Israel

Israel is real! Thanks to the numerous bank holidays that Mother Russia generously offers, I seized the opportunity and discovered Israel. It’s been a few weeks since I came back and I now realize how helpful the trip was. It helped me to understand quite a few things about the situation in Israel, its history, and the relationship between the Jews and Palestinians.

The first impression Israel gave me was quite pleasant. After leaving snowy Moscow, I arrived at the modern Tel-Aviv Ben-Gurion airport to feel the warm, sunny air on my face.

A friendly suggestion, you should avoid going to Tel-Aviv downtown twice, as it is subject to traffic jams all day. I instead took the road immediately to Jerusalem.

On the way to Jerusalem, you notice how well developed the infrastructure is in Israel. There is a very good road system that makes it easy to travel by car. The landscapes are picturesque, quite beautiful and green. Israel mastered the art of irrigation and agriculture now makes miracles. What was formerly a barren desert was transformed into a luxuriant oasis, with grasslands, fields, and woods. Many fruits, such as oranges or mango grow there now.

If you stop at Bethlehem, be prepared to leave your car in special parking lots and take a taxi to your final destination. Typically, car insurance does not cover cars in both the Israeli and Palestine zone.

Like many cities victimized by mass tourism, Jerusalem is packed with coach busses of tourists and street vendors during the day, so you might prefer the magic atmosphere of the city by night or at dawn.

The Synagogue at the Western Wall.

The Western Wall, the most sacred place for the Jews, is all that the remains of the Solomon Second Temple, destroyed during the Roman times. The wooden cupboards contain manuscript versions of the Torah. By definition, for a place to be called a synagogue, it must contain a handwritten version of the Torah, so a private apartment may even become a synagogue.

If I ask you what’s the capital city of Israel, chances are you will answer with Tel-Aviv. Actually, it is wrong. Tel-Aviv is the city where almost all embassies are located. The Knesset, the Israeli parliament is based in Jerusalem, which is also the biggest city in the country. So why this confusion? The treaty of 1948 granted Jerusalem a special status and a division in to 3 zones. Zone A is left to Palestinian administration. The local police, for example, are Arab. Zone B is a buffer zone and zone C is under Israeli administration. Israel took, de facto, a more prominent role in Jerusalem after the 1967 war and, today, mainly Jews inhabit the city. In 2018, Donald Trump announced that he would move the US embassy to Jerusalem. This declaration triggered some sporadic protests on the Palestinian side, but in reality, the majority of Palestinian don’t care about the location of the US Embassy in zone C.

Some Israel landmarks make you drive through Palestinian territory, so don’t miss this chance to get a better understanding of what Palestine is today.

What exactly is Palestine? First, it is easy to confuse the term Palestine, depending on if we are speaking about the geography, history or nation. Let’s delve a little deeper into this. The first reminiscence of Palestine, the State of Philistine, existed as early as 900 BC, in the western shore region that straights from Gaza to Tel-Aviv. In the 5th century, all of the current territory of Israel was called Palestine. From the 14th century, the Ottomans still called this region Palestine, so did the British during their protectorate. Palestinians, as a Nation, are basically the non-Jews, not citizens of Israel and living in the territories not administrated by Israel, but under its control. These territories are called “occupied” territories by the Palestinian Authority, and mildly, “disputed” territories or autonomous regions by Israel. Because the Palestinian territories are embedded in Israel, many people around the world deny the very existence of Palestine.

There are two very distinct autonomous regions, separated from each other by Israeli territory: The biggest one, is the West Bank, also sometimes referred to as Cisjordania, named this way because it is situated on the west bank of the Jordan River, and the Gaza Strip. The West Bank government seats in Ramallah and is majority composed by the Fatah, the legacy party of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization), led by Yasser Arafat. I found the atmosphere in the West Bank to be pleasant and quiet. I was told that many Palestinians in the West Bank do not yearn for full autonomy, because they would lose many benefits and their standard of living would decrease. Under certain conditions, they can also obtain Israeli citizenship and then enjoy good social care.

The other, less lucky Palestinian territory is the Gaza Strip, a small strip of land, roughly 40 km long, 8-10 km wide, but very densely populated, with almost 2 million inhabitants. Israel maintains a tight control on vital supplies such as water, electricity, telecommunications, and largely, all import of goods in to Gaza. Furthermore, Israel keeps a wide buffer zone inside the Strip, leaving even less resources for the Palestinians. Gaza is governed by Hamas, a Palestinian Islamic organization, which acceded to power in 2006. Because Hamas has been involved in many attacks against Israeli soldiers, it is considered a terrorist organization by the US allies and Israel, who don’t recognize the Gaza government. In fact, the Gaza Strip may be a pressure cooker due to the Israel containment policy, coupled with the endemic poverty and unemployment rate, may soon give rise to an army of fearless mujahidin.

More than 60 people killed in Gaza during protests on the 15th of May. Who is to blame? Hamas knew the potential risks by encouraging young people to protest at the Gaza frontier, take their children with them, burn tires and try to cross the border. The soldiers, who were prompt in shooting at these people reacted like slaughterers.

In the Israeli territory, the picture looks much better for the Arabs, who account for about 20% of the population. Israeli laws grant equal rights to all inhabitants in Israel, no matter which religion they worship. Most Arabs living in the Israeli region can obtain Israeli citizenship. I have seen many Arab-Israeli cultural centers. The vast majority of people strive to live in peace among the different confessions. It is common to see mixed groups of Muslims and Jews walking together. In all big cities in Israel, you can notice how the two communities are mixed and are bound to live together. For the majority of Jews, with secular position, this situation is accepted. However, we see a phenomenon of separation inside Israel too. Some cities remain mostly Jewish or Arab, like Acre, that has a visible Arab majority. The same walls used to protect Jewish settlements in the West bank are also used inside Israel, to separate the Jewish areas from the Arab ones.

Acre, an Arab city in Israel.

The ancient Orthodox St George Church, in the vicinity of Bethlehem, is traditionally maintained by a Muslim family. Some other Christian churches, such as the St Sepulchre church in Jerusalem, also follows this principle.

Going to Israel and witnessing it for myself, clearly helped me to build my own opinion on the Palestinian question. Without referring to Biblical times, the Arabs were living on Israel’s lands long before the Jews came. The arrival of the Jews just after WWII was sometimes done with violence and forced resettlement of the Arabs. The Palestinians even have a term to remind of the worst episodes of this conquest, the Nakba. Now that the Jews are there, it’s time to settle these dark times of history and move on. Israel should have a concrete roadmap to ease relationships with Palestine. There are many ways, and many people willing to solve the settlement and Gaza issues. In the long run, you cannot control a territory and then, stifle it economically, nor can you deprive equal rights to its inhabitants. You cannot call yourself a country, and have a quarter of your territory in an ambiguous status. Most Jews in Israel do not deny the right of Palestine to exist as a nation and a country, simply because they live with the Palestinians. The problem is the 10% or so of Israeli population, mainly pro-Netanyahu Haredi Jews, who actively uses religious cause to build settlements in the West Bank, or to relax on Gaza Beaches with Israeli flags. Netanyahu looks mainly for their support for his political purposes, instead of setting a path for a double-nation constitution. The absence of a clear roadmap to ease the relationships with the Arabs fuels open hatred towards Israel by the majority of Muslims countries. The Palestinian side has the same problems with the Arabs, willing to take their revenge on Israel and fully destroy it. Many Jews then have the feeling that Israel must protect itself from the Palestinian hostility and aspirations to take over Jewish prosperity. These fanatics force the large majority of Jews and Arabs with more constructive views to take a stronger position in their conflict. The results are frequent terrorist attacks, walls being built between the West Bank and Israeli territories, perpetual military atmosphere, and blockades

Having said that, Israel is safe for travelers, but less so for their wallets. It is not a cheap destination by any means. Israel reminded me more of Sweden than the average Mediterranean country. A glass of wine cost $10. A lunch: $30 minimum per person. Hotels are also overpriced.

Tel-Aviv is basically the enlargement of the old medieval city Jaffa. The city started to grow exponentially after the foundation of Israel, in 1948. It is now a big and modern city with a vibrant nightlife.

The Tel Aviv skyline mixes modern architecture with ancient Arab buildings, such as the Hassan Bek Mosque.

The fountain of the Mahmudiyya Mosque at Jaffa, Tel Aviv.

Four thousands buildings were built in the 50’ adopting the modern Bauhaus style.

The variety of food in Tel-Aviv suits both meat lovers and vegans.

If you come to Israel for a long weekend, remember about Shabbat, every Saturday, which is a general closure day. Traditional Jews do not use any kind of electric appliances that day. They do not use the electric oven, nor lifts. For example, a Shabbat lift operates like a metro: hop-in, hop-off.

Tiberias Lake:

Situated in the rift between the African and Arab plates, the Tiberias Lake (a.k.a Galilee Sea) is 200 meters below sea level. The lake hosts numerous fish, such as the delicious St Peter’s fish. In the background, the Golan Heights, conquered by Israel from Syria after the six-day war.

The Mount of Beatitude church was financed by the Mussolini regime in 1934 and is still managed by an Italian mission. Jesus Christ is said to have pronounced the famous “The Beatitudes”, in Matthew 5:5, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted…”

Caesarea

Once one of the biggest and most magnificent Roman cities in the Mediterranean Sea, named after Caesar by Herod to honor his ruler, Caesarea’s size is still impressive and you will perfectly see its splendor by visiting the hippodrome, the theatre, the byzantine cellars, and the crusaders chapel.

Haifa is the main port in Israel, and the second biggest city. The view from above the gardens of Haifa and the port is worth the stop in the city. The city has a large proportion of Arabs, making it a good example of a “mixed city”. That’s how people call Israel cities where both Jews and Arabs coexist peacefully.

As a leisure traveler, I was not so enthusiastic after my visit to Israel, like I was after visiting Greece or Lebanon. The expensiveness of food and drinks daunted me all along my trip. However, this trip left me with two greater rewards. The first one is the feeling that you follow Biblical events and places, like in Galilee Lake and Bethlehem. The second one is a much better understanding of the local situation, so difficult to grasp by reading only news articles. If these themes inspire your curiosity, you will get the most out of your visit to Israel.

 

 

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  • © Sebastian Zelechowski, Moscow 2011
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