SBTS professor in northern Israel during attacks; sees rocket explode

Communications Staff — July 18, 2006

T.J. Betts went to Israel searching for ancient artifacts. Little did he know what he would find.

Betts was part of an archeological team that had to be evacuated from Tel Hazor, Israel, the morning of July 13 during a Lebanese Katyusha rocket attack on the region.

Betts, assistant professor of Old Testament interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said he was standing on top of a hill when he saw one of the rockets explode.

“It was really bizarre because we could hear the explosions all around us,” he said. “All of the cities are built on hills and we could see for miles. I was on top of a hill and I saw a huge explosion. At first, the Israelis who were with us said, ‘Oh, it is just artillery practice.’ They didn’t want us to know that it was an attack. But the smoke was as tall as a ten-story building. Not long after that, they said, ‘We need to evacuate you.’”

Betts and his group were moved to Tiberius, a resort town on the Sea of Galilee, where they saw news of the attack for the first time.

“The Israeli’s didn’t tell us a lot because they didn’t want us to panic,” Betts said. “Then we saw the news in Tiberius and saw that the attacks had circled around where we were.

“To be honest, it is hard to describe. It was so different from anything I had experienced before. I can honestly say for the whole group that was no one was frightened until we saw the news. Then we realized that we had been in a somewhat dangerous situation and hadn’t even realized it.

“I had never seen explosions, except for fun. Having never experienced anything like that, my reaction was more like ‘wow, look at that.’ It didn’t sink in until later how serious the situation was.”

Betts was part of a team led by Amnon Ben-tor, world-renowned archeologist from Israel and head archeologist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The dig included scholars and students from around the world looking for archives from the middle to late Bronze period. Seth Rodriguez, a doctoral student in archeology at Southern Seminary, was another member of the team.

The group was staying in the region of Northern Galilee, five miles from the Lebanese border and less than 15 miles from the Syrian border.

Upon being evacuated, Betts said their Israeli hosts told them they would be able to return to Tel Hazor that night. However, their opinion changed as the attack intensified and the group spent the night in Tiberius. The next morning, the group discovered that around 100 rockets had fallen on northern Israel the day before.

The rocket Betts saw hit only one mile from the dig site, and several others peppered the region within a three-mile radius. The group briefly returned to Tel Hazor to gather their belongings, before completely evacuating to Tiberius.

At 8 a.m., Saturday, July 15, the team left on a bus for Jerusalem. Six hours later, another Lebanese attack rocked Tiberius. Fortunately, the group was safely out of range.

Betts said when he first arrived in Jerusalem he was visiting an archeological site near the city when he heard an Israeli F-15 rocket attack on Gaza.

“We thought we would be safe because that was in the far south and our dig was in the far north, so we thought we would be fine,” he said. “I told my family we would be safe, but then the war broke out in the north.”

The Lebanese threatened to damage the airport in Tel Aviv, but as of Sunday night, July 16, nothing had happened. Betts flew out that night, and twelve and a half hours later he arrived safely in Atlanta.

Betts left for Israel June 27, planning on working at the dig site for three weeks. Other members of the group had scheduled to work six weeks and were only halfway done when Lebanon attacked the region. Betts said those members remained in Jerusalem following the Lebanese attack to see if they would be able to return to the dig site. Rodriguez will return to the United States Wednesday.

Israel and Lebanon have a history of conflict, remaining officially in a state of war since 1948. Wednesday, July 12, terrorist Hezbollah guerrillas captured two Israeli soldiers in cross-border attacks from Lebanon. Since that time, both sides have launched offensives — including Israel’s attack on Beirut and Lebanon’s barrage of Haifa — leaving more than 200 dead on each side.

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