Friday, 17 November 2006

Heart-broken victims united in bid for peace

Father of captured Israeli consoles Palestinians at hospital

shalit hospital.jpg
Usama Ahmed al-Athamna (with beard) and Noam Shalit (right) talk with the media outside the Tel Aviv hospital where Israel is treating Palestinian civilians wounded in last week's shelling of Beit Hanoun in Gaza. Photo by Yedioth Ahronoth

Friday, November 17, 2006
Page A - 17

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem -- In a moving scene of reconciliation and hope, the father of the Israeli soldier whose capture started the current round of fighting in Gaza visited a Tel Aviv hospital Thursday to see Palestinians injured in last week's Israeli bombardment of Beit Hanoun.

And two Palestinians whose families were decimated by the attack joined Noam Shalit in offering prayers for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, the recovery of the injured and an end to the holding of his son.

"I came in order to express my sympathy with the families from Beit Hanoun, who lost 23 of their loved ones and have a large number of injured here at the center," said Shalit after visiting the wounded Palestinians. His son, 19-year-old Cpl. Gilad Shalit, was seized on June 25 in a cross-border operation that also killed two soldiers and wounded six others.

Usama Ahmed al-Athamna, who lost his wife, mother and 16 other family members in the Israeli artillery strike, said he was praying for the health and safe return of the Israeli soldier.

"I truly thank Gilad's father for the visit, and I pray that his son is returned home safe and sound and that it will bring an end to the tragedy we had at home," al-Athamna said.

Rasan Gasan, whose brother Basem died of his wounds in the hospital last Friday after being injured in Beit Hanoun, said, "I want to thank Gilad's father for coming to visit us. It breaks our hearts, more than they are already broken, that this man's heart breaks for us.

"I hope his son is brought him soon, and I ask both governments, enough, stop. They are continuing negotiations through bloodshed when it's better to sit at a table of peace and speak eye to eye. We can reach an agreement through peace, not bloodshed," Gasan said.

Shalit's visit to the Sourasky Medical Center in Tel Aviv came a week after Israel admitted that its artillery guidance system malfunctioned on Nov. 8, sending huge shells crashing into civilian homes in Beit Hanoun, killing 20 people. Three more subsequently died from their injuries. Three of the 40 wounded were transferred to a hospital in Tel Aviv the day after the attack after Israel offered medical assistance to the victims.

"I have met the families, and I can see that the people of Beit Hanoun are peace-seeking and not involved in terror, and they only want to provide for themselves," Shalit said.

"I feel that the Athamna family and the other families who lost their loved ones are exactly like the Slutzker family in Sderot and my family in the Galilee," he said, referring to the family of the woman killed by a Hamas rocket attack on Wednesday. "We are all victims of the same madness, the same incessant wars and illogical violence, from firing rockets towards populated centers, to two terribly erroneous shells, the common denominator is that the civilian population pays the price."

Early reports from Gilad Shalit's captors said he had been wounded and had received medical treatment, but since the first week of his capture the only information about him has been assurances by leaders of both Hamas and Fatah, the two major Palestinian political parties, that he is still alive. Egypt has been leading international efforts to secure his release, but so far without success.

Noam Shalit said after leaving the Israeli hospital that the injured Palestinian children lying unconscious were paying the price of "these useless wars." He urged the Israeli government and Palestinian leaders to "end the violence which brings more violence and hatred in a perpetual cycle that must be broken.

"We aren't looking to see who is to blame or who started it. I hope there will be developments in negotiations with a new Palestinian government that will allow for a fresh start when all this madness ends soon," Shalit said.

"It is time to end this affair. So much suffering has been caused since June 25 to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians," he said.

"One of the main obstacles in bringing Gilad home is that the Hamas leadership is in Damascus and unfortunately won't heed our calls. Unfortunately, they don't see the suffering of the Palestinian people, the residents of the Gaza Strip, and they are apparently living the good life in Damascus," Shalit said.

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