The tiny, dwindling Samaritan community, caught between warring Israelis and Palestinians, got another reminder Thursday of how stuck in the middle it is: Samaritans were confined to their hamlet on Mount Gerizim by Israeli troops after a nearby gun battle left two Israeli soldiers and two Palestinians dead.
Samaritans trace their past to an ancient tribe. Jesus mentioned a Samaritan in a parable - the only traveler who stopped to care for a man who was robbed, beaten and left for dead along the side of a road, the good Samaritan bandaged and salved the man's wounds with wine and oil (Luke 10:25-37).
Samaritans claim descent from the people of the northern kingdom of Israel, which separated from the southern kingdom of Judea after the death of King Solomon, about 3,000 years ago.
Today, the identity of this hilltop tribe is a strange mosaic. Many Samaritans carry both Israeli and Palestinian ID cards. They speak an ancient Hebrew dialect as well as modern Hebrew and Arabic. Their high priest, Saloum Cohen, is a member of the Palestinian legislature, filling a seat reserved for the sect, while most community members are also eligible to vote in Israel. "It's a very disturbing position; you can't take sides and you have to live with both," said Samaritan Fayad Samri, 72, who speaks hopefully of a desire to build a bridge between Israelis and Palestinians.
As violence roils, that gets tough. Around midnight Wednesday, two Palestinians armed with AK-47 assault rifles surrounded an Israeli army post on the edge of the Samaritans' village, overlooking the West Bank city of Nablus. They fired at soldiers who had turned a restaurant called the Grand Forest Resort into a chilly, muddy-floored sleeping barrack.
At the time, some of the soldiers had been sent to guard posts around the makeshift base to drill for an attempted infiltration by Palestinian militants. Soldiers returned fire and hurled hand grenades for about an hour before killing the two gunmen. Two soldiers died, including the platoon's commander.
Soldiers sealed the area Thursday and Samaritans couldn't get down the mountain to schools and shops in Nablus. Their community is often cut off because Palestinians have in the past used the road through the community to fire on Israelis, the military says.
Throughout more than two years of fighting, it's been difficult for Samaritans to navigate between the sides. The tribe of 650 is split between two locations. Half live in Holon just south of Israel's seaside metropolis of Tel Aviv. The others live on Mount Gerizim, a rocky hill dotted with olive trees and stone ruins, located between Nablus, a Jewish settlement and an Israeli military post.
The drive from Holon, on the Mediterranean, to this West Bank hamlet is dangerous, though many Samaritans brave it to be here during the year's seven feasts, the most holy of them Passover, when Samaritans sacrifice a sheep with a single cut to the neck in a ritual that includes reading passages from the Bible.
Perhaps nothing as sadly illustrates just how caught in the middle the Samaritans are as the story of 55-year-old Yousef Sabaka. Late one evening in November 2001, Sabaka was returning home when Palestinians fired on his car, which had yellow Israeli license plates. Sabaka was wounded in the leg and sped along a road past a Jewish settlement to summon help.
Israeli soldiers manning a military outpost apparently thought he was the source of the gunfire, and they also fired, hitting the car, but causing no further injury. Sabaka still walks with a cane.
Last May, another Samaritan, a deaf and mentally ill man, who couldn't hear Israeli soldiers shouting warnings at him, was shot and wounded by the soldiers as he wandered near the Jewish settlement.
In Samri's long life, the identity problem has gotten worse. For three decades he was a high school teacher in Nablus, where Palestinians sometimes give him funny looks. "Not all people are good," he explained. "They feel because our religion is very near to that of the Jews that we'll take sides with the Jews, though we've lived here for centuries."
Israeli-Palestinian crossfire is not the only threat to the Samaritans. Perhaps its greatest danger is its thinning flock. When someone dies here, people don't just mourn the one who has passed on. There's a frightening sense that all of them are nearing extinction, Samri said.
Samri, wearing a brown robe and letting his 1-year-old curly-locked grandson, also named Fayad, rest on his belly, smiled at the memory of times when being in the middle was not so bad. Before the fighting began, he remembers seeing Israeli soldiers and Palestinians from Nablus together at several Samaritan feasts. "Only the Samaritans can gather fire and water," he said.