BETHLEHEM - Khaled Abu Asba, one of only two perpetrators still alive of the 1978 Coastal Road Massacre, in which 35 Israelis were killed and 71 wounded, is not willing to express remorse or to apologize for what he did.
"When the Israeli government stands before all of the media outlets and apologizes for all of its actions against the Palestinians, I'll be right there to apologize as well. I'm not willing right now to talk about regret or apologies. But let's not go back to the past," Abu Asba says.
"I did one action. Think about how many the Israelis did against the Palestinians, including in Gaza eight months ago. We have to reach a solution of peace, and that's what important right now," he says.
Abu Asba is apparently not particularly surprised by the presence of an Israeli journalist at the sixth Fatah convention, the first in 20 years.
Abu Asba spent seven years in Ashkelon prison before being released in a prisoner exchange. He then worked in Fatah training camps in Iraq and in the past few years has lived in Jordan with his Nazareth-born wife, who was stripped of her Israeli citizenship upon marrying him.
"Just like any citizen returning to his homeland after 30 years, that's how I feel now," he says.
Abu Asba is now 49 years old. When he committed the attack, he was 18. "I arrived in Tul Karm from Kuwait, where my family lived until 1967. After a few years, when Fatah started distributing leaflets and newsletters, I decided to join the organization."
First, he underwent training in south Lebanon and Beirut, where he was supervised by Khalil al-Wazir, also known as Abu Jihad. Abu Asba says his mentor always told his students that should they take hostages, they were prohibited from hurting them, even from giving them a light slap on the cheek.
"We didn't know what the specific goal of the attack was. We trained in Lebanon to take hostages, but we didn't know things would develop that way. They picked 13 of us. The commander was Abu Hiza'a - Mahmoud Abu Naif," he recounts.
"On March 9, 1978, we left Lebanon in two convoys. The sea was very rough, one of the boats capsized and two people drowned, one was from Yemen and the other from Palestine. After two days we reached Israel's shore, but we didn't know where we were landing. During training we saw films about Tel Aviv, with its shoreline and all the hotels, so we knew we weren't landing there," he says. The spot was Kibbutz Ma'agan Michael, north of Hadera.
Asked about the American nature photographer Gail Rubin, who was killed there while taking pictures, Abu Asba attributes her murder to Dalal Mughrabi, the lone female in the group.
Of Rubin, Abu Asba says, "We worried she'd tell on us. We didn't know she wasn't Israeli. We went out to the road and we stopped the first bus. We got on and started traveling south, and we explained to the driver, who spoke some Arabic, what he had to do."
"Meanwhile we stopped another bus and transferred all of its passengers to the first bus, and started moving toward Tel Aviv," he says. Israeli police began setting up roadblocks and firing on the buses. "At every intersection there was an exchange of fire, but we never shot the hostages," Abu Asba says.
Police set up a large roadblock near the site in Ramat Hasharon where Cinema City stands today, and the buses finally stopped. "They fired at us from every direction. They directed so much fire at us, the entire back of the bus started burning," he remembers. "All of the killed and injured were from Israeli fire, not ours."
Are you trying to tell me no hostages were killed from your fire?
Will you stay in the West Bank?
"I'll do what Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] tells me to do," he says. "I can understand Israel's difficulty in accepting my presence here, just like I can understand the suffering of anyone else in the world. But maybe it must be emphasized again - we came back here, we made the Oslo Accords. We started negotiations, but since then, what has happened? Just more settlements and the [separation] fence," he says.
"I don't hate Israelis. On the contrary, I admire many of them, such as my lawyer at the time, Leah Tsemel. Jews were among us Arabs in the past, but the Zionist movement ruined everything. Look how the Jews lived in Arab countries until 1948," he says.
"Israel must understand that to achieve quiet and security, real peace is needed. It's true, the armed struggle isn't the only solution, but if there's no other solution, what choice do we have? What do you want, to build more and more settlements and for me to kiss your hand? If there is a diplomatic solution, there will be no need for violence."