I walked past Israel's central square yesterday - Kikar Rabin. Back in the day it had another name, but all that changed after 1995. And suddenly, it hit me right between the eyes - this coming November will be twenty two years since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Israel's then Prime Minister.
In late 1995, I was young and carefree, living in Tel Aviv, renting an apartment with two local guys, ten minutes north of the square. On Saturday evenings, after shabbat had gone out, we'd sit in coffee shops and chat, or I'd meet friends for dinner. But this particular 'end of week' there was a huge rally for peace, organised by the country's left, and I'd decided to go. The Oslo accords, signed not long back, had torn Israel in two and I was overwhelmed at the levels of hatred I was witnessing towards Rabin. Demonstrations in Jerusalem, with prominent politicians calling him "rodef" (traitor). Posters of Rabin dressed in a Nazi 'SS' uniform, being waved in the air. Extremist rabbis chanting "Pulsa Dinara" (an ancient Aramaic curse) at synagogues. Oh, and let us not forget the regular band of protesters outside his house each Friday lunchtime, screaming obscenities. I felt it was time to stand up and be counted. I arranged to meet a few friends at the square ('kikar') for the rally.
As it was, I don't know how I found them. This was before the days of cellphones, and the whole place was packed. The turnout was much higher than anyone had anticipated either - every square metre was full, with people jostling for space.
And up on the podium, along with Rabin and Shimon Peres, I was amazed at just how many of Israel's leftist movers and shakers I saw. Writers, artists, songwriters, intellectuals - they'd all turned out. The atmosphere was electric...there was a real sense that we were on the verge of a great change - that after almost 40 years of war with the Palestinians and the wider Arab world, perhaps we were heading on a different path. No to violence, yes to peace.
Rabin's speech itself was extraordinary. You could have heard a pin drop as he addressed the crowd. Here's an extract:
"Peace entails difficulties, even pain. Israel knows no path devoid of pain. But the path of peace is preferable to the path of war. I say this to you as someone who was a military man and minister of defense, and who saw the pain of the families of IDF [Israel Defense Forces] soldiers. It is for their sake, and for the sake of our children and grandchildren, that I want this government to exert every effort, exhaust every opportunity, to promote and to reach a comprehensive peace."
At its conclusion, an almighty cheer went up from the crowd. Actually, more of a roar. I remember feeling the hairs stand up on my arm...not to mention a feeling of exhilaration. All that was left was for everyone to to sing "Shir la Shalom" ('The Song of Peace'). But I hated the thought of getting caught up in the crowd, and knew if I didn't make a move now it would be an absolute nightmare leaving the rally. I told my friends to forgive me and slipped away. As I walked north, I could hear thousands of people singing. I felt more energtic and hopeful than in years.
Ten minutes later, I walked through my front door. My two flatmates were arguing about what movie to watch on tv - 'Crocodile Dundee' or 'Dead Again.' They both wanted my vote. As I kicked off my shoes, laughing, we all saw the Hebrew announcement at the bottom of the screen. A newsflash. We glanced at each other nervously - had there been another 'pigua' - a suicide bomb? In the last few months, Israel had been hit by a wave of them. But apparently not.
Then suddenly the screen switched to a picture of the square I'd just left. We watched, transfixed. Reports were coming in - there had been sounds of shots at the foot of the stairs Rabin had walked down, en route to his car...a man had been pounced on by his detail afterwards and pinned against a wall. Some individuals in the crowd said the shots fired had been blank. Others had said Rabin had been bundled into his car by his bodyguards and driven to a secure location. There were no confirmed reports.
We sat and watched. The crowds in the square were not dispersing - everyone was waiting for news. Minutes passed...45 long minutes, and more conflicting reports coming out of the newsrooms. And then, to our disbelief, Eitan Haber, a well-known Israeli journalist and Rabin's media advisor stepped up to the microphone.
"The government of Israel announces in dismay, in great sadness, and in deep sorrow, the death of prime minister and minister of defence Yitzhak Rabin, who was murdered by an assassin, tonight in Tel Aviv. May his memory be blessed."
Screams of shock and horror. Sheer disbelief. Tears pouring down faces. Eitan Haber held in his hand a blood-soaked sheet of paper, on which were written the words to the song Rabin had sung, at the conclusion of the rally. Was it just an hour ago he had stood before us all, our Prime Minister, this brilliant military man who, all his life had fought the Palestinians, but had now seen an opportunity to grab peace and announced it to the world?
Rabin was dead. Israel had lost its innocence. And, at that very moment, I knew nothing would ever be the same again.