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The dirty white van sputtered and stalled as it approached the Gaza checkpoint. The driver looked harried. He leaned forward and tried to start the van quickly. The engine caught, turned over, and stalled again. He glanced in his mirror and ahead of him at the other traffic.
One of the Palestinian guards watched the driver out of the corner of his eye as he waved two more cars through the border checkpoint. The van was about to block the morning's commuter traffic -- the thousands of Palestinians who crossed into Israel every day to work the menial jobs the Israelis didn't want.
The Israeli soldiers on the other side of the border were much more serious about the traffic crossing into Israel. Exhausted from unending vigilance coupled with interminable boredom, they imagined a bomb in every car. They carried their loaded M-16s in their hands and sweated under their bulletproof vests. To them Gaza was just a large Trojan Horse.
The van had created a gap; only a lonely Fiat stood between it and the checkpoint. The Palestinian guard glanced toward the checkpoint and walked to the van. The van lurched, then started to move, inching along. It sat with its engine chugging reluctantly, waiting for the Fiat, now thirty feet in front of it, to pass through.
The rusty Fiat was waved on and the van was next. The van shuddered and the engine quit. The driver turned the key and the starter noisily cranked the engine. It wouldn't catch. Again and again he tried, without success. The Palestinian guard approached the window angrily. "What is the problem?" be asked gruffly in Arabic.
"I've had some engine trouble" the driver replied, alsoin Arabic. "Move it or we'll push it into the ditch! You're blocking the way!" The road into Israel was crowded. The bright morning sun was low in the eastern horizon, shining into the eyes of the Palestinian guards.
"Yes, yes. I'm trying..." The driver leaned forward as if lending his own energy to the van. He turned the key with his right hand, and reached subtly under the dash with his left and flipped a switch. The van chugged to life with half its cylinders working. The driver smiled at the guard apologetically and the vehicle began moving slowly toward the checkpoint. It was clear it would take the van a long time to make it.
"Get this thing off this road!" the guard finally yelled, exasperated with the slowness of the stupid white van that was now blocking the entire checkpoint. The Israelis watched and waited with concern. Anything out of the ordinary received humorless, intense scrutiny; any problem, any angry outburst, anything. It could be someone about to do something dramatic, or a diversion for someone else.
The driver nodded, surrendering, and began a Y-turn to go back the way he had come. The Palestinian guard, his rifle in one hand, watched in disgust. The van turned around, now headed toward Gaza City, the driver apparently abandoning any hope of getting to Tel Aviv. He reached under the dash again, and the van's engine coughed and died once more. The guard, barking obscenities, angrily advanced toward the window on the right side of the van. The driver suddenly raised an enormous handgun and fired, the bullet penetrating the man's bulletproof vest, throwing him back onto the side of the road, where he lay silently, his legs jerking involuntarily.
The rear doors of the van flew open and eight men with large machine guns rushed out and opened fire. The bullets made a distinctive, unusual sound as they flew toward the Israeli and Palestinian guards who fell quickly as the bullets tore through their protective vests. The eight fanned out and fired with precision, aiming at the targets each had been briefed to hit. The Israeli guardhouse on the other side of the border was splintered, the guards inside shredded. On both sides of the border, the cry went out for Palestinian and Israeli reinforcements. Six Palestinian guards lay dead on the Gaza side.
The shooters stood staring at the dead guards on both sides, as if waiting for something. An Israeli Armored Personnel Carrier raced for the border from its safe point a half mile away. There was a loud metallic sound and a TOW missile flew out the van's open doors from a tube bolted to the deck inside. The thin wire that carried the guidance information to the missile trailed behind it as the TOW raced toward the Israeli APC, slamming into the belly of the armored vehicle, instantly killing the Israeli soldiers inside.
The Palestinian and Israeli soldiers at the checkpoint were dead, but dozens of others were rushing to the border from their safe positions a mile away. The eight shooters, unharmed, ran back to the van, diving through the closing rear doors. The driver threw both of the switches under the dash and the finely tuned eight-cylinder engine roared to life. The van sped off in the direction of Gaza City.
Several soldiers standing in the back of an Israeli truck approaching the checkpoint began firing at the van. The M-16 bullets, small but fast, slammed into the back of the vehicle but fell harmlessly, bouncing off the van's inner lining of Kevlar. Small chips of rubber flew off the solid tires as the bullets bit, but nothing slowed the van.
It sped down the highway, back the way it had come. A Palestinian security truck raced toward the border near the retreating van. Too late, the truck driver realized that the target he was pursuing was the van about to pass them. The truck slowed but the van had already raced by, untouched. It reached the outskirts of the city and made a sharp turn into an alley. Another van pulled in front of the entrance to the alley, blocking it completely.
The white van stopped deep in the alley and the eight men and the driver quickly walked away, blending in with passers-by who were completely unaware of what had happened. Each of the shooters wore clothes different from those he had worn during the attack, and each left his weapon lying on the floor of the van next to the TOW launcher. They split up, each taking a different direction, then climbed into the unremarkable sedans that were waiting for them and disappeared... Flash Point. Copyright © by James Huston. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.