Israel: Introduction

  • © iltis003,

    © iltis003,


Israel: the country of sunny holidays, of educational tours loaded with culture and archaeological excursions, the country of rapt pilgrimages, the Bible and the Lord, the centre of the world’s main religions and their sacred sites. And the country where Palestinians and Israelis have irreconcilably insisted on their 'rights' for 60 years, and made it the starting point and centre of the Middle East conflict.

Israel is a small country, almost exactly the same size as Wales. Its excellent roads make it easy to get around, and they also make it possible for visitors to take their time reaching their destination. Most visitors' first impression of Israel is the arrival hall of the Ben Gurion Airport in Lod. Here – and even more so in Tel Aviv 23km (14mi) away – one experiences the modern Israel and does not recognise any fundamental differences to other metropolises in the western world. But, even in Tel Aviv, you will feel the flair of the Orient, smell unfamiliar aromas, see scenes that appear to come from the East. The beach along Lahat Promenade is completely European, the beach fashions are the same as in Rimini or on Ibiza – only 'topless' is disapproved of.

Regardless of whether your beach holiday is on the Mediterranean coast or in Eilat on the Red Sea, it would be a pity to limit your stay in this country to just swimming and sunbathing. In any case, a trip 'up to Jerusalem', at an altitude of 800m (2600ft) in the Mountains of Judea, is a must. If you drive there in the early evening and see the sun setting behind Jerusalem, and the long shadows it casts creating even stronger contours on the barren limestone hills on both sides of the road, you will feel the tranquillity that is so appropriate to 'Al Quds', 'The Holy' – as the Arabs call Jerusalem. The best time to wander through the Old City is in the morning, when it is slowly coming to life. The proprietors of the Palestinian bazaars can be seen arranging their wares, pious Jews at the Western Wall greet the day with 'Hear O Israel, the Lord is one God', Franciscan monks in their brown habits hurry to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and young Israeli soldiers patrol the narrow streets.

Profound religiosity, the conviction of being 'chosen' by God, Yahweh or Allah, the certainty of being in possession of the One Truth, seems to separate people more than unite them. This can be felt at many places in Israel, not only between the three monotheistic religions but also within the individual communities. Jerusalem is the culminating point of all of the chaos in the Middle East. The dignitaries of two dozen Christian churches have their residences in the Christian quarter of the Old City alone, and visitors from the west are often confronted with the great variety of Christianity here for the first time.

It is less a matter of confessional variety than the everyday dispute over the right religious lifestyle on earth that leads to differences among the Jews. Visitors can also be drawn into this conflict, especially on the Sabbath in the Mea Shearim district of Jerusalem, where they will be confronted with a form of Jewish life that they only thought existed in literary depictions of shtetels in Eastern Europe. Although Mea Shearim appears to be something of an exotic enclave, Jewish fundamentalism is very influential in Israel. In the country’s political life, the religious parties have often tipped the scales, and the Chief Rabbinate makes sure that today's Jewish lifestyle is in line with the rules of the Torah.

The Sea of Galilee also irrigates the Negev

You will hardly feel anything of the political and religious movements in the city once you get away from the big towns – in the north of Galilee, for example. The landscape there is characterised by cypresses and olive trees. Here, in the north, the Sea of Galilee lies 200m (650ft) below sea level surrounded by mountains, and its water is used today to irrigate the Negev Desert. The Jordan leaves the lake not far from the Deganya kibbutz, the first to be founded in Palestine, before making its 100km (62mi) journey to the Dead Sea.

Jerusalem has been formed of 3000 years of history

Today, the Jordan is effectively the eastern border of Israel. After the conquest of the Palestinian West Bank in the Six Day War, the Kingdom of Jordan starts at the river of the same name. Jericho is located at the southern end of the Jordan Valley. Before Ramallah, it was the administrative capital of the future Palestinian state until 1999. It is only a one-hour drive from Jericho to Jerusalem, where you can still feel 3000 years of history in the Old City. If you take a walk along the city wall erected by Sultan Suleiman in 1540, you will discover many of the sites in and outside the Old City: Jerusalem is the most historically important city in Israel. This is also where the devastating period that led to the founding of the State of Israel is remembered. The memorial to the Holocaust, Yad Vashem, confronts its visitors with documents that are almost impossible to bear. In Israel, people often ask how such a monstrous thing was possible and why so few people had enough courage to rise up against it. 

In the early 1990s, it appeared that peace might have a chance in the Middle East. Simon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin and Yassir Arafat were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for drawing up an agreement intended to lead to two independent states that would recognise the sovereignty of each other. But then Yitzhak Rabin was murdered by a Jewish fanatic on 4 November, 1995. Under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the situation escalated due to suicide attacks carried out by individual Palestinians, and Israel’s construction of a concrete wall between Israel and the West Bank, partly on occupied territory in the future Palestinian state (in breach of international law). The Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in the same year took place too late to be considered a gesture of peace.

Since then, Gaza has been ruled by the radical Hamas, in confrontation with Yassir Arafat’s successor Mahmoud Hamas and his administration in Ramallah, who was elected in 2005. There have been many peace attempts since the first talks in Oslo in Norway 20 years ago, but all have failed on account of Israel’s claim on territory going beyond the 1967 borders. The Israeli settlements on the West Bank have played a significant role in this matter. In 2011, the American President Barack Obama spoke publically about this border as part of a two-state solution for the first time. In this way, the USA approached the demands made by the United Nations. With these targets set by Israel’s protector the USA, it appears possible that peace now has a better chance.

How close is peace?

However, there are still many hurdles on the path to peace, and it can be very difficult for visitors to discuss this extremely sensitive matter with Israelis. However, you will have no problems going on a carefree hike with members of the Israeli Nature Protection society, living in a kibbutz or taking part in a dig at an archaeological excavation, and you will frequently also meet Israelis who are very open – and sometimes even critical about their country.

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