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For the Rev. Dr. Joel Soza and a half-dozen college students, a recent three-week trip to Israel became something more than a tour of biblical sites.
Soza, who is lead pastor of Church of New Hope on Darrow Road in Stow, said it was "going into the third week" of their trip and shortly after they visited the "important biblical city" of Hebron in the West Bank that an Israeli man and two boys, all teenagers who had been missing for several weeks, were found slain near Hebron. A Palestinian teenager was found murdered soon after that, the victim of an apparent revenge killing.
"After the 16-year-old Palestinian boy was murdered, that's when tensions really began to rise," said Soza.
Soza is a professor of biblical studies, specializing in the Old Testament, at Malone University in Canton. The trip was a study tour as part of a course the students, including Soza's son, Joe, were taking called Geographical Settings of the Bible at Jerusalem University College.
Soza said that even before the bodies were found, they saw signs of tension in the region. For example, around June 24, they visited the Mediterranean city of Ashkelon, just for a couple of hours to visit the beach. About two hours after they left, said Soza, rockets were fired at the city from the Gaza Strip, about 20 miles to the south.
"Most of them didn't hit the ground," said Soza. "Israeli Defense Forces knock most of them out of the sky."
Soza said they saw a "very heavy military presence, more than you would see in the U.S.," with soldiers boarding their tour bus for inspections. He said it became routine to see young people, including women, in uniform and often carrying "heavy-duty weapons."
After the murders, demonstrations began, first in Jewish communities, then in Palestinian neighborhoods. They saw more tanks along the sides of roads, as well as Israeli Air Force planes flying overhead.
"It was very eerie," he said. "All of a sudden, there was more air traffic and you knew it was military."
Soza said he was not "directly" concerned about the group's safety, but there were concerns as to whether they would be able to leave for home as planned. They did, but it was just before a temporary flight ban went into effect and Israeli military forces entered Gaza.
"When we got out, it was hot and getting hotter and we had some concerns if we would be able to get out at the airport," he said.
Soza said he has sympathy for both sides of the conflict, that Palestinians, some of whom are Christians, want a "shot at a real future," while Israelis want their nation to survive in peace.
"Americans are patterned to conclude that these are the good guys and these are the bad guys," he said. "My impression is that we need to have compassion for both sides.
"Two nations are squished into one tiny piece of land and it is not working," he added.
The tensions had some impact on their tour. They were not able to visit the biblical cities of Samaria and Schechem to the north. But overall, it was a good trip, Soza said, noting that it took about a year to plan and that if it had been scheduled a month later, it might not have happened. "We got in, had a good full tour and got out," he said.