It’s happening again. Israel and Hamas are at war and all my friends think I’m the expert. That’s what happens when you marry yourself to a part of the world for thirty years. I brought this on myself, I know, by moving my family to Israel and living in the midst of the usual suspects for half a decade. We are back in the States now, but no matter, my fate was sealed long ago. Regardless of what I actually know or don’t know, I’m the guy who lived in the Holy Land, went there to help establish a youth ministry among both Israelis and Palestinians, and so when things heat up between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, people come to me with their questions.

Those questions, in the form of texts, emails, WhatsApp messages, etc., began flooding in as I lay in bed early on the morning of October 7. I get daily phone notifications from a major newspaper based out of Jerusalem. Since my work is directly related to the region, and we have staff on the ground, I keep those turned on in an effort to minimize the surprises. And truth be told, rarely a day goes by without some newsflash regarding what that paper categories as the Arab-Israeli Conflict. But on this day, as I lifted my phone from the bedside stand and began to read, the notifications were clearly anything but routine. Mixed in were texts and WhatsApp messages that had an obvious heightened level of concern. Then a call came in from my wife, who was visiting her father in Arkansas.

“Something’s going on in Israel” she said. “Something really bad.”

We lived in northern Israel from 2012 to 2017. In the Arab city of Nazareth, once upon a time the first hometown of Jesus. They were five of the greatest years of my life. We forged friendships that I know will last a lifetime. We were welcomed, loved, invited in, and made to feel like an integral part of the minority Christian community that lives there, tiny by western standards, but the largest in all of Israel. We also lived there during some of the worst years of the Syrian civil war, taking place less than a few hours’ drive north. And through several seasons of Israel-Gaza conflict, including the 2014 conflict which claimed the lives of nearly 70 Israeli soldiers and more than 2,000 Palestinian, at least a third of whom were children.

That conflict began after three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and killed by Hamas-affiliated militants, not in Gaza mind you, but in the Palestinian West Bank. Yet it was the people of Gaza, then as in now ruled largely by force at the hand of radical Hamas, who suffered most, at least proportionally, along with the families and friends of those kidnapped Israeli boys, and those of the fallen soldiers.

At the time, we were hosting half a dozen summer interns from the United States. American college students who had come to the Holy Land to volunteer with the ministry we worked for, primarily serving at our summer camps which took place in the West Bank, just outside of Bethlehem. As the conflict with Gaza increased in scope, we were forced to shuffle our schedule, postpone and cancel some of the camps. Eventually things became dire enough that we reached a decision to send the interns home early. Problem was that the airport in Tel Aviv, the only major international one in the country, had been shut down. For the next few days, the interns holed up at our house in Nazareth where they contacted their respective airlines about various options. A few were able to travel by land over to Amman, Jordan, where the next closest major airport was located, and fly home from there. Those remaining stayed with us in Nazareth until the Israeli airport reopened. The next day I drove them all down to Tel Aviv and put them on their flights. As I was leaving the airport, I could see smoke rising to the south in Gaza, less than an hour’s drive away. Feeling drawn in that direction, I made my way down towards the Strip’s northern border, where, to my surprise, I was able to drive within half a mile of the Erez crossing, the largest transit location between Gaza and the state of Israel.  (This is the same crossing where Hamas militants would attack and kill several Israeli guards on the morning of October 7th)

I could hear shelling in the near distance. I saw more smoke rising. When I was in my twenties, still single, I supported a little girl name Hanna who lived in Rafah, a city in the south of Gaza, through World Vision. At that time, I knew very little about the area, the politics, the conflict, or the people on either side. A few years after I started supporting Hanna, I got a letter from World Vision letting me know she had passed away. There were no details about her death. Sitting in my car some fifteen years later, staring into the smoke-filled sky above Gaza, I wondered if she’d died during one of the sporadic conflicts with Israel that seemed to flare up every few years.

I sat there a while longer until I eventually began to weep, and I’m not a weeper. Then I prayed. Then I wondered what future these two people groups faced. I couldn’t come up with any answers, so I turned around and drove home to Nazareth.

Over the course of the next three years before we moved back to the US, and in almost every year since, every few months things would flare up again in the south. Hamas would shoot their crude, unsophisticated rockets into Israel, where most would be intercepted by the famed Iron Dome defense system. If Israel deemed it too excessive, they’d target a home or a compound where they believed a Hamas operative was hiding. Sometimes in Gaza, but just as frequently in the West Bank, where we have a thriving youth ministry to Palestinian teens. Inevitably, random civilians would die. There would be some negotiating, an agreement reached with the assistance of the UN or Egypt or Turkey or perhaps the US, and the status quo would return.

Then October 7th happened and the status quo was put to bed forever.

~ ~ ~

The author welcomes comments, questions and even kind rebuttals at: MHL23@juno.com

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