JERUSALEM — An Israeli man who lost five family members in the 2001 suicide bombing of a Jerusalem pizza restaurant on Friday defaced the memorial to Israel's assassinated Prime Minster Yitzhak Rabin as tension continued to mount here over next week's Israel-Hamas prisoner exchange.
Shvuel Schijveschuurder, 27, splashed white paint and sprayed graffiti on the memorial to Rabin, considered a founder of the Israeli peace movement before his assassination in 1995.
Police said Schijveschuurder was spurred to attack the memorial in central Tel Aviv by news that several Palestinians involved in the 2001 Sbarro pizza bombing would be among 1,027 Palestinian prisoners to be released next week in an exchange that would bring back to Israel Gilad Shalit, a soldier whom Palestinian militants captured in June 2006.
Schijveschuurder's parents and three siblings were among those killed in the restaurant.
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Israelis remember the Sbarro bombing as one of the deadliest attacks of the second Palestinian uprising. Fifteen people were killed and 130 wounded when a suicide bomber exploded himself during a summer holiday afternoon.
The possibility that Palestinians involved in terrorist attacks might be free in exchange for Shalit has long been controversial. In 2009, Schijveschuurder joined families who'd lost loved ones in terrorist attacks in a protest in front of a tent that the Shalit family used to keep a vigil outside the residence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Shalits were demanding that Netanyahu agree to such an exchange.
"The Shalits' struggle is legitimate," Schijveschuurder said then, "but if his release is contingent upon the freeing of prisoners, then the (Shalit) family should join us, the bereaved."
Earlier this week, when it was announced that the Palestinian prisoners would be released in exchange for Shalit, Schijveschuurder spoke to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
"There's a minority here that's forcing its opinion on the majority. They're just sitting there and laughing at us," he said.
Israeli news outlets reported that Schijveschuurder was disoriented and confused when security officers apprehended him. He told police "my family was killed," when they asked why he'd defaced the memorial.
"What he claims . . . the suspect himself carried out the incident in connection with the prisoner swap," police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.
Rosenfeld said Schijveschuurder was released and had been banned from entering Tel Aviv for two weeks, but didn't say whether he'd be charged.
The vandalism reflected the apprehension among some Israelis over freeing Palestinian prisoners involved in prior attacks. For many Israelis, the memorial to Rabin is a reminder of the end of more optimistic times, when the peace camp in Israel held a majority of the seats in parliament and espoused coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians.
Rabin was assassinated by Yigal Amir, a right-wing student who'd vocally protested Rabin's signing of the Oslo Accords with the late Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat. Since then, the popularity of the peace movement has waned, and Rabin's Labor Party, once the majority of the 120-member parliament, now holds just eight seats.
The Labor Party condemned the attack on Rabin's memorial. "Rabin's assassination and the monument are a national symbol that serves as a constant reminder that extremism and violence endanger the state of Israel," the statement said.
"Even during these days of heightened emotions, such actions of hatred and extremism should be rejected with disgust," it said. "The law enforcement system must be firm and alert during these times to prevent serious acts of this kind."
Right-wing member of parliament Michael Ben-Ari, however, urged police to treat Schijveschuurder "gently," saying he understood the fury of terrorism survivors.
"The release of killers is apt to anarchy and not a lawful state. In anarchy boundaries are crossed, and even Yitzhak Rabin's gravestone has lost its glory and sanctity," Ben-Ari told Israel Radio.
In an interview with the Israeli news website Ynet in August, Schijveschuurder said Israel "must not return a single Palestinian prisoner sentenced to life in prison in Israel."
At least two of the prisoners expected to be released in the prisoner swap are connected to the Sbarro attack. Husam Badran, the former head of Hamas' military wing in the West Bank, coordinated the attack. Ahlam Tamimi was sentenced to 16 life terms for helping to pick the restaurant as a target and then driving the bombers there.
Arnold Roth, whose 15-year-old daughter, Malka, was killed in the Sbarro bombing, said he sympathized with the Shalit family wanting to get their son back.
But, he added, "We wish there were some way to convey to the working media how acutely painful and immoral is the egregious injustice and betrayal now being perpetrated upon the families of terror victims by this hostage release transaction."
Noam Shalit, the father of the captured Israeli soldier, said he felt sympathy for the families of those who'd lost loved ones in terrorist attacks. He added, however, that he wasn't a politician making decisions over prisoner names and numbers.
"I'm a father that wants my son back," Shalit said. "We just want to see him home."
(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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