population, we would have thousands.

I think people in America are aware of the dangers of terrorism; what they’re not aware of is, when a terrorist attack does take place, what happens to the victims’ families? That’s where our government falls short.

How do the families find justice? Diplomatic and political issues come into the picture, making it more complicated. But these issues don’t need to be that complicated: a crime has been committed against an American citizen. Is it the job of our country, when a citizen is murdered, to follow up? When it comes to terrorism, particularly in the Middle East, our government hasn’t come through. The White House and the Pentagon and the Justice Department have dropped the ball.

I set out to provide a straightforward narrative of the complicated story about families trying to find some measure of justice. I think I was able to do so and am very grateful that I was able to tell a story that was largely hidden from view in the American public at the time it happened. The bombings were hardly covered by the media and got very little attention from politicians, in part because politicians didn’t want to get involved in the politics of it. I was very grateful that I was able to bring this story to light because it offers a lesson on the war on terrorism that we still continue to fight. We don’t have a policy on how to handle acts of terrorism on American citizens overseas, which puts families in a very difficult position.

I think part of the problem is the media. These acts of terrorism occur and, for a couple of days, they’re very important. When Matthew and Sara were killed, it was on the front page of the New York Times and people understood that it would have an impact on the Oslo Peace Accords. It was well covered but, as often happens with so many of these incidents, very quickly they are forgotten about. But the problem is that they’re not forgotten about by the families, who are left to pick up the pieces. We need to be more cognizant so that we don’t forget that these are American citizens killed overseas.

The Bus on Jaffa Road with author Mike Kelly: Sunday, Feb. 22, 7 PM, Beth El Temple, 2626 Albany Ave., West Hartford, Info: (860) 233-9696, bethelwesthartford.org.

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