There’s literally no way you can visit Israel and Palestine without acknowledging the immense weight of history, past and present, that overshadows the entire experience. The idea of ethical tourism is challenged by setting foot in a place that is officially known as Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. I’m not going to trawl through the tragic history, with all its chances for better outcomes, let’s just say that it’s troubling to visit somewhere ‘occupied’.
I’d flown to Tel Aviv and was driven to East Jerusalem for work. Anyone who knows the politics of Jerusalem will know that the eastern part of the city was occupied by Jordan after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. In the 1967 replay of that war, the Jordanians were defeated and the area was occupied by Israel. Despite a tightening of Israeli control, Palestinians still claim East Jerusalem as the capital of their country.
A hotel in East Jerusalem was home for the next couple of weeks. There were meetings and long trips into the West Bank to our base in Hebron and then to smaller Palestinian communities. The route to Hebron passes Bethlehem, we never visited and thanks to Israel’s security or ‘separation’ wall we couldn’t even see it. Like Berlin between 1961 and 1989, the ‘separation’ wall is a reminder that this is not a normal place, and symbolises the decades of failed politics that led to its construction.
A place with such significance for the world’s three largest monotheistic religions, and the scene of thousands of years of ethnic and religious conflict, is never going to be like anywhere else on earth. Still it’s hard to understand the weird semi-coexistence of Israel and Palestine. The wall defines this weirdness. It cuts off Palestine from Israel and perversely separates Palestinian communities from each other, making a viable Palestinian state more difficult to achieve.
Occasionally you see an Israeli flag flying over a Settlement built on land seized in the 1967 war and considered illegal under international law. The settlements and the military presence needed to defend them are extremely contentious, adding another barrier to the realisation of a Palestinian state. One day I had a surreal visit to a Bedouin camp next to a settlement. Houses that could have been transported from a Florida suburb sat in the middle of a desert at the end of a newly constructed road.
A group of pro-Palestinian Israeli activists were there. It transpired that one of the settlers had shot dead a local Palestinian a few months earlier at this very spot. If our days were filled with such delights, most of our free time was spent eating. If you’re a guest in an Arab country be prepared to put on a few pounds. No opportunity to eat is ever missed and is usually accompanied by eye-wateringly strong ‘Turkish’ coffee. On average we ate about twelve times a day. I wish I was joking.
I visited Jerusalem as a child but have little recollection of it, and was glad to have a day to explore the city again. There’s no denying this is an extraordinary place, and the old city is an intense experience akin to sensory overload. Yet, even in such a short time, I found it to be almost oppressive. The Jewish school kids carrying M16s, the Filipino pilgrims carrying a wooden cross through the streets … you’re no longer in Kansas, Dorothy.
I was delighted to leave. In the end I was even more delighted to be able to spend a weekend on the coast in Tel Aviv and Jaffa. The contrast between Jerusalem’s dark lanes and stifling religiosity, the insecurity of the West Bank, and the brilliant Mediterranean light of the coast could not have been greater. Sitting by the harbour in Jaffa drinking a glass of wine and eating delicious food was the polar opposite of Jerusalem and the West Bank.
As I watched the sun set and fill the sky with fierce reds, pinks and oranges, the question of how all three of these places could exist within a few hours’ drive of each other kept repeating in my mind.