GUEST ENTRY FROM PHILIP STAINTON OUTLINING OUR RECENT TRIP TO THE MIDDLE EAST
Traveling Through A War-Zone: Israel and Palestine
Ok so it’s a dramatic title designed to catch your attention, but ultimately it’s true. In the Summer of 2014 I traveled round two countries (though one is disputed) currently at war: Israel and Palestine. From the moment I decided I would like to see this area of the world, I was stared at in disbelief and regularly had my sanity questioned: and yet none of this wavered my determination to arrive at my destination (even when Easyjet decided to cancel my flight due to the danger of rockets targeting Tel Aviv airport). So what made this small piece of land, a mixture of desert, mountains, grass and beaches, touching 2 seas, bridging 2 continents, a hot bed of religious tension between 3 major religions (Judaism, Christianity & Islam), bordering hostile neighbours: 1 currently at civil war with jihadists ISIS (Syria), 1 undergoing political turmoil following a revolution and an election which empowered a radical muslim party The Brotherhood of Islam (Egypt), 1 who most recently went to war with in 2006 fighting a radicalised muslim group Hezbollah (Lebanon), not to mention the likes of Iraq and Iran also in the region draw my attention so much that I was not to be deterred in making my trip? Oh and did I mention that Israel and Hamas (the terrorist political ruling party of the Gaza Strip) are currently at war with missiles and soldiers firing and killing people everyday.
Well in a strange way it was exactly this mixture of hotbed political, social and religious tension that drew me. These things are only supposed to happen in films right? In my time on this planet I have had the fortune to live in an area (England, Europe) that has stayed relatively peaceful and stable. Israel and Palestine and their surrounding areas are in a constant state of flux and this Summer gave me the opportunity to see what life is really like for people living under the constant strain of sirens, missiles and violent riots whilst trying to maintain a sense of normality.
So where to start? Well firstly getting into Israel was not as easy as I’d hoped. My flight was cancelled the night before (5 minutes after the customer service office shut for the evening); thanks Easyjet. So after a quick change of plan, I flew into Egypt and made the long bus journey to the Taba/Eilat border with Israel. As you’d expect, the Israeli side of the border was extremely stringent and security was high. I was even asked why would I come to Israel at a time when air strikes and rockets were of a common occurrence? I fumbled an answer something along the lines of “we will try to avoid all dangerous places”. It wasn’t the most convincing answer I’d ever given, and my Jordan, Dubai and Abu Dhabi passport stamps were not helping either. Finally with a winning smile and attempted charm the border was negotiated; now to pick up the hire car – Friday lunchtime…this should be easy. However seeing as Friday and Saturday are the holy days in Israel, the car hire place was shut….hmmm….so far Israel is not making life easy for me.
With a problem however, always comes an opportunity and that was to enjoy the beach at Eilat (Israel’s Red Sea resort) and see what the night brings. Eilat as it turned out is a world removed from a lot of Israel. A deluxe resort with 5 star hotels, clean modern promenades and a nice beach into which one can swim in the Red Sea. Whilst there’s not much culture on show, with the beach front bars and large shopping malls, it’s easy to see why Israelis often come for the weekend to relax here. The easy beach life can be very attractive here (despite the huge cost on your wallet) and the Californian look of everyone can leave you wondering; am I actually in Israel? It doesn’t take long for a stark reminder though of locals telling me only yesterday the alarm siren sounded and people ran for cover whilst a missile fired by Hamas from Gaza was shot out of the sky right above their heads by Israel’s expensive anti-missile system called the Iron Dome.
Next on the agenda from Eilat was Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Without the availability of a car due to Israel shutting down on Fridays and Saturdays, I took the local bus to Tel Aviv to pick up my car and make my way to Jerusalem. Traveling through the south of Israel is like traveling through a dust bowel with some rocky spurts rising out of the ground. In this inhospitable environment are the kibbutz communities that are volunteer agricultural outfits that somehow manage to grow a variety of produce.
Anyway onto Jerusalem. I stayed in a rented apartment on the beautiful hills surrounding Jerusalem, the main reason for this was to save money by self catering and to offer a base with which to explore the rest of the country. As it turned out this was a wiser choice than I had thought because Israel is the most expensive country I have ever been to. A loaf of bread cost £4! ($6).
Jerusalem’s Old City is a citadel which contains different quarters assigned to different religions or countries (Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Armenian, Russian etc..). It is up to that group to then maintain their area. The areas (or quarters as they are known) have a very distinct and individual feel that really represent their owners. Highlights of the Old City include the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (the place where Jesus was supposed to have died), The Dome of the Rock (a gold dome covered mosque) the Western Wall and the tunnels under the Western Wall (the holy wall of Judaism) and the Mount of Olives. All throughout my time in the Old City, it was noticeable how empty from tourism the city was. It was also clear from the locals that I should not stay in the old city much later than 5pm because “there will be trouble tonight”. One conversation with a Palestinian restaurant owner was particularly poignant, he had only our business for the whole day and was worried about his finances and what might happen to his home. With all the visible security and metal detectors, generally I felt safe during the day with the freedom to walk wherever I chose, however there was a tangible rise in tensions in the streets after afternoon Islamic prayers, especially in the Muslim quarter. So much so that I felt the need to leave the Old City quickly back to the haven of my hill top apartment. (I say haven, I could still hear the sirens announcing to the population that rockets are in the air overhead and to take cover). Sure enough, when I watched the news later that evening, Israel had deployed troops into Jerusalem, using tear gas and tanks to quell the disturbances and riots. From that moment on, I watched the news every morning and evening to calculate where would be ok to visit for the next day.
Following on from Jerusalem I decided to drive through the West Bank, South past the Dead Sea to Masada and Mitzpe Ramon. It’s worth noting that Israeli car hire companies don’t allow cars to be driven into Palestine (West Bank) other than on certain roads which are controlled and protected by Israeli forces. Anyway, onto Masada! Having taken the Dead Sea highway where you can stop and swim in the Dead Sea, I arrived at the mountain top hill fort of Masada where you can take a cable car up to the top. I decided to walk up to the fort in 42 degree heat….yep it’s true, only mad dogs and Englishmen go out into the midday sun. After being looked at with disbelief once at the top, either because of the severe heat, the climb or perhaps the sweat dripping down my face, I decided to take the cable car down after having walked round the fort and enjoyed the view.
Mitzpe Ramon is a huge natural crater, apparently the Grand Canyon of Israel, although to be honest it’s not on the same scale. A great view over looking the surrounding area, it’s more reminiscent of the Ngorongoro crater of Tanzania. On the drive back to Jerusalem again I encountered another instance of the troubles currently going on. A mass of police and military vehicles flew past at speed to an area of muslims to quell another protest.
The next places for my visit was the city of Haifa and the town of Akko in the North. Haifa’s main attraction are the Bahai Gardens. Bahai as I learnt is the world’s newest religion and these gardens are owned and run by the religious leaders and offer amazing views over the city and the sea. The gardens are symmetrical and very pretty and kept in immaculate condition. Best views are seen from the top as the gardens are on a steep hill. Heading north from Haifa towards the Lebanese border is the town of Akko. Akko has a very different feel than Haifa. Whilst Haifa is very much an Israeli city, Akko has more of a muslim feel with many more Palestinians residing there. The old fort is pleasant to walk round though the best bit is the crusader tunnel which runs underground from the fort to the lighthouse.
The final place I decided to visit in Israel is positioned inside the West Bank which would mean taking local public transport to get there: Bethlehem. The main purpose was to visit the sight where Jesus was supposedly born and the nativity sequence took place. Residing there now (as with all these places) is a church with the birth and nativity place in a basement section. However once I left the church with some hours to kill before the bus back, I walked around the town and came across the Banksy artworks and the wall with sentry towers that is dividing up the land of Bethlehem. The wall is double the height of the Berlin Wall and is an imposing structure that literally is dividing up land, communities and water supplies of the Israelis and Palestinians. Seeing as the wall was put up by the Israelis you can bet who is getting the better deal out of the wall. Again I was warned to not stay too long as trouble will take place in the evening so after adding my own contribution to the graffiti on the wall, I took the local bus back through the check points and into Israeli territory.
Being a secular Englishman with no ties to either Israel or Palestine I felt I could bring a neutral view to what was happening. Having come away from the country from seeing history in action I received an appreciation of just how complicated the problems are. Israelis scared for their lives with constant rocket attacks and jihadist fighters emerging from tunnels into Israel with the express desire to murder. Palestinians feeling marginalised socially, politically and financially by their rich neighbours, whilst being bombed by air strikes destroying their homes and business, and in some cases being bullied into a no-win situation by the brutal control of Hamas.
Whilst Israel and Palestine will not be for everyone and to be honest the sights and attractions on offer when compared to the illustrious wonders its neighbours have (Jordan – Petra and Egypt – Pyramids) they pale in comparison, it certainly was an experience to see the lives of people living in quite literally a war zone where sirens, rockets, riots and fearing for their lives, family and businesses has become the norm. Still when I came back to England, friends still thought I was mad for going, but hey, what’s the point of traveling and exploring if you’re not willing to go and experience the lives of real people rather than being cocooned in a hotel resort for 2 weeks.