Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:12-13)
Dec. 2006 - I began living in Jerusalem in August, 1995, and was quickly initiated into the harsh realities of Israel's volatile political climate when a Palestinian terrorist blew himself up wounding and killing many passengers on their daily bus ride in Jerusalem. I would later come to know two of those wounded passengers as friends and colleagues. To this day they will not talk about what happened. This was my first encounter with the Israeli-Palestinian battle for land and peace of which I only knew vaguely from newspaper clippings and prophecy books.
November of that year, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a young religious Jew, who was against Rabin returning land to the Palestinians through peaceful negotiations. Rabin’'s leadership in the peace process was considered exemplary because he had been a decorated general in the Israeli wars against the Arabs. The murder of Rabin exposed the immense political canyon which divided Israel evenly into two camps: one side for peace negotiations with the Palestinians and the other side against. Rabin's assassination in Israeli history is comparable to the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations in American history where the country is shaken to its core and a time of soul searching and questioning begins. I visited Tel Aviv and the site of Rabin's assassination just days after he was murdered. There were TV cameramen, mulling throngs, thousands of memorial candles, and Rabin’s portrait painted on the wall in the background. Alongside his deadpan face was scrawled in Hebrew, "the incitement continues."
I spent my first Christmas in Bethlehem, Jesus' birthplace, with a gigantic five story high portrait of Yasser Arafat ominously staring down upon me and the masses of young Muslim men who had gathered from Hebron to celebrate Israel’s initial withdrawl from parts of the West Bank in December '95. Though few Christians were present at Bethlehem's first Palestinian Authority-controlled Christmas celebrations, I did have the chance to converse with different Muslims who invited me to visit them.
In January, I took two Muslim Arabs up on their offer, visiting their homes in Hebron along with touring the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Abraham's Oaks of Mamre. Through these visits with Palestinians, a new perspective concerning the land of Israel was opening up to me. I started to see there were two sides to the story. Hebron was a strife-filled city made up of over 100,000 Arabs with a Jewish settlement of a few hundred in the very heart of the town square. This Jewish settlement had crippled the daily life of the resident Arabs because of the briar patch of Israeli soldier check-points which impeded and harassed Arab traffic. The Jewish settlers were living there because they understood it to be their God-given inheritance. This tiny obstinate Jewish enclave was like an annoying bee pestering an enormous bear slowly awaking from its sleep in Hebron.
This newfound understanding was quickly stunted with my return to Jerusalem. When I attended my local Hebrew class the next day, I had planned to share about my adventures in Hebron. Before I was able to "show and tell," our teacher came into class and started crying. The principal’s son who was an Israeli medical soldier had been shot and killed by Palestinian gunmen on the very night I had returned to Jerusalem, on the same road which I had traversed in an Arab taxi leaving Hebron.
At that time, I lived in the same apartment building as the school's principal. I did not really know her, but I had seen her around. Not knowing what to do concerning her son's death, I wrote her a card. A couple of weeks later she saw me and sadly thanked me. Her face had aged; I never saw her smile again.
Around this time the Israeli government was cracking down on Palestinian terrorists, especially ones who were designing suicide bombs. The most notorious of these bomb-makers was Yehia Ayyash, nicknamed "the Engineer." Ayyash, an engineering student, was known to have developed the explosive device which was first used by Palestinian suicide attacks starting in 1992. This tactic had been responsible for killing 77 people and wounding more than 300 others from 1992 through 1995. Israeli authorities believed that Ayyash himself had built bombs which had murdered 35 victims and he had trained others in his deadly trade.
In the middle of January '96, Israeli agents succeeded in assassinating Ayyash in the Gaza Strip by detonating a miniature bomb secretly implanted in the cellular phone that he was talking on. It would seem that "the Engineer" had been aptly repaid, for he had flourished as a bomb-maker and had died by the very scourge he had proliferated. Ayyash's death was not the end of the suicide bombings, though, but a hydra that spawned forth many of "the Engineer's" bomb-making disciples.
Soon after Ayyash's assassination, the Palestinian terrorist group, Hamas, quickly responded with a lethal barrage of suicide bombings in February, 1996. All hell broke loose in Israel as five terrorist attacks were carried out within a week's time. Over a hundred were wounded and dozens were killed. What personally hit close to home were two buses on line 18 that blew up on Jerusalem's downtown artery, Jaffa Road. The first bus exploded on an early Sunday morning and the next one blew up on the following Sunday morning, seven days later.
That second bus bombing occurred around six in the morning. Living within a mile of the attack, I went down that morning to witness the horrible aftermath. This last bombing had sent the citizens of Jerusalem into an angry frenzy against the Israeli government and the peace process, which was being continued by then Prime Minister Shimon Peres. There were bellicose crowds straining against police mounted on horses as orthodox Jews scoured the road, sidewalk, trees, advertisement signs, and building facing for remains of flesh from passengers on the ill-fated bus. This gathering of flesh is standard for every bombing in Israel in order to completely bury someone for their body's physical resurrection. I stood there and watched as shards of glass blown out of once familiar shop windows now lying on the ground were combed through by those looking for pieces of humanity. The broken glass, slivered and splattered on the sidewalk, reflected my face.
Three years later, I would visit the student office of Hamas at the Islamic University in Gaza City. Just as I had gazed upon the post-mortem portrait of Rabin memorializing his struggle for peace, I would stare into the eyes of an iconic painting of Yehia Ayyash, "The Engineer," hanging in the Hamas student office. Much like the immaculate mother showing no worldly emotion as she holds out her messianic child, so too Ayyash’s face was stern as his hand was activating a detonator splintering an Israeli bus beneath him into fire, blood, and skulls. At this shrine of Palestinian martyrdom the ideological worshiper was reminded of what drives this suicidal religious zealotry, with Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock looming behind the other-worldly "Engineer."
During my first six months in the "Holy Land," I had stared upon the gallows of prejudice and hate which was slowly choking the life out of two peoples. There was no longer any room to justify the oppression, humiliation, or terrorization of another person in spite of so-called biblical promises or religious fanaticism. Both Israelis and Palestinians were daily destroying one another, through settlements and suicide bombers. Israelis wanted peace and the Palestinians wanted justice yet neither group would extend the hand of mercy. More so than any apocalyptic omen of doom, the ageless words of the Bible began to resound within me: "love your neighbor as yourself."
Since September 2000, Israel and the Territories have been experiencing the most recent Palestinian uprising, dubbed "the al-Aksa Intifada." This time, the stakes are much higher than they were immediately following Rabin's murder. Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat, who signed the Oslo Peace Accords alongside Rabin in 1993, stands at death's door today. He has much less to show for the Oslo peace initiative than the assassinated Israeli prime minister did six years prior. Every time that a Palestinian suicide bomber, gunman, or terrorist attacks the fearful Israeli public with belligerent actions, Israel's air force and army follow suit, recompensing the already beleaguered Palestinian masses with terrible vengeance. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth…back and forth the two return evil for evil.
It does not take a wise man to recognize that Arafat's reign has crumbled beyond his control. Recently, Arafat threatened one of his top lieutenants with a gun. Yet Arafat's death or removal will not ease the boiling cyst which consumes this land. Israel's present prime minister, Ariel Sharon also is not unfamiliar with violence and bloodshed. His murky association with the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian massacres during the Lebanon War led to his resignation as Israeli Defense Minister in the early 80's. He is not comparable to Rabin as a peacemaker by any stretch of the imagination.
Since September 2000, more than a thousand people have died in the Land due to the escalating violence. For every Israeli that dies, three Palestinians die. Many Palestinian homes, farms, and trees have been destroyed and uprooted for Israeli security measures. Since the "al Aksa Intifada" began, over seventy Palestinian militants have been assassinated like "the Engineer" was in '96. Instead of eliminating the terrorist threat, these actions by the Israeli government have only solidified the grassroots of the Palestinian cause; for every militant who is assassinated ten children step up to take his place.
In J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Frodo the hobbit wishes that his Uncle Bilbo Baggins would have killed his nemesis, Gollum, long ago when he first had the chance. Gandalf the wizard reproves Frodo, while praising Bilbo's mercy towards Gollum. "Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends… and when [the end] comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many—yours not least." So too, the future of Israel and the Middle East waits upon the pity of Bilbo Baggins.