March 05, 2019

The Good, Bad & Ugly of the Middle East – Part 3

The first two posts about our Middle East trip showed the good hospitality and sights of Jordan while Egypt’s extensive history is weighed down by its people, though the harassment we faced there was likely out of economic necessity. That effectively meant naming Israel-Palestine as the ugly part of the trip.
View of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives

Israel’s Ugly Side

Before accusing me of being anti-Semitic, I want to make clear it’s not the Jewish people I have issues with – some of my friends are Jewish – but rather Israel’s Zionist leaders such as Likud prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The current Israeli government has been known to violate international laws with settlement and wall construction, but the Jews lived peacefully with their Arab neighbours as late as the 19th century.* More recently, tours such as Breaking the Silence – founded by former Israel Defence Forces (IDF) soldiers – and Green Olive Tours help give visitors a more balanced view of Israel and Palestine.
The Jordan departure stamp on the right means denied entry for ten Muslim countries
The level of security in Israel and Palestine is unprecedented in the Western world. We saw IDF soldiers with guns everywhere, while anything left unattended would have been immediately seized. We faced intensive questioning and baggage checks when entering and leaving Israel, including having to remove baggage locks when checking luggage at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. While Israel issues entry and exit cards instead of passport stamps, even a Jordanian departure stamp at the Wadi Araba crossing in Aqaba-Eilat – which we used to enter Israel – will result in denied entry for ten Muslim countries.

Non Security Hassles

One hassle we experienced in Israel is Shabbat, where virtually everything shuts down from Friday afternoon to Saturday after dusk. Since Helen lost her passport on the bus on a Thursday night, we couldn’t recover it until Sunday morning; prompting a change of plans for Palestine. Israel is an expensive place with a small bottle of Coca-Cola costing 9 – 10 Shekels ($3 – 3.50) compared to $2 in Canada and a hamburger, fries, and drink costing 48 Shekels ($18). Finally, some conservative residents (e.g. Orthodox Jews with black coats, hats, and beards) won’t acknowledge (non Jewish) women and Jerusalem is lacking in diversity.

High Marks for Transit
Jerusalem's Jaffa Street is a carfree transit mall
Shabbat issues aside, Israel deserves high marks for public transit. The five hour bus ride from Eilat to Jerusalem cost 70 Shekels ($26) which includes on-board WiFi, phone charging ports, and a stop half way for snacks and toilet. Jerusalem’s local bus and light rail service is frequent and affordable at 5.90 Shekels ($2.15), while a separate service to the West Bank (e.g. Bethlehem, Ramallah) costs 5 Shekels ($1.85). Parts of the light rail line run on car-free streets such as Jaffa Street; a great source of inspiration for evolving Toronto’s King Street Pilot. Buses to Tel Aviv run every 20 – 30 minutes and the trains from Tel Aviv to Ben Gurion Airport were frequent enough for us to catch a 5 AM flight back to Toronto.

Walking the Old City
Inside Jerusalem's Old City
The Old City is home to key holy sites for Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. We did the Christian activity of tracing Jesus’ final steps along the Via Dolorosa starting at the Lion’s Gate and stopping by the Stations of the Cross. The Stations were decently marked, though getting from Stations VIII to IX took a bit of a detour and around some stairs. Along the Via Dolorosa, we made extra stops at St. Anne’s Church – where Jesus healed a blind man – and the underground cistern at the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate (Station IX). The Via Dolorosa route ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus was crucified, buried, and resurrected. Visiting the on-site tomb was impractical due to the large number of Christian pilgrims.
Entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
After some backtracking, a short walk south brought us to the Western Wall where the Temple of Solomon once stood. Jewish men and women have separate prayer areas and no photography was allowed unlike at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Unfortunately, the Al Asqa Mosque and Dome of the Rock – where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven – were closed when we toured the Old City.

For some food, we stopped by Abu Shukri which served some of the best hummus and falafel balls I tried, though we were getting tired of flatbread and hummus by then. Pomegranate juice is also a must while in Israel-Palestine (or Jordan). Our Old City experience ended with a walk past Gethsemane – where Jesus was betrayed by Judas – and up the Mount of Olives cemetery for one of the iconic views of Jerusalem.
Mahane Yehuda Market
One other destination we checked out in Jerusalem was the Mahane Yehuda Market near our Airbnb, which had all sorts of food stands and restaurants.

Banksy in Bethlehem

After getting Helen’s passport back, we crossed Checkpoint 300 to visit Bethlehem in the West Bank. Not only is it home of the Church of the Nativity which marked Jesus’ birth – unfortunately we didn’t go there – Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel next to the apartheid wall deserves a visit. It’s tastefully decorated inside with a museum highlighting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the BDS (Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions) movement, an art gallery upstairs, and a bar with a self playing piano and a great spot for high tea.
The Walled Off Hotel has no shortage of Palestinian resistance material
We joined one of the Walled Off Hotel’s tours which took us along the graffiti-covered wall and into the Aida refugee camp. The wall contained dozens of posters featuring stores of oppression faced by Palestinians and you could do your own graffiti with some spray paint and stencils from the “Wall Mart” next to the hotel. One of the wall’s watchtowers looked down on a Palestinian cemetery where Israeli soldiers would disrespectfully throw trash down, including bottles filled with urine.
The Aida refugee camp with its key and keyhole entrance
The Aida camp was a legacy of the 1948-49 Independence war – known as Nakba or catastrophe by the Palestinians – which saw 700,000 Palestinians driven from their villages. The Aida camp’s gate is a key and keyhole to symbolize the Palestinians’ desire to return to their homes, though the 70-year-old camp looks more like a permanent town including a school, youth centre, playground, and football field. The guides mentioned the Aida camp was subject to regular IDF incursions, while the barrier limited the camp’s expansion and restricted opportunities for residents. A total of 28 refugee camps exist within Palestine.

Final Thoughts

While I heard a lot of criticism towards Israel before the trip through the media and some pro-Palestine progressives, seeing the Holy Land up close increased my disapproval of the Israeli government. I doubt I will ever return there, though I would visit Jordan again and maybe Luxor and Aswan in Egypt. Cairo was overwhelming; especially considering I hadn’t visited developing countries before this trip. (Caribbean cruises don’t count) In the end, the Middle East trip was an eye opener in more ways than I could imagine.

I will sign off with one last Flickr album from Israel and Palestine.

Keep exploring,
Rob Z (e-mail)

* The film 1913: Seeds of Conflict and the Green Olive Tours website are good places to read more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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