A nation in mourning bids farewell to veteran leader

JERUSALEM — When confessed assassin Yigal Amir shot Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the 25-year-old extremist killed not only the nation's leader.

He also shattered the lives of millions of Israelis.

In the time since the shooting, grief-stricken Israelis have tried to come to terms with Rabin's death.

The first assassination of a Jewish leader in the history of the state, the act itself touched off an overwhelming sense of vulnerability among Israelis.

At the same time, the assassination has forced the public to confront painful issues.

Long divided over the issues of land, peace and security, extremists on both sides of the political divide have steadily escalated their war of words against each other.

Since Saturday's assassination, people have begun to ask themselves whether using words such as "traitor," "Gestapo" or "fascist" can incite people to violence.

Upset whenever there is a terrorist attack, people here say they are doubly heartsick because Rabin's assassin was Jewish.

Within hours of hearing the tragic news late Saturday, people from the northern town of Kiryat Shmona to the southern seaport of Eilat held candlelight vigils throughout the long, dark night.

Thousands of young Israelis turned the site of the ill-fated Tel Aviv peace rally at which Rabin was slain into a candle-lit memorial.

Despite the great outpouring of grief, not all Israelis were heartbroken by the murder.

On a popular call-in radio program, an extremist said Rabin had "gotten what he deserved."

And, according to a newspaper report, a yeshiva student in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, home to some of the most heated opponents to the peace process, declared that "Rabin was responsible for every death" since the signing of the Declaration of Principles in Washington,D.C. in September 1993.

"This seems to be heavenly retribution," the yeshiva student reportedly said.

And on Monday afternoon, when the gathering of dignitaries had left Rabin's funeral and ordinary Israelis were allowed to pay their respects, a scuffle reportedly broke out at his graveside when an Israeli man opined that the assailant should also have killed Rabin's partner in the peace process, now Acting Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

However, such sentiments appeared to be in the minority.

Numerous Orthodox rabbis, including several in the West Bank, unequivocally denounced the slaying on both halachic and moral grounds.

Quoting rabbinic sources in an opinion piece published Tuesday, Rabbi Jonathan Blass, head of the West Bank yeshiva of Neveh Tzuf, said violence among Jews can be "compared to the case of one hand stabbing another to avenge the injury the other inflicted first.

"We are all limbs of the same body — the nation of Israel. Even when terrible wrongs are being committed, that unity must be maintained."

The day after the shooting, Israel's daily newspapers eulogized the slain prime minister and pleaded with their readers to pull together in the name of unity.

Ha'aretz, a newspaper that supports the peace process, called Rabin "a great leader who served his country in both war and peace."

The Jerusalem Post, often critical of the late prime minister, nonetheless described him as a "war hero and a peacemaker."

Although the media universally denounced violence, the right-wing Hatzofeh warned that "the terrible and abominable murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin must light red lights in the Israeli political arena." The paper added that the political leadership "cannot — and may not — ignore the deep rift that is splitting the people."

Overwhelmed by feelings of helplessness, most people went to work half-dazed in the days after the assassination.

Their children, upset by round-the-clock newscasts and their parents' inexplicable tears, wanted to know why someone would want to hurt the prime minister, and how one Jew could kill another.

Sensing the public's need to grieve, the government took immediate action.

The Education Ministry ordered homeroom teachers to devote Monday, the day of Rabin's funeral, to special educational sessions related to the murder.

With the country in official national mourning up to the time of the funeral, Rabin's flag-draped coffin was put on public view at the Knesset in Jerusalem, providing a place where the public could express its sorrow.

Within a 24-hour period, more than a million Israelis tearfully filed past Rabin's simple wooden casket, waiting for up to five hours to say goodbye to the prime minister.

Teen-agers placed handwritten poems at the site; preschoolers brought pictures they had drawn. One of the contributions, written in Hebrew, asked the question "Why?"

Joanne Murag, who emigrated from the United States 22 years ago, said she felt "betrayed" by the assassination.

Murag, who came to the Knesset with her 20-year-old soldier daughter, said, "The murder was the ultimate Americanization of Israel — exactly what I came to Israel to get away from."

Such nonpartisan expressions of sadness were also evident when hundreds of thousands of citizens lined the streets of Jerusalem on Monday to watch Rabin's casket driven to its final resting place at the Mt. Herzl Military Cemetery.

At 2 p.m. the nation stood still for two minutes as a mournful air-raid siren wailed throughout the country.

While the majority of people went home to watch the funeral on television, thousands remained behind police barriers in order to visit the prime minister's grave later that afternoon.

Regardless of where they heard or saw the funeral, Israelis said they were deeply moved that 80 world leaders, among them President Clinton, King Hussein of Jordan and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, had come to Jerusalem to pay their respects.

When the funeral ended, many in the crowd entered the cemetery to place flowers on Rabin's newly dug grave.

"I feel as if we have lost not only a leader, but a father," said a security guard who gave his name only as Stephen."I feel that the murder killed our dream — the feeling that we were a unique Jewish society, that we had nothing to fear from our fellow Jews.

"Something has been lost, and I don't think we will ever reclaim it."