JWR Only in the Middle East!

Jewish World Review June 2, 1998 / 8 Sivan, 5758

The mysterious man

By Abraham Rabinovich

JERUSALEM -- She knew he was an Israeli but the handsome, well-spoken man on her tour seemed to be more than the carpenter he claimed to be.

For three days this week, Souhad, a Palestinian tour guide, had enjoyed chatting with the cheerful tourist during a camel-back journey in Jordan along part of the ancient spice route from the Persian Gulf to Gaza on the Mediterranean.

Sponsored by a Peace Center founded by former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, the trek included Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian tourists and tour guides.

In the evenings, when the group pitched tents in the desert and sat around campfires, Souhad enjoyed talking to Yomtov, as he introduced himself. The Israeli spoke perfect Arabic and radiated an empathy she did not associate with Israelis. She felt comfortable enough with him to tell of the difficulties inflicted on her family in Bethlehem by the Israeli army. Her parents, she related, had not been permitted to return to Bethlehem from abroad and in the end had died outside their native land.

There was something about Yomtov that made it difficult for Souhad, who declined to give her family name, to believe that he was simply a carpenter.

"I was so impressed by his personality," she told an Israeli reporter at the end of the trek, "that I said to him 'you've got to be more than a carpenter. You're hiding something. You're too put together. What are you, a prime minister or something?"

Yomtov burst out laughing. "Oho, I'm much more than that," he said. When the group reached the border crossing point into Israel at the end of the trek Yomtov shook Souhad's hand in farewell and acknowledged that he was indeed something more than a weekend carpenter. He was Gen. Yomtov Samia, commander of Israel's southern front. Souhad burst into tears.

"I couldn't control myself," she related later, "because I didn't know how I would feel if I had known beforehand who he was. The things I bear are just too heavy. But that's behind me now. He really is a charming man. As far as I'm concerned he will remain the best carpenter of all."

Senior Israeli security personnel are nornmally forbidden from entering Arab countries except on official business for fear that they might be abducted by terrorists seeking to pry information from them. Gen. Samia and a divisional commander who joined him on the trek received special permission but were obliged not to reveal their true identities until they reached the border.

Gen. Samia, a former paratroop officer, had commanded Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip during the intifada, the Palestinian uprising. Even during the worst of the turmoil at the time, he always displayed empathy towards the Palestinians in media interviews even as his troops were attempting to supress the riots. He declined to be interviewed about this week's trip except to say that it was "a wonderful experience".

Abraham Rabinovich is JWR's Israel Correspondent.


© 1998, Abraham Rabinovitch