My wife, Lorie, and I had hitched a ride to Beit Sahour with Rateb Rabie who was going to Bethlehem for an interview on the local Arab TV station. Lorie and I had been invited by the Lutheran Bishop Younan to be the guests of honor for the senior graduation at the Lutheran school in Beit Sahour.
My wife, Lorie, and I had hitched a ride to Beit Sahour with Rateb Rabie who was going to Bethlehem for an interview on the local Arab TV station.
Lorie and I had been invited by the Lutheran Bishop Younan to be the guests of honor for the senior graduation at the Lutheran school in Beit Sahour. We were looking forward to the pomp and happiness expressed in this land under siege. We were ahead of time, so we stopped at the Latin church in Beit Sahour to meet with Abouna Majdi al-Siryani for a short time before the festivities began. The church is a classic beauty of monumental elegance. The bell tower accentuates the Romanesque architecture with a church space upheld by massive columns supporting vaulted arches. It is a pleasant place to wait a while, and my mind drifted off to the past few days when the humanitarian delegation from the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation (HCEF) made an official tour of the greater Bethlehem area that includes the towns of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour.
Replete with armed escort by Palestinian Authority (PA) police, we had been taken through a gauntlet of destroyed homes and shattered lives that had been the victims of “provocation” and “reprisal”. It is said that gunmen from out-of-town had fired small arms at the two-kilometer distant Israeli settlements of Gilo and Jabal Abu Gname. The Israeli respond with massive counterfire directly into the civilian homes of the Christian communities in a collective punishment of the innocent for the random crimes of a few. The PA police reported that they have imprisoned over twenty gunmen to prevent the provocations, and have reduced small arm gunfire to a rare event, perhaps once a week. Yet the Israeli bombard the towns every night on a regular schedule in an action that results in the Christian population dieing or fleeing the country. They stated that more then 200 homes had been hit.
We had been taken to see many ordinary homes and veritable palaces. All suffered from the same destructive force. Rocket rounds were discernable by their blast effects on the twelve inch thick limestone walls that form every home from the most modest to the opulent. Walls showed cave-ins, and blast effects blew out windows and doors. I recognized the tale-tale signs of fifty caliber burn marks from a machine gun most probably mounted on an armored vehicle. These placed unmistakable scars on the white limestone where they would ricochet into an alternate threatening direction. Once inside the house, a ricochet would be absolutely terrifying and extremely deadly.
Then there were the armor piercing rounds that cut distinct circular holes on the exterior walls, and formed a fireball within. The resultant plasma propagation would curve around interior limestone walls, seemingly to seek out any hiding victims. The HCEF delegation had walked through the interior rooms of such a blast to view the destruction where even metal work had melted in the heat. The blast effects had been so pronounced that the fireball showed scars where it exited the rear of the building with such force as to blow out limestone railings and open roof tops. Among the rubble, my wife and I had found interior evidence of the human victims of this fireball, and I could see her sorrow building for the victims whose only epitaph was the destruction within.
We had been taken to a house that was said to have been hit just the prior night. The family was still living in the wreckage of the still standing house. Fortunately, their house had not been hit by armor piercing rounds, and they could still live in the back rooms. The dining room wall had been blown in, and the blast had shattered the window in the kitchen next door. Lorie pointed out the still standing floral arrangement on the table top amid the glass shards. The children of the home freely showed us through the house amid all the wreckage, while the adults removed themselves from public display. As we left, Lorie’s sorrow welled up, and she held the small girl who had been our guided. Lorie’s tears silently flowed as she expressed the sorrow of the rest of the delegation who could not cry. I saw the women of the home take notice of my wife’s compassion. A silent bond was formed between them.
So there were Lorie and I waiting for the evening hour to attend a celebration by brave Christians of Beit Sahour, when Fr. Majdi came in saying that Maher al-Atrash had just arrived. Maher implements the Child Sponsorship Program for Christian Education Support in the Holy Land, and has been my right arm in the formation of the program. As of now, we had never met in person: our dealings strictly by email. Maher strode in with his oldest son, Maran, a handsom five year old of good disposition, by his side. We talked of his family, and how they were after suffering from two separate assaults on their home. Maher told us of living through the bombardment, and the related stories of many other townspeople. They tell of women and children being utterly terrified; of mothers convulsing with fear unable to protect their children; of children running about in an extreme state of panic unable to hide under cover while the fathers must capture their own children and hold them down for their own good; of heroic self sacrifice where parents move to protect their children with absolutely no regard for their own safety; of people vaporized, torn asunder and maimed; of children waking in horrid nightmares and cannot be calmed down.
I told Maher of the Hijazeen house that had stood on the front row of homes facing the settlement. Maher told me that his own house was just behind the Hijazeen residence, but I had not taken a picture of it. Since we had a few minutes left before the graduation ceremony, he invited us to go down and visit his house and take pictures, so off we went. Maher’s son sat beside his dad holding onto his strong upper arm while I sat in the front passenger seat with my camera ready. Lorie sat in the back.
We traveled down the mountain town roads to approach the bowl where two mountain ridge lines curve around to form the mouth to the shepherd’s fields below. But there below us were PA police halting and redirecting all traffic. Maher pulled up to a policeman to ask what was happening. He stated that an Israeli tank was prowling and had targeted that portion of Beit Sahour, so it was unsafe to proceed. Maher looked towards me an asked if I wanted to get a picture of the tank. I said “yes”, so off we went again. Lorie swears she never heard that communication, and if she had we would have been grounded.
There we were speeding along Beit Sahour hillside roads at velocities that only a seasoned native could perform. Maher stopped the car for me to take a shot of the bunker at the mouth of the bowl, but we could see no movement or armored vehicles. We went on, stopping now and then to asses the situation with still no discernable movement. We drove over a lower ridgeline down onto a street that opened up to the fields across which lay a hill top bunker. Many other PA police were there but hiding in doorways and alleys. Maher asked them why they were so hidden. They motioned down the hill to where a dirt road extended from the distant bunker. There stood an M1A1 tank with a light armored vehicle behind. It had its main gun pointed in our direction. We heard a controlled voice from the back seat say “We should back up now!” Lorie got no arguments as Maher reversed direction and took off like a bat out of hell. In this surprise encounter, Maran held onto his father’s arm with white knuckles. When we got back to the church, Maher’s son was terrified and would not get out of the car. He crawled into the well of the front passenger seat and hid his eyes. It took Maher some time to convince his son to come out into his father’s arms for safety.
The news of the impending bombardment had spread throughout the town, and parents had come quickly to remove their children from the playground of the church school. People moved quickly and orderly, showing that they were well experienced. Unfortunately, one little boy had not been picked up and he was crying. Father Majdi tried to console him to no avail until others in the church took the child to a protected area. We were faced with helping the children under the threat of bombardment, so Lorie and I never did see the graduation ceremony. Instead we heeded an Israeli tank that moved into a position, swung its gun to a direction on the city and waited. The PA police would warn and evacuate that section of town, until the tank moved again to retarget another section of town. The PA police would move to warn the new section. This retargeting and subsequent city reaction went on for several hours during which Lorie and I were evacuated.
The next day we found out that the armor vehicles had opened fire at sunset with 50 caliber machine guns. The red tracer rounds were described as licking the night in a surreal sweep in wide arches across many homes. From the point of view of the Israeli tank, Beit Sahour presented a “target rich environment”. Fortunately, the preparations by the PA police had limited the human casualties to only one small boy. He had panicked in one of those hyper kinetic reactions. Before his father could catch the boy, he had had his hand ripped off by ricochet 50 caliber round. His nightmare had become real.