Visiting Israel and Palestine: A burden to write

I spent my last day in Israel bike riding along the Mediterranean coast. It was 68 degrees out and sunny, the promenade filled with a considerable amount of people for a Tuesday afternoon. All the restaurants had recovered from the storm and tables and chairs were out and quickly filled with diners.

A carousel on the Tel Aviv promenade

As an Israeli army plane flew overhead, I contemplated exactly how I was going to write about this country, the people, the religion….the conflict. Because this country and its policies are so intertwined with religion, it makes it a highly topical, sensitive subject. Any conversation, even a travel oriented commentary could offend someone, or, at the very least, lead to a political discussion about being ‘Pro-Israel’ or ‘Pro-Palestine’. If you are not ‘Pro-Israel’ than you are anti-semitic or pro-Muslim or anti-American, or anti-west or pro-terrorism and so on and so forth until you can’t keep track of the digressions and the accusations being made against you. Speaking of digressions…

Because writing is always the best way for me to understand a place or experience, I actually needed to write about Israel, no matter how difficult it is, or how much I offend someone. For my sake, I needed to try to process this country and try to dig through the multitude of feelings both cities gave me. And so, to conclude the longest disclaimer I’ve ever given, I must say that I am in no means an expert on Israeli foreign policy or the Israel-Palestine issue or Judaism. These are just my observations about a very intense, confusing and beautiful country.

For all its media coverage and influence, Israel is a tiny country, smaller than the size of California. I began my trip in Tel Aviv, a lively, more progressive and secular beach front city in comparison to its counterpart, Jerusalem. Tel Aviv’s bars never close, its restaurants have rotating menus and its cafe culture seeps into every street, promenade and alleyway. Most notable are the art galleries that feature an exceptional range of styles and can be found row after row on streets like Diezengoff and Frischmann. I was surprised with how quickly I became comfortable with Tel Aviv. Despite the first few days of pouring rain, I wandered the streets on foot, popping in and out of shops, wandering the stalls of the Carmel Market, the windy alleys of Neve Tzedek, the artists quarters and down the artsy boutiques of Sheinkin Street. One day, I rented a bike and rode the length of the city, to the world’s oldest port, the old town of Jaffa. Old Jaffa has the feel of a Mediterranean port city with a Middle Eastern influence.

The cobbled alleyways of Old Jaffa

The cobbled stone lanes form a labyrinth around shops and restaurants featuring intricately designed and brightly colored doorways. Every turn offered a peek of the Mediterranean, with enormous waves from the rain swelling against the coast line.

The flea market, Shuk Ha’Pishpishim, is busy and large enough to stay an entire day getting lost in the piles of items, selling everything from antiques to spices to old clothes and artwork. Jaffa’s Old City offers a maze of alleyways, churches, passageways (each having a historical value ranging from the Roman empire to Napoleon). I turned a corner and found an odd hanging tree which I later learned was a famous ‘piece’ called the “Oranger Suspendu,” by environmental artist Ran Morin.

I decided to head to Jerusalem a day early, a terrible habit I’ve picked up from traveling alone- eager to move quickly from place to place, especially when I have limited time. My plan was to head to Jerusalem early Saturday morning which also happens to be the Sabbath, or Shabbat. I soon learn that, being a Jewish country, Israel shuts down during the Sabbath, which takes place every week between the hours of 4:30pm on Friday to 6:00pm on Saturday. By shutting down I mean, no planes, trains or automobiles are running (really it’s just the public transport stops running, meaning buses, trains and Israel’s national airline, El Al). I asked my hotel if I could rent a car and they said no one would rent me a car on Shabbat. Well hell, what’s a non-Jewish tourist to do? I ended up going to the Central Bus Station and hailing a ‘sherut’ or shared taxi. They are marked by numbers in their windows and during Shabbat I’m told are driven by Arab-Israelis. The drive from Tel-Aviv was only an hour and as we got closer, snow started to appear, lining the highway.

Jerusalem is noticeably more orthodox than Tel-Aviv, especially during Shabbat, the streets were empty, the businesses were closed and the tram wasn’t running. I wandered through the eerily empty Old City feeling daunted with the burden of processing exactly where I was and what it meant.

Jerusalem is one of the oldest cities in the world and, because it has been continuously conquered, destroyed and rebuilt, walking around the Old City, I became very aware that I was walking on layers of ancient history. It has played a crucial role in the history of the worlds three largest religions, Islam, Christianity and Judaism and is home to many important religious sites. For Christians, Jerusalem houses the Church of the Holy Sepuchre (where Jesus was crucified and resurrected),* the Room of the Last Supper and Dormition Abbey (where Mary died)*. For Muslims the shrine of the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque is significant because it is where Muhammad traveled from Mecca and where he ascended to heaven.* In Judaism, the Dome of the Rock holds the foundation stone from which the world was created and where Abraham took Isaac to be sacrificed.* Many Jews believe the Temple Mount (where the Dome of the Rock and the Mosque is located) is the holiest site. The Western Wall, or ‘Wailing Wall’, is the wall that divides East and West Jerusalem as well as cuts the Jews off from the Temple Mount. After thousands of years of conflict, the Temple Mount is currently under Muslim and Palestinian control. So many important religious sites in such a close proximity make Jerusalem a hotbed for conflict and intense religious debate.

*It is believed

The Wailing Wall with the ramp next to it that leads to the Temple Mount

The Temple Mount, known in Arabic as al-Haram al-Sharif (The Noble Sanctuary), and in Hebrew as Har ha’Bayit (The Mount of the House/Temple) is not only one of the most important religious sites in the world but stands today as a symbol and focal point for the conflict between Israel and Palestine. It’s a daunting day to try to cover thousands of years of historical sites and not only understand their religious significance but know where the tension is most dominant.

The Dome of the Rock at the Temple Mount

The Temple Mount, for example, is only open from 7:30am to 10:00am daily to non-Muslims, although access to Israelis is allowed, few Israelis go because it isn’t viewed as safe. To get to it, I had to go past airport-like security, run by Muslim Israelis, up a ramp and past the Jews lined up at the Wailing Wall. When I was entering security, they searched my bag and took out The Tao of Travel, gifted to me by my brother. I watched as they opened the book and passed it around. Finally, it was handed to what looked like the head of security who asked me if it was a Bible. I refrained from saying that it was my version of a Bible, but instead laughed and said no, its a book on travel. After a back and forth conversation in Arabic which I can only assume was about how awesome I am, I was allowed to proceed. The fortification and symbolism of The Temple Mount make it a breathtaking and overwhelming experience. Palestinian security forces walk around with large guns and groups of Muslims sit around in prayer. I feel like I’m being watched, assessed and am immediately self conscious to be in such a hot bed of conflict. Clearly not too uncomfortable to take three selfies, and an hour later, I leave for Mount Zion.

One of the many markets selling souvenirs in the Old City

Aside from the extreme tension and religious significance of the sites, the Holy City is a very peaceful, dynamic place. The four quarters: the Muslim Quarter, the Christian Quarter, the Jewish Quarter and the Armenian Quarter make each area unique with their own markets, religious structures and restaurants. The many tourists wandering around the windy streets of the walled city resemble frantic rats in a maze of dead ends.

One thing to note is in the Muslim Quarter, a lot of the doors are decorated in bright paint and have writing in Arabic on the top. It is required by the Qur’an that every Muslim makes their pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca. Upon return from their hajj, the community throws a huge celebration and decorates the front door of their residence. These decorations will stay up for the rest of their life.

As if I wasn’t inundated with enough history and religion and conflict, I decided to take a tour of Palestine one day, visiting the towns of Bethlehem and Hebron. Both cities have religious significance; Jesus was born under what is now the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and Abraham, the ‘father’ of the three major religions is buried in Hebron*. Instead of proceeding into a political discussion on the Israel-Palestine conflict, I’m going to leave out most commentary about the situation and only focus on my experience. Our guide explains how Palestine is divided into three zones: Zone A (Palestinian control), Zone B (shared control), and Zone C (Israeli control). However, Palestine is the first country I’ve ever visited that didn’t feel like a sovereign nation. Through the Separation Wall, checkpoints, and soldiers, Israeli influence was everywhere. Driving from Bethlehem to Hebron, we see Israelis settlements up on the hills that resemble suburban gated communities in clear juxtaposition with the rest of the landscape.

We are told that you can tell the difference between Israeli and Palestinian houses because Palestinian houses have water tanks on their roof. Israel controls the water supply to Palestine and can cut off the water randomly throughout the week.

The tension in Hebron is palpable immediately. There is one small Jewish community in the middle of the town guarded on all sides by the Israeli army. Most settlers, especially in Hebron’s case, are extreme orthodox Jews who move into Palestine with the argument that they have a divine right to the land, and Israel supplies soldiers to protect them. The main place of worship is a building divided with a mosque on one side and a synagogue on the other. Abrahams tomb is accessed from both sides but divided by bullet proof glass. Both entrances have intense security checks preventing Jews from entering the mosque and Muslims from entering the synagogue. In the small settlement of Hebron it is estimated that there are 500 settlers and 2,000 soldiers. Thats about four soldiers to protect every settler. The settlers live on a higher street above the Palestinian shops. As we walked through the market, shop owners would show us the net that covered the alleyway, weighed down by trash thrown by the settlers.

In one instance, a settler had thrown rotten eggs down on the merchandise. Settlers seem to believe that if they continue to harass the citizens of Hebron, they will leave. However, Palestine is slowly shrinking to the point where there is no where to go. Between the occupation and settlements, the Palestinians worry about their future as a nation.

Banksy art on the Separation Wall

The situation becomes increasingly complicated with Hamas (a pro-violence, Muslim group) controlling the Gaza strip and Fatah (the main official government of the Palestinian Authority) controlling the West Bank. There is a lack of unity in Palestine’s message. However, driving around the West Bank that day, it became increasingly clear that, for what is supposed to be the ‘shining democratic state of the Middle East,’ Israel’s tactics for occupation and divine right to the land made them more similar to their extreme Muslim counterparts.

Banksy in Bethlehem

However, as Ali A. Rizvi says in this Huffington Post article, “you really don’t have to choose between being “pro-Israel” or “pro-Palestine.” If you support secularism, democracy, and a two-state solution — and you oppose Hamas, settlement expansion, and the occupation — you can be both.” I walked away from my tour of the West Bank that day with a great understanding of the conflict, a firsthand experience of the refugee camps and settlements and a ball of anxiety wondering how these intricate problems could be solved. I encourage everyone, no matter what your religion or race, to visit both countries and try to understand and hear both sides of the conflict.

I spent the rest of my time eating my way though these two cities, trying every falafel, shawarma, hummus, fresh seafood dish, couscous, pita, tahini, tabouleh, shakshuka and fried pastry thingys I could get my hands on.

Like any country, the real essence of a place is not found in the cities but in the countryside. It looks like I have a return trip in store, back to this tiny, powerful and overwhelming country, who, despite its turbulent situation and history, is filled with some of the friendliest people.

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