Men like Dror Yair. In a high-ceiling room at the offices of One Family, an organization established to help victims of terror and their families, he tells me what happens when hell becomes entwined with your life and when the terrorist you captured threatens to make you his next victim.
In 1991, after being discharged from the Israeli army, Dror joined the Israel Police as part of an elite unit that brings together forces from the police, the IDF and the General Security Service (Shin-Bet) to coordinate anti-terror operations. Dror’s work was multi-faceted: penetrating terrorist cells to gather intelligence and to thwart terrorist attacks; rushing into the scene of terrorist attacks as a field medic; gathering intelligence from around the bombing and providing classified testimony in court to convict terrorists responsible for carrying out attacks.
Between 1991 and 2004, Dror was present at the scene of every major terrorist attack in Jerusalem, with the exception of three that happened while he was abroad on training missions and courses. “Somebody needs to protect our families,” he begins, explaining why he was motivated to put himself through years that tore apart his soul. “So I learnt to live from day to day with hate, death and bombings.” He looks down at the table, his face etched in agony. “When you’re at the scene of attack, you become a machine; your brain doesn’t think. For a couple of hours, you just keep going, carrying one person after another out on your shoulders. Maybe you stop to drink from the water bottles tossed into the mess. Afterwards, you eat the roll they give you without even washing your hands; you play backgammon; you laugh with black humor at jokes you share with your buddies.” He looks up, “I couldn’t believe that all I had seen was for real.”
Scenes From Hell
It was during the First Intifada (1987–1993) that the first Palestinian suicide attack took place. This Intifada ended with the Oslo Accords. During the Second Intifada (2000–2005), suicide bombers became pros at carrying explosive belts or backpacks containing explosives, nails, nuts and bolts to ensure maximum deaths and maiming. During those bloody years targets included buses, Israeli checkpoints, restaurants, discothèques, shopping malls, a university, and civilian homes. Dror shares the horror of some of these tragedies.
On August 9, 2001, a Palestinian suicide bomber detonated his bomb in the Sbarro pizza restaurant, located at one of the busiest pedestrian crossings in Israel. Within minutes Dror’s unit was at the scene. Body parts were everywhere. “As always, we began by evacuating the moderately wounded, those who had a chance of survival,” says Dror giving only the tiniest hint of how it feels when a combat medic has to shoulder the terrible responsibility of deciding who will get help first. “I picked up a woman and as I raced outside with her, I realized that these were the last few minutes of her life. She begged me to go back and get her son. I found the child under a table crying for his mother. I carried him out, all the while knowing that his mother would never again answer to his call.” Dror tells me more about the scene of the attack, but the vision I get isn’t one I want to share. Fifteen civilians were killed and 130 wounded.
“I went home and opened the door to see my wife and daughters eating supper. I couldn’t believe that people were still eating,” Dror says. “I collapsed on the floor and couldn’t talk. My wife called my commander. I was taken to a private clinic and given pills to calm me down. The next day I went to my superiors, gave them my gun and told them I couldn’t go on. But three weeks later, they insisted that I come back to work. Every time, I would tell myself this is the last one. And every time I would end up going back, because this is my country and I had to protect it.”
The Sbarro attacks were followed by more. Dror moves on to April 12, 2002, when a female suicide bomber detonated a bomb at the entrance to the Machane Yehuda Market, Jerusalem’s main fruit and vegetable market, killing 7 and injuring 104. “As we ran into the narrow market street, I saw a woman on the ground, riddled with nails. I had to run on to reach someone who could possibly survive,” he says with anguish.
On June 18, 2002 the #32 Egged bus to Gilo, Jerusalem, was blown up by Hamas killing 19 people and wounding 74. “The bomber was in pieces, but I caught his brother as he tried to flee the scene. I was the only witness,” says Dror. “During the investigation that followed, when I was in a room alone with him, security precautions failed – the alarm button didn’t work; the one-way door became jammed. He attacked me. When reinforcements eventually came in, he said, ‘I’ll take your soul just like I took the soul of all those others.’ His threat proved that he was our man.”
While it’s useless to scale the tragedies, the bombing of Egged bus #14a in Jerusalem, on February 22, 2004, certainly ranks as one of the most piteous: many of the passengers were children on their way to school. “I climbed in through the window to pull the children out. During the rescue, I spotted a history textbook that a child had been studying from. Years later, when my daughter began using the same textbook, the terrible memories flooded back.”
The Court Case
In 2006, Dror was asked to testify at a military court in the trial of the terrorist he had captured in 2002 after the Gilo bus bombing. He initially refused to go. “I was afraid that the proper precautions were not in place at the court to protect my identity before, during and after the testimony,” he explains. After a third visit from his superiors, he gave in. When Dror arrived at the court, he was seen entering the court building and Arabs demonstrating outside the court made threatening gestures at him. The terrorist, too, saw him and was able to identify his face, his voice, his name and his ID number. “Just like I won’t see my family, I’ll make sure you won’t see yours,” the terrorist yelled at him.
With his cover completely blown, Dror’s life became hell. Terrorists easily maintain contact with family members and other terrorists on the outside. To add to his fear, in the prisoner release deal that was conducted in exchange for Gilad Shalit in 2011, several of the terrorists that Dror had been instrumental in convicting were released from prison.
Living with Terror and Ghosts
Dror left the service and demanded witness protection for himself and his family. He encountered a bureaucratic nightmare of re-direction that culminated in his case being heard by the Israeli Supreme Court. During these years, he became a recluse and, worse, he tried to kill himself three times. “I reasoned that if I were dead, the terrorist would be satisfied and leave my family alive.” He smiles tightly, “But Up There, I wasn’t wanted.” In an attempt to alleviate the fear, the Yairs sold their beautiful home in Jerusalem and moved to a different community. His three daughters, Moriah (16), Sivan (15), and Shaked (10) had to adapt to new schools.
In addition to living in constant fear, Dror must deal with the effects of cumulative PTSD. “My family never, ever bangs doors because sudden noise shocks me. We don’t leave shoes turned upside down because after working at a scene, you never know what sticks to your soles. My daughters know never to pull their blankets over their heads because that’s how we covered the dead. My wife never buys clothes with zippers on the front because we zipped up the dead in body bags.”
Dror stops to play with the cup of tea in front of him. “I have scars in my head and scars in my heart, and yet, I’d do it all again because somebody has to,” he says.
There are moments of light in all the darkness. “I met a woman whose son I had saved; he recently became engaged. Moments like this give me the courage to go on,” says Dror.
Last year, OneFamily became a part of the Yairs’ lives. “My eldest daughter had begun to lock herself in her room. I wasn’t functioning. OneFamily saved my family,” says Dror. “Although I have very little social life and even small excursions to the grocery are challenging, my family came to OneFamily’s Chanukah party. Here, I realized that there’s still a place to have a little joy in life.”
The Real Heroes
As our interview draws to an end, Dror says candidly, “I live with ghosts. I always have doubts…did I do enough? I see people like the bus driver, half of his body in the bus, half out. He notices me, crooks his finger to call me to come closer. But when I lunge forward, my commander grabs my collar from behind and forbids me from approaching. He fears a second explosion; it has happened before. When he gives the order to approach, it is too late for the bus driver. I regret that I didn’t defy my commanding officer…maybe the driver’s grandchildren would have had a grandfather. I’m afraid of what will happen to me in the next world,” he says.
I am shocked by the realization that Dror doesn’t see himself as a hero. “The true heroes are my wife and daughters who understand when I walk the streets for hours at night,” says Dror. “The true heroes are those who work in an organization like OneFamily and choose to live with nightmares that aren’t theirs,” says Dror.
Faced with a man of such great spirit, who has sacrificed so much for his fellow Jews and cannot admit it, I feel very small.
The day of Michal Belzberg’s bat mitzvah, a suicide bomber detonated in the crowded Sbarro restaurant. In the wake of such destruction and anguish, Michal canceled her party. Instead, she contributed the amount of money that would have been spent on it to the victims of the attack. In addition, she encouraged friends and family to give the victims everything they had planned on giving her. The Belzberg family raised over $100,000, but quickly realized it was not nearly enough to address the suffering of the growing number of Israelis affected by terror. In that moment, OneFamily was born. It has since become a large volunteer-based non-profit organization providing assistance to thousands of terror victims. OneFamily empowers victims to rebuild their lives, rehabilitate, and reintegrate through therapeutic assistance programs geared towards orphans of both parents, orphans of one parent, bereaved parents, widow and widowers, bereaved siblings, and wounded victims.