The Day I Almost Died in the West Bank

Since today is the three-year anniversary of a near-death experience of mine, I thought I’d blog about the day my friends and I were attacked in the West Bank.

It was a Friday night in Bethlehem when, unlike Jesus, my American friend Ashley and I had managed to find overnight accommodations at an AirBnB there.

The following morning, on July 7, 2018, our Palestinian Christian friend Khalil came to pick us up, greeting us with the cappuccinos he’d brought for us.

Next we picked up my Canadian friend Amy and set off on our West Bank adventure. I remember we said a quick prayer for our trip.

The first place we visited was the Shrine of Our Lady of the Garden at Artas. “Tour groups almost never come here and it isn’t really a tourist site,” Khalil told us. “But this is my favourite place in Bethlehem and the most beautiful.”

It was a quiet, peaceful Saturday morning. We entered through a gate and walked along toward the incredibly beautiful convent of Hortus Conclusus. One of the five sisters who lives there was inside the church, which she let us enter but seemed to do so exceptionally. Noticing my genuflections, she then became more enthusiastic that young Christians had come to visit and began handing me informational pamphlets about the history of the place as the other community members emerged for a few moments to speak with us.

Then, we hit the road again and began the drive to Hebron. As we drove, we played worship music to which we all softly and prayerfully sang along, “This is my prayer in the desert/When all that’s within me feels dry/This is my prayer in my hunger and need/My God is the God who provides/And this is my prayer in the fire/In weakness and trial and pain/There is a faith proved of more worth than gold/So refine me Lord through the flames/I will bring praise/I will bring praise/No weapon formed against me shall remain/I will rejoice, I will declare/God is my victory and He is there” and then “Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God…”

“What do you think is meant by reckless love?” I asked Khalil.

We all discussed this for a while together until we arrived to Hebron. 

“A lot of people don’t come to Hebron, either,” Khalil explained as we approached.

“Christians think it’s too dangerous. Even my Palestinian friends in Ramallah and Bethlehem don’t know why I come here. But I think it’s important for you. Plus, you’ll be able to see clearly why people say it’s apartheid when we visit Hebron.”

Before going to Hebron, I really didn’t know anything about it. It seemed an abstraction, like everywhere else before I actually visited.

We found a place to park. Then, passports and phones in hand, we followed Khalil who expertly led us around Hebron. Hebron is pretty rough because, as Khalil explained, “The most radical Jews and the most radical Muslims live here. If you’re a religious Jew, you don’t care to live in Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv isn’t significant. You want to be a settler in Hebron.”

Walking down the street, there were soldiers at every turn. We saw Jews coming and going from the synagogue and when Jews and Muslims passed one another, Jewish children kept within some haphazard barriers in the streets that serve to reinforce the separation psychologically. We saw signs in Hebrew and English that read: “These buildings were constructed on land purchased by the Hebron Jewish community in 1807. This land was stolen by Arabs following the murder of 67 Hebron Jews in 1929. We demand justice! Return our property to us! – The Jewish Community of Hebron”

Khalil told us a bit about the 1929 Hebron Massacre. Then we headed toward the synagogue and Khalil said loudly enough for the Israeli soldiers to hear, “Amanda’s Jewish, so she could enter the synagogue.”

The soldiers motioned for me to approach the entrance and asked if I’m Jewish.

“Yes,” I said.

“What are you doing over there, then? It’s not safe on that side.”

They motioned for me to enter the gate, which I did. Standing inside it, I said, “But I am also Christian.”

By now I was standing apart from my friends from whom I had no intention of separating in order to visit the synagogue.

“Do you have a Jewish mother?” the soldier asked.

“Yes.”

“But you say your religion is Christian?” he asked, as though he thought I was committing a logical contradiction.

“Fine,” the soldier told me. “Go that way” he said, shooing me out of the barrier into which he had just ushered me.

The soldier then looked at Khalil and asked to see his ID and then they noticed his tattoo. 

You can imagine the look of utter confusion on an IDF’s soldier’s face in Hebron upon seeing a Gazan-born Christian with the Shema tattooed on his upper arm in Hebrew. Waiting for some explanation, Khalil said casually, “What? It’s from the Bible. Jesus was a Jewish rabbi.”

The word “consternation” must have been invented for such an episode as this. The soldier looked exasperated and said, “No, no. Please don’t cause problems. Each one has his own religion!”

Having been dismissed, we were free to proceed to the Cave of the Patriarchs. We showed our passports at several checkpoints throughout the morning. Whenever I took my passport from my passport holder, I saw the prayer card I have tucked in there of Fr. Jacques Hamel, the French priest who had been martyred by a jihadist in July 2016.

There is much more I could write about our visit to the Tombs of the Patriarchs, but this is not the main theme of this story. We also learned from Khalil about the terrorist attack by the American-Israeli religious extremist Baruch Goldstein who killed 29 Palestinian worshippers and wounded 125 more in the 1994 Cave of the Patriarchs massacre. All of this is to set the scene for the incident that followed and to emphasize that it had been a rather intense morning.

As it was also an extremely hot day, we stopped for popsicles before returning to Khalil’s vehicle.

We hit the road again and, not too long after leaving Hebron, a green car dangerously stopped in front of us on the highway and attempted to do a U-turn just as a huge red semi truck came raring up behind us in the next lane, so we would be sandwiched between them and only narrowly avoided a serious collision.

We were all a bit jolted by the close call, but Khalil had driven expertly and had had every correct instinct. We continued talking, driving, listening to worship music, and debriefing Hebron with one another.

Then, about ten minutes later, we approached a place where the highway narrows and traffic slows and it was there that, all of sudden, forty or fifty Palestinian men descended into the valley, shouting angrily and shaking their fists in rage as they approached our car.

It was terrifying, particularly because they seemed to be coming from out of nowhere.

They pounced on our vehicle and one man pounded Khalil’s window so hard I was sure it would shatter glass all over him. Given that I contemplate mortality daily, it’s unsurprising that my immediate thought was: This is happening. We could be killed. I had no idea what was going on, but my imagination was sufficiently stimulated to imagine the worst.

Meanwhile, Ashley started softly yet supplicatingly declaring, “Jesus, Jesus.” She said this as one who truly believes there is power in His name. That this was her immediate reaction as we were surrounded on all sides and seemingly at great risk was a startling consolation to me that snapped me back to reality – the reality we’d sung about in the morning.

Khalil got out of the car (or was dragged out, I can’t recall exactly) and was slapped in the face by one of the men. It was so hard to watch our brother get hit and be surrounded by a whole gang of furious men who were throwing him around, jostling him back and forth while we watched helplessly from the car. Of course we feared they had knives as well.

Some of the men were circling our car and taking photos of every part of it, which was quite intimidating. These men could tell we were foreign women in the car and that we were scared, but then they did not pay much attention to us. Khalil came back inside the car for a moment. He was remarkably calm given the circumstances. He had just enough time to explain to us that the mob was a gang of refugees that the driver of the red semi truck had had unleashed on us because of the near car accident (which he clearly presumed had been our fault not knowing that it had been the green car in front of us that had stopped).

Khalil took out his wallet in order to hand the men his ID. He told us to stay inside the car no matter what and asked me to phone the police if anything happened. As something seemed, evidently, to be happening, I phoned. At first I was nervous that we might be in Area A (the area under Palestinian control). After all, wasn’t this the sort of thing that happens in Area A and the reason for the red signs warning: “This entrance for Israeli citizens is forbidden, dangerous to your lives, and is against Israeli law”?

We weren’t in Area A, though. The police answered and asked for our location. I tried to be discreet about being on the phone with them, not wanting to aggravate the scene. The nearest place I could see on the map was Gush Etzion, a frequent site of Palestinian attacks against Israelis.

Just as I began speaking with the Israeli police, Khalil told me I could hang up and that the issue had been resolved and the mob was letting us go.

Khalil got back into the car and took a deep breath.

Just then, one of the Palestinian men tapped on his window and we, who had not understood the altercation and debate that had been entirely in Arabic, became nervous again.

But then, to our total surprise, Khalil rolled down his window and received from one of the mobsters a giant carton of mango juice and several paper cups. All of us were stunned. We waited a minute after driving off before bursting into laughter at this surreal episode.

Minutes earlier, we had no idea what these men attacking our car wanted or what their motivations even were. We then started joking about how divergent Trump and CNN’s tweets would be about what we experienced, amusingly exaggerating their respective biases.

Then, debriefing, Khalil told us, “This camp of refugees fights everyone. They’re small gangs. They didn’t want money or to harm you. But they think they’re in the right, so they don’t think it’s morally wrong to do what they just did.”

Ashley asked if it made a difference that we were foreign women in the car and he said that it definitely did. “If there were guys with me, especially Palestinians, it’d have been different because if I fight back, in any way, then I lose.”

It had been incredible to witness how Khalil didn’t fight back at all, but was like a sheep before shearers. Khalil incarnated what it means to turn the other cheek. He took whatever they threw at him and bore it patiently.

“Did they see your tattoo?” we asked.

“No, this is the only thing that I was afraid of,” he said, since if the Palestinians had seen his Hebrew tattoo, he could have been in big trouble.

Khalil then insisted, “Listen, this doesn’t happen every day. Don’t think Palestinians are like this,” he said with a tinge of sadness in his voice. “This never happened to me before in my life.”

It really seemed like the most unsettling part of the experience for him would be if we left with a bad impression of Palestinians. “I love my people,” he said. “And I’m praying for them now.”

I asked how he could act so calm under that kind of pressure and he said, “Because I know my people. You just say to them, ‘Okay, okay. Let’s have a coffee and discuss who is in the right.'”

“I’ve never experienced anything like this before in my life,” I said with wonder.

Khalil replied good-naturedly, “Good, so you can write about it in your journal.”

As we drove, Khalil reverted back to tour guide, telling us about the fewer than 1,000 remaining modern-day Samaritans living nearby.

Eventually, we made it to Bethany where we visited the Tomb of Lazarus and gave thanks to God for the repeated times He has given us life again and again.

Later, we finally made it to Khalil’s apartment in Ramallah at which we read from the gospel and drank the mango juice together.

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