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The Hunt for Abdallah
The Tablet (UK)
Marthame and Elizabeth Sanders
January 18, 2003

Two American Presbyterians working in the Palestinian Christian village of Zababdeh tell how Israeli soldiers arrived early one morning to arrest one of their neighbours.

COMPARED with much of the West Bank, the Palestinian Christian village of Zababdeh had remained quiet, though not unaffected by the brutality of this land. That quiet was rudely broken one night last month. At 3.45 in the morning we were awoken by the sound of gunfire. We have become so acclimatised to the sounds of war that rarely do they rouse us from sleep - tanks, planes, even distant gunfire simply become integrated into our dreams. So to be awoken by shooting is unusual - it was very close by. We opened the window - just a crack - to see what all the excitement was. The early-morning cold was accentuated by fear and our uncertainty of what exactly was happening. Flashlights and sniper lasers danced across our neighbours' house, shouting echoed through the valley: "Iftah il-bab! Open the door!" The neon lights downstairs next door slowly flickered into life. Jeeps came over the hill  - seven, in total  - as did two tanks, grinding and belching. Quiet took over the village again, and fear gave way to exhaustion. We fell back asleep, the ringing of the school bell coming far earlier than welcome.

Our friends told us later how they had woken up, as we had, to the sound of gunfire. The difference was that it was outside their house. Ibrahim, a man in his sixties whose appearance betrays a healthy appetite, arose to see what was happening. He heard the banging at the door: "Iftah il-bab!" His son, Boutros, called out, "OK! OK! Don't shoot! We're opening!" (Palestinians have been killed when opening doors, caught in a barrage of gunfire focused on the door bolt. One such case was broadcast by Israeli and Canadian television last April, leading to fierce censoring by the military ever since.) In the pre-light dawn, they were met by soldiers in full camouflage and face paint. "It was like Vietnam", they told us.

"Put your hands up! Lift up your shirt! Come outside! Hand over your ID!" Ibrahim, his wife Doris, and their two sons followed orders, braced against the cold after being allowed to get dressed. Once outside, they saw the military might that faced them: 100 Israeli soldiers, surrounding the house, their boots covered in mud after their stealthy approach through wet fields.

"Is there anyone else inside?"

"No, that's it."

"What about downstairs?"
"Yes, some students who rent the apartment."

Most of Zababdeh's homes have been either made into flats or enlarged to house students from the nearby university. "Tell them to come out."

Ibrahim knocked on the door, "Ya shabab, hey guys, the army is here. They want you to come out."

"Wahad wahad! One by one! Put your hands up! Lift up your shirt! Hand over your ID!"

Everyone was shaking, as much from cold as from fear. After a while, a captain arrived, speaking Arabic with a Hebrew accent. "Sorry for all of this", he said to Ibrahim in front of those gathered. "We're not here for you. You're Christians. But these, these Muslims, they are the problem."

He told everyone to go in to one of the student's rooms, then sit on the ground. Ibrahim asked if he could pull up a chair for him and Doris. The captain allowed it. Adham, one of the students who suffers from rheumatism, shook violently when forced to sit. He was allowed to stand. Meanwhile, soldiers searched upstairs and downstairs. "Whose room is this?" they asked. "Mine", replied Adham. "Come here", they ordered. So it continued with each of the students until the search was complete.

One of the soldiers handed the captain a piece of paper. "Here, read this." The captain handed it to Ramzi, Ibrahim's younger son. It was a flier from the Al Aqsa Martyr's Brigade, calling for revenge in response to some Israeli military action or another. "You see", waxed the captain philosophically, "you Palestinians don't want peace. We want peace. We don't want to be here - I should be in Tel Aviv. But you don't want peace. That's why we're here."

"What work do your sons do?" he asked Ibrahim.

"This one has an internet café."

"And the other?"

"Nothing. He's just sitting."

"What did you do?" he asked Ramzi.

"I was a tour guide."

"Here? In the West Bank?"

"No, in the West Bank and in Israel."

"So when you went to Tel Aviv, would you tell the tourists, 'This is ours and we want it back'?"

"No. I usually talked about what happened 2,000 years ago."

"Where is Abdallah?" the captain asked the students. "He's not here", was the reply. The captain called Ahmad, another of the students: "You, ta'al. Come here. Call him and see where he is. Tell him we've just left." He handed Ahmad some kind of device to connect to the telephone - a recording instrument of sorts. He did as he was told.

"You're lucky Abdallah's not here", the captain said to Ibrahim. "You see, he's wanted. He's a very dangerous man. I wouldn't have sacrificed one of my soldiers for his life, so we would've destroyed the house. I'm sorry, but if you have students staying with you, you have to pay the price." He sucked on his cigarette before continuing. "You see, these Muslims, they're the problem. Don't you Christians know what happens in Bethlehem? Don't you know that Muslims are always raping Christian girls?"

Another half-hour passed, the soldiers hoping Abdallah would return. He didn't. The mosque sounded its call to prayer, and light began to peek over the horizon. "Tell Abdallah that he's wanted. Tell him that he should turn himself in. You", he said to Ibrahim, "you can all go inside. You're Christians. We don't have a problem with you. It's these Muslims." The seven students were handcuffed and led off to the armoured vehicle waiting in the distance.

At noon, Ibrahim and Ramzi were relating the tale of the morning's excitement. Doris had spent the morning cleaning the mud off the carpets. Now she was serving hot beverages to those who stopped by to listen. Ramzi looked as you might expect with a morning like that behind him. Of all that had happened, what upset everyone most was that the captain had continually singled out the Christians for favourable words. "That kind of talk frightens me. It's dangerous for us, when the Israelis start separating us from the Muslims like that", said Ramzi. "I'm from here, from Palestine, from the land of Christ", added Ibrahim. "I'm not from America or Europe or elsewhere. I'm an Arab. I'm a Christian, and I'm an Arab."

A taxi pulled up outside. Abdallah rolled out, huddled in his jacket, looking more like an exhausted college student than a dangerous terrorist. Within minutes, another taxi pulled up and the seven students emerged, waving their hands in the air in victory.

Ibrahim called Abdallah into the house. "Tell me what happened!"

The young man said, "What did I do? I haven't done anything. I swear!" Throughout the conversation, Abdallah stopped to answer his constantly ringing  mobile phone. As Ibrahim and Ramzi unfolded the events of the morning, the seriousness of the situation was beginning to sink in. By chance Abdallah had stayed at a friend's house the night before. Now he was wanted - "dead or alive", the captain had said. His was not the face of a young man seeking martyrdom, but that of a young man facing some grave decisions. He didn't deny his political activities with the campus Islamic Jihad organisation, but said he was not involved in military planning or attacks.

"If I were your father", Ibrahim continued, "I would tell you to go to the Israelis, and turn yourself in. If you're sure you've done nothing wrong, I'd say, ‘Hi, I'm Abdallah, here's my ID, ask me whatever you want'."

"Just let me see my parents", Abdallah said, over and over again. The students filed in and out, detailing the rest of their morning ordeal in the hands of the army. "They asked us about your political activities and such", they told Abdallah. "They wanted to know what you had done. And they kept wanting to give us coffee, but we wouldn't take anything from them. They kept trying to be nice to us, you know."

"Yeah - they want collaborators."

"Exactly. When they let us go, they said, ‘If you need any help, if you're ever in any kind of trouble, just let us know'."

 Below, they were pulling their belongings out of the apartment. One carried a bed frame, two others carried a cabinet. Another Zababdeh apartment was vacant - they weren't taking any chances in case of the soldiers' expected return.

Ibrahim continued: "Look, if you turn yourself in, what can they do? You'll be in jail - a couple of months, a couple of years, but you'll be alive. If you run, they'll find you. This country is full of traitors. And they won't arrest you - they'll kill you first. They'll punish your parents, your family, your friends, everybody. Two years in prison is better than all that."

Abdallah chain-smoked and drank thick Arabic coffee, listening distractedly, periodically reiterating his innocence. "Look, Abdallah", Ramzi chimed in, "Whatever you've done, I don't know, but the picture they have of you, what they told us last night, is unbelievable. The best thing for you is to go today and turn yourself in."

As they talked, the conversation circled, was repeated, as Arabic conversations do. Different details were added or subtracted here and there. "You know what they said? They said that Christians are better than Muslims and that Muslims rape Christians and...."

"Yeah, the same old stuff", interrupted Abdallah. "That kind of talk, if you're stupid, might make you think that Christians love Israel. But you'd have to be pretty stupid."

Doris brought in a plate full of food. "Thank you", said Abdallah, and got up to leave. "Eat something before you go", the family protested.

"I can't eat. I have no appetite. Thank you. I'm glad you're safe." Then he left, walking up the road towards the centre of town, and off somewhere with the weight of the world on his shoulders.

His former room-mates wished him well and continued packing their things. "I'm only renting to girls from now on", said Ibrahim, as he polished off his lunch.

"Don't be afraid", the angels told the shepherds on Christmas night. "We bring you good news." In a place where there seems to be nothing but bad news, and in a village where fear is multiplying, such words are needed.

Marthame and Elizabeth Sanders are American Presbyterians working in the Palestinian Christian village of Zababdeh.