By BAT-CHEN EPSTEIN ELIAS
(Israel Hayom via JNS) – The Mark family was driving along a highway in Judea and Samaria on July 1, 2016, when Palestinian terrorists opened fire on their vehicle, causing the car to crash. Rabbi Michael Mark lost his life that day, and perhaps his wife Chava, son Pedaya and daughter Tehila would have met the same fate had it not been for the first aid provided by A., a Palestinian resident of a nearby Arab village.
In an interview with Israel Hayom, he recalled the events.
“My wife and I were driving on Highway 60, and near the Beit Hagai settlement, I heard shots all of a sudden at the vehicle right in front of us. The car swayed to the right, then to the left, right, left, and then flipped over and dragged along the road.
“I looked at my wife, I told her that I have a first aid kit in the car and that we should go help. I always have a first aid kit in my car, and this wasn’t the first time I had to use it. I always try to save people’s lives, but never before did I find myself in such a challenging situation.
“Even before getting out of the car, I immediately understood that it was a terror attack. There had been unrest in the area, it was Ramadan, when people do messy things, and the driver of the vehicle had a beard and the boy had hair on the sides of his face [sidelocks,] as observant Jews do.
Came To Help
“I got out of the car and saw the flipped vehicle. The parents were in the front, the boy was screaming in fear, and the girl was frightened. She had been badly injured in her abdomen. She lost a lot of blood. I told her in Hebrew not to be afraid, that I was going to help her. I knew very few words in Hebrew back then, but I was able to tell her that I would help her. I am not even sure where those words came from.
“I was worried that the car would explode. The hood had been torn off, so I managed to disconnect the battery. I was very stressed. All I could think of were the children, and how I could get them out.
“I tried to break the window but did not succeed. It wouldn’t break. Jews that live in that area have reinforced glass windows. I asked my wife to bring the jack from our car, and I managed to break the back window. I opened the door, and Tehila (at that time I did not know her name), she told me, ‘Get out of here, you killed our father.’ And I told her, ‘No, I came to help, don’t be scared.’ The moment I opened the door, she hugged me.”
Forced To Flee
Soon after, A. was a wanted man in the Palestinian Authority. He received multiple death threats and was forced to flee. The Civil Administration allowed him to come to Israel to save his
life, but he had to leave his pregnant wife and parents behind, as well as his job in the security field.
A.’s permit did not allow him to work in Israel or to get a place here. For three years, he moved around the country, trying to make ends meet by working illegally.
A.’s son was born in the P.A. after his escape. For the first two years of his life, the boy only saw his father via video calls or during hasty meetings at a Hebron checkpoint.
Fortunately, a year and a half ago, A.’s wife and son also received temporary permits to move to Israel.
“Every time I’m with my son, I thank God that at least this part of my life has returned to me. That is the part that gives me happiness. My family gives me a lot of strength,” he said.
A. met his wife, a nurse by profession, through matchmaking, as is customary in Muslim communities. The two only met once before their wedding and planned their future in their village.
“I built a house for us before the wedding. I invested so much in it. Every time I added something to it, a stone, or paint, I would call to tell her. We planned where the nursery room would be. We planned our lives in that house. When we got married, she was 18, and the attack happened a few months after that. Today she is 24 years old.”
A. never got to see his father again. He passed away recently without the chance to say goodbye to his son. “There was a special bond between us. I was told he wanted to see me, but I could not visit. It was too dangerous.”
A.’s family members received death threats as well. It is due to fear for their safety that A. chose to remain anonymous.
Wants To Be Israeli
“Over the years, after the attack, my family stood by me. My mother always strengthened me. My father used to tell me I did a good deed and that he was proud of me, no matter what other people said. He taught us to do good, to help when we can, and that is what I have done my whole life.”
In November 2019, due to public pressure, the Interior Ministry provided A. and his wife with temporary residence visas, which granted them all the rights of regular Israeli citizens, except for the right to vote. A. pays social security, he has Israeli health insurance, he even has a “green passport” to prove that he has been vaccinated against the coronavirus. His eyes, however, reflect the fear that when their current visa expires in November, Israeli authorities might decide not to renew it.
“I would like for us to become permanent residents here, to know that we can sleep peacefully. I don’t know what might happen to me at any moment. I can get into a car accident, God forbid, and then my wife and child will be left alone. Maybe they will take away their temporary permits and return them to the P.A., where their lives would end. There is nothing for them to do there. My son can’t remember what it’s like living there at all.
“I did a human act that was obvious for me to do, but I would like the state to help us now, to take care of my family like any other citizen. That is the least they could do for us.”
It later turned out that the terrorists that attacked the Mark family made a U-turn and planned on firing at the car again, but saw another vehicle with a Palestinian license plate nearby and decided to flee the scene.
Locals started to gather around the scene. A. was frightened but was determined to save the injured. He picked up Pedaya and Tehila and left them with his wife in the car, having locked the doors. A.’s wife kept pressing a bandage to Tehila’s stomach to stop the bleeding.
“I was afraid the children would be kidnapped. They are in my car with my wife, people around me are cursing me, throwing stones at me, because I am helping them. I ignored it. I told them it was an accident, asked them for help, but no one helped. I tried to stop Israeli vehicles on the road, but no one stopped.
“It was an awful sight to see. There was blood on the road, the flipped car, bullets, the children locked in the car. It was not easy. I am a human being too, I was scared as well. The mother was in the flipped car.
Calling for Aid
“I opened the door, put my hand under her nose, to check if she was breathing. I released her belt, she fell onto the roof of the flipped car, but she was breathing. I also got the father out, but I already knew he was dead. His head had been injured.
A. called the Red Cross.
“I thought to myself, where will they take them, to a Palestinian hospital? I’m not sure they would really be able to save them there. The ambulance arrived, but they did not do much.
“I worried about the children. I got back to my car, and the boy yelled, ‘You killed my dad, you killed my mom.’ I told him, ‘Don’t be scared, I’ll get your mom, I’ll get your dad.’ I tried to calm him down. I asked him for the police number, and he said, ‘I will call.’ I had an old LG phone back then, and I gave it to him. He called the police. In 15 minutes Magen David Adom and the army arrived.
“The soldiers aimed their weapons at me straight away. Tehila, who was in my wife’s hands, shouted to them, ‘He helped us.’ We saved her life, and she, in turn, saved ours.”
After Chava was rescued from the car, A. broke down in tears. “Someone came up to me, said he was the chairman of the Har Hevron Regional Council, Yochay Damri. He saw that I was scared, and he hugged me and said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s going to be okay.’ I later learned that he was a good friend of Michael’s.”
Members of the Mark family were taken to Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem. Chava had a head injury and arrived at the hospital in critical condition. Tehila had a moderate abdomen injury, and Pedaya was lightly injured. On Sunday, two days after the attacks, Michael Mark was laid to rest.
A. and his wife wanted to visit the family to pay their respects. “Every night my wife and I sat and thought about what they were going through, how they were feeling. It was important for us to see them.”
After receiving a permit from the IDF, the two arrived at the Mark house in Othniel. A. spoke very little Hebrew, and the Mark family did not speak Arabic. But the bond between the two families was forged immediately.
“That was my first time visiting a Jewish home. At school, we were taught that Jews had occupied [our land] and that Jews murder everything they see. But the Mark family welcomed us so nicely. They treated us with respect, as we did them.
“Tehila, who had just been released from the hospital after surgery, hugged my wife. I was embarrassed. It’s a difficult situation when you know you did not save everyone,” A. said.
News of the Palestinian security worker who helped a Jewish family reached Ramallah quickly, and the P.A. began to harass A. and his family.
“I had a good job back then, but suddenly my manager got an order from Ramallah to fire me. He called me into his office in the evening, told me not to come to work the next day. He did not explain why, he just said, ‘It is not acceptable for a person like you to be in this position.’ He did not explain what ‘like you’ meant.
“My brother was stopped [by Palestinian officers] at the checkpoint, and when they saw that the car was registered in my name, they told him I was a wanted man and confiscated the vehicle.
“My wife was harassed at her job in the hospital. They would call her ‘the wife of the collaborator.’ It was terrible. She was forced to leave.
“They began to send me letters, that I was wanted by the authorities. They shot at my house, threw Molotov cocktails. I asked the IDF for help, to come to Israel for protection. Luckily social activists helped me.
“I immediately understood that I had to flee and that my life was ruined. I left my wife behind, pregnant, without a breadwinner, without a husband. I told her I would divorce her, so she could continue to live an honorable life without me, but she refused. She waited. She is a patient person, she didn’t give up.”
A month after the terror attack, A. crossed the checkpoint into Israel, with nothing but the clothes on his back. He received a temporary permit from the Interior Ministry, and every month he had to apply for an extension and prove that his life would be in danger were he to return to the P.A.
For three years A. moved around the country, without a roof over his head and without a job. He was supported by various human rights organizations, like B’Tselem and Shurat HaDin, as well as the Har Hevron Regional Council and residents from the area. Despite the support, life was not simple.
“I got a tent and slept on construction sites, in open areas, empty buildings. Each time a different place—Beersheva, Ashkelon, Ashdod. I did not have a work permit, so I had to work illegally, and was paid accordingly, 7-8 shekels an hour for cleaning equipment and cars. There was no place that did not take advantage of me, even Arabs.
“Some days, I ate from the garbage can because I had nothing to eat. I sometimes slept on the beach because I had nowhere else to sleep. I would wait for all the people to get out of the water and go in to wash up.”
Mark Family Support
The Mark family supported A. as well, and the eldest son, Shlomi, made sure to stay in touch.
“They never forgot us. Shlomi would send me a message every Friday, asking me how we were doing, if we needed anything. Me or my family. He was truly a part of my family.”
A.’s son was born. “I was not present at his birth, I did not see him. My wife sent me pictures of him over the phone, and that too was dangerous. If they knew that somebody from my family was in touch with me, they could have hurt him.
“When I spoke to my family, they always supported me. They told me I did a good deed, and even if I died, I would go straight to heaven. They supported my wife and my son. But they also struggled. They hurt us in every way possible, including the livelihood sources we had.”
A. roamed the streets until 2019.
“All this time, I safeguarded my way. I could have become homeless, like those homeless people I saw. But I go nowhere near alcohol, drugs. I took care of myself because I have strong willpower. I am an honest person who believes in justice.
“I had some temporary jobs that involved being in charge of big budgets, employers who said I worked great. But they couldn’t keep me because I did not have a work permit.”
Two years ago, on March 29, 2019, tragedy struck the Mark family again, when son Shlomi was killed in a car accident. “I received the news from mutual acquaintances,” A. said. “I was heartbroken. Despite the risks, it was crucial for me to visit the family and pay my respects.”
With the help of friends, A. crossed the green line and traveled to Othniel. There, among the crowd of comforters, he saw Chava for the first time since the attack. The woman he last saw fatally wounded was now on her feet. Chava currently lives in Jerusalem with her daughter and her family. She lost one eye in the attack, and her face had been damaged. She was still in rehab, but Chava was alive.
Although the sight of the attack still haunts him, A. never asked for help with dealing with the trauma.
“In our society, it is not accepted for a man to speak about such things. I always say that no one will be able to help you unless you help yourself. And therefore, I help myself. Once I went to a doctor to ask for sleeping pills. I did not tell him why I couldn’t sleep, only that I was not able to.
“I now work as a security officer at a large company in the center of the country. I work in shifts. I prefer to work at night, for I cannot sleep anyway. I am overwhelmed by thoughts. The events of that day do not leave my mind. I see a person who died right in front of my eyes. I see a family’s car, with toys, with bags. A family that went on a trip and never returned.”
A. feels a special connection with Israel.
“I once even tried to volunteer for the police, but I was rejected because I am Palestinian. At some point, I got a job offer in security in Canada, but I turned it down because I prefer to continue living in Israel. I feel I am part of the Israeli people.
“Despite all the hardships, I work with respectable people now. They respect me, and I respect them. I can’t say that there is no racism here. Sometimes people speak ill of my family or me. But I act like a human being, and then I am treated as one. That’s what’s important.”
In June 2019, A. received the Magen Israel award from Shurat Hadin for saving the lives of the Mark family members.
Yochay Damri and Yossi Dagan, head of the Shomron Regional Council, applied pressure on security forces to help A. The pressure worked. On Aug. 7, 2019, then-Interior Minister Aryeh Deri granted A. and his wife a temporary residence permit. Their current one is valid until November 2021.
A. and his wife were assisted financially and with food, as well as a one-and-a-half-room apartment, the rent for which was paid in advance. The family lives in the same apartment, and A. has insisted in recent months to pay rent from his pocket.
“I support our family with my salary. It is not a prosperous life, but it’s life. I pay rent, electricity, taxes, my entire salary goes to utilities, but the main thing is that I’m here with my family.
“I have no words to thank everyone who helped me get the permits and get my wife and son back. Even actress Gila Almagor heard about us and brought toys and clothes for my son. In the years I couldn’t be with my son, my wife told me he called my brother’ dad,’ and they would correct him. We talked via video calls, but he didn’t really remember me. Now he’s finally getting used to me. Every day I’m waiting to come home and hug him. Now I want to make my and his dreams come true.”
The first dream, said A., was “that there should be no more bloodshed.”
“I am looking forward to when people will understand that we are all human beings, no matter where we come from,” he added.
“The second dream is for me to become a permanent resident here, because I am afraid for my family. I want them to live here, with these people. If my son were to return to the village, the situation would be even worse because now they know he was here with me,” he said.
A.’s wife is pregnant with their second child. “To me, it’s like a first pregnancy. I was not with her when she was first pregnant. I see her belly growing, and I’m excited that there’s a soul in there. It’s amazing.
“She is also experiencing what it’s like to be pregnant when I’m there for her. I don’t let her lift heavy objects. I make sure to cook her delicious food. I am very happy that we are all together now. I would like to know that we can stay here permanently. That the state cares for us.