|Husband and father Beit El resident Yoel Tzur was on his way home with his wife and most of their eight children one December night, Chanukah 1996, when the shots rang out that forever affected his life.
The former commander of the regional IDF reserves division and long-time managing director of Arutz-7 recalled today the events of that night:
"We were happily on our way home to light Chanukah candles, and we were about a kilometer away from Beit El on the [now closed-to-Jews] Dolev-Beit El route, when we saw the oncoming car of one of our neighbors in Beit El. The terrorists were waiting on the side in their car, and apparently figured that since she was alone, it wasn't worth their while to shoot at her. They then saw us coming from the other direction, blocked us off, and began shooting from just 2-3 meters away. They just pounded us with bullet fire."
The car absorbed some 50 bullets, and everyone in the car was hit. "Our son Ephraim, then 12, died on the spot, and Ita was hit with a barrage of bullets..." Both Yoel and his dying wife showed amazing presence of mind. Yoel started running towards Beit El for help, and had a passing Arab driver take him there. At the same time, Ita was able to call via two-way radio to the Arutz-7 ship broadcasting offshore. Within seconds, the Arutz-7 broadcast was interrupted with a call for "anyone who can help or get help to the Surda intersection, where there has just been a terrorist shooting, please do so immediately."
Beit El's Dr. Mati Erlichman heard the call and was able to provide emergency help before the family was rushed to the hospital. Ita died of her wounds two hours later on the operating table, while the others quickly recovered from their physical wounds.
Thousands of people attended the double funeral in Beit El the next day, including then-Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Ariel Sharon (Infrastructures Minister), Yitzchak Mordechai (Defense Minister), David Levy (Foreign Minister), the since-deceased Education Minister Zevulun Hammer, the Chief Rabbis of Israel, numerous Knesset members, rabbis and other public figures.
The two murderers and their driver were caught within days by the Palestinian Authority, partially with the help of Yoel Tzur's ability to identify them. They were immediately tried, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor. Israel announced that it would still seek their extradition.
Within 2-3 years, Tzur said today, "the murderers had either escaped or been let out, however you want to put it, and were roaming around in this very area. The army has consistently tried to find them. I know that three months ago, we were on the verge of finding them, but at the last second they managed to escape. This morning at 3:00 I was awoken to learn the happy news that they had finally been caught."
Asked if he would rather they had been killed instead of arrested, he said, "I always told the army people with whom I spoke that they should kill them, if they could. But it's not always possible; the terrorists didn't open fire first, etc. ... Even though there's now a chance that they'll be released in some sort of prisoner exchange, as has happened before, still, we are very happy that they have been caught."
During the funeral and the week of mourning afterwards, Yoel called upon the government to immediately respond to the murders by either building a new neighborhood of 1,000 housing units on Mt. Artis in Beit El, or relocating the nearby army basis to Artis and building a new neighborhood in its stead. The now flourishing neighborhoods of Maoz Tzur and Ginot Beit El were later built on part of the army base, with close to 100 families.
The terrorists were arrested over night in their homes in Ramallah in a joint IDF-General Security Service operation. Tzur said the details are still not being publicized, though it is known that loaded guns, a magazine and a knife were found in their home.
In another Israeli military operation this morning, a joint IDF/police force killed two wanted Islamic Jihad terrorists. They were suspected of planning a large-scale attack in the coming days, and a large explosive was in fact found in the house. The force originally surrounded the house in which four terrorists were hiding, and at one point, the terrorists burst out while firing on the Israeli force. The soldiers returned fire, killing two and seriously wounding another, and the fourth gave himself up.