The tragic death of Elias Awad on May 24, 1948 was a central event in the life of the Awads, a prominent family of Palestinian Christians from the West Bank who advocate for the Palestinian cause.
Elias' death, which took place during Israel's War of Independence, was a huge tragedy for his wife, Huda, and his seven children. After Elias' death, Huda was forced to send her children to orphanages and boarding schools in the region. This tragedy remains a narrative centerpiece of the Awad family history decades after his death. Family members, who are pillars of Christian pro-Palestinian activism regularly invoke the story to give their family's work legitimacy and credibility.
In recounting the story, the Awads have told starkly conflicting stories surrounding the death of their patriarch, Elias.
Alex Awad's Long Version
In his book Palestinian Memories: The Story of a Palestinian Mother and Her People, first published in 2008 and reprinted in 2012, Rev. Alex Awad, a Baptist minister affiliated with the United Methodist Church, tells the story as follows:
On May 24, 1948 my father, noticing that there had been much less shooting the previous two days, decided to step outside the shelter [in Musrara, a neighborhood near the Old City of Jerusalem] to see if it was safe and if the war was over. Mother escorted him as he went out, but saw that he had forgotten to put on his Red Cross armband which identified him as a hospital worker and a non-combatant. Mother looked behind her and realized that Nicola [a sister] was following behind them so she called Nicola to fetch Dad's armband. When Nicola returned with the armband he saw Dad on the ground and mother screaming over him, placing her hand on his head where he was wounded. Mother yelled to Nicola to get help and [she] returned immediately with some men who carried the body inside the shelter. Mother desperately tried to perform first aid to revive Elias. But it was already too late, her husband was dead. Dad was hit in the head with a bullet and killed instantly. (Page 39)
On page 47, Rev. Awad describes Huda speaking with an Jordanian official who asked her who killed her husband:
At that time Huda was uncertain. So she simply said, I don't know. Did the Jews kill him? He asked. I don't know, she said. Did the Iraqi soldiers kill him? I don't know, she said again. Finally the officer asked, Did the Jordanian troops kill him? I'm not sure, she said. The officer put his hand into his desk drawer and took out fifty Jordanian dinars. Take this to compensate you your loss. Huda started at the fifty dinars (at that time of equivalent to an employee salary for a year) but could not bring herself to take the money.
Eventually, after getting advice from a family friend, Huda did accept the money. Alex Awad continues:
Who killed Father remains a mystery to the family. Nicola believes that the direction from which the bullet was fired and the type of bullet that took his life were evidence that the Zionist troops had killed him. The bullet aimed at Elias was fired from a Hagana fighter who was stationed near the Notre Dame de France compound, the church which is directly across Jerusalem's New Gate.
Mother was never ready or willing to discuss our father's death with us. She refused to point a finger of blame on anyone. She wanted to shield her children not only from hunger and poverty, but also from the spirit of hate and revenge.
Another Awad brother, Bishara has also stated that the identity of the person who killed Elias is a mystery. In 2003, a blogger reported that [Bishara] does not know to this day whether an Israeli or Arab soldier triggered the weapon.
Alex Awad's Short Version
More recently, Rev. Alex Awad told a much briefer version. In a narrative included in a report recently published by the Monitoring Group of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Awad wrote: My father, who was a civilian was shot and killed in crossfire between the Hagana militia fighters and the Jordanian army.
This version differs from the narrative recounted above in two crucial ways.
First, Alex states as fact that his father was killed by the Hagana even though in his book, he writes that Who killed Father remains a mystery to the family.
Secondly, Alex Awad writes of crossfire between both the Israelis and the Jordanians. In the story recounted in Awad's book there is no crossfire mentioned. In fact, the shooting has apparently subsided so much that Elias thought the war had come to an end.
Here we have two different versions of the story coming from the same source Rev. Alex Awad.
Which one is accurate?
Sami Awad's Version
More troubling discrepancies appear in the version of events provided by Sami Awad, founder and director of The Holy Land Trust, a pro-Palestinian organization headquartered in Bethlehem and organizer of the Christ at the Checkpoint Conferences that took place in 2010 and 2012. Sami recounted the story of Elias' death at the National Leadership Conference for the Vineyard Church held in Galveston, Texas.
During his presentation in which he was interviewed by Vineyard Pastor Rich Nathan, Sami gave the following account of his grandfather's death:
In the war in 1948, that neighborhood was right in the middle of a battlefield between the Israeli forces on one side and the Arab forces on the other. My grandfather wanting to protect his family and save it, had only one choice to make it clear that there were unarmed civilians living in this home and the way he did it was by trying and succeeding in raising a white flag and putting it on top of the roof.
But as he put the white flag on top of the roof, he was shot by a sniper bullet from the Israeli side and it killed him. In his death he was able to save the whole family. (This story can be heard at about 14:30 into the audio.)
On a symbolic level, the story is very powerful. Elias Awad climbs to the roof of his home, located outside of Jerusalem, to proclaim his peaceful intentions during a time of conflict in the Holy Land, no less and is killed, probably by a Jewish soldier.
It is important to note that Sami Awad does not explicitly state who killed his grandfather, but the implication is clear that it was a Jew who was responsible for Elias' death.
Sami's implication was turned into a straight out assertion of fact in this blog entry by a Vineyard Pastor attending the conference, who summarized Sami Awad's talk as follows: [Sami Awad] shared much of his story which goes back to the death of his grandfather at the hands of an Israeli sniper, while trying to raise a white flag over his home to protect his family, during the war of 1948.
There are some troubling discrepancies between the version offered by Sami, and the longer version offered his uncle Alex about the tragic death of Elias Awad. Alex states explicitly that there is a mystery surrounding the identity of the person who pulled the trigger of the gun that killed his father and reports that while Nicola believes a Zionist is responsible for her father's death, a Jordanian official compensates the family for his death.
Sami acknowledges none of the uncertainty, but merely implicates the Israelis and leaves it at that.
Sami provides two other details that are not in Alex's version of events. He says that at the time of his death, Elias was (1) climbing atop a roof (2) to plant a white flag. With these details, Sami's version portrays Israel in a much harsher light than the long version presented by his uncle Alex. It is one thing to shoot someone, a potential enemy, a time of war; it is entirely another matter to shoot someone carrying a white flag and planting it atop his home.
Given the discrepancies between the different versions, it seems reasonable to ask if Sami Awad put some spin on the story to portray Israel in a harsher light for his audience in Gavelston.
This is a reasonable question because there is another problem with Sami's 2009 appearance at the Vineyard Leadership Conference. During his talk, Awad the audience Bethlehem now is completely surrounded actually by walls and fences. This is a complete and utter falsehood.
Why would Sami Awad, who founded and leads the Holy Land Trust, which is headquartered in the city of Bethlehem, repeat this falsehood? It is not as if he is ignorant of the barrier's actual route.
He works in the city.
Most of his audience in Galveston, however, has never been in the city and would rely on his testimony about the barrier. Consequently, most reasonable people would conclude that Sami's inaccurate depiction of the barrier completely surrounding Bethlehem is a bit of dishonest propaganda intended to cast Israel in a harsh light.
Sami is not the only member of the Awad family to traffic in this falsehood. His father, Bishara, who serves as president of the Bethlehem Bible College, offered the same falsehood in a fund-raising video for the Bethlehem Bible College a few years ago. And Alex, has falsely mischaracterized the First Intifada as non-violent and has used a fake Ben-Gurion quote in presentations about the Arab-Israeli conflict.