Special Report: Sbarro pizzeria attack – 20th anniversary

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Special Report: Sbarro pizzeria attack – 20th anniversary

Attack 20 years ago occurred in a very different Israel from today’s

Aftermath of the Sbarro bombing in 2001, with a smiling Ahlam Tamimi
Aftermath of the Sbarro bombing in 2001, with a smiling Ahlam Tamimi

Twenty years ago, a deadly suicide bombing in Jerusalem plunged Israel into grief and, for its citizens, crystallised a feeling articulated by the city’s mayor: “We are in a war.”

The attack at Sbarro pizzeria on 9 August 2001, which killed 15 civilians and injured more than 100, occurred in a world and an Israel that looked very different from today’s. 

Less than a year earlier, President Bill Clinton was still making a final push for a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who had taken office just months before, was still known as a fierce pro-settlement hawk — not the leader who would one day evacuate Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip. 

And the date of 11 September 2001 — which was more than a month away — didn’t yet signify anything. 

In the months and years afterward, the Sbarro bombing would come to be seen as a turning point in a renewed period of terrorism, in which Palestinian attackers carried out major suicide bombings regularly and hopes for peace crumbled. 

Coverage of the bombing and its aftermath in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) showed how the bombing was experienced at the time — and how it shaped Israel and Jews in the years that followed. 

‘There was not enough time’

When a suicide bomber tripped the device that tore through the pizzeria, Israelis were already grappling with the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising — and reeling from a series of bombings across Israel. But aside from a suicide attack in June at the Dolphinarium, a Tel Aviv disco, which killed 21 people, most of the bombings had few casualties. 

The number murdered in the Sbarro bombing was the second-highest of any attack thus far that year and showed that the Dolphinarium bombing two months previously could no longer be seen as an isolated event. 

“I saw so many babies in an awful state,” one emergency volunteer said at the time. “I wanted so much to help save them all, but there was not enough time. I saw dead and wounded, an experience I’ll never forget.”

In the days and months after the attack, Israeli officials appeared to hold out hope that Israeli-Palestinian peace talks would resume, and one Israeli government minister said Israel’s response to the attack should be “reasoned”.

But Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert suggested in a statement near the scene of the tragedy that Israelis would have to steel themselves for more attacks. 

“We tried to do everything to prevent it. Unfortunately, this time we were not successful,” said Olmert, who would later become prime minister before resigning in the face of corruption charges. “I fully understand the pain and concern and fear of many people,” he said, adding that “we are strong” and “nothing will break us”.

A sense of familiarity

The bombing struck at the heart of Jerusalem’s touristy commercial district, and resonated with American Jews more than previous ones. It occurred at a busy intersection, near Ben Yehuda Street, familiar to British and American Jewish tourists. Sbarro was a familiar brand for Americans.

A JTA article about the victims, published about a week later, focused on Shoshana Greenbaum, 31, a pregnant victim of the attack from New Jersey who was spending the summer in Jerusalem as part of a master’s degree programme. “She spent her whole life helping people,” said one of Greenbaum’s childhood friends. “She was beautiful inside and out.”

Another immigrant to Israel, New York City-born Chana Tova Chaya Nachenberg, is still in a coma as a result of her injuries 20 years after the attack. A third victim, Malki Roth, 15, who died, was also American.

‘Grappling with grief’

Malki Roth

The Sbarro bombing was the second attack in Israel that year that left more than 10 people dead. Other incidents would follow in the months ahead – sending Israel into the worst wave of terrorism it had ever experienced and prompting a military offensive against -Palestinian terrorist groups in the West Bank. 

In the years that followed, the impact of the attack faded for the general public. In 2004, the Sbarro franchise relocated to another spot in Jerusalem. By the attack’s 12th anniversary, Sbarro had encountered financial issues and closed its branches in Israel, which had been taken over by another licencee and renamed ‘Il Fresco’.

In a first-person reflection published five years after the bombing, Frimet Roth, the mother of Malki Roth, acknowledged that Israel was then in the midst of fighting a different enemy — Hezbollah, in Lebanon.

Photo of Ahlam Ahmad Al-Tamimi released by the FBI (Wikipedia/ Source https://www.fbi.gov/wanted/wanted_terrorists/ahlam-ahmad-al-tamimi/@@download.pdf
Author FBI)

Roth also worried in the article that one of the perpetrators of the Sbarro attack, Ahlam Tamimi, would be released in exchange for the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. That ended up happening five years later, when Israel swapped more than 1,000 prisoners for Shalit, who was being held by Hamas. Tamimi now lives in Jordan. 

Roth wrote in 2006 that the families of the victims “have been grappling with grief”. Even as the years pass, she wrote, “Encountering other Sbarro victims strengthens my resolve to keep the memory of this crime alive.”

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