‘One of the golden rules for successful travelling is to avoid discussing religion and politics.’ So spoke our guidebook in its infinite wisdom.
But as we were soon to discover in Israel, Palestine and the Golan Heights this advice would be absolutely impossible to follow – almost everyone and everything around us were wrapped up in those two concepts.
In the build up to our arrival things were hotting up. Israeli and Palestinian teenagers had been brutally murdered and it seemed that many were capitalising on these events to push forward their own agenda. Tension was escalating, rhetoric increasing in volume and momentum gathering in the run up to conflict.
It was going to be a tense couple of weeks.
The Israeli border
Having heard horror stories – even on official government websites – of the difficulties of entering Israel we are apprehensive as we pull up at the border.
Things don’t start well.
Following directions from the Jordanian official at the opposite end of no-man’s-land we initially approach Israel on the wrong side of the road. Two teenage guards with guns as big as themselves stop us with a resounding ‘NO’, returning a few minutes later to elaborate: ‘You can’t just drive in here – you have to make a U turn and go back to Jordan’. Protesting enough for a superior to be called, we are finally waved through the initial barrier and the crossing begins.
To our surprise, no-one is difficult, argumentative or belligerent, just efficient, polite and thorough, and clearly not taking any chances. We are soundly questioned and Landy strip-searched within an inch of her dignity. We even have to remove the roof tarpaulin tied in place by a long rope in a mass of complex knots. Our hearts sink as we begin this mammoth task, but in places the rope starts falling apart, disintegrating after months in the sun and rapidly speeding the process up. Luckily we have a couple of stout bungees for a temporary repair when putting it back afterwards.
This is the first border crossing where no one looks surprised to see two women driving an old Land Rover, and the border itself is staffed predominantly by women. It’s refreshing to see so many with their hair uncovered. It’s also the first time where somebody else has driven our car – and interesting to note he has a hell of a time trying.
Our suspicions are raised when an official asks Lucy for her car keys, specifically asking which is for the ignition. Nothing happens for a bit and we are told to put all our bags – four overflowing trolley loads – through the scanner in a nearby building. The businesslike calm is broken by the BOOM of our deafening Egyptian horn. The Israeli guard is clearly struggling to start the car and – never going to stoop to ask for instructions – is pressing unmarked buttons at random. He must have jumped out of his skin. We grin quietly to ourselves and carry on unloading our trolleys.
Tiberias, on the shore of the beautiful Sea of Galilee, is like many seaside resorts, full of cheap tat and plastic, ice cream, candy floss and miniature ponies on the promenade. For us it is a huge culture shock with lush grassy verges and a completely unfamiliar language that we can neither read nor understand. Even buying basics like yoghurt becomes difficult when all information on the packaging is in Hebrew. But it’s the people themselves that make the biggest impact – they look so different in their hats, scull caps, often light hair, very white skin, and long side-curls (peyos). We see quite a few overweight people and lots of tattoos. In some ways we blend in better here but at no point do we feel particularly at home. We later discover that Tiberias is a tourist town so – like us – many people here are visiting Israel from other parts of the world.
We are welcomed but less effusively. It is more European in style: our names written in the froth on our lattes and the odd Land Rover buff coming over to examine the car. Nobody pays us much attention which is refreshing but also a bit strange – neither we nor Landy are used to anonymity.
As non-fasters, it’s also nice to have a break from Ramadan.
The Golan Heights
Our friend Fes puts us in touch with Elias and Shefaa in the Golan Heights who sweep us up, show us around and look after us. As always, making friends brings the best insight into any place.
Golan Heights to the north of Israel is internationally recognised as Syrian territory. Bordering Lebanon and Syria, it has been occupied by Israel since the Six Day War in 1967. Most residents of Golan Heights left in the immediate aftermath of the war and about a hundred Syrian villages were destroyed. The remaining Arabs are mainly Syrian Druze living in four villages, the biggest being Majdal Shams. There are many Israeli settlements in the occupied Golan Heights – Shefaa says 33 – and as gated communities enclosed in barbed wire and architecturally very different from the more open villages they are easily identifiable from miles away. Road signs are in Hebrew, Arabic and English.
The occupation here is peaceful and the situation very different to the other occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank. We see no real checkpoints, few soldiers and the people of Golan can come and go as they please within Israel, Palestine and Golan Heights which gives them greater freedom of movement than almost anybody else in the area.
However, life gets complicated for those wanting to travel abroad. Elias has no passport and his nationality is specified as ‘undefined’. He sums it up a bit like this: ‘So if you’re British, you want to go to France and you want to take your dog you need travel documents for the dog. Well that’s how I travel. On travel documents – like a dog.’ On top of his travel documents and the visa for wherever he’s going he also needs permission from Israel in order to leave.
Shefaa invites us for coffee and snacks at her parents’ house where we sit overlooking a sensational view: the Syrian hills in the background, a high fence in the middle distance and the village of Majdal Shams in front, peppered with a huge array of international flags in celebration of the World Cup. It’s lovely to be back in a family home, and even with political discussion in full swing this one has an open, relaxed atmosphere.
Elias takes us to the Irish pub on the night we arrive. It’s a late one and we make the most of not having to get up in the morning. He, however, is in the fields at 6.00am helping his parents on their fruit farm.
Elias’ is the only Christian family in Majdal as the others moved away at the beginning of the occupation. Christians in Golan didn’t traditionally own land – they’d worked in other industries, as shopkeepers for example – so it was easier for them to uproot themselves at the onset of trouble.
Golan Heights is famous for its apples and cherries with beautiful fertile countryside and a lot of natural water. We are told, however, that the water supply is entirely controlled by Israel, and – apart from a limited number of apples sold to Damascus at the arrangement of the UN – they can only sell to the Israeli market, at a price determined by Israel. Elias says that the income from farming is just about enough for the older generation who don’t buy new clothes or drive cars, but it falls far short of meeting the needs of younger people.
His family now have no real commercial tie to the land, but their ties are deeper: through working the land they have an attachment to the place, to the land itself, a human need for roots. This is to be something we hear regularly during our time in Israel, Palestine and Golan Heights, in support of many different points of view and from a huge diversity of sources.
We hear that Israeli settlers in Golan Heights are given subsidies to encourage them to stay but that Arabs have to pay a premium for their water – we are told three times the price. The settlers grow a wide variety of crops and Golan Heights has become famous for wine tasting. There is also a ski resort.
The border between Golan Heights and Syria opens occasionally, in specific circumstances only. With no formal relations between Syria and Israel this is carefully monitored by external forces.
Yet the people of Golan Heights describe themselves as Syrian.
As Syrians they have the pain of seeing their country torn by civil war but are powerless to help and despite this, and a clear understanding of their relative social and political freedom, most people we speak to still dream of Golan being returned to Syria, giving them the opportunity to influence it from within as part of the same country. The current problems in Syria have done their cause no favours with outsiders assuming that peaceful occupation is better than civil war. The people we meet disagree and feel that the internal Syrian situation is often just raised as a convenient subject to avoid their main concern.
We hear that in 2001 several hundred Palestinians living in Syria decided to walk home and crossed into Golan Heights via a minefield near Majdal Shams. The people of Majdal watched in horror as 26 were shot dead – although not a single mine was detonated.
Shefaa describes the day as one of the saddest of her life. People were holding onto keys to their old homes and she had to tell them that the chance of their houses still existing was remote, and there was no way they would be allowed to reoccupy them.
To stop this reoccurring Israel has erected a huge barbed wire fence along the border.
Can we go to Syria?
In Jordan we had put a lot of work into researching the next leg of our trip. Our original route – planned 18 months before – had been to drive through Syria, dip in and out of Lebanon and then overland to Turkey to complete our circuit of the Mediterranean. From the outset we felt that this route would be impossible at this time but wondered whether we could drive the first bit – north from Amman to Damascus and then on to Beirut, leaving Lebanon by ferry to Turkey.
Nearly everyone we knew advised against it but, as these were the same people who’d warned against Algeria and Egypt, that didn’t necessarily mean much. But it was clear this was going to need thought and investigation.
We initially had a hard time getting any information at all as nobody in Syria would talk to us. We even had Syrian friends of friends quietly going back to our mutual friends to request that we stopped trying to contact them. There was a huge fear about being in phone, email or social media contact with foreigners – which we felt said something in itself.
We eventually did manage to speak to Syrians and to Westerners who had recently been in Syria and the advice was all the same – to travel to Syria right now would be asking for trouble. It was just too dangerous: too many people being killed and kidnapped, too many different factions involved, and to travel there independently without the accreditation of a media outlet or NGO would be inviting the suspicion of all parties.
We reluctantly accepted their advice and changed our plans.
So we know whilst sitting in Majdal Shams looking over the fence that this will be the closest we’ll get to unoccupied Syria and that ‘mainland’ Syria will therefore be the only country touching the Med through which we will not be able to drive.
Driving down the mountains from Golan the temperature reverts from the refreshingly coolness of the Heights to the sticky heat to which we are accustomed. Nearing the top of a steep hill on our way back up towards Jerusalem we come across an unexpected sign: ‘SEA LEVEL’.
Palms, mangoes and bananas are among the crops cultivated around the Sea of Galilee, demonstrating that with a good water supply anything is possible. Glancing back from the top of the hill it really does appear to be paradise.
To Jerusalem via Modi’in
We’ve forgotten to line up accommodation for Jerusalem where we’re heading next, so on our last morning in Golan we put a shout out on the Jerusalem CouchSurfing page, leaving our local number and asking if anyone can put us up.
Within an hour we have a call from Ira offering his couch. By this time we’ve lost internet connection so can’t check his online profile or verify him in any way. We follow our instincts and gratefully accept.
Ira’s call is swiftly followed by two more including one from Mikki in Modi’in asking if we’d like to look in en route and have a cup of tea.
We are passing quite close as it happens, and Ira is out late, so we decide to stop off in Modi’in.
Modi’in is the newest city in Israel, sited midway between Tel Aviv-Jaffa and Jerusalem and having been there for about 17 years – before the town’s public transport system – Mikki and her husband are two of Modi’in’s ‘pioneers’. They live with their four children in a house with a lovely garden and we have a really interesting evening drinking tea and chatting. Mikki told us that the specific site of Modi’in had been chosen because ancient Jewish remains had been found there, the idea of having been somewhere for a long time as a group of people clearly being important in terms of urban planning.
Jerusalem – Ira
We reach Ira’s house about 2.00am. Originally from Washington, Ira is in his mid 60s and has been out Israeli dancing until just before we arrive – which he does four nights a week. He has to leave for an out of town meeting at 6.30am yet immediately bundles us into his car for a quick tour of the city by night, makes delicious vegetable soup and stays up chatting until 4.30am – only going to bed at this point because he’s concerned we might be tired. He’s a fascinating and lovely guy, open-minded and energetic, well travelled and with great stories – our instinct that it would be OK to stay with him is more than justified.
Ira is strongly against the building of further settlements in the Occupied West Bank and has been tear-gassed in the past for attending demonstrations opposing these settlements.
One day he takes us to visit an amazing school he had worked with, Hand in Hand, one of several schools set up in response to the general separation of Jewish and Arab Israelis in almost all aspects of daily life. Believing that communication is the key to peace, the purpose of the schools is to educate Arab and Jewish children together as equals, teaching in both Arabic and Hebrew to encourage them to understand and appreciate both languages and cultures. Kids from different backgrounds make friends at school and visit each others’ houses at which point their parents become friends too.
Seeing the children assembled at school surprises us: with just a few exceptions it is visually very hard to tell which children are from which background.
Jerusalem – Claire’s family
We meet up with family friend Claire at the Israel Museum, climb around the incredible ‘Big Bambu’ installation and see the Dead Sea Scrolls. Claire introduces us to her English cousin Mark and Israeli family Ofer, Dorit, Motti, Gali, Gilad and Mor.
This is the day that Landy decides to split her exhaust pipe in two. Always loud, the noise she is making at this point is a real embarrassment – although we’re grateful that she’d at least refrained from doing it at 2.00am when we’d met Ira the previous night.
We have a great evening at Dorit and Motti’s house and a scrummy supper at a local restaurant. Again, being far from our own homes, we especially appreciate being welcomed into a family home.
Shaked and Ofer’s house
Ofer invites us to stay in the gorgeous little studio he shares with his girlfriend Shaked in central Jerusalem new town. It’s across the street from the amazing Mahane Yehuda market, perfectly placed for exploring the city, and one of a row of three similar houses with a shared roof, garden, hammock and washing machine, the others being occupied by their friends.
Mahane Yehuda’s swanky sushi joints and cafés rub shoulders with traditional halwa and dates stalls and there is an infinite variety of ingredients available – European, Yemeni, Arab, Ethiopian – reflecting the diverse backgrounds of the population. Many Israelis are vegetarian and the selection of fruit, vegetables and spices here is second to none, affordable and mostly locally grown. Seasonality, along with cultural overlaps between kosher and halal food mean that many people enjoy a similar staple diet with certain dishes like houmous found in every home.
We have supper on the roof with their neighbours, a friendly group who tell us about their travels, work, studies and experiences in the Israeli army. Young Israeli men are conscripted into military service for three years and women for one to two years. Army jobs are incredibly diverse and by no means all in combat positions. Possible roles include fitness trainer, medic and administration. Shaked and two other friends had worked as trekking guides for schoolchildren and hadn’t even had to wear uniform.
We discover that young people’s future prospects are heavily influenced by their military service role. ‘Refuseniks’ have to go to prison for a couple of months – a much shorter period that their service time would be – but a poor army record brings serious disadvantages. This could include being denied a job or state guarantee for a mortgage, higher taxes and a lower minimum wage. It might be harder to access social security payments or renew a driving licence. We hear that every interviewer will ask applicants about their time in military service.
By default these disadvantages apply to most Arabs – except for non-Golan Druze and some Bedouin – who are not expected to serve in the Israeli army and also most of the strictly orthodox Jewish community who avoid service on religious grounds.
Strictly orthodox Jews
Of all the attire we’ve come across on our journey so far, the strictly orthodox Jewish community has the most distinct. Both men and women are clad in black and white with very specific headgear, knotted vests – with a requisite number of knots – and peyos for men, and modest, unflattering outfits for women. Women cover their hair after marriage and quite a few shave their heads and wear wigs instead, most of the wigs being of the same colour and style. It’s a little bit odd to see women in their 60s and 70s without a single grey hair.
Ira says that this choice of costume harks back to a ‘golden era’ and has remained relatively unchanged since that time.
Modest dressing is also demanded of others entering their neighbourhoods and we hear that the importance of their own modesty is taken to such an extent that even married couples do not see one another naked. Obviously we’re just passing on what we’ve been told here and have no means of verifying this!
Other customs we hear about include a ban on television and internet, although mobile phones are apparently acceptable.
It comes as a surprise to us to discover that many are bitterly oppose the state of Israel.
Whilst seeing lots of strictly orthodox Jews about, we only meet one, a man originally from Venice who has once lived in London. His religious views forbid him to shake our hands but he is loud in his welcome. We later discover that he’s from a specific evangelical sect based upon the teachings of New York Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. It’s a fascinating conversation…although we do begin to feel that it might be a conversion attempt.
Our penultimate day in Jerusalem is spent fixing the exhaust pipe so that Landy no longer humiliates us whenever we rev the engine. Approaching the car – parked in the new city – we see that she has been broken into and the driver’s door left ajar. Nothing seems damaged or missing, it’s just a bit bizarre.
Interestingly, this is the only time we’ve worked on the car the whole trip when nobody has offered to help. Israel seems to have a different custom in this regard more akin to back home in England – people generally pass by without getting involved, however, they are always friendly and helpful if we approach them.
Football with Tarek, first siren
Fes puts us in touch with Tarek, an Arab Israeli who grew up in a village called Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salaam (Oasis of Peace), a co-operative community of Jews and Arabs who defy the odds daily by showing the world how they can live side by side. He invites us to watch the World Cup semifinals in a local bar with a big outdoor screen.
We’re on Jaffa Street en route to the game when we hear a siren and see everybody dashing for cover. Joining them in a stairwell for a few minutes, we overhear nervous chatter. Somebody mentions two bombs but it’s soon confirmed as a response to one of the first rockets from Gaza.
Instinctively we feel that the siren is an overreaction, as though we’re witnessing a deliberate ploy by some authority to instil fear in the population, perhaps to justify the massive bombardment of Gaza that is beginning: 40,000 reservists have just been recalled to the Israeli army for this offensive.
We continue to the bar – just one street away – and find everyone happily sitting outside waiting for kick off. Nobody has bothered to move.
The crowd comprises people of all backgrounds, a diversity we rarely see during our time in Israel, Palestine and the Golan Heights, including a group of strictly orthodox Jewish men enjoying the match – one of the few recreational pastimes that is clearly not forbidden. Some of them are even smoking.
Football really must be one of the world’s greatest unifying forces and host nation Brazil’s 7-1 defeat to Germany is definitely the most notable thing to happen that night as far as the people around us are concerned. The siren seems completely forgotten.
Ira takes us on a tour of Jerusalem – by day this time – beginning in a colourful round Ethiopian church and driving on to the Garden of Gethsemane from where there is an outstanding view over the old city and its mass of outlying cemeteries. For centuries Jerusalem has attracted ‘death tourism’ with Jews – and others – from all over the world travelling here to die or even after death to be buried as close as possible to the site where it is believed souls will first be gathered into heaven on the day of judgement.
We visit the western wall – part of Herod the Great’s vast stone construction – separated into men’s and women’s areas. It’s dramatic. Many people are praying and crying, stuffing handwritten prayers into the cracks of the wall although more than half the women are less occupied with their own prayers and much more concerned with standing on chairs overlooking the men’s area to see what’s happening that side.
There are several Bar Mitzvahs taking place with teenage boys surrounded by their families, musicians and balloons. Ira tells us that these boys are neither Israeli nor especially familiar with this Jewish tradition as the guys with the drums have been paid to organise the whole thing – we are witnessing another slightly bizarre form of tourism.
Visiting the Christian Church of the Holy Sepulchre we witness yet more wailing and crying, with people bending down to kiss the marble slab said to have once housed Christ’s body. Women are emptying the contents of their handbags – lipsticks, mobile phones, tissues and all – to bless each item on the slab.
Exploring the old market we come across many Stations of the Cross sites and notice that local vendors are sensibly capitalising on all the heightened religious emotion – you can even buy yourself a crown of thorns should you so wish.
An unassuming gate near an old British postbox in the middle of the market leads us to the Austrian Hospice, originally set up to house Austrian pilgrims to the Holy Land. Its pivotal position at the heart of so many religions has resulted in a strong foreign presence in Jerusalem for centuries. At one point almost every European country had a base here, all jostling for control over their specific sacred sites. We discover that the actions taken by the French and British under the British Mandate (1923-48) are almost universally unpopular.
Jerusalem as an entity is a force to be reckoned with. The human passion, faith and sentiment wrapped up in the city – and the area as a whole – are absolutely beyond our sphere of comprehension. Very few people can talk about the current political, religious or social situation without emotion.
With both Israel and Palestine claiming it as their capital, Jerusalem itself is split into East and West. We have been staying in the predominantly Israeli West but feel that we should also check out East Jerusalem which is part of occupied Palestine. As in Golan Heights, many people here are of ‘undefined’ nationality.
We don’t know what to expect. Tensions are high in Jerusalem: rockets are flying into Israel from Gaza and the Israeli bombardment of Gaza has begun. People warn us against entering East Jerusalem in case we’re mistaken for Jewish Israelis and encounter unfriendliness.
Exiting the old city through the Damascus gate we discover we can walk freely into East Jerusalem with no checkpoint or obvious marker delineating which side is which, and when we get there we find it to be very similar to other areas we’ve been, just with a few more Arab style shops and restaurants. We are welcomed by everyone we meet. Had we not known that it’s occupied territory we would not be any wiser for walking through it.
Ramallah, second siren en route
We spend our last night in Jerusalem in Gali’s lovely ‘window house’ with panoramic views over the stunning Ein Kerem countryside and from there head to Ramallah in the Palestinian controlled West Bank (we’re told just 22% of the West Bank is under Palestinian control).
On the way we hear another siren and all the traffic on the ring road stops to look at the rockets that are clearly visible in the blue afternoon sky. We keep going.
The settlements en route are all well signposted but Ramallah really isn’t and finding our way there proves quite a challenge. Even the Israeli guard on the edge of the West Bank doesn’t know which way to go. Eventually we just follow the barbed wire and increasingly high fences with watchtowers until we find ourselves driving with huge walls on both sides of the road and the checkpoint at the far end.
The road conditions worsen as we pass through the checkpoint in dreadful evening traffic. Nobody checks our passports, in fact there seem to be no officials there at all. There is an enormous red sign informing Israelis that it’s dangerous – and against Israeli law – for them to pass this way.
Once in Ramallah we find no signs in Hebrew at all which immediately gives the place a completely different vibe to Golan Heights and East and West Jerusalem just a few kilometres away.
The town is bustling with friendly people, all waving and welcoming us. We’re being hooted at again and feel instantly at home. The call to prayer sounds it’s familiar welcome – it’s the first time we’ve noticed it since Jordan – and we discover that we’ve missed it. And Ramadan is back with a vengeance – we’ve missed that less.
Apart from not eating or drinking in public during the day, the other side effect of Ramadan is that many institutions are closed: cafés, obviously, but also museums and hammams. This hadn’t affected us much in metropolitan Amman but in the smaller West Bank towns of Ramallah and Nablus it makes it quite hard to make friends.
The thriving street market in Ramallah is still open though, and it’s fun eating on the streets in the evening with everyone tucking into their Iftar meals around us.
As we drive in, we brush the low ceiling of the hostel multi-story car park, not improving the new bungee holding our roof tarp together. Landy gets broken into for the second time here and some small tools go missing including our 10mm spanner.
Landy herself survives unscathed but we reinforce the window latches and buy a funky new yellow tarp and a stout coil of bungee from Mustafa and Mohamed to replace the one that had fallen to pieces at the border.
Ramy and Elana
A chance email to a friend produces Ramy, a smart level-headed Palestinian working for the Danish embassy, and one of the few people we find in the whole of our time in Israel, Palestine and the Golan Heights who is able to talk about the situation without getting emotional. He sweetly buys us supper at the SnowBar and introduces us to the local beer, Taybeh, which is brewed locally in Palestine.
We later meet Elana, a Palestinian we came across on CouchSurfing, discovering early on in our conversation that she and Lucy had overlapped for a year at Exeter University. Elana works in development and drives from Ramallah to Jerusalem every day to get to work, passing through checkpoints at least twice daily in her car with Jordanian plates. Even with a British passport she has difficulties getting in and out of Israel and Palestine and in the past has been told to collect her bags and leave within a month. As a Brit – rather than a Palestinian – she has CouchSurfed in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. We’re astounded by her bravery.
Elana doesn’t like the initiatives we are so excited about, the Hand in Hand school for example, as she doesn’t believe in integrating Jews and Arabs until they have the same social and political rights and can meet on equal footing, believing that until this time the Arabs will always be in the power minority, even if they grow up with a false sense of security in a ‘bubble’ environment. She also points out that the parents of the children attending Hand in Hand are already open-minded and will therefore bring their children up as such anyway.
We meet Zahran, a Palestinian Christian, in the house that’s been his family’s home for generations, that he’s now developing into a cultural centre. Working alone with his hands and refusing NGO donations, his project has grown slowly but organically over a decade – quite a feat for someone who trained as a web developer.
He tells us Ramallah has changed a lot in the last few years: parts of the old town demolished for a new road and many more foreigners and NGOs about. He doesn’t sound entirely positive about it but is still doggedly plugging away to restore the little patch over which he has control.
We see few visitors but Zahran tells us that a month previously Ramallah had teemed with tourists – and a fortnight ago it had been full of Israeli military personnel. It is incredible to hear how quickly the situation has changed.
The conflict in Gaza has escalated and Zahran is extremely upset about the dead children there. He is firmly convinced that the horrific murder of the three Israeli teenagers had been a set up – that they had died in a car accident and the Israeli government used them as an excuse to go to war. And he’s happy to tell us about the equally horrific counter-murder of the Palestinian teenager by Israeli settlers in grim detail.
This story is the exact opposite to the one we’d heard in Israeli Modi’in: that Hamas had murdered the three Israeli teenagers in an unprovoked attack but the Palestinian teenager was killed in a family row.
It’s incredible how only a couple of weeks after the events there are already firmly held opposing beliefs about what has happened. Heard in isolation all sides of the story sound reasonable but being mutually contradictory they can’t all be right. This really showcases exactly how quickly tensions can rise and why each side feels justified in their retaliatory actions.
Everyone in this area seems ready to believe that the other side is barbaric yet no-one wants to believe it of their own group, and on the odd occasion when we see someone having to confront unspeakable actions on the part of their own people we find them confused and distressed. It’s clear that some horrendous acts have been carried out by all sides in this region – and they are well reported – but it is equally clear to us that the perception of barbarity on the part of others is far greater than the reality. These small groups of fanatics are not representative of their people as a whole.
Like Ramallah, Nablus is a historically Christian town with a European feel to it in the Palestinian controlled West Bank. Driving there from Ramallah the main road is closed, signage is practically non-existent and we have to ask directions more than once.
Walking around the beautiful old centre is lovely, but having left Ramallah at 6.00am we’re gasping for coffee and our wander turns into a hunt for a café that might be open despite Ramadan. It’s incredibly hot and as we walk our respect rises for those fasting in this inhospitable climate. We eventually ask a shopkeeper and hear that ‘Nothing is open in town until sunset. I’m also fasting but you can eat here – take anything you like and eat it in the shop and please tell the world that Palestinians are not horrible people – this is really important to us’.
The Samaritans are a small group of Palestinian Jews dwelling on Mount Gerizim. They previously lived as part of the community in Nablus, working with and attending the same schools as the Arab Palestinians, but moved up the hill from town in the 1980s. They seem to have good relations with everyone around them and – uniquely – often have both Palestinian and Israeli passports. They speak Aramaic and have lived in the area for centuries. Nobody disputes that they have every right to be there.
We sit in a small coffee shop chatting with the shopkeeper who ends up presenting us with an intricate mezuzah case (prayer box for a doorpost) – and much appreciated free refills of coffee.
We have a long discussion about whether to visit a settlement. With their very existence deemed illegal under international law, we feel weird about it – before we even factor in our personal views on the subject. We know that we’re bringing our own preconceptions to the situation and that obviously going in and out of West Bank settlements is completely normal for some. Eventually, spurred on by Elana’s CouchSurfing stories, we decide to go for it.
Ariel occupies a strategic defensive position on top of a hill with a significant security presence. Everything is spotless and feels very new – with a lot of construction still taking place – especially when compared with the gorgeous ancientness of nearby Nablus. It is hugely irrigated with large trees growing on lush lawns looking out of keeping in the arid Mediterranean landscape.
There are brightly coloured recycling bins, Gaudi-esque seating, colourful sculptures, juice bars and clean pavements but it feels totally remote from its surroundings and could be a gated community anywhere in the world.
We meet a guy working in a café, a friendly Yemeni Jew who gives us iced tea. ‘This is the best place in the world to live,’ he tells us, beaming, and we can see that he genuinely means it. ‘It’s peaceful – nothing ever happens here’. We ask him to translate the fiery looking front page of the newspaper for us and this leads to discussion, culminating in him showing us internet clips of atrocities – all from one perspective, as perhaps you’d expect when searching under ‘atrocities’ in Hebrew. One shows an Arab eating human flesh for example. Our friend probably never ventures out of the settlement, and from the perspective of this ‘bubble’ we can see that he truly believes that many of the Arabs surrounding him are just like this – waiting to eat him given half a chance. We wonder how many others see their world in a similar way.
He also firmly believes in the Jewish right to the land given to them in the Bible, and to him, the bombardment of Gaza is absolutely justified as Israel protecting her own people from barbarians who have no such God-given right to be there.
Leaving Nablus we find the main road to be open in this direction, with Jerusalem – and all the West Bank Israeli settlements – perfectly signposted. We pass close by Ramallah on our way but there is no signage for the town whatsoever.
Noor, Speed Sister
We meet Noor from the Speed Sisters, the first all female car racing team in the Middle East.
Heading for the Arab area of Shu’fat in East Jerusalem we initially find ourselves in the adjacent Jewish neighbourhood of the same name asking directions. A friendly lady wearing a wig tells us where to go, adding ‘But be careful there,’ to the end of her instructions. We thank her and drive off, shortly finding ourselves in the equally clean and friendly Arab neighbourhood asking further directions from a helpful group of young Palestinians.
We marvel at how the Jewish lady can really perceive this area as a danger, assuming that she’s probably just never been to the other end of Shu’fat and instinctively fears this unknown – non Jewish – area.
But what do we know? Not much it seems… We later discover that this is the neighbourhood where the Palestinian teenager was kidnapped just 11 days before, and – whilst we still wish she could see how friendly everyone is – she may well have been justified in her wariness at this time of heightened tension.
We meet Noor at Dallah, the car hire business of her uncle where everyone admires Landy and gives us deliciously cold water despite the fact that they themselves are all fasting for Ramadan and unable to touch anything until the sun had fallen.
Noor is awesome. An energetic and powerful young woman, she has recently taken up the motorsport of drifting and travels all over Europe to compete (using her American passport – a lifeline to the outside world).
Wahat al Salam/Neve Shalom
We are passing Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam, the co-operative village where Tarek grew up, so decide to pop in en route to Haifa.
Sited on land donated by the nearby Latrun Monastery, Wahat al Salam/Neve Shalom is the result of founder Bruno Hussar’s dream of a place where people can live together in peace despite differences of religion or nationality, a community equally formed of Palestinian-Israeli Arab and Jewish Israeli families. It has a friendly atmosphere.
We meet Raida by the pool. She tells us there is a huge waiting list of families who are applying to live in the village, yet also much opposition from all sorts of people who disapprove of their ethos, often accusing villagers of ‘living in a bubble’.
To us, the strength of Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam is that – in a world where people seem to doubt it – the village conclusively demonstrates that it is possible for Arabs and Jews to live together peacefully and equally. Less positive aspects are the asymmetries experienced by community members when they venture out: the Arabs often encounter discrimination outside of the village and the Jewish teenagers are obviously conscripted into the Israeli army.
But they do engage with this outside world, with many villagers working outside the community. Quite a few have recently taken part in a protest, marching under the banner ‘Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies’.
We arrive in Haifa at the end of a very long day and sit down with Elias (who lives here during the week) to a much needed beer and the final of the World Cup. We feel worn out and it’s lovely to see a familiar face.
Haifa feels more open and diverse than anywhere else we’ve seen in Israel, Palestine and the Golan Heights, and not just because of the euphoria of the football.
It’s a beautiful coastal city with touristy beaches, dominated by hanging gardens planted and maintained by the newish Bahá’í religion. We can’t help thinking that the last thing Israel needed was another religion, but the gardens do give the city a gorgeous backdrop.
We have coffee in Fattoush, a colourful and relaxed café with a sign outside: ‘WELCOME All sizes, all colours, all ages, all cultures, all sexes, all religions, all types, all beliefs, all people SAFE HERE’.
Clearly an open minded sentiment, it still shocks us to think it might be necessary and makes us wonder just how many other places are less inclusive. It depresses us that people are clearly not as welcoming to each other as they have all been to us.
Collecting our ferry tickets at the port, we narrowly escape missing our appointment with the relevant authorities due to the discovery of perceived threatening material in Lucy’s handbag: a home made card with ‘Happy Birthday’ written on it in Arabic. We are delayed a good 10 minutes as the guards make calls about whether it should be confiscated.
The following day we hug Elias goodbye, his mother’s home-made flatbread warm in our food bag, and enter the port for real, a bit concerned about missing our freighter should the guards check the whole of Landy’s contents with equivalent thoroughness. Her handbrake breaks as we drive into the port – not ideal for travelling by sea – and we desperately try to fix it without causing suspicion.
Recognising us from the day before the guards just smile and wave us through, not remotely bothered that we keep disappearing under the car and reappearing covered in grease – it seems that a birthday card is a bigger issue than the fact that our car isn’t actually fit to board a boat, but we aren’t going to argue.
From Haifa our next destination – Lebanon – is clearly visible, with Beirut less than 80 miles up the road. But international politics means that it is going to take us six days, two passports each and three boats to get there.
Despite this, leaving Israel, Palestine and the Golan Heights turns out to be quite simple in the end. We drive on to a boat, firmly chock Landy at every wheel, and sail away into the sunset.
Our time in Israel, Palestine and Golan Heights has brought us to quite a few conclusions, the first being that the manifestations of all religions in this area are a bit bonkers.
Just as the secular and moderate religious people of all faiths are similar in their pursuit of peace, security and the chance to get on with their lives, we found the fundamentalists of each faith – despite insisting that they’re fighting for their own specific cause and unique traditions – have far more in common than separates them and are viewed by the majority of the population as equally bizarre, equally divisive and equally dangerous.
We also discovered that it’s impossible to argue with extreme faith – and there’s a lot of it about. People’s political and social views can be discussed and debated but argument and rationality fall apart when religious beliefs get thrown into the mix. We could find no response to ‘God told me I should be here’…
All mainstream religions preach tolerance and understanding yet here religion – or the hijacking of religion by extremists of all hues – is fuelling hate and separation. In a land where the physical signs of separation are everywhere – the walls, fences, roads and barbed wire – it is actions taken in the name of religion that are holding these barriers in place, and often just the likes of football bringing people together.
We found Israel, Palestine and Golan Heights depressing at times.
It seemed that everything here is political: the buildings, the rocks, the trees, the water. In a landscape that so closely mimics paradise nothing is as innocent as it appears and knowing that everything we surveyed has a significance beyond what is immediately visible often made it difficult to appreciate the surface level beauty.
This area is considered by many to be their promised land, yet who has promised it and to whom? Who actually has a right to be here and who has the authority to grant this right: regional governments, the UN, the British Mandate or God? We found lots of people believing just what they wanted to believe, citing only authorities that supported their beliefs and conveniently ignoring all evidence and argument in opposition.
We tried to discuss solutions but no one could agree on this either with about equal numbers of people supporting the ‘one state’ and ‘two state’ solutions. Interestingly these opinions were by no means divided along racial lines. Working towards an undefined solution is incredibly difficult and often unproductive, especially when discussions thereof are conducted primarily at government level. People from all backgrounds told us that they don’t feel represented by their government, and that often it is the belligerence of the regional governments that is causing the problems. Given the emotion with which people respond to local issues this only adds complexity to an already messy and discouraging situation.
Unlike most of our friends, we could move freely between the different territories and met many fascinating people, but for the most part they were unable to travel to each others’ areas nor meet one another. We were in a privileged but frustrating position as we really felt that if our friends of different backgrounds could meet it would be of great mutual benefit. Sitting with Ramy in the bar in Ramallah we could picture Ira at the table with him and the two of them really enjoying each other’s company, essentially putting the world to rights. The same could be said of other inspirational friends we have made: Elias, Shefaa, Elana, Tarek, Ofer and Shaked, etc… We felt that if they all sat down together it would be amazing what they could clear up.
Fear, and overcoming it
We found people’s fear of the unknown – which has been dogging our heels since England – to be at its peak here with devastating consequences, as the news since we’ve left has demonstrated.
As always it is hard to judge what’s actually dangerous and what is the projection of somebody’s fear but we definitely felt that most people’s stated fears hugely outweighed the actual dangers. We heard a lot of ‘We’re only trying to look after ourselves, defend our children and live in peace but the other side wants to exterminate us’ but met nobody who was actively supporting the destruction of others. We very much got the impression that people feel more hated by others than they hate, and that therefore more hatred is felt than actually exists.
To us, the only way to overcome this fear is for it to be broken down – for the unknown to become known – which is why we think the grassroots projects are so important. Groups such as Wahat al Salam/Neve Shalom and Hand in Hand play a key role in familiarising people with one other, humanising the other sides of the story and teaching people that not everyone else hates them.
Elana is right to say political and social equality needs to be attained, but we feel that the small initiatives are part of the path towards this, not a detour to be avoided. Even if all that is achieved is to disprove the much held idea that in this region people from different ethnic backgrounds can’t get along surely that’s a good starting point?
Israel, Palestine and the Golan Heights seem to be tied up in knots – like the original tarp on Landy’s roof – and the only way we can see to improve the situation is to break down the ties one by one. It feels as though the decision makers are just pulling the rope tighter whilst organisations such as Hand in Hand are gently but persistently working away at the knots around the edges.
If, as we felt, the perception of fear and hate is actually greater than the reality then – like the tarpaulin – it may be easier to unravel than people imagine. The basic ingredients for a more positive society are here: there are wonderful, generous people of all backgrounds, fertile countryside, good water technology, and proof that people can live and work together. There is light at the end of the tunnel, occasionally just a glimmer, but hopefully enough to be getting on with.