Three tours in three days of tension in Israel and Palestine
I lap up tours. Whenever travelling, in the UK or abroad, tours can provide an authentic insight into places past and present, given through the lens of a local. But what if the stories on multiple tours clash and confuse, rather than clarify? Three tours in three days in Israel and Palestine reflected the complicated layers of this region in the past and present, amid ongoing scenes of violence while there. One official who got deep into the detail in trying to negotiate a resolution mused that “The Middle East is all about History, that’s part of its problem, that’s its curse.”
At dinner above Jerusalem’s Old City, you could pick out a mountain ridge in Jordan, across from the Dead Sea, the world’s lowest point. In the city itself were symbols of the three major monotheistic religions. Earlier our guide Joseph had shown a Medieval map with Jerusalem at the centre of the world. How many other cities on earth could make this claim? Over our starters, we heard a loud bang. This is a concern in the centre of the world. We tried to identify the bang’s origins in the different quarters of the city, that in typical imperial British fashion had been divided in an arbitrary way. A bang again. Fireworks, just about identifiable in front of a darkening sky.
It seemed innocent enough and we got back to our charcuterie board. What we did not realise until later was that this was a breaking of the Status Quo in the holiest site in Jerusalem for Muslims, the Al-Aqsa Mosque. A group of Muslims had defied the Jewish security forces attempts to move them out of the mosque and set off fireworks in protest.
Joseph had referenced the Status Quo multiple times that day, which is the informal set of arrangements to allow the management of three holy sites of Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Like Israel’s unwritten constitution, which is based on basic laws, the Status Quo is based on precedents, conventions and norms. Like Israel’s constitution, it is fragile (We landed in Tel Aviv to tens of thousands protesting against the government’s proposed judicial reforms of the constitution).
The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) enforce the Status Quo, ever since it captured Jerusalem in the Six-Day War of 1967. The holy, ancient passages is arguably the most militarised square kilometre of civilian city anywhere on earth. CCTV camera’s eye you up on every street, strikingly young men and women in uniform carry menacing guns on street corners.
Ahead of that weekend’s religious celebrations (Passover, Ramadan and Easter), we were atop the Austrian Hospice, with the best views of city within the walls. The IDF happened to be filming. The senior officer being filmed had a rich Scottish accent. Likely drawn to Israel due to its heritage, Joseph commented. The officer, over many takes, said how this time of year was holy for all three religions and the IDF would do its part to keep the city safe. He wished all faiths a happy festive season and asked each one to do their bit. There was a hint of plea to it. With holy times came unholy tensions.
The holy sites were interesting as much for seeing the devout so enraptured by what could be a once in a lifetime trip as the monuments themselves. At the Holy Sepulchre, the holiest site in Christianity, people were kissing the stone Jesus allegedly laid on after his crucifixion. People filed in excitedly into the room of the Last Supper. Jews prayed against King David’s tomb. In my unromantic scepticism I queried the historical authenticity of these sites. Joseph conceded how the stone in Holy Sepulchre meant to carry Jesus’s body was red marble, so not from the Middle East but Europe. The columns and wall engravings exposed how the room we were in was not room of the Last Supper but far newer. And King David’s tomb was built by crusaders over 2,000 years after he died.
“For them it’s true. There is the factual truth and then there is spiritual truth”, Joseph said over fresh, zesty hummus from a local Arabic restaurant that made the British supermarket variety of it unworthy of the name. “There are different stories here, different narratives, but all are worthy of respect.” Joseph’s pluralism was admirable.
The archaeological site of the City of David is below the Old City. Here archaeologists continue a quest to verify that King David lived and built a city here. It is as much a political action as a historical one. If no proof is found that this was King David’s city, then claims about this territory being ancestral homes of Jews are weakened. It is all about the history, as that official had said.
We lent on railings above the dig-site, overlooking an Arab settlement, that peered into this Jewish project. I hadn’t told Joseph we were going to Palestine to do a tour for fear of his response but chose to. “They’ll have their stories, you’ve heard ours,” he diplomatically said.
Jana’s father heard the speech live while in Prague, in 1939. Talking of ambitious expansion plans and a hierarchy of races. He knew then how serious things were. People joked how Hitler was a silly madman, not taken seriously, her father had said.
As we weaved through Yad Vashem, the world’s flagship Holocaust museum, some of story would be familiar to those who know the basic narrative, some of it novel. Our Czech-Israeli guide, Jana, led us through with aged grace. Her insights underscored how getting your head around the Holocaust is a lifetime commitment. “The Holocaust started once the Second War ended”, she said. As people began to realise what happened. As people had no home to come back to. The act of processing, remembering, and holding to account was a mammoth undertaking lasting decades and still going on.
“Holocaust denial is less of an issue. Holocaust distortion is the concern now”, Jana said. The distortion might be cultural. Like how cultural output or perceptions distort historical understanding. She had pointed out stats that showed the Netherlands death rate among its Jews was far higher than is commonly understood. Or it could be political distortion, like how political actors might use the Holocaust, its memory and legacy for nefarious ends. Russia justified its invasion of Ukraine partly with reference to fears of antisemitism and another holocaust occurring.
It was hard to discern whether Jana’s parents had perished or survived. At the end of the tour we stood by a newly installed Book of Names, containing the names and birthplace of 4.8 million people who were murdered. Pages are empty at the end as more names are found. “Ooh we could find my family… but not now,” Jana said as much to herself. Her parents had survived, escaped out of Czechoslovakia, to this safer land.
The maps told their own story. Towards the start of the tour one showed Europe and the population of Jews in each country with blue cylinders. Towards the end it showed the same map with black cylinders next to blue, showing how many and what proportion had died. Poland stuck out as having 90% of its 3.3 million murdered. Look at that map and those cylinders and say Jews do not need a safe home, I thought to myself. Like the City of David, this precious history of the Holocaust needs preserving, not just to pay homage to the past and to learn lessons for the future. It also seeks to legitimise the state of Israel, just as the excavation of the City of David seeks to legitimise the Jewish claim that this is their original homeland.
But is this their homeland? “We did not return to an empty land,” former Israeli prime minister Yitzakh Rabin had said. Rabin was the last Israeli leader to sign a meaningful peace accord with Palestine. He said those words in his last speech to the Israeli parliament before being assassinated in 1995 by an extreme right-winger, who hated Rabin’s toleration and compromising with Palestinians.
“You came on a tense day”, our guide Ali said soon after we had entered Palestine’s West Bank. It was the day after the fireworks. Joseph had texted me to say it was a “poor decision” by Israeli forces to enter Al-Aqsa Mosque. We’d passed through the checkpoint as internationals easily, before being exchanged with our guide outside a red sign announcing we were in “Zone A”. Ali pointed at the sign that said no Israeli citizens are allowed. Then pointed to the yellow licence plates that said ‘IL’ on them. It is supposedly “illegal”, he decried “Yet I can’t go on the other side!” He said this with mocking humour rather than venom, his face gentler than the one conveyed by his WhatsApp picture. Joseph the previous day had said he cannot enter Palestine as an Israeli citizen, but that Palestinians can enter Israel with a permit. Who was telling the truth?
Driving through the desert towards Bethlehem — Jews and Arabs have different names for it — Ali kept on looking at his phone, checking Facebook for updates. “They should not have done that, oh no”. He said he was not strongly Muslim, but worried about the fallout from the event. As the car continued along narrow roads, he showed us his phone displaying videos of brutal Israeli forces treatment of Muslims at the mosque.
We went over potholes and saw rubbish strewn on the side of the road, a contrast to the pristine Israeli roads less than a mile away. Ali noticed our observing. “Remember, you are now in a Third World Country!” Ali joked, still looking at his phone.
Bethlehem is a holy site for Christians with the Church of the Nativity at the centre — the site of where Jesus was born. But we were more drawn to the West Bank for its history and politics, which Ali sensed. We moved on to the Separation Wall, built by Israel in 2002 after the Second Intifada, an uprising by Palestinians against Israel. It runs 9 metres high, 700 km long, over twice the height of the Berlin Wall I had visited a few months previously. The wall is meant to be a security measure to protect Israel. The Berlin Wall came down after 28 years. This has 21 years to it, and it feels like it is going to beat the Berlin Wall’s tenure.
Where the remnants of the Berlin Wall now feel hopeful this wall feels tragic. Joseph, when we looked at the edge of the wall from a vantage point in Jerusalem, said it kept Israelis safe. He said how during the Second Intifada, before sitting down in a restaurant you’d have to calculate the safest place to sit in case a suicide bomber attacked. By the door was to be avoided, by a pillar would be best. “It was no way to live. And after the wall, the attacks stopped.” Joseph conceded that “they’ll tell a different story”.
This security argument seemed hard to reconcile while looking at a machine gun attached atop the wall pointing into bustling Palestinian street below. “This is why we call it a military occupation, there is literally a machine gun!” Ali exclaimed. The famed Walled Off Museum, inspired by the active output of Banksy in the area, described how a UN document questioned whether the wall had brought improvements to Israeli security.
The wall smothers human dreaming. We went to a local tea shop, catching unawares men huddling together in the back of the shop surreptitiously breaking the Ramadan fast. Over delightfully fresh and sweet local tea, Ali, restraining himself and keeping fast, explained how he excelled at English Literature at university at Bethlehem. He secured a scholarship to university in Seattle, America for a Masters. His US visa was approved, the flights booked. Seven times he tried to get there, seven times he was rejected trying to get out of Palestine via Jordan. “Oh you can come back another time” border guards kept on saying, wearing Ali down until he gave up.
We went on to a UN refugee camp, established in 1948 following the war, celebrated by Israelis as the founding year of the modern state of Israel. I recall as a boy in my synagogue, the war hero Ariel. We looked at him with such reverence, as he recounted his battle heroics. But to Palestinians the 1948 war is the Nakba (the disaster), where 700,000 Palestinians were forcibly moved out of Israel. Before entering the camp, Ali said that “if you ask where they are from, they’ll say the Arabic name for a place currently in Israel”. A large key stood on one of the entrances. They cling to the UN resolution 194 that promises the right to return. “Many have keys from their parents or grandparents for homes they used to live in,” Ali said, as we wondered the downtrodden streets that felt a purgatory and no way to live. On one fork in the path was a map of all Israel, coloured in Palestinian colours and declaring “we will return”.
Our passports were not even checked back into Israel. We were waved over. Our taxi man knew the border guard. I thought of Ali’s woes at the border.
Picking up a car hire, a young Israeli man showed me how to use the navigation app Waze. His colleague pointed out the option that let you avoid dangerous areas, “like Palestine”. Such deep seated beliefs. Had they ever crossed the border? One friend had commented he couldn’t enjoy Israeli’s pleasures as much after being in Palestine.
It all seemed so hopeless. News came through that three British-Israelis had been attacked and possibly killed. A Palestinian boy of 15 was killed soon after. What is to be done? Ali had ire for Israel, but also equal amounts for Hamas and Hezbollah, perceiving them as stumbling blocks to a resolution. “The two-state solution cannot work…too difficult”. Ending the tour, he had concluded that “There should be one state of everyone together, as long as there is total equality in rights between the three religious groups.”
We visited a Kibbutz, where an enterprising headteacher and his team are running a school that has as one of its founding purposes, to contribute to finding a solution to the conflict by educating Arabs and Jews together. The head bemoaned how his generation had got caught up in Israel’s tech and business boom. The focus on wealth ceded politics to radicals. Yitzakh Rabin’s assassination was “the most successful in history” for how it ended a movement within Israel of seeking reconciliation. “The only way to end this is to end the occupation”. I thought of how Joseph and Ali might react to that argument. The head spoke with pride about a girl who had arrived at the school with strong views in defence of Israel’s policy in the West Bank, then gave a presentation arguing that Israel had overstretched, and compromise needed to be reached with Palestine.
Three tours in three days that added to complexity rather than providing the clarity of most of my tour experiences. Back in the UK, I thought of some here who have strong convictions either side of the issue and wonder the origins of their certitude. I thought on Yeats’s warning that the worst “Are full of passionate intensity.”
Joseph and Ali, separated by a fence, destined to never meet each other. They had differences of opinion and different interpretations of their context. Yet people like them, the wisdom of Jana, the drive of the headteacher. They give hope. They had that disposition of empathy and compromise that Rabin seems to have embodied. The Berlin Wall came down suddenly and unexpectedly. Could the same happen to the Separation Wall?