What do these three acts have in common?
-Palestinian Red Crescent ambulances are used to smuggle explosives and terror operatives into Israel.
-A car driven by an Arab plows into a crowd of people waiting for Jerusalem’s light rail train. A four month old baby girl is killed. The baby’s murderer is hailed as a hero and martyr.
-A bus filled with American Christian tourists traveling toward the Mount of Olives overlook is stoned by a mob of Palestinian teens.
What they have in common is the continually shifting tactics of Palestinian terrorism, leaving Israelis and others with the feeling that they never know what is coming next. Lines are crossed, the rules change. What was safe last week is suddenly worrisome. Try to imagine what it is like when mundane, everyday activities must be carried out against this backdrop.
A few months ago I met with a group of Christians from the Twin Cities preparing for a two week trip to Israel. For most of them it would be their first trip to the Holy Land.
It was the sixty-sixth trip for their leader, JoAnn Magnuson. JoAnn, founder of the Jewish-Christian Library and Center at Living Word Christian Center in suburban Minneapolis, has devoted her life’s work to fostering a strong relationship between Jews and Christians. Teacher, writer, speaker, advocate, activist– she is tireless friend of the Jewish people and Israel. She is without equal, a treasure.
JoAnn invited me to speak to her group as part of their pre-trip education. A little Israeli history, a bit of Israeli politics, a smattering of current events, even some tips on what to pack. There were a few questions about safety, but the mood overall was light and filled with anticipation.
The day after I spoke, four rabbis were murdered in prayer during a Jerusalem synagogue terrorist attack.
JoAnn emailed me shortly thereafter. One person had pulled out of the trip and she feared that others might follow. She asked for advice on what to say to allay their fears. JoAnn felt that everything would be okay, but wanted to get my take.
I thought about the piece that Yossi Klein Halevi had just written, about a new kind of intifada, an intimate one. He wrote: “This is not the impersonal terrorism of suicide bombers and rocket launchers. This is an intimate war. The terrorism of neighbors.”
I also thought about the many times I had encountered Christian tour groups in Israel. You could spot them easily, with their jaunty name tags and sensible walking shoes, beaming smiles, radiating awe, joy, wonder, traveling throughout Israel without incident. JoAnn had led such groups safely dozens of times.
So I said to JoAnn: “Back when suicide bombings were a more frequent occurrence, there really was cause for tourists to worry. The arc of destruction was wide and caught anyone unlucky enough to be within reach. But these recent events seem different, more pinpointed. Tell your group that they are not the target. Jews are. I think you should be okay.”
I was wrong.
On a Tuesday afternoon in late January, JoAnn’s group’s tour bus was stoned by a gang of Palestinian youth.
JoAnn recounted this frightening experience for me. The bus was headed to the Mount of Olives overlook, on a route that is heavily traveled by tourists. Not only does the Mount of Olives offers a spectacular view of Jerusalem; there is also a path leading down to the Garden of Gethsemane, making it an especially meaningful site for Christians.
The bus traveled past Hebrew University and the Augusta Victoria Tower, not far from the overlook. Then the bus was stopped in traffic. Suddenly the vehicle was surrounded by a gang of Palestinian teens who threw a few pebbles over the bus, apparently to alert teens on the other side of the street. Then a whole gang of them began pelting the bus on all sides.
Windows with two layers of glass were shattered. The Israeli tour guide shouted for everyone to hit the floor, which they did. Broken glass was everywhere.
JoAnn said, “At that point we were stuck in traffic coming the other way so we couldn’t move forward for a few minutes.”
I listened and tried to imagine what it was like to lie on the floor of that bus. My mind would have been racing with all the possibilities of what might happen next. Will some of the thugs get on the bus? Will one of them throw an explosive into the bus to force us to get out? What now?
Miraculously, no one on the bus was injured.
JoAnn continued, calmly, “Finally the driver was able to move forward and the kids scattered. We made it to the overlook – where the camel guy and the postcard sellers were. Two of our tourists wanted to ride the camel, in spite of our trauma.”
“The police and a Border Patrol unit arrived and escorted us back on the same road. They were in heavy gear and wearing plexiglass face masks.”
In all of JoAnn’s many trips to Israel, nothing like this had ever happened before. Unlikely, uncommon and unexpected.
Did the Palestinian teens target this bus, knowing that American Christians were onboard? Probably not. Most likely the teens simply saw an Israeli tour bus stalled in traffic as a target of opportunity.
How did the group react? What was their “take-away” from this experience? JoAnn replied, “I’m proud of our group. They obeyed orders and didn’t panic. As the adrenalin drained out of our systems it seemed that all of us came to the same conclusion: we were privileged to enter, uninjured, into the “fellowship of suffering” that our Israeli friends often experience.”
It takes a remarkable group of people to reach such a conclusion.
For the rest of the trip, whenever these Christian tourists told Israelis about their encounter with the ever shifting nature of terrorism, the response was the same. A sigh, a half-smile of recognition and these words: “Welcome to my world.”