Apparently, biting into an onion helps to protect against the effects of tear gas. Bit silly really, as when it came down to it I experienced a pretty bad burning sensation anyway – I just didn’t know if it was due to the onion or the gas.
I had unwittingly found myself at Qalandia checkpoint during a clash between Palestinian protesters and the Israeli defence forces. The gas was slowly wafting its way through the ranks of protesters. It was Land Day. I was going to need a spare pair of pants.
For those who have been living under a rock for the last 60 years, the Israelis and, for the most part, the Arabs, have been locked in a violent embrace. The Palestinians live under a military occupation that varies little in its disregard for human rights whilst the Israelis stanchly defend their biblical right to the Promised Land. For the most part, the Israelis and the Palestinians don’t get on, yet their proximity and shared heritage necessitates a relationship of sorts. It’s a relationship that I have spent a long time learning about. Over the years I have developed a strong sympathy for the Palestinian plight and, a few weeks before the end of term, decided that the best way to back up my rants to uninterested housemates was to go there and experience the conflict for myself. I managed to piece together a hospital placement and a few weeks later I was flying, Sardine class, over the Mediterranean.
Israel hadn’t prepared the warmest of welcomes for us. Security at Ben Gurion airport is notoriously tight. Unless you’re Jewish or Israeli, prepare yourself for a real grilling on your motives for visiting such a ‘dangerous’ country (their words, not mine). On departure, travellers are recommended to arrive at least 3 hours early in anticipation of a strip search, multiple questionings and thorough bag searches. They will go through your phone, your camera, your laptop. Any Arab sounding names in your contacts will be discussed. In an attempt to catch you out or confuse you, they may ask you what your gran is called or where your dad grew up. Then they will ask you the same questions, but in a different way and perhaps from a different person, to try and find any holes in your story. How thoroughly you’re investigated depends largely on how Arab you look. It’s a scary, intimidating process but, unfortunately, a necessary one in a country surrounded by hostility.
The Middle East is raw. It’s dangerous. But that’s what makes it worthwhile. It’s an adventure.
It doesn’t stop at the airport either. Security in Israel is apparent everywhere. Restaurants, malls, bus stations. Wherever you are, you are never far away from an Israeli eager to rifle through your luggage and ask a few questions. Ironically, this does little in the way of making you feel safe. In addition, the numerous IDF soldiers stationed on the street corners do little to ease the edgy atmosphere by brandishing their guns and eyeing up foreigners. Security aside, the locals in Jerusalem also seemed rather unimpressed by the presence of a lost-looking, guidebook-in-hand tourist. Questions for directions were often ignored and dirty looks were abundant in some of the more religious areas.
A girl working for the counter-terrorism unit in Tel Aviv told me of a strong ‘everyone hates us’ sentiment in some of the locals. This manifests itself in defensive attitudes towards tourists. It seems that this is a sad, yet unavoidable consequence of living in such a hotbed of conflict.
Regardless, Jerusalem itself is an extraordinary city. Having been a religious epicentre for thousands of years, it holds a spiritual significance unparalleled by anywhere in the world. Interestingly, nowhere is this more evident than in the psychiatric hospital. The infamous Jerusalem Syndrome, a condition where someone thinks that they are, amongst other equally unlikely candidates, the second coming of Christ, is caused by the overwhelming sense of ‘religiousness’ that people feel when visiting Jerusalem. The patients (whom, it must be said, usually have a history of mental illness) spend a few weeks in a state of spiritual delirium and usually snap out of it with a psychiatric slap in the face. The city is clean, easy to get around and has a fantastic mix of cultural experiences. If you want a change from the daily pitta-and-hummus routine, you can even try eating a kebab sober.
As an atheist it was often more entertaining to watch the throngs of people performing all sorts of religious rituals than admiring the places themselves. A scene I remember particularly well was a queue of people rubbing what were seemingly random items on a rock in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I’m still not sure why they did this, but I gave it a go with my iPhone anyway. The screen is still cracked.
Elsewhere, in Bethlehem, you can visit the Church of Nativity and see the place where Jesus was supposedly born. I seemed to associate the place more with the Christmas special of Top Gear than anything else, and I think that this reaction was applicable to the majority of the places that I visited in Jerusalem. Aside from the impressive architecture and fascinating history, they really didn’t bear any special significance to me personally. There was no profound sense of spirituality. No great epiphanies where I confessed my love for God. Just some interesting churches and even more interesting people.
Fortunately, however, there is something far more entertaining to do in Israel than pretending to be fascinated by holy objects. Talk. I have never been anywhere where opinions were so fiercely debated. As a pro-Palestinian atheist, trips to the town’s nightspots invariably led to searches for a Zionist with whom to clash verbal swords and, unsurprisingly, I was never short of an opponent. Discussing the conflict with people who were so directly involved was extraordinary. I was incredibly impressed by the level of composure, knowledge and insight demonstrated by the assortment of people I managed to antagonise into debate. The nightlife itself in Jerusalem is young and lively if a little expensive. Jumping on one of the many bar crawls organised by the hostels is a great way to grab a few free shots and meet people with similar interests.
Palestine, however, is where the action is.
A brief lesson on the current situation: The Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) are divided into the West Bank and Gaza. There’s lots of geopolitics involved with regards to which party governs what, which country polices where and who lived where when. I went to the West Bank.
Within the West Bank there are zones; A, B, and C, that supposedly dictate whether the area is policed by the Israelis, the Palestinians, or both. The reality is much more complicated. Nablus, for example, is a conservative, wholly Palestinian city where I spent much of my time. On the mountain that overlooks Nablus sits a dense copse. Shrouded amongst the trees is a small Israeli military base where recon missions are launched. It is supposedly under total Palestinian control, yet every night a patrol of Israeli solders would enter, providing for an unofficial curfew. Regularly, almost daily, you can hear Israeli fighter planes blasting through the valley.
Fatah and Hamas – the two parties that rule the West Bank and Gaza, respectively – represent opposing factions (flashback a few years to them throwing each other off of 10-storey buildings), but somewhere in all the chaos an iota of common sense has suggested that perhaps they should join together to achieve their common goal. Said iota is currently being smothered by bureaucracy and rhetoric, and consequently progress is slow. This all makes for a pretty dire situation; people are devoid of clear leadership. This was demonstrated shockingly well at the Qalandia.
I’m not an expert on protesting. I see many activists as anti-capitalist hippies. Despite my inexperience, I’m pretty sure that protesters aren’t supposed to fight each other. At Qalandia, however, most of the chaos came from within. I don’t blame the Palestinians for running from the noisy grenades and the rubber bullets. I can even understand why they didn’t advance all the way to the line of IDF soldiers like they so often do on TV and in the movies. After all, the IDF do possess a fearsome reputation for being pretty ruthless with protesters. What did surprise me was that, at the beginning of the protest, half of the men began to fight the other half for starting the protest before prayers had finished. In addition, an alleged Israeli collaborator was found in the crowd. I didn’t find out who he was until after the protest, but I did see a group of angry-faced Palestinians chase a man into an open ambulance. They piled in with sticks and rocks, arms flailing in anger. When the ambulance tried breaking free from the carnage – by literally ploughing through the crowd in a bid for freedom – they began to smash up the ambulance.
For those interested in seeing how Israelis and Palestinians interact with each other there is no better place to visit than Hebron. A topic you will find frequently in the news is the issue of the illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. They are easily identified by the lack of a black water tank on the roof because they have mains water instead. In addition, they are always situated on the top of hills in order to gain a strategic advantage over any trouble-making locals. Perhaps most obviously they are surrounded by a perimeter fence – sometimes electrified, sometimes barbed, sometimes just a concrete wall. I spent much of my time wondering why anyone would wish to live in an area that necessitates such measures. It’s something to do with reclaiming the Promised Land. Louis Theroux made a documentary about it.
The settlers in Hebron, however, are on another level of stubbornness. They live in apartments right in the centre of the city, surrounded by barbed wire and military towers. The schools look like fortresses. There are around five hundred Israelis living in Hebron. They are being looked after by thousands of IDF soldiers. A shocking example of the current relationship between the two groups is the wire net the locals have put above the market. This net is to stop the settlers who live above from throwing rocks and refuse onto the market and the people below. Walking through is an uneasy but worthwhile activity.
In a similar vein of violence, the Ibrahim Mosque has been divided in two following an attack by a Jewish terrorist that killed 29 and wounded 125. Neither the Jews nor the Arabs are happy about the divide and the place seemed heavy with resentment. It was here that an Arabic woman approached me in tears. In an uncharacteristically accusing tone of voice (the Palestinians were otherwise incredibly welcoming), she asked me for answers to why her twelve-year-old sister was killed. Being white and British, she had evidently placed some of the responsibility for what happened on my shoulders. It was a moment that demonstrated to me, right there in the flesh, the way that individuals can harbour losses for a lifetime. I mumbled something apologetic and left.
Travelling in the Middle East isn’t easy. Whilst Israel seemed slightly more liberal than some areas of the West Bank, there are strict cultural practices that must be adhered to in order to avoid any unnecessary confrontations. This is especially true for women: the girl travelling with me was shunned more than once despite adhering to dress codes and the like. Walking around the markets together garnered more than one dirty look in our direction. The atmosphere can be tense, especially in the militarised zones, and checkpoints can sometimes make it hard to travel. It’s not that cheap either, with prices in Israel being comparable, if not more expensive, than those in England.
Despite these obstacles, I would wholly recommend it to the experienced traveller in search of something a bit different. I often hear of people going travelling to Thailand and Aus in search of a cultural experience. If personal experience and last week’s episode of Banged Up Brits Abroad has taught me anything then Thailand is now twinned with Blackpool. Australia is a fun place to go, but culturally not that dissimilar from England. The Middle East, however, is raw. It’s dangerous. But that’s what makes it worthwhile. It’s an adventure.