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Lessons from a Cellphone

Can we trust the other side?
By: Sondra Baras
Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Last week my cellphone was stolen.  That is not a unique occurrence but I want to share with you the details of what happened to me because it reveals so much of what our lives are like here in Samaria.

It was a Friday and I was busy cooking for Shabbat.  I leave early on Sunday mornings for Gush Etzion where I study Bible each week so I decided to fill up my car with gasoline before the gas station closed for Shabbat.  I drove to the gas station just across the street from Karnei Shomron.  The weather was glorious and I opened my windows as I drove, to enjoy the mild breeze.

As I reached the pumps, another car drove up to the neighboring pump.  It was a nice new car and there were two people in the car, the driver and his passenger.  As I got out of my car to start pumping gas, one of the fellows got out of their car to start pumping.  A quick glance at their license plates told me they were Palestinian — since the Oslo Accords were signed 24 years ago, and the Palestinian Authority established, the Palestinian Arabs are subject to their authority for all civilian matters, including driver and car registration.  It does make it easy to identify whose who in a flash.

I have always been an advocate for friendly and peaceful cooperation between Arabs and Jews whenever possible and in recent years, have found more than one occasion to engage Arabs in conversation, particularly those from Jerusalem who hold a similar legal status to Israelis yet more often than not identify as Palestinians  I have usually found people to be friendly and eager for peaceful co-existence with Israelis.  In fact, many have expressed frustration with the politicians who seem to make everything so much worse than it needs to be.

With this in mind I smiled at the fellow as he pumped gas.  While this may seem a normal thing to you in your countries, just a kind greeting to someone standing next to you, in Israel, acknowledging the “other side” cannot be taken for granted.  Passing through my mind is always the question, are they friends or enemies?  Would these men slash my throat if given a chance?  I remember well a comment that a dear friend of mine once made to me.  Noa Mandelbaum, the founder and director of Sadna, the amazing program for special-needs children in Judea that we support, once put it this way:  “If I have a choice between hating them and loving them, wouldn’t it be better to love them?  Hate just consume us.”  Of course, Noa is well aware of the potential dangers, but she had made a conscious decision to show friendship and kindness. 

Albeit in a small and symbolic way, I made the same choice that day.  But the Arab did not respond to my smile.  He ignored me.

I finished pumping gas and drove the few meters to the air pump where I wanted to check the air in my tires and fill the ones that were obviously low.  I had some trouble with the device and just as I was trying to figure out how to use it, the same Arab who had just finished pumping gas drove up to the air pump, parked the car, and got out to see how he could help me.  A part of me questioned the sudden gesture of kindness, given his rude response to my previous smile in his direction.  But I figured his male ego could not stand watching a woman struggling with a car without stopping to help. 

He helped me fill the tire on the passenger side and I thanked him and was about to proceed to the other side of the car to fill the tire on that side by myself. But he insisted on helping me on that side too.  We both bent down towards the tire on the driver’s side, as he held the air pump and I watched.  I was intent on the tire and paid no attention to anything else around me.  As we finished that tire, I was about to fill the back tire when he abruptly left me.  Assuming he was finally satisfied that I did know how to fill a tire, I didn’t suspect anything.  I finished with the tires and got into the car and drove off. 

As I left the gas station, I saw a fire burning on the side of the road and reached for my cellphone to call the fire department.  But my cellphone was gone.  It had been on the front passenger seat and it was gone.  I went back to the gas station to be sure I hadn’t left it there somewhere, checked in and around the car, but it was nowhere.  And then I realized what had happened. While the Arab was suddenly being nice to me and helping me fill my tires on the driver’s side of the car, his partner slipped around to the passenger side of the car and helped himself to my phone through the open window.  And just for confirmation — we were able to track the phone and two hours after it had been stolen it was registered in a tower in “Palestine.” 

So there you have it.  I wanted to be friendly and was rebuffed.  But the Arab realized that in my friendliness, I would welcome his assistance and I did.  And he took advantage of me. 

We came to Samaria to reclaim our ancient heritage and settle the land that G-d gave to us, the land that G-d promised we would one day restore and rebuild.  But we didn’t come seeking war.  We came in peace, eager to get to know our Arab neighbors.  We respected their property rights and only sought to settle in the areas that had not been settled before — and there was plenty of land to go around.  But they were also the enemy — even in the early days, we didn’t really know how we stood with them.  And in recent years, with terrorism reaching previously unimaginable heights, can we ever know if the person we are dealing with is real or an enemy in disguise?

And the fire I saw that day — was it started by an Arab as an act of terrorism or was it a careless mistake? 

People ask what the future will hold.  I have no idea.  I do hope we will one day be able to live in peace with our Arab neighbors and that they will accept our presence here.  But frankly, if we can’t trust them, it will be a very long journey.