The air was thick with sweat and exhaustion. Six snoring male bodies sprawled in darkness on metal cots. In their room at the base, the nineteen year old fighters of Dragon Squad, Team A noisily dreamed the final minutes of their six hour sleeping shift.
The door slammed open. The commanding officer inhaled the smell of his men, before blinding them with five hundred watts of bare bulb and yelling, “You won the lottery, you lucky bastards. You’ve been assigned guard duty at the Bethlehem roadblock as of 16:00 hours. Move your asses and be outside in full gear, ready for transport, in twenty minutes sharp.”
“What the fuck lottery is he talking about?” mumbled Yossi.
Moshe, the team commander, reached for his cigarettes and considered. “Maybe fresh warnings about suicide bombers. It’s been pretty quiet here the past few days.”
Gideon kicked at his socks, stiff with sweat, before jamming his feet into them and lacing up his boots. “I’m due for leave tomorrow. Home is soft, clean socks and a soft, clean girlfriend. A boring shift of guard duty under the stars is fine with me.”
“Idiots. Cretins. Made-in-Israel primitives,” grated Vladimir in thickly accented Hebrew. “Today, gentlemen, is December 24th. Have you geniuses never heard of Christmas Eve – as in Bethlehem, birth of Jesus, Church of the Nativity? People all over the world will be tuning in to watch the midnight mass in Bethlehem. Our roadblock will be the most important checkpoint in Israel today.”
David, always ready to pick a fight for Judaism, growled, “Take it easy, Vlady. And stuff the lecture on Christianity. You’re in a Jewish state now, remember. Bethlehem is where Rachel’s Tomb is, and that’s the only holy thing about the place. I didn’t say goodbye to Ray’s New York Pizza to worry about some church.”
Vladimir bristled, his fists clenched. “So maybe, David, I’ll give you something else to worry about.”
“Cut it out, you guys,” said Shalom. “We’re all in this mess together, and if we haul ass now, we can grab some coffee before heading out.”
“I’m with Shalom the peacemaker (Shalom oseh shalom),” punned Moshe.
“Pissmaker,” muttered David.
“And I’m for fucking coffee,” bellowed Yossi, going out the door.
Dragon Squad Team A leaped out of the command car as it screeched to a stop. Moshe took a quick look around. Everything seemed quiet. Cement barriers straddled the asphalt, and the makeshift checkpost in the middle of the road looked as uninviting as always. Floodlights illuminated wind-whipped olive orchards and empty roads, slick with rain.
Moshe huddled with the officer on duty before officially taking command of the post. The two men surveyed the bleak terrain. “Not much business today,” Moshe said. “Whatever happened to Christmas Eve and Bethlehem?”
“I scared away all the customers,” replied the other commander.
At Moshe’s signal, Team A took up their positions at the roadblock. The men fanned out, two in front and two in back of the roadblock and one in the checkpost. Moshe, as team commander, took first shift as ‘selector’, standing alone ahead of the roadblock where he would be the first to encounter traffic and decide which cars to pass through, which to refuse entry, and which to search. The men mentally geared up for the long, eight hour shift. Doing guard duty was the easy part. Thinking about why they were doing it was, they knew, dangerous.
The hours passed. Not one car, taxi or truck approached from Bethlehem. From the other direction, uncommonly few vehicles – only about twenty cars with diplomats and clergy – crossed through the roadblock. With no routine duties to occupy their minds, the tension in Team A swelled. In the stark silence of the Bethlehem night, the men quietly dug inside themselves, searching for solace. Images of girlfriends, real and imagined, dissolved into other thoughts.
Gideon began planning the first things he would do when back home. He’d hug his Mom and wolf down the spicy stuffed peppers she prepared especially for him. He’d tease his sisters, talk some man talk with his father, and then rush off to Bella, as nervously and eagerly as if this were the first time.
Shalom nostalgically replayed his favorite childhood memories from the kibbutz, sitting in a circle and singing folk songs to the accompaniment of an accordion. Yossi, who prided himself on being a fucking strong silent type, wished for the thousandth time that his parents would buy him a shiny red Mazda Miata for his twentieth birthday. Vladimir thought longingly of white Christmases in Moscow, and David fantasized scenarios of a Greater Israel, from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea.
David was the first to crack. “Hey Vlady, what’s happening with your holy roadblock? You promised us Bethlehem would buzz tonight. What kind of crummy birthday party is going on with no guests? Man, what a loser that Jesus is.”
“Shut up, David,” said Yossi. “Shut your stupid American mouth. I don’t give a fuck about what you think. I don’t give a fuck about what anybody thinks. I want to finish my fucking three years in the army and live a normal life.”
“Forget normal, good buddy, here in Israel,” said Gideon. “If you haven’t noticed, we’re living a no-win existence. We’re not leaving, and neither are the Palestinians, even if David has wet dreams of etherizing them.” Gideon popped a fresh piece of gum into his mouth. “So we catch some terrorists and bulldoze their families’ homes, and other terrorists slip through our roadblocks and fences and intelligence networks and blast our friends and children into shreds of flesh which the Victim Identification Crews then scoop into doggiebags, and finally we get to hear the politicians sputter nonsense on prime time. If you call that normal, I call that insane.”
“Halt!” Moshe’s voice rang out. “Halt or I shoot!” he repeated, aiming an automatic rifle at two forms approaching the roadblock on foot.
“Don’t shoot, please don’t shoot. It’s just me and my wife. My wife is in labor and the child must be born in Bethlehem.”
“Cover me,” Moshe ordered his men, and slowly drew nearer the man and woman. The woman’s belly was huge, and he could see spasms of pain contort her face.
The man spoke in an excited mixture of Arabic and English. “Please, sir, we have walked for almost two hours and my wife thinks the baby will be born very soon. The Lord has commanded us to have the baby born in Bethlehem.”
“I’m sorry,” Moshe said, “you cannot continue on to Bethlehem. You’ll have to turn around.” He raised his M16 and motioned the couple back. They stood unmoving.
“Moshe,” pleaded Vladimir, “it’s Christmas Eve, it’s a baby, it’s Bethlehem.”
“Moshe,” said Shalom softly. “Give me permission to check it out. If they’re clean, let them through.”
Moshe hesitated. Say no, hammered fresh memories of women terrorists who had concealed explosives on their bodies and then blown themselves up with innocent bystanders. But this was the first request Shalom the peacemaker had ever made of him as team commander, and the situation was just crazy enough to be true.
“Go ahead,” he agreed unwillingly.
Shalom approached the woman. To still his trembling hands, he began singing Laila Laila, the lullaby his mother had sung in the peaceful kibbutz night to soothe him to sleep. The woman nodded in understanding, and sang the opening notes of “Ave Maria.” Hail Mary, full of grace, blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Vladimir heard himself joining in the familiar Latin, his rough voice soaring and falling. The imploring tones, Pray for us, Mary, in the hour of our death, Amen, echoed in the Bethlehem night. And then there was silence.
Shalom looked questioningly at his commander. Moshe stared into space, wrenched between rigid military regulations and what he, Moshe, the grandson of concentration camp survivors, knew in his heart was right.
Moshe slowly, heavily, nodded his assent.
Shalom stepped back.
The couple slowly crossed through the roadblock, the woman leaning heavily on her husband. The soldiers watched in silence as the two figures toiled on to Bethlehem, finally disappearing in the night.
The men in Team A surrounded Shalom, clapping and thumping him on the back.
“Piece of cake, bro, piece of cake.”
“Way to go, man.”
“Crazy brave, pissmaker.”
“Ave Maria,” sang Vladimir, eyes shining. “Peace on earth, Shalom, peace on earth.”
Only the team commander held himself apart. Eyes straining toward Bethlehem, the sour taste of dread in his mouth, Moshe could find no peace.