Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images
Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images

Winter in the Promised Land

A war correspondent’s Christmas

Sándor Jászberényi
December 19, 2018
Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images
Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images

It was winter in Jerusalem, late December. A fine layer of snow covered Golgotha, and winter coats appeared in the Old City. Radiators buzzed in the shops, and hotels adjusted their air conditioners to blow warm air under their five-star arches and fountains.

The smell of burnt cedar pervaded every bit of the Muslim quarter. The breaths of the young men and women on guard duty at checkpoints could be seen in the air. Farther off, in the Sinai Desert, pouring rain had caused a mudslide, rendered roads impassable, and washed entire Bedouin villages off the map. But in the foyer of the Waldorf Astoria, by its art nouveau clock, there wasn’t even a hint of the sudden, stormy weather outside.

I’d just emerged from several long weeks of reporting in the Gaza Strip. On Dec. 23 I’d entered Israel at the Erez Crossing after the Israeli Defense Forces had announced even to the media that the situation would further deteriorate and that another military operation could be expected. Compared with Gaza—overcrowded, under a blockade, and in the grips of jihadists—the Waldorf Astoria seemed to me like heaven on earth, what with its velvet-upholstered elevators and spongy mattresses. I sprawled out onto the bed in my room and slept all day.

After waking up I soaked for hours in the two-person bathtub. I kept trying out the lavish selection of shower gels and body lotions that promised to stave off age, wrinkles, and exhaustion.

I couldn’t stay here long, I knew. If I wanted to write about the ongoing military operation, I’d have to move to a cheaper accommodation, in Tel Aviv. The army was being secretive about the timing of its offensive. No one knew when the tanks and the air force would be set in motion. Everyone knew the offensive was nearing, though, because homemade rockets were being fired regularly into Israel from Gaza. Five-hundred-dollar Palestinian Stone-Age rockets were being knocked out of the sky by $30,000 Israeli missiles. And Hamas was not skimping when it came to the number of rockets it shot: The situation for Israel was untenable. On account of the murders in the West Bank and the incoming rockets, the Israeli public demanded blood. Soldiers were ordered to their bases. Everyone was waiting for the order that the operation was underway. This could mean days or even weeks, and I meanwhile had to budget my money, unless I wanted to miss out on the hoopla.

On finishing the bath I donned the robe and embroidered slippers, each bearing the hotel logo. I called the front desk to order a pack of cigarettes. Though I still had two packs of Egyptian Cleopatras, I thought I’d smoke normal cigarettes for once, as long as I was here at the Waldorf Astoria at Christmas. Merry Christmas to me.

Room service pressed the buzzer within 10 minutes. The bellboy delivered the velvety red pack of Marlboros on a little silver tray, with hotel-brand matches, set it on the smoking table, and left. I sat down in the armchair, lit up, and turned on the plasma TV above the bed to be greeted by a commercial in Hebrew, of which I understood not a word. A little boy was sitting across from a robot dog, speaking to it at length as the dog replied with robotlike barks, and when the boy then threw a ball, the dog fetched it. The robot dog even had a tail, which was wagging and which the camera zeroed in on at the end of the commercial as the boy and other children called out, now in Engish, “Robodog.”

I stepped over to the bar, took out a little bottle of Chivas Regal, poured it into a glass, and drank it down. Merry Christmas, I thought, imagining that at this moment my Facebook page was being deluged by tacky, virtual Christmas cards featuring everything from Christmas trees to the baby Jesus in the manger and sage sentences fished off the internet about peace, love, and big, Christmas-themed shopping specials. It occurred to me that I was close indeed to the little town where, tradition had it, some 2,000 years earlier a particular woman had gone into labor on this day and given birth to the world’s savior.


For my part, I’d never perceived so much as a trace of the world having been saved, so Christmas irritated me more than any other holiday. I’d escaped it to the Middle East, but in vain: peace specials and last-minute messages of love had followed me even there. Though neither Arabs nor Jews celebrate Christmas, that doesn’t keep supermarket chains from heralding the holiest of shopping holidays with discounts.

My phone beeped. I had set it for 4 o’clock so I could get ready in time for Aviad’s arrival at the hotel.

Aviad was my best Israeli source and, of course, also my friend. We knew each other from Budapest. He’d been finishing his compulsory military service in Israel when he fell in love with Éva, a Hungarian Jewish girl vacationing in Tel Aviv. It was a grand love. The moment his service ended he traveled to Budapest to pursue Éva, who worked as a waitress in the bar I sat in practically every day. He hung out there constantly to be near Éva, and in the meantime the two of us spoke about all sorts of things and became friends. He and Éva went on to have two sons. Early on in their relationship, when Éva finally resolved to move to Israel with him, Aviad returned to the army. Though we hadn’t met in years, we kept in touch on Facebook. With his help I was able to enter Israel without having to undergo endlessly unpleasant interrogations on account of all the Arabic stamps in my passport, which was not even to mention the various pictures taken of me in jihadist circles in the course of my work. With Aviad’s intervention I was allowed into Israel without a hassle and the government press office issued me accreditation, no questions asked. So, too, I was issued permits to travel to Gaza, and Aviad told me to stay on, by all means, since war was coming. That’s why we had to meet: He’d promised to get a level IV bulletproof vest, which could stop 7.62 armor-piercing ammunition. He said he’d bring it to the hotel at 4.

I turned off the phone’s snooze mode, got dressed, and went downstairs to the hotel bar. Mahogany plates covered the walls. The bar itself was in the middle of the room, surrounded by round tables with red, damask tablecloths. A large crystal chandelier ensured some light, but the space was characterized more by a pleasant dimness. I sat down at a table, took out a cigarette, and lit up. A little while later the waiter appeared: a man of around 30, with slicked-back black hair, a white shirt, tie, and black vest.

“Merry Christmas, sir.”

“Merry Christmas.”

“What can I get you?”

“A Budvar,” I replied.

He nodded and left, and soon reappeared with the beer and a crystal glass, which he put down before me, on the table, and filled.

“Would it bother you if I turned on the TV?” he asked, pointing to the wall, into which a plasma TV was built.

“No, go right ahead.

The waiter returned to the bar and switched on the TV. Again, that commercial with the robot dog. The dog barked, brought back the ball the boy had thrown, and wagged its tail. But this time what I’d seen before in Hebrew, was in Arabic, though now, too, the call at the end was in English: “Robodog.” I drank from my beer and crushed my cigarette. I watched TV. After the commercials, the station showed Ramallah, Bethlehem, and other cities in Palestinian control, Palestinian mass demonstrations, and then the Israeli tank division that had been sent to the vicinity of the Gaza Strip.

The door opened, and in stepped Aviad. He headed toward me with a grin. He wore light brown military trousers and a jacket of the same color. He was beefed up, with at least 20 pounds more muscle than when I’d last seen him.

“So, what’s up, you Arab groupie?”

“All’s fine and well, you fascist Jew.”

I stood. We shook hands and hugged.

“Good to see you, you prick,” said Aviad, slapping my back. “I just don’t get what the hell you’re up to among the Arabs.”

“Working. Sit your ass down.”

“I can’t. I’ve got two days’ leave, got to go home to the kids. It’s Christmas.”

“You’re Jews.”

“Explain that to the kid and to the Hungarian gal who’s used to a Christmas tree. I’m fine doing lots of things in life, but not telling the two kids that from now on there won’t be a Christmas and gifts.”

“And Hanukkah?”

“They get gifts then, too. That’s how they are.”

“At least drink a beer with me. Did you bring the vest?”

“I did. But you won’t get away with just that much. Get your stuff together, because you’re coming with me. Éva is waiting for you, too.”

“I don’t want to be in the way. I’ve got a couple things to do, anyway.”

“You won’t be in the way.”

“When do you want to leave?”


“I’ve got to check out.”

“I’ll wait for you here.”

They lived in Sderot, less than 2 miles from the Gaza Strip. Aviad had been born there; his whole family lived there. He got about in a black, ramshackle Ford Focus. By the time I got out to the hotel parking lot, the engine was running.

“Just toss your stuff into the back seat,” he said.

I opened the rear door. There, on the seat, was a sand-colored, emblemless vest, a Kevlar helmet, and Aviad’s military knapsack. Propped up in the child seat was a Tavor TAR-21 assault rifle, its ammunition pouch on the floor. I threw my backpack and laptop bag on the bulletproof vest, and then sat down in front, beside Aviad.

“No smoking in the car,” he said with a grin.

We headed off through snow flurries. In the rush-hour traffic we wormed our way out of the city. For quite a while along the road leading to the main highway I stared at a huge billboard featuring the Robodog, recommended for all children for Hanukkah. Aviad turned on the radio: the news, in Hebrew.

“What’s being said?” I asked.

“They’re firing those rockets all day. All fucking day.”

“Did anyone die?”

“No. Those scum don’t know how to aim. And we do have the Iron Dome.”

“How do Éva and the kids stand it?”

“They get by. She’s drilled a lot with them in getting down to the air-raid shelter.”

“Are they down there all day?”

“No. Only when the sirens ring out. The Iron Dome is really something. Takes down everything that would fall on the city.”

I recalled the pictures I’d taken in Khan Yunis, in the Gaza Strip, of the rocket factory. Aviad was right: In fact the rockets had no guidance systems. They simply had to be fired up and pointed a certain way. They flew as long as their fuel lasted, and then they fell. The explosives they contained distinguished them from fireworks. Those that did explode could implode the walls of a house or tear apart a car. Under normal conditions they could not reach Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, but they were sufficient to terrorize border towns.

“You can go to the rocket factory,” Ahmed had told me officiously in the Hotel Palestine. Recently out of school, he was unemployed, like practically everyone in the Gaza Strip. I paid him to take care of things for me. For security they blindfolded me so I wouldn’t be able to say where I’d been. Perhaps, for a few extra dollars, they only wanted to enhance the uniqueness of the visit, or perhaps they really were concerned that if I knew every coordinate by heart I would pass them along. In any case, I was pretty nervous by the time they removed the blindfold from my eyes after a half-hour of driving. A grimy garage—this was the rocket factory, with a few lathes and with little Palestinian kids romping about inside. “Abu Qassam,” I was told by way of introduction to the bomb manufacturer, the father of the Qassam rockets. He was a constantly grinning, toothless old man. He offered me tea, and then proudly led me around, showing me the rockets, which went by various names.

Sderot was an hour and a half from Jerusalem. There was hardly any traffic by the time we arrived, but it was snowing. Aviad and his family lived in a big tower block on the outskirts of town. Though Aviad’s family had a large house in the vicinity, Éva had insisted that they not live together with his parents, so Aviad put in an application for a service flat, which was approved. They lived on the top floor. We now took the elevator, loaded up with things. Aviad pressed the buzzer and Éva opened the door. The two kids immediately ran out on recognizing their father’s voice.

“Hi Dani,” said Éva in Hungarian, with a smile and a customary peck on each cheek. “It’s been a while.”

“Yes, but you’re still lovely,” I said.

I wasn’t lying. With her curly brown hair, snow-white skin, and red lips, Éva was among those Jewish girls men kill for. Birth had left no traces on her.

“You’re a dear. Say hi to Dani, kids.”

“How do you do,” they said in unison before turning back to their father.

“Come on in, Dani,” said Éva. “I’ll show you your room. I’m so happy you were able to come.”

I went in. Their small flat was cozily furnished, warm, and well lit. The guest room opened from the living room. An artificial, decorated Christmas tree stood in front of a large bookshelf.

“Put down your things, catch your breath, and then come out to join us for dinner,” said Éva.

The guest room had a double bed and an adjacent closet with a bronze menorah on top. After unpacking my things I went back out to get the bulletproof vest and the helmet Aviad had brought for me, and took those into the room as well. I then realized that I hadn’t brought any sort of gift for the children. That made me uneasy. I went out to the living room, where Éva and Aviad were speaking. She was sitting in his lap. It was apparent just how much these two people loved each other even after seven years of marriage.

“Sorry,” I said when they noticed me.

“Oh, come now,” Éva replied.

“I didn’t bring a gift for the kids. Aviad only said today that I should come.”

“Typical,” said Éva, patting Aviad’s head.

“No cause for panic,” said Aviad. “I brought one.”

“You managed to buy it?” asked Éva with gleaming eyes.

“Not quite. But the point is, I have it.”

I was unable to ask what he was talking about, since the two boys now scampered into the room and kept asking their parents what they were getting for Christmas.

“You’ll see after supper,” replied Éva, getting up to set the table.

We ate in the kitchen. Potato casserole. Éva put a bottle of wine on the table, too. Canaan Red brand, bottled in Galilee. It occurred to me that this was, practically speaking, the same wine Jesus of Nazareth had drank.

Éva served the food onto the plates. Four-year-old András and 6-year-old Jakab were squirming at the table, hardly able to wait.

“Let us pray,” said Aviad, bowing his head. They prayed in Hebrew. When they finished, we began to eat. The kids could not contain themselves.

“Can we get it already?” asked Jakab. “We’re not hungry.”

“Give it to them before they go crazy,” said Éva.

Aviad stood up, went into one of the rooms, and returned with a somewhat tattered box.

“Robodog!” the boys shouted from the table on seeing it.

“Don’t break it within two minutes,” said Aviad, pressing the box into Jakab’s hands. The two boys stood from the table and ran into the living room.

“And it’s for both of you!” Aviad called after them.

Aviad and Éva exchanged a smile, and she kissed her husband full on the lips.

“You’re a hero for having managed to get it.”

“Well, it wasn’t easy,” replied Aviad, pouring wine for the three of us. The sounds of clinking and clanking and fighting could be heard from the living room.

“I’ll go make order in there between them before they kill each other,” said Éva, standing up and going into the other room. We could hear the Robodog barking.

“You wouldn’t believe the trouble I had to go through to get this piece of shit,” said Aviad.

We toasted.

“For the toy?”

“Every kid in Israel is crazy about it.”

“It does seem pretty exciting. Maybe I’ll take one for my son.”

“You won’t, because you can’t get one anywhere. I wanted one for the boys for Hanukkah. I’d been in every plaza, every shopping center from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. It was nowhere in stock. The clerks kept saying they’d have it only in January.”

“You bought it under the table?”

“Hell I did. Not even the black marketeers had them. Those that did, wanted a thousand bucks. A thousand bucks for this shit.”

“Did you pay it?”

“I can’t afford a thousand dollars for a toy on my salary. There’s just no way. You should have seen the boys scowl on the last day of Hanukkah when they saw that there was no Robodog. Even Éva got into a fight with me. She was like, ‘I moved here to Israel to be with you, and you can’t even get this much done.’”

“Sounds like hell.”

“That it was.”

“How did you finally get a hold of it?”

“Well, you won’t believe it. It’s a fucking miracle. You know, I’m in special forces at the moment.”

“Do I want to know this?”

“Yeah, so keep quiet. Anyway, I’m a major with Shayetet 13. Four days ago intelligence notified us that Dzheba Demokratiya wants to infiltrate Israel through a tunnel.”

“Those are the communists?” I asked.

“That’s right,” said Aviad, filling the glasses once again.

“So then, the order came quickly for us to destroy the tunnel and neutralize the threat. A team of six of us went, at night. I was the senior officer on the scene.”

“You went into Gaza?”

“We did. We attacked at 3 a.m. Intel said the tunnel started under a farm. It had two entrances. We attacked from both sides. We totally surprised the jihadists. Two of the eight were awake. I broke down the door, shot in a stun grenade, and went in. I put four bullets into one of the guards, and when I saw the two dudes sleeping by the wall spring up, they got two each. In the head. It was like, ‘Merry Christmas, motherfuckers.’”

“Serious business.”

“We don’t goof around. The others took care of the rest of them and secured the scene. I started looking for the tunnel entrance and anything Intel could use. Well, there was no fucking tunnel.”

“What the fuck, they were civilians?”

“Hell they were. The Kalashnikovs were right there in a neat row leaning up against the wall. The guards had weapons, too. They would have used them sooner or later to shoot us.”

“The whole region is full of weapons.”

“Yep. So, imagine, while I’m rummaging through the house, there, looking at me, from beside the wall, in a pile of stuff next to one of the bastards with a hole in his head, is a brand new Robodog, in factory packaging. I snatched it up and brought it with me.”

“Can you put a bomb in this piece of shit?”

“Hell no. It’s a fucking toy. Just to be on the safe side, though, I had it looked at by the guys at the base, but they didn’t find anything suspicious. Today I brought it with me along with your vest.”

“Why the hell did a Palestinian militant have this toy on him?”

“Beats the hell out of me. In any case, I got to complete the holidays this way. The kids are happy, Éva is calm, all is beautiful. Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas,” I said.

We clinked glasses. We drank the remaining wine. We agreed to put off our gossiping to the next day, since Éva was already putting the boys to bed. I went into my room and opened the window. I shivered as the wind struck me head on. I lit up a cigarette. I could see into the distance. The Israeli villages and towns glowed with yellow lights; the Gaza Strip lay dark in the falling snow. I looked at my watch. It was midnight. Two thousand some years ago, tradition had it, a certain Jewish woman had just been completing her labor.

My cellphone beeped. I closed the window and took it out of my pocket to see who’d written.

“The Hamas foreign affairs press office wishes all foreign correspondents a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.”

Translated from the Hungarian by Paul Olchváry. Read more Tablet Original Fiction here.

Sándor Jászberényi, a Hungarian photojournalist and writer covering the conflict zones in the Middle East and Africa, is the author of, most recently, the story collection The Most Beautiful Night of the Soul.