Volume > Issue > The Fourth of July in Bethlehem: One Family's Tragic Story

The Fourth of July in Bethlehem: One Family’s Tragic Story


By Dan O'Neill | December 1988
Dan O'Neill is an author and the founder-chairman of Mer­cy Corps International, a Christian relief and development agency helping the Third World poor. Among Mercy Corps International's programs are study tours to regions in con­flict, including the Middle East. In July 1988 O'Neill led a group of 15 university professors from the Christian College Consortium to Syria, Jordan, the West Bank, Gaza, and Is­rael to meet with key leaders who represent various perspec­tives in the Arab-Israeli conflict. O'Neill has extensive ex­perience in the Middle East, including frequent travel, pho­to journalistic coverage of the 1973 October War and the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, numerous visits to refu­gee camps, and more than two years of living in the area since 1973. (For further information on Mercy Corps In­ternational or its study tour programs, write to Mercy Corps International, Portland, OR 97201.)

I first met Joseph Al-Hiraymi in Jerusalem in the spring of 1988. My long-time friend Ed, a uni­versity educator who has resided in the Bethlehem area for some 15 years, brought Joseph to Francis­can recording artist John Michael Talbot’s concert for the poor at St. George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem. John Michael and I led a 117-person Holyland pilgrimage during Lent in order to reflect upon the resurrected Christ while visiting the holy places. These days, however, the aura of holy places has been eclipsed by a year-long rash of unholy hap­penings.

Since December 1987 the sharply divided peoples who inhabit this small piece of Middle East real estate have plunged into ever deeper cycles of violence and revenge. The mighty winds of Pen­tecost, which heralded the birth of the Church in this very region, have somehow faded, as indige­nous Middle Eastern Christians, caught between the forces of Islamic fundamentalism and militant Zionism, leave in unprecedented numbers, gradual­ly diminishing what was once a highly influential Christian presence. Nowadays Jerusalem’s winds are often laden with stinging clouds of tear gas and the staccato of gun fire which have fueled a torna­do of violence throughout the land, leaving a trail of dead and broken bodies, the vast majority of whom are Palestinian young people.

This month marks the one-year anniversary of the Palestinian uprising, the intifada, which in Arabic literally means to “shake off.” It was born out of 20 years of harsh Israeli military occupation which began in the wake of the 1967 Six Day War. In December 1987 two events took place which gal­vanized the Palestinians into an unprecedented up­rising. A young Palestinian guerilla, armed with an automatic weapon, boldly flew his motorized hang glider from southern Lebanon into an Israeli mili­tary encampment and killed six Israeli soldiers be­fore being gunned down. Within days, in a separate incident, an Israeli vehicle plowed into a roadside gathering of Palestinians, resulting in numerous deaths and injuries — a tragedy the Palestinians claim was intentional. Now, a year later, the upris­ing continues in the form of Palestinian demonstra­tions, strikes, stone throwing, and civil disobedi­ence, which have provoked a brutal military re­sponse on the part of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). At this writing at least 374 Palestinians and four Israelis have died.

As Joseph joined our tour group for the March 23 evening concert, he seemed initially tense and uneasy, but he soon relaxed and enjoyed the music and worship. A Moslem from Bethlehem, he thanked us profusely for allowing him to partici­pate in our special evening. I’ll never forget his dark, handsome features and the broad, contagious smile on his bespectacled face. Joseph is a bright 23-year-old Bethlehem University English major, a top stu­dent on the Dean’s List. He is also a shepherd who grazes his small flock on the very hillsides visited by the angelic hosts announcing the birth of the Messiah, his family’s home a little more than a stone’s throw from the Church of the Nativity.

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