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O Little Town of Bethlehem

Note: This article (actually a short story) first appeared in Unconventional Wisdom in 2002, when Hamas was primarily a military organization and before it won the majority of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council in the 2006 elections. After I published it, someone who lived and worked in that part of the world contacted me, wanting to know more about these events. I was honored to think that the story struck him as authentic, but it is simply the product of my imagination and a bit of research.

The groan of automobile brakes pierced the night air in front of Ibrahim Abbad's whitewashed home. Racing to the door he spotted a diminutive taxicab and a large American extricating himself from the back seat.

“Marvin!” he hailed, racing out the doorway.

Pastor Marvin Meyers turned and flashed a broad smile. A few giant steps later the two men embraced.

“Abe, good to see 'ya!” said the minister, practically squeezing the life out of his host.

“Welcome to Bethlehem.”

Looking around the shoulder of his American friend, Ibrahim observed the yellow tags on the car. When Marvin had finally released him, he walked over and shook the hand of the Israeli driver. “I appreciate you bringing my friend all the way to Bethlehem.”

“I have many friends here, so I'm not afraid. Here's my card in case you ever need my services.”

Ibrahim took the card and noted the name. “Well, Asher, you now have one more friend in Bethlehem. Thanks again.”

Moments later the young Arab and his guest entered the house.

“Wow, something sure does smell good,” said the American, sniffing and rubbing his ample midsection. “Now, where's that Ghanny?”

Ibrahim's wife, Ghaniya, peeked out from the kitchen.

“Well, come on over here, girl,” he said with a wave.

Demurely, she obeyed.

“Everybody back at the church sends a big hello and all their love,” said Pastor Meyers, enveloping the waiflike woman in his arms, his strawberry blond comb-over sliding off his nearly bald head as he leaned forward.

Ibrahim had thought that he was used to such displays of affection. But that had been in America. Here in his own house, in his own country, he was surprised how much it rankled him.

That evening over fuul and chicken shaverma and spiced tea they caught up on old times and everyone they knew back in Milwaukee. Pastor Meyers was excited about the new fellowship hall they were building, which he described in exacting detail. He was also proud that his son was thinking of attending Moody Bible Institute, Ibrahim's alma mater.

As the leisurely dinner wound down, Marvin changed the subject, “So, what's the schedule for tomorrow? Did you manage to line up any speaking engagements? I'm sorry I can only stay a day and a half, but you know this is my last stop on a whirlwind tour of six missionary families. I'm trying to wind it up and get home before the people at church get too used to seeing somebody else in the pulpit.” He chuckled at his own attempted humor.

“I understand,” Ibrahim lied politely. “We have a local Christian radio station. When I told them that a distinguished man of God from America was coming and that you were a good friend of mine, they insisted that you appear on their midday interview program tomorrow. In the morning, though, I can show you around town, and tell you about our work.”

“Sounds great. Hey, listen, before I forget, I brought along a little gift from the church.” Pastor Meyers handed a business envelope across the table. Inside were five $100 bills.

Ibrahim eyes became moist. “This is so needed. You wouldn't believe. Thank you so much and give our gratitude to the people at church.”

“You're very welcome. I'm going to need just a minute to call my wife and let her know I made it here okay,” said Marvin. “Which gives me a chance to show off my cool new toy.”

The American opened a leather case attached to his belt and pulled out a cell phone with a large screen and more buttons than Ibrahim had ever seen.

“What is this?” Ibrahim asked eagerly, scratching his close-cropped beard as he leaned forward.

“This here's a phone that works anywhere in the world. Got it just for this trip, and it has been a lifesaver. Eight hundred fifty bucks, which is a little steep, but I'd never make a trip like this without it. You just pick the country off the menu, and everything else works automatically.”

That night Ibrahim and Ghaniya slept on large cushions in the living area, leaving the bedroom to Pastor Meyer. It was wonderful to see the man who had been his pastor for two years in America, but strange to have him here in Palestine. Still too excited to sleep, Ibrahim lay there staring at the ceiling.

It was a little embarrassing to have an American see his house. It was so tiny and so plain. Even in the dark Ibrahim could spot the peeling paint and the plaster. This had been his parents' place, which he inherited when they became collateral damage in an Israeli rocket attack. The rocket was a response to a Palestinian bomb, which was payback for an Israeli incursion, and so on and so on in infinite regress.

He missed them so desperately that he had removed most of their personal effects, hoping to remove the constant reminder as well. But now there was no money to fix up the house, as what little they had went to help their little flock in the refugee camp.

At first the idea of being missionaries supported by an American church had seemed so attractive. A few hundred dollars a month was more than they could make in any West Bank town. It would pay for their needs as well as fund their ministry. But after the first few months the money came in only when the Americans got around to it, which was not nearly as often once they started building the fellowship hall.

With so much on his mind, Ibrahim did not sleep well. Marvin Meyers, on the other hand, came to breakfast raring to see the Holy Land sights, and soon his enthusiasm infected Ibrahim as well.

“This is the famous Church of the Nativity,” Ibrahim pointed out, as they entered the square.

“You know, I'm really surprised at the number of churches I've seen around here,” said Marvin.

“The majority of Bethlehem's population used to be Christian, at least in name. But, of course, that was before all the trouble. Now we are something less than half.”

Once they had exited the church and were back in the car, Ibrahim continued explaining the religious tapestry of Bethlehem. “I think there are fifteen Greek Orthodox churches here, twenty-five Roman Catholic, and eight Protestant. Of course, we have Bethlehem Bible College right down that street, where I spent a year before I got the opportunity to go to Moody. But this area is not the norm. Overall, less than ten percent of the people living in Palestine are Christians.”

“And they're Arabs?” asked the incredulous preacher, placing his hand atop his head to protect it from banging the ceiling as the car pitched into a cavernous pothole.

“Nearly all of them. The people in town identify very much with their religion, and sometimes they are hard to talk to. In the refugee camps, however, they have nothing. They are uprooted. They will listen to anyone who cares for them. That is where we work.”

“Take me there.”

“I warn you that it's dirty, kind of a shantytown.”

“Doesn't bother me. I've seen dirt before.”

“And it is not so safe, especially for foreigners. Maybe especially for Americans.”

“Seems like the Lord has protected you up to this point. I'll pray and you drive.”

“Okay,” said Ibrahim hesitantly, “but you'd better not take that phone or anything else of value inside the camp. Just put it under the seat, and we'll pay somebody a few coins to watch the car while we're inside.”

Ibrahim pointed his rattletrap Datsun toward the edge of town. His passenger sat silently for a few moments, apparently deep in thought. At length the American turned his way.

“Isn't God's sovereignty amazing? Look how he's working it out for the Jews to regain the land he promised to their fathers and at the same time softening up Arabs to receive the Gospel in these camps. I just want you to know how blessed we are as a church to have our own missionary right here in Israel.”

Ibrahim felt his face flush but managed to bite his tongue. Then, suddenly, he was distracted by something in his rear-view mirror -- an ancient Toyota Land Cruiser. The same vehicle he had seen the last three times he'd checked behind him.

“Get your head down!” barked Ibrahim, foregoing his deferential courtesy and mashing down on the head of his guest with all his might.

“What is it?” said the panicked American in a constricted voice. “What's going on?”

“Hamas. They keep their eye on me. But this is not good. Not with you in the car. Don't let them see you.”

It was impossible, however, to hide the big man, who was still quite visible even when doubled over. Ibrahim made a violent right turn, hoping to lose them. The Land Cruiser followed. His foot dug into the accelerator, as they sped down ancient streets barely wider than the car. He laid on the horn, sending children scattering into doorways up ahead. Laundry drying on the windowsill blew off in their wake.

Then, just as they were coming to the end of a long, winding block, Ibrahim slammed on the brakes, sending the car fishtailing.

“What the...?” said Pastor Meyers, who had been strangely quiet.

“You might as well sit up,” said Ibrahim, exhaling deeply. “They know you're here.”

A second Land Cruiser with no bumpers and no top blocked the roadway in front of them. Four men with automatic weapons spilled out of it and approached the car, two on each side.

“Out!” ordered a gnarled, middle-age soldier in Arabic.

Ibrahim motioned to his colorless companion, now as white as the houses that lined the street.

Over Marvin's vociferous objections, two of the men held him, while a third administered an injection. Then they pushed him toward the Land Cruiser.

“Please, please, do not do this,” pleaded Ibrahim. “This man is a guest in my house.”

“Shut up!” ordered the officer in charge. “He can go home as soon as three of our people being held as political prisoners are freed. Now get out of here.”

As he opened the car door, Ibrahim cried out, “Don't worry, Marvin. God will protect you.” Marvin, hunched between two commandos in the rear of the vehicle, did not look convinced. Ibrahim was not so sure himself.

As he shut the car door, his stomach was doing somersaults. The weight of this dishonor was almost more than he could bear. He should have tried harder to convince Marvin that this was not a good time to come. He certainly should not have agreed to take him to the camps. Had he been afraid to say no? Or did he go along simply because Marvin was a money spigot? His mind was a-swirl with these thoughts as the roar of the Land Cruiser's sawed-off exhaust jolted him back to reality.

He felt so helpless. But what could one man do against Hamas? Then it hit him. Marvin's cell phone! It was still under the seat.

He retrieved the phone and held it in his hand but couldn't bring himself to use it. There was only one human force capable of freeing his friend. And that was the enemy of his people. How could he call for an Israeli raid into Palestine, even to save a Christian brother? Then again, Hamas was no friend. They had harassed him repeatedly and had now disgraced him by kidnapping his friend. Still, they were in some sense his people.

If he called now the Israelis might be able to locate the mini-convoy before they reached their hideout. If not, they would never find them. And what if the Israelis would not negotiate with Hamas? What would become of Marvin?

He had no choice. He put the car in gear and pulled out in pursuit of the fleeing terrorists.

But where could he begin? Whom could he call? And who would listen? Wait! The card, the business card the Israeli cab driver had given him. Maybe he could help. Ibrahim pulled the card from his wallet and punched in the numbers.

“Hello. Is this Asher? Asher this is Ibrahim Abbad, the man you met last night when you brought the American to Bethlehem...”

He waited nervously for a callback, still tailing Hamas. They turned to head out of town. Ibrahim waited at the corner, allowing a half dozen other vehicles to pass in front of him before he pulled out.

“Yes?” he answered on the first ring.

“This is Lieutenant Halafta of Israeli intelligence. With whom am I speaking?”

Ibrahim quickly filled him in on the chase and the abduction. “I am following at a discreet distance. They have just left Bethlehem on the road toward Beit Jala. Two old Land Cruisers, white, though there's not much paint left on them.”

“We are concerned that his might be some kind of a setup,” said the officious Lieutenant.

“I am a Christian minister to refugees. Yes, I am Palestinian, and, no, I didn't want to call you, but no one else can help my friend. Please act quickly, I beg you.”

Hours later Marvin Meyers found himself alone in a small room with a dirt floor and one tiny window far too small to qualify as an escape route. Night had fallen, so there was very little light. He remembered the injection but had no idea how long he had been out. He was not bound, so he got up and tried the door. It was solidly locked. A hard wooden chair occupied the middle of the room, the only piece of furniture. The preacher straddled it backward and hugged it to himself. His shirt, saturated with nervous perspiration, stuck to his chest.

Then, suddenly, the knob turned, and keys jangled in the lock. A weak overhead bulb illuminated the room. In the doorway stood a short, barrel-chested individual in military fatigues. His thick moustache and a week's worth of dark whiskers created a sinister impression.

“Please remain sitted, Mr. Meyers,” said the man in gruff, broken English. “I am Captain Shahar El-Alam. You stay here until prisoners in Israel are released. Then you go home. You try to escape, we shoot you. Now, tell me what you do in Palestine.”

It was more an order than a conversation starter. As the captain paced back and forth before him, Marvin turned slightly in his chair and hitched his right ankle up onto his knee.

“I've known Ibrahim ever since he was a student in the United States...”

Like a cat, the captain leapt toward him and drew back his weapon. But just as Marvin was preparing to be shot, Captain Shahar turned the butt end of the gun toward him and gently pushed Marvin's foot off his knee and onto the floor.

“Proceed,” said the captain calmly.

“Well, as I was saying,” began the stupefied Pastor, afraid to move.

Three minutes later it occurred to Marvin that maybe he shouldn't be discussing the details of Ibrahim's ministry with this man. But as he talked he began to relax and to regain some of his usual confidence. He almost surprised himself by taking the initiative to ask, “Just what do you people hope to accomplish?”

“The destruction of the Jewish state,” said the captain with apparent pride.

“But God has promised this land to Israel for an everlasting heritage. How can you win if God is on their side?”

“It is not Allah but only America on their side. You should take more concern about your own future. Maybe Israel makes trade for you. Maybe they leave you to die. Maybe they try to find you. They will not find this place. But if they do we all die.”

“Will God destroy the righteous with the wicked?”

“Allah, no. Israelis, yes.”

Just then there was a tremendous explosion, the force of which sent Marvin sprawling backward. The impact of the flat-on-his-back landing momentarily knocked the wind out of him. The next few seconds were a fog of sound and fury. Small arms fire rang out in surround-sound with bullets ricocheting off of the walls. Smoke and dust from the explosion obscured Marvin's vision, as he lay motionless in the fetal position.

He was startled when someone grabbed his upper arm and hoisted him to his feet.

“Follow me,” said the voice.

They moved through a large breach in the wall, and into the fresh air. Then came the approaching chop of helicopter blades. The bird set down in an empty lot across the street from wherever they were, and Marvin was hustled into the passenger compartment along with about a dozen soldiers wearing night vision goggles and armed to the teeth.

On Sunday morning Pastor Marvin Meyers sat in a velveteen high-back chair on the podium of the Community Chapel outside Milwaukee. The choir sang behind him, as the offering plates slowly snaked their way toward the rear of the sanctuary. He leaned forward and saw his reflection in his shoes for the first time in three weeks.

He thought back to Ibrahim. Marvin had telephoned him before leaving and offered to bring him and Ghaniya back to America. Not surprisingly, he had graciously refused.

His sermon was entitled, “Will God Destroy the Righteous with the Wicked?” As he ticked off the main points in his still jet-lagged mind, he noticed an usher climbing the stairs. The man crossed the platform full of purpose and slipped him a folded note. Marvin recognized the handwriting as that of his administrative assistant.

“We received an e-mail just a few minutes ago from Ghaniya, Ibrahim's wife. They found him dead last night by the side of the road with a single bullet wound to the head. I thought you might want to know before you preach.”

© Copyright Scott Garber, 2002