“Forget your logic when you’re in the Middle East, just throw it out the window,” an Australian oil company employee, working in the region. (photo-Israel’s wall separating the town of Bethlehem from Jerusalem).
When I first spotted this towering structure on a bus from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, I thought to myself how prison-like it looked. My very first foray through the wall made me feel criminal, being led to a cell to view prisoners. Those prisoners are Palestinians living in the West Bank, cut-off from Israel and family members living on the other side of this wall.
In Israel, it’s called a security barrier, or fence. But from what I saw, it’s much taller even than the infamous Berlin Wall that separated communist east from capitalist west up until 1990. This wasn’t my first time seeing the wall. Once I crossed the Allenby border into Israel, after a quick security incident involving a Japanese tourist snapping a photo inside the checkpoint, I was on my way to Jericho and Ramallah in the West Bank, where I spotted the wall from a distance.
I met up with two American travelers and we rented a taxi and visited the sights of one of the world’s longest inhabited cities; Jericho. Then we headed to Ramallah, first to see Yassir Arafat’s grave at al-Muqata’ah (PNA HQ) then down to Arafat Square (yes, everything is named after the late Palestinian leader) to drink some tea in front of the symbolic United Nations chair to call attention to Palestine’s bid for full recognition at the international body.
From Ramallah, I made my way into Jerusalem (where I first spotted the wall, separating Palestinian villages from Israeli settlements). My Palestinian taxi driver pointed out all the Orthodox Jewish communities set up in the West Bank, as well as Bedouin Arab villages alongside rubbish dumps at the periphery. My gut wrenched. It was hard for me to see what I did that day. A country with two faces, one for the international community, and the other for those who inhabit this sacred land.
Entering into Jerusalem didn’t get much better when my taxi driver was verbally abused by the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) soldier, who demanded that he get out of the car to take a tongue lashing away from my eyes and the others with me at the time. The driver told us later that the soldier was a Druze, not a Jewish soldier, which he thought would comfort us. Not like that makes it any more acceptable.
I stayed in east Jerusalem and the Old City during my week there, visiting all of the religious sights: Temple Mount, Dome of the Rock (Islam), Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Christianity) and the Western/Wailing Wall (Judaism). To think, one city housing all three major holy sites. I guess that’s why its regarded as the ‘Holy City’ by Jews and Christians alike.
Obviously, religion isn’t my thing. But I appreciate it for all its good qualities (very few). I used Jerusalem as my base, as I explored more of the West Bank. I made my way to Bethlehem (10 minutes by bus) where I finally entered the wall and crossed through the massive security apparatus Israel calls a ‘checkpoint’. It was another experience of this trip that will stay etched in my mind forever. A quick trip to the Church of Nativity, then it was on the road to Hebron, where I could feel the religious tension while I was walking down the street.
Hebron is home to a few Orthodox Jewish Israeli settlements, but here they’re not nestled on a hill in the distance, isolated from the Palestinian Arabs by an electric fence or barrier. They are located right in the middle of town. From what I read, there are only a few hundred settlers (around 500) with thousands of IDF soldiers (around 5,000) protecting them. A complete imbalance of power and misuse of resources if you ask me.
(Hebron street map) Like I said, I could feel the tension and I saw many soldiers standing in the street, peeking into cars as they passed by. I was stunned. This is no way to live, under the constant threat of reprisal. I was told if I was caught talking to Arabs, that the Orthodox Jews might threaten me with physical harm. Thank god that didn’t happen, but it was a distinct possibility. I know that the Orthodox Jews living in the West Bank are extremists, looking to cause problems and, in some cases, fear nothing. Not their own government, nor international condemnation.
In Jerusalem, I spent the Shabbat (Sabbath) with my Jewish friend’s family, eating more food than I could have imagined. It was another culturally-enriching experience that this adventure has given me. From Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, where I spent New Year’s Eve walking along the coast from the port to the old city of Jaffa, watching the waves crashing into the coastline and breathing that clear, Mediterranean Sea air.
I prefer smelling the sea, which gives me clarity and peace of mind, then smelling the burning trash heaps, which I seem to encounter in every city so far in the Middle East. Insh’allah! Now I’m in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula at the small, desert town of Dahab, on the Red Sea. Yallah! Time for Cairo and Tahrir Square.
In all, I found my time in both Israel and Palestine as the most valuable so far on this trip. I was able to understand the complexities of the Middle East a little bit better after having spoken with Israelis and Palestinians. A propaganda war still continues on both sides of the wall, while this religious powder keg is ready to explode at any moment. One side convinced they’re fighting “terrorism” and the other side calling it an “occupation.”
Only history will decide how this issue will be resolved. My naivete tells me a peaceful resolution will happen one day and the conflict will end. Until then, I stay focused on this story, because that’s what a journalist does.
Always the observer, never the participant, forever the journalist. I’m just a man hoping for peace.