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Saving Abigails

Remembering an eighth-grader killed two years ago, and hoping the peace process keeps others like her alive

Saving Abigails

What does it mean that Israel's Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas, the new Palestinian leader, are embarked on what seems to be a real peace process? If it works, we'll never know the depth of its importance because we won't know who lives because of it and who would otherwise have died, as Abigail Litle died two years ago this month.

In a Messianic Jewish cemetery in Haifa, Israel, a white tombstone bearing both Hebrew and English script reads, "Abigail Elizabeth Litle." The 14-year-old daughter of American missionaries Phil and Heidi Litle, Abigail died two years ago-March 5, 2003-in the Palestinian suicide bombing of Bus No. 37 on one of Haifa's busiest streets.

Eighth-grader Abigail had boarded the bus with a friend after school. Mahmoud Hamdan Kawasme, 20, had boarded the same bus. Kawasme carried a note praising the 9/11 attacks and 130 pounds of explosives laden with metal shrapnel. As Bus No. 37 pulled out of a stop, he detonated the bomb, killing himself and 17 others.

Less than two hours later, Mr. and Mrs. Litle huddled in an emergency room where a social worker told them they needed to identify the body of the daughter they had kissed goodbye just hours earlier. At the morgue, a doctor told the couple that Abigail's body was whole: Seated close to the blast, she had died from internal injuries.

"She looked as if she might have fallen from a bicycle-a few minor cuts and scrapes on her face," Mr. Litle said one month after Abigail's death. "She had a look of peace on her face. We just touched her cheek and cried for our baby, our girl."

Soot had settled on Abigail's wrists, but "her nails were painted in the translucent pink I remembered," her father said. Mrs. Litle removed a ring from Abigail's finger that she had worn since her baptism. Her parents had engraved the ring in Hebrew with a verse from Isaiah: "Joy and gladness will be found in her."

The Litles then told Abigail's sister and three brothers that she wasn't coming home. "Heidi and I sat with one child in each of our arms, and I explained that Abigail had been on the bus and that she had died," Mr. Litle said. "We had some time together to weep."

Four days later more than 1,400 people, including the mayor of Haifa, gathered for Abigail's funeral. Mr. Litle stood next to his daughter's casket, which was draped with Israeli and American flags, and with quaking voice told the mourners of the "immeasurable void" created by Abigail's death. But he also told the gathering that his daughter was "fully alive and enjoying the presence of the Lord Yeshua into whose hands she had committed her life as Savior." He said, "I will deeply miss Abigail, but we will also surely meet again."

The Litles' hope attracted attention from local media, as did their refusal to wear stickers printed by other victims' families reading, "We won't forget-we won't forgive." In one on-air interview Mr. Litle, director of a ministry in Haifa called Or B'Aretz (Light in the Land), was able to explain the Christian faith-"a miracle," he says, given widespread Israeli opposition to proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah.

The Litles say they have forgiven Abigail's killers, but that they have not forgotten the life the killers took. The family still grieves. On the second anniversary of her death two weeks ago, the school again had a memorial service. But Hannah Litle, 15, told her father, "I don't need to have a ceremony to remember Abigail. I remember her and miss her every day."

Mr. Litle told WORLD he's glad Israelis and Palestinians are talking, but he emphasized the need for "changes in the hearts of the people on both sides. . . . True peace requires an ability to forgive. . . . I don't see those kinds of changes happening apart from a supernatural intervention of God."

Change of heart

At an unremarkable border crossing in Gaza on a Tuesday night, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Palestinian Chairman Mahmoud Abbas shook hands above an ordinary dinner table strewn with water bottles, coffee carafes, and orange peels. But the gesture signified something extraordinary, the first commitment of an actual handover following a historic agreement toward peace reached last month between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Mr. Abbas. A two-hour session on March 8 between the two sides led to an arrangement for Israeli forces to transfer Jericho to Palestinian security forces. Following the handshake Israeli officials predicted that the hand-off could be hours or just a few days away. It would be the first transfer of key towns in Gaza and the West Bank from Israeli control to the Palestinian National Authority.

But shades of meaning are nowhere as important as in the Middle East, and by March 9 the two sides edged apart, disputing exactly what is meant by "Jericho." Palestinian leaders want Israel's military roadblocks removed not only from towns but from "their surrounding areas," Mr. Abbas said, while Mr. Mofaz harked back to proceeding "step by step" as the Sharon-Abbas arrangement suggests. What is new about the old pull-and-tug is the zeal on both sides to show the world each is living up to its word. In Tel Aviv and Gaza political leaders scrambled to resolve the security dispute, displaying a momentum evident from Beirut to Baghdad to Cairo. Its underlying cause-a tenacious U.S. policy and presence in the region-is now being served up not only by the right but also the left.

Newspapers and commentators who opposed the Iraq war are echoing the question asked by the liberal British newspaper The Independent in a headline last week: "Was Bush right after all?" Others who are also considering that possibility:

· Canadian columnist Richard Gwyn of the Toronto Star: "Here it is time to set down in type the most difficult sentence in the English language. That sentence is short and simple. It is this: Bush was right."

· Rüdiger Lentz, Washington correspondent for the German broadcast network Deutsche Welle: "One has to acknowledge that Afghanistan and Iraq might have been catalysts for what we see now happening in Lebanon, in Egypt and even between the Palestinians and Israel."

· The Guardian of London: "We need to face up to the fact that the Iraq invasion has intensified pressure for democracy in the Middle East."

· NPR senior news analyst Daniel Schorr: "During the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, President Bush said that 'a liberated Iraq can show the power of freedom to transform that vital region.' He may have had it right."

· French essayist Guy Sorman in Le Figaro: "Either Bush is lucky, or it is too early to judge or [Bush's] analysis was not false."

· Comedy Central's Jon Stewart: "I don't care for the tactics, I don't care for the weird arrogance. . . . But I gotta say, I haven't seen results like this ever in that region."

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked for the Charlotte World. Jamie has covered politics, disasters, religion, and more for WORLD. She resides in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.