The wall separating the old city of Jerusalem from the newer portion is pictured here in this photo submitted by Angel Bradford from her recent trip to the Holy Land.
JERUSALEM -- Standing atop a hill in a part of the Old City, not far from some of Christianity, Islam and Judaism's holiest sites, Albany resident Angel Bradford noticed a black plume of smoke rising into an otherwise blue sky.
"It reminded me of how, back home, sometimes you'll see farmers burning off fields in the distance, it was that kind of gray, black smoke," Bradford said. "But we found out later that we were looking towards the Gaza strip and that those were rocket attacks."
It was the first day that rocket brigades from the Gaza strip signaled the beginning of an offensive operation targeting Israel, prompting retaliation from the Israeli Defense Force and pushing a region already on the edge of war closer to the brink.
Bradford, a devout Catholic, and her group of 20 from the Archdiocese of Savannah, had almost wrapped up their whirlwind, nine-day tour of holy sites throughout the region when the attacks began.
"It had been a really great trip," Bradford said. "We were joking that everywhere Jesus had walked, we ran because there was just so much to see and take in, and then, as we're about to come home, this reality kind of struck us."
The reality that, among the holy sites and breathtaking vistas, lies an ever-present undercurrent of violence which has raged for centuries.
As the group traversed the country to return home, they were met with air raid sirens and thumps of more rocket fire, and all the encoutrements of a country in a nearly constant state of war.
"The security is just unbelievable," Bradford says. "There's a strong military presence just about everywhere you go."
Bradford said that all of the vehicles coming into the airport in Tel Aviv were searched; all people were searched heading into the airport -- a far cry from an American culture where random searches are often bemoaned as an inconvenience or a loss of individual liberty.
"It really drives home the fact that we have so much to be thankful for here," Bradford said. "That we don't have to walk around in a constant state of fear; that we don't have wonder if our bus is going to blow up or if they'll be a suicide bomber at our coffee shop."
Despite the flare up in violence during their trip, Bradford described her travels to the Holy Land as a "profoundly life-changing experience," that helped bring her closer to her God and solidified her faith.
"Just to see first-hand the things that we had read about in the Bible and studied, and we had mass every day in places like Bethlehem and Galilee...it really was amazing," she said.