A Tale of Two Cities

Trip Start Dec 22, 2011
Trip End Jul 04, 2012

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Sunday, March 11, 2012

Israel is an interesting place. In fact, that's a big understatement. It has been the most interesting part of the journey for me thus far - partly because I'm a political junkie and this is the epicenter of a region that is almost synonymous with intractable conflict.

But I nearly didn't make it. We crossed over from Jordan and for some reason the immigration guard seemed to take an instant dislike to me (not the first time and unlikely to be the last). Except I was on my best behaviour. Did I have another name? No. Did I have another passport? Umm, not that I'm aware of. Where were we visiting? Lots of places in Jerusalem, including the Al Aqsa mosque. That was obviously the bingo phrase which had her off making phonecalls and background checks. The guard said to me, whilst motioning at Jo, "why can't you be easy like her?". I thought about this, and the obvious answer is genetics, but I decided to give a contrite and acknowledging hang-dog look. It obviously worked.

Our first stop was Jerusalem. We had unwittingly arrived on the eve of the Jewish festival of Purim and this explained the fancy dress and general festivities (it seemed akin to Halloween with lots of costumes). Jerusalem was far more relaxed and laid back than we expected. We took several walking tours of the Old City and saw some of the key historical sites of the world for Jews, Christians and Muslims. We were very lucky to gain access to the Temple Mount to see the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Temple of the Rock. Security is tight to say the least as this was the site of Arial Sharon's controversial visit in 2000 that led to the second Palestinian Intifada.

Life is apparently much different since this event. Jerusalem Palestinians have free access within the city but other Palestinians are forbidden. There is obviously the controversial security wall, as well as numerous security checkpoints. Many checkpoints seem to be manned (perhaps the wrong term) by young females who appear to be teenagers. At home, these girls would be mulling around Chadstone and reading books about vampires. Here, they're in fatigues and carry M-16's with telescopic laser sights. No jokes. It's surreal.

It's also degrading and humiliating if you happen to be a Palestinian. Many people who worked in Jerusalem are now deprived of an income and free passage around a city that used to be their home. This is not a diatribe against Israel, I am very conscious of how complicated the situation is. Having loved ones blown up by suicide bombers is not conducive to reaching a peace settlement. However, neither is the daily humiliation and restriction and monitoring of movement that can only serve to compound animosity when repeated day after day for years on end. How this wins the hearts and minds and supports Palestinian moderates who are the key to the solution is beyond me. I don't pretend there is an easy solution but can't see how this policy is helpful in the long-term. Nor are the various illegal Israeli settlements that are in violation of the 1993 Oslo peace accords.

On our trip to Bethlehem, we met a Palestinian driver, Amer, who took us to Hebron. Hebron in many ways typifies counter-productive Israeli policy. A group of 500 settlers are protected by 3000 IDF troops. Many Palestinian businesses and thus livelihoods have been forcibly closed, often with no explanation. This was also the site of a massacre in 1994 when a Jewish physician gunned down 29 Muslims praying in a mosque. This mass-killer is a hero to many of the Jewish settlers in the area and to radicals generally. Reportedly, songs praising him are sung by the Settlers to taunt the Palestinians. Again, probably not conducive to long-term peace.

Amer gave us a fascinating tour around Hebron, Ramallah (home to the PLO headquarters) and a trip to Masada (the site of a mass battle and suicide in AD 72 by Jewish rebels). Except that a roadblock on the way to Masada prevented Amer (and his car with Palestinian plates) from continuing. "Not possible, this is a West Bank car and he is a Palestinian" as the gun-toting girl told me in a matter of fact tone. So we hitch-hiked the rest of the way,  comforted that the terrain was in stark contrast to Belanglo.

Our final stay in Israel was a night in Tel Aviv, a very pleasant city on the Mediterranean. More liberal than Jerusalem, this is easily a place we could have spent more time (well we could have spent more time in Jerusalem too). Entry to shopping centres is preceded by full security checks. Fair enough given the history of suicide bombers (including the shopping centre we spent time at). It was weird however to see owners with their dogs in the shopping centre. A little sad that dogs are allowed but Palestinians are not. This is not a policy based on racism as is often leveled against Israel; this is the result of fear. And also an apparent resignation that there is no viable alternative. On the day we left, Hamas militants fired rockets into Israel which was followed by the inevitable Israeli airstrike reprisals. Reprisals for reprisals for reprisals for reprisals.

I hope peace can find this region and its two peoples. Shalom / Inshallah.

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