At the time when the first uprising started, I was not interested in politics, so I kept myself distant from these demonstrations. However, what happened on October 29, 1987, changed all that. The events of that day are forever engraved in my mind.
I began attending Bethlehem University that fall. I was 16 years old and oblivious to the various political ideologies around me. The day began with me attending my classes just like any other day. It was late morning when some of my fellow students organized a demonstration on campus. Students carried protest signs and shouted against the Israeli occupation. Some of them gathered rocks to throw at the Israeli soldiers when they arrived.
The university gates were closed to prevent direct clashes and serious injuries to the students. Bethlehem University is surrounded by a 10-foot wall, making it difficult to get in and out when the gate is closed. A few students inside the walls threw stones at the soldiers stationed outside the walls. In return, the soldiers fired tear gas bombs at those students. Along with many other students, I waited inside one of the buildings instead of participating.
Shortly after the exchange with the soldiers began, we saw students being carried into the clinic. At first their injuries were related to the tear gas. Some had passed out, and others were very dizzy. But then we noted students with bullet wounds being admitted. We watched as more injured students were carried into the clinic. Blood dripped on the floors of our science department.
A few hours later we saw people bring in another injured student, Isaac. Two people were holding his legs and two others were holding his arms as they rushed him to the clinic. The hallway was silent, and all eyes were fixed on that student with the dark complexion who seemed, unlike the others who had been brought in, not to be moving.
This injury was different, and everyone knew it. Isaac’s wound was in his head, and the clinic personnel could do nothing to help him. We heard that Isaac had been on the roof of the cafeteria hanging a Palestinian flag when an Israeli soldier shot him in the head. We all waited with anticipation—we expected Isaac to be rushed to a hospital. But he was not. The soldiers would not allow him or anyone else to leave the campus. We sat there for two hours as Isaac fought for his life. Everyone was silent. Suddenly nothing else mattered. Isaac was slowly dying.
The mayor of Bethlehem spoke to the soldiers, and they finally allowed Isaac to be taken to a hospital. The doctor rolled him away down the hallway as we all lined up on either side. Isaac looked as if he were asleep, even smiling, from one side of his face, but from the other side, where the large hole in his head was visible, he looked dead. After Isaac was rolled away, the students in unison started singing patriotic songs. I felt power and consolation in the words to one of the songs: “It is all right if we die, if we will root out death from our land.”
What happened at the university that day changed my life forever. Isaac, who was the oldest child in his family, was a senior majoring in English literature. His parents had been unable to find work and were anxiously awaiting Isaac’s graduation so he could work to support the family. When soldiers took Isaac away from the hospital in Bethlehem only a short time after he was admitted, we did not know whether he was alive or dead. We later learned that his body was taken to an Israeli hospital, where many of his organs were transplanted into Israeli patients. At midnight, soldiers brought Isaac’s lifeless and empty body to his home in the Aida Refugee Camp and allowed only his parents to accompany their transport of the body to a remote field far from Bethlehem. We heard that soldiers dug a hole and threw Isaac’s body inside and then covered the hole with rocks and dirt. I can’t imagine how Isaac’s parents felt that night as they saw their beloved son’s body being desecrated so horribly.
Men lined up before Israeli soldiers. All images courtesy of Sahar Qumsiyeh.
By Israeli military order, Bethlehem University was closed following the events of that day and remained closed for two years. For a long time afterward, I sat in my room contemplating what had happened. I tried to understand why the Israeli soldiers would do something like that. What they did to Isaac seemed inhuman. I allowed hate and anger to linger in my heart. As I watched people in my town get arrested or beaten or shot, I wondered why God had abandoned me and my people.
Aside from the occasional demonstrations, I sat in my room and thought about my situation. It seemed hopeless. My university was closed, as were all the other Palestinian universities. I felt my heart fill with the darkness of anger and hate. I longed to die. In fact, during some demonstrations, everyone else ran from the Israeli soldiers while I stood still. I thought death was the only way to end my misery, because I saw no hope in the future. I began to pray to Heavenly Father, asking Him to end my life. One day I prayed with such intensity and faith that I thought He must have heard me.
Read more of Sahar's remarkable story in Peace for a Palestinian: One Woman's Story of Faith Amidst War in the Holy Land.
Sahar Qumsiyeh was born into a loving Christian family in Jerusalem and raised in Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem. Growing up in a country torn apart by political upheaval, Sahar struggled with feelings of hopelessness and anger as she watched her people being persecuted, tormented, and even killed.
In Peace for a Palestinian, Sahar shares her experience desperately searching for peace and joy only to find that true peace lies not in external resolution but in following the Savior. As she explains, "We may live in a place with barriers, checkpoints, and restrictions, but we can feel liberated by His Atonement."