Four “Miracles” in Bethlehem
By Mery Aiken
Anyone who has ever stayed on the campus of Bethlehem Bible College or for any time in Palestine may be able to relate to this little escapade.
The night of March ninth was an adventure. It was still the early days of the Covid 19 pandemic in our part of the world, and all public places in Bethlehem had recently been locked down following the confirmation of four cases of the virus in Bethlehem on March fourth. As we hastily closed Bethlehem Bible College, many of us wondered at the time if it might not be an excessive response. Hindsight has proven the costly wisdom of that approach, which has profoundly flattened the growth curve of the virus on the West Bank.
In the next few days, all guests and short-term volunteers hastily made their way out of town, until only one couple remained: Dale and Linda, who had been hosting the guesthouse. However, we quickly discovered that getting them to Ben Gurion airport was not going to be easy. In addition to internal closures around Bethlehem by the PA, the exit from Bethlehem into the Israeli side of the wall had also been closed by Israel. It felt like we were encased in layers of closures, which recalled images of former curfews imposed on Bethlehem during past intifadas by the IDF.
Since Checkpoint 300—the closest exit into Jerusalem—was closed, we had no other option except to try to get them to the Beit Jala checkpoint where we had arranged for an Israeli taxi to meet them “on the other side” and take them to the airport.
The Palestinian authority had set up roadblocks on all major roads leading out of town, and the word was that no one could pass through them. There were rumors of fines and other penalties for breaking the quarantine. Because of this we could not find a taxi driver willing to take the risk of trying to get our friends to the Beit Jala checkpoint, which lies in “Area C” of the West Bank, part of the area under Israeli control.
And so at 12:30 am, I found myself driving my friends in the college van towards the Beit Jala checkpoint; all three of us praying for miracles. We’d already had two – getting the proper code punched in the van so that it started, and getting gate open which was challenging at midnight with a magnetic strip card in hand.
We were off to a good start, singing hallelujahs and alhmadillilahs, and an old Beach Boys tune that somehow made its way into the mix via Dale’s repeated muttering of “fun fun, fun.”
It was eerie driving through the dark and deserted streets – our first time into them since the quarantine began. We saw that the Beit Jala main road with Angel Hotel on it was completely blocked off. (The Angel is where an American tourist group had been quarantined for the past week or so, eating donated pastries from restaurants around town, and granting interviews with journalists and evidently having as nice a time as one could under the circumstances).
We took another road and continued up the winding hill with its sharp twists and turns.
When we got to the Palestinian roadblock, the 6 or 8 policemen asked us a few questions. When it became clear that I was staying here locally longer-term and that my friends needed to get to the airport they let us through, promising to let me back into Bethlehem after I got them to their taxi.
I considered that a half-miracle. Only when I was safely back in my bed at BethBC would I know for sure if it was a full one. There were also rumors that once having left the municipality, one would not be allowed back in.
We continued on to the big Beit Jala checkpoint, with several lanes and booths manned by soldiers. There was a surprising amount of cars–mostly from nearby settlements–passing easily through. As we approached it, I felt nervous, unsure of how close to it I could get before officially passing into the Israeli border and possibly getting into trouble or stuck in no man’s land. I pulled up by the side of the road and Dale (wearing a straw hat and really looking the part of an American tourist, thankfully—it could only help in times like these) walked up to the checkpoint to talk to the soldiers. A chill breeze was in the air and I did not envy him the task. No, there was no taxi waiting there for them. Perhaps the taxi was waiting at the Wallaja checkpoint, the soldiers suggested.
I turned the van around and we drove down a little settlement side-road towards Jerusalem. When we got to the tiny Wallaja checkpoint, three yawning soldiers approached us. To our chagrin, we discovered that there was no taxi waiting there either. I began to make desperate middle-of-the-night phone calls, trying to find a taxi on the Israeli side willing to pick up my friends.
Then a soldier explained to us in limited English that none of us would be allowed into Israel, not even to go to the airport. “Sorry! Go back to Bethlehem. You need to stay there for 40 days! You missed the last chance to leave last night at 7 pm. It is too late now. You have to stay in Bethlehem….. CORONA!”
I stifled a sudden urge to cough. When he walked away from my window I bowed my head and let out a few suppressed coughs, worried about what he might say if he saw me. I didn’t want Dale or Linda to hear me either. They had enough stress to deal with, and the possibility of their trusty driver coming down with the virus was not a good way to begin the long journey back to the USA.
There was nothing to do but turn the van around again. But why would we have been given two and a half miracles, only not to get the desperately needed fourth?
And what in the world would our volunteers do in a Bethlehem quarantine for 40 days? It was silly — their bags were already packed and their tickets were in hand for the 7 am flight out of Ben Gurion. A fourth miracle must be waiting in the wings for us somewhere.
We decided to go back to the Beit Jala checkpoint and try again. Those soldiers seemed much more reasonable – after all, none of them had told us that no one was allowed to leave, nor had they mentioned forty days of quarantine. We’d only heard thirty.
Once back at the Beit Jala checkpoint, we repeated the earlier scene all over again. After several conversations between Dale and the soldiers, we somehow finally managed to flag down a taxi willing to take them to the airport.
It was heading the opposite direction from us but when it slowed down, turned around and pulled up next to our van, I know I was not the only one with a tear of relief and gratitude in my eye.
We barely had time to say goodbye. They were eager to get moving and I could hardly blame them. Blowing a few kisses at each other through the window they took off through the checkpoint and I made my way back up and then down the windy road till I came to the Palestinian road block where I got my last half miracle. It was the same soldiers on duty and they remembered me.
I was back in Bethlehem. Alhamdillilah again!
If anyone ever wondered how to get out of Bethlehem under quarantine, that’s one way. All it takes is a song or two, some laughter, some prayer, some angels (seen and unseen) and a willing taxi driver – producing four (full) miracles.
Since then, other miracles have occurred slowly and faithfully, like the budding fig trees and small spring flowers making their way through the soil of our empty campus, inhabited by four—and then three women—all either student or volunteers. We rejoice that thus far a catastrophic outbreak of the virus has been averted on the West Bank and in Gaza, though the situation in both places remains precarious, particularly in Gaza. We will face great financial challenges in the future, of course, but it has been heartening to see how the community in Bethlehem has come together in loving and supportive ways that may produce an unexpected silver lining. Palestinians as a whole are proud of the way their leadership has handled the pandemic, and there seems to be a sense of fresh unity and cooperation to creatively adapt to this situation in ways that may produce a greater sense of possibility in the days ahead. That’s our prayer anyway.
And if you are interested in sharing more adventures with us in the future, please come and volunteer with us when it is possible to do so!