Old animosities flare up again in places I’ve visited in recent years
The sun has just set behind the Flatirons in peaceful Boulder, Colorado, but I’ve been glued to the CNN footage of rockets lobbed into Israel from the Gaza Strip and retaliatory Israeli missiles shooting down many of those rockets and tanks massed on the Israeli side of the border.
This makes me inexorably sad, first on general principle but even more so because in the last few years, I have visited the tumultuous Middle East several times –once for 8 days days to the West Bank (aka, the Occupied Territories or Palestine); next for 10 days in Egypt shortly before the Arab Spring, and most recently, for eight days to Israel with a day in Jordan. Each visit has been memorable, for the antiquities, for the pervasive sense of wariness and for the regular people living in a perpetually troubled part of the world, with a tug-or-war between ancient animosity and longing for peace. Especially with the approach of Thanksgiving, whose story, at least according to myth and legend, began with Native Americans and strangers from across the sea sharing a harvest feast.
Earlier this year was my third trip to the Middle East in just a couple of years. By the standards of the American West, the places I visited — namely the West Bank, Cairo, Luxor in the Nile Valley, Alexandria, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem, Eilat and Petra — are practically on top of each other. They would fit easily within the borders of Montana with room to spare.
Of those three visits, the most recent was an SATW Freelance Council meeting in Tel Aviv — a vibrant Mediterranean city with Art Deco buildings, modern skyscrapers, 21st century nightlife and the picturesque old port city of Jaffa, once an Arab city and now a gentrified Israeli neighborhood. A couple of years ago, I had visited the West Bank, where nothing was gentrified as far as I could tell. The Palestinians I spoke with then seemed weary and frustrated, but still hopeful that their desire for an end to the occupation would be a homeland of their own — and a little of what the far more prosperous Israelis enjoy.
When the sun sets on a Friday anywhere in Israel, Jews — very observant and less so — enjoy a Sabbath meal by candlelight. One such feast was prepared for our group at the Dan Panorama Hotel in Tel Aviv. The tables were festively set, and the meal was leisurely, generous and congenial, but to me the best part were the prayers sung by a cantor whose glorious bass filled the large room and my heart. Everyone in the room gave him a standing ovation, but I am frustrated that I can’t find his name. I don’t understand Hebrew, nor do I know what the subject of Sabbath vocal music might be. But even at the time, when the political situation was relatively quiet, I hoped there was at least one with a wish for peace. And I still do. More than ever.
The Gaza Strip and the West Bank are not the same place, but unfortunately, IMHO, the leaders of the two Palestinian areas — I believe the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank and more militant Hamas in Gaza — did join political forces. Now with the current conflict escalating and occasional rockets reaching from Gaza the suburbs of both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, I keep thinking about that Sabbath dinner and the cantor’s wonderful voice, wishing that he is singing of peace — and that someone, somewhere will heed his song.
Other walls that kept people apart eventually draw tourists together
Walls are sometimes meant to keep people in (prisons, for example) and sometimes to keep them out (fortresses). The Great Wall of China to keep the Mongols out, Hadrian’s Wall to protect the Roman presence in Britain against raiders from the north, the Berlin Wall to keep the East Germans in and Israel’s walls to contain Palestinians are just a few examples over the centuries.
I’ve walked along the Great Wall of China in both directions from Bandoling, an attraction for foreign tourists and visitors alike, because it is the most convenient segment to Beijing and the most developed as well.
I’ve hiked along a section of Hadrian’s Wall west of Carlisle. Once a formidable barrier, it is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and north England’ s most popular tourist attraction.
Nothing symbolized the Cold War more than the Berlin Wall, which divided the city that once was (and is now again) the capital of Germany. Segments of the Wall have been relocated all over the world to memorialize the terrible tensions of the Cold War era and all the repression involved. The first time I went to Europe, I passed through Checkpoint Charlie separating the two halves of divided Berlin. Germany and Berlin have been reunified, and I’ve seen segements of the wall in Manhattan, Rapid City and elsewhere. I haven’t seen the one at Israel’s Ein Hod Artists’ Village, an sad and ironic place for it, since Israel is still building its dispiriting security wall.
Israel started building a formidable wall after the Second Intifada in 2003, and they haven’t stopped yet. An eight-foot wall cuts through some Palestinian towns and surrounds others, separates farmers from their field and their livestock, and makes Palestinians prisoners on their land. I passed through it in June going to and from the airport in Tel Aviv. It is not a tourist attraction but rather an impediment to Palestinian people and a provocation to them. Hopefully, a two-state solution will be hammered out of this bitter conflict and the wall (or small sections of it) will eventually become a curiosity and tourist attraction too.
Another barrier, this one high-tech rather than brick and mortar, is/was a planned “virtual” border fence between the US and Mexico. This Bush administration brainchild, conceived in 2005 and was sold to Congress and the tax-paying public as chain of cameras, ground sensor and radar installations that were to detect “illegals” crossing the 2,000-mile border between the US and Mexico. Boeing has raked in a billion dollars, only about 53 miles of fence were ever constructed. Janet Napolitano is the former governor of Arizona (you know, the state where Congresswomen, federal judges and 9-year-olds occasionally get shot), knows something about border problems and immigration issues. She is now the Secretary of Homeland Security and announced a few days ago that the project is dead. What took the Obama Administration so long to dump it? It cost $15 million a mile — money that could have gone elsehwere. Looking at previous attempts at fence-building, I wonder whether the bit of “virtual” fence will ever be a sightseeing attraction. You be the judge.
With the dream of a high-tech barrier stretching from one end of America’s southern border to the other – originally hailed by then-President George W. Bush as “the most technically advanced border security initiative” ever – officially canceled, I wonder what the next frontier will be to keep people out or in or have something to look at when it’s finished.
In announcing that it would pull the plug on the troubled “virtual fence” project, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said Friday it would instead pursue a region-by-region approach, with different parts of the US border protected in different ways as dictated by terrain and other area-specific conditions.
“This new strategy is tailored to the unique needs of each border region, providing faster deployment of technology, better coverage, and a more effective balance between cost and capability,” said DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano in a statement.
Provocations, one after another, test Palestinian patience — and challenge tourists to visit
When I was in the Palestinian Territories/West Bank/Palestine last June, I tried to keep my feelings about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians measured as I wrote about my experiences and observations. I believe in the principles of the International Institute for Peace Through Tourism, which is “dedicated to fostering and facilitating tourism initiatives which contribute to international understanding and cooperation, an improved quality of environment, the preservation of heritage, and through these initiatives, helping to bring about a peaceful and sustainable world.” Palestine could, should and hopefully will be the poster child for bringing this about.
I witnessed among the Palestinians a longing for their own state — no less so than Israel itself when it was carved out of Palestinian lands more than six decades ago. Faith-based travel is growing, and much Christian travel to the Holy Land should include important West Bank sites, not just Israel (Jerusalem, Nazareth, the Galilee) and preipherally to Jordan. But the Israeli government kneecaps the Palestinians at every turn, discouraging tourism and even prevening Israeli Jews (other than settlers) from visiting another part of what is still legally part of their own country. IMHO, the Israeli government does not want its secular citizens to see how it is mistreating and humiliating Muslim and Christian Palestinians on the West Bank.
Most incidents, a few of which I witnessed and an arbitrary checkpoint holdup that I epxerienced last June, are minor and are unreported in the world media. But recent ones again are shining the international spotlight on the situation. The two-state solution, which had again seemed closer, is being torpedoed by a barely restrained Israeli military. Young Israeli soldiers with their UZIs slung over their shoulders remind me of farm boys in the woods, ready to shoot at anything that moves. Tensions rise, and with every bullet and every dose of tear gas, the opportunity for tourism to help bring peace fades again.
Here’s the recent news — and I write about these incidents not to discourage visitation butactually to encourage it. Not only is the West Bank a key part to the Holy Land and an area rich in archeology and history, but I believe it provides visitors a rare opportunity to spend a few days on the cusp of history — with awareness of what is happening. I never felt in personal danger — and I suspect that if were there today, I wouldn’t feel I was in harm’s way either.
One Week; Four “Incidents” Resulting in Palestinian Deaths
Now, when much of the watching world had hoped for a real chance of peace, the Israelis are at it again. The four incidents below happened within just one week; the dates might be off by a day due to the time zone between the Middle East and the US. I’ve been clicking back and forth among websites, so I hope I embedded the correct link for each incident. Each one is another nail in the coffin of the peace process.
On January 1, Israeli troops fired what was described as a “massive” amount of tear gas to put down what they called “”a violent and illegal riot” but was probably the weekly demonstration protesting the security wall in the town of Bilin. A 36-year-old, asthmatic Palestinian woman died from tear gas inhalation. Israeli authorities are investing. — Reported in the New York Times, Agence France-Presse and elsewhere
On January 2, Israeli soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian man early after he approached soldiers “from an unauthorized lane” at the Hamra checkpoint northwest of the city of Nablus. He allegedly tried to attack troops with a bottle and ignored orders to stop as he approached the soldiers. The Palestinian had a bottle. The Israeli soldiers had guns. Israeli authorities are investigating. — Reported in the Christian Science Monitor, Agence France-Presse and others
On January 7, Israeli troops made a pre-dawn raid on an apartment in Hebron to arrest suspected Hamas members. Problem is, they stormed the wrong apartment and killed a a Palestinian man who was asleep in his bed. He was variously reported to be 65, 66 or 67 years old, but reports agree on the rest of the story. Israeli authorities are investigating. Reported by the Associated Press, the New York Times, CNN and elsewhere
On January 8, Israeli soldiers shot and killed another Palestinian man, again at the Hamra checkpoint. According to a CNN report, “a Palestinian man made his way toward Israeli security personnel yelling “God is great” in Arabic while carrying a ‘suspicious object’ in his hands, a spokesman for the Israeli military told CNN. Soldiers began an ‘arrest procedure’ and yelled at the man to stop and fired warning shots, but the man did not stop advancing, the spokesman said. ‘The soldiers were left with no choice but to fire at him,’ the spokesman said. The Palestinian had a “suspicious package.” The soldiers had guns. I suppose Israeli authorities are investigating. — Reported by CNN and elsewhere.
If you search the ‘Net for “Nablus” or “or checkpoint. or “Palestinian killed,” you find incident after incident reported by the international media. Sometimes the Israelis say they found explosives or weapons or something. Often, they don’t bother explaining anything at all. After all, thee’s always another incident to investigate. Untold thousands of Palestinian prisoners are being held in Israeli jails, with human rights organizations alarmed at accusations of torture and abuse. But these watchdog groups are powerless in country whose government pays scant attention to any critics. A search for “Palestinians in Israeli jails” brings up thousands of links. Wikipedia’s summary is as good as any.
Shepherd Hotel Being Demolished
What kicked off this post was a report earlier today that Israeli bulldozers began knocking down the historic Shepherd Hotel in East Jerusalem to build yet another illegal Jewish settlement. The European Union reminded Israel that settlement building on occupied Palestinian territory is illegal, but the conservative Israeli government has never paid much heed to international law when they are breaking it. The hotel was vacant, but that is not the point, is it?
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called it a “disturbing development” that “undermines peace efforts to achieve the two-state solution.” United Nationals Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations said that “inserting settlers into Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem” undermined prospects for addressing the city’s status.
First Vice President of the European Commission Catherine Ashton said, “I strongly condemn this morning’s demolition of the Shepherd Hotel and the planned construction of a new illegal settlement. I reiterate that settlements are illegal under international law, undermine trust between the parties and constitute an obstacle to peace….The EU does not recognize” the annexation of East Jerusalem by Israel and again expressed concern for recent violence and growing tension. The Israelis have a habit of pushing the Palestinians to the breaking point and then retaliating harshly. — Reported by The New York Times, Reuters and elsewhere
When I was there in June, Israeli bulldozers knocked down more than 20 Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem to make way for an amusement park of some sort, so this latest demolition project does not surprise me, but it still saddens me. Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations haven’t totally broken down, but they can be described as being at a standstill. KAIROS Palestine, an interfaith peace initiative of the dwindling Christian population on the West Bank, is still supporting it.
Winter is not prime travel season to the Middle East. I hope that tensions will easy, the Israeli soldiers will be less trigger-happy and that when authorities say that they are “investigating,” they really are. And I hope that visitors will again be encouraged to see some of the Palestine/West Bank sites. My June visit certainly opened my eyes to the region’s history, faith, archeology, landscape and humanity.
Bethlehem, largely isolated behind a high wall, remains the symbol for the hope of peace
Last June I spent more than a week in Palestine, AKA the West Bank and officially called the Palestinian Territories or some such phrase that denies the validity of independent statehood. My group’s first stop was Bethlehem, cut off by a high “security wall” erected by Israeli authorities to isolate the Palestinians and make it more annoying for tourists to visit the city where Jesus was born. Whether or not one is a believer, the hoops that people have to go through to worship, celebrate or simply sightsee are incomprehensible to anyone who believes that human rights, human dignity and the right to self-determination are more important than politics or religious differences. Every religion preaches tolerance, but we see too little of it in what is commonly referred to as the Holy Land.
Except at Christmas, Bethlehem is a relative quite place.
Israelis and Palestinians have more or less been talking for several months now. Hopefully, quiet times will continued, and a lasting peace will soon prevail. After all, the faithful make a Christmas pilgrimage to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace. No matter what one’s believe, that should be a goal for all. My friend Rich Grant put ths quote on his Facebook page: ““My first wish is to see the whole world in peace and the inhabitants of it as one band of brothers, striving who should contribute… most to the happiness of mankind.” George Washington
Headlines provide signs of hope that Israeli-Palestinian tensions will ease and that peace will prevail
As I was recounting my Palestine/West Bank travel experiences and observations, I made notes to myself about how I wanted to wrap it all up. After all, this wasn’t just a sightseeing trip featuring antiquities and sacred places. It was an experience that put me and my traveling companions on the cusp of “future history.” Through my membership in the Society of American Travel Writers, I became aware of, but I am embarrassed to admit, not active in a not-for-profit group called the International Institute for Peace Through Tourism.
Originally, I intended wrap up my thoughts and observations unfiltered by politicians’ spin and advocates for one side or another. I also was going to include links to IIPTT’s site and to peace organizations working specifically in the Middle East and more specifically on the Palestinian-Israeli situation, because I believe that tourism can be a valuable tool for peace — not just economically in troubled lands but also in allowing visitors to see a place and its people first-hand. This trip certainly was enlightening, even though we did not meet any overtly militant Palestinians or any Israeli Jews at all other than Army guards at checkpoints and security screeners at Tel Aviv Airport.
But today’s headline in the New York Times, “U.S. and Israel Shift Attention to Peace Process,” reports that “President Obama said Tuesday that he expected direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians to begin ‘well before’ a moratorium on settlement construction expired at the end of September, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel pledged to take ‘concrete steps’ in the coming weeks to get the talks moving.”
Since I’m trying to restrain myself, perhaps I should not point out that in the past, Netanyahu’s “concrete steps” have taken the form of pouring more concrete for more settlements in the Palestinian territory. ‘Nuff said, so I’d rather express a hope that things might be better this time, and that perhaps neither side will provoke the other into escalating retaliation measures. This eye-opening trip beyond the headlines and the rhetoric pointed out the social injustice of the current situation. I mentioned to some of my traveling companions that I am shocked that Israel, a nation established because millions of its people were the victims of ruthless genocide, could treat other people so badly. One who is smarter than I pointed out that individual people who been abused often become abusers. The analogy was not lost on me or anyone else within earshot.
So I close this series with a wish that maybe, just maybe, the new talks will amount to something and the peace process will begin again — and maybe, just maybe, it will be honored by all sides and be longer-lasting than in the past.
Our group started our light Day 8 schedule with a tour of the Temple Mount (Haram ash-Sharif in Arabic). At the bottom is Western Wall (Wailing Wall), the last remnant of the Israelites’ Second Temple and a sacred to Jews. Men and women, facing the wall, pray separately, and respectful visitors are welcome. The two key Muslim sites flanking a broad plaza built atop of the former temple, are the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Men and women are treated separately there too, but visitation by non-Muslims is currently limited. As adversarial as Jewish-Muslim relations are, the two religions have more in common than adherents would like to believe.
The Temple Mount & Its Contentious History
Like so many other Holy Land sites, control of the Temple Mount has over time shifted from religion to religion, jurisdiction to jurisdiction and often at great cost of life and/or treasure. King Solomon built the First Temple there in 967 B.C. The Babylonians destroyed it in 586 B.C. The Jews rebuilt it as the Second Temple six decades later, but the Romans under Herod first expanded the site and later destroyed the temple in 70 A.D. Emperor Constantine’s mother, Helen, was a 4th-century Christian activist who established the nearby Church of the Holy Sepulchre. And did I mention earthquakes?
In the 7th century, Muslims conquered Jerusalem and built the al–Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock. Over time, all or parts of the Temple Mount were under Byzantine, Persian, Jewish, Crusader, Muslim, British Mandate, Israeli, Jewish and Muslim control. The timeline spans centuries. A visit to the compound in September 2000 by Ariel Sharon of Israel’s rightwingLikud Party accompanied by 1,000 armed guards infuriated Palestinians. who started hurling stones at Israeli riot police, who in turn lobbed tear gas and rubber bullets at the crowd. Sharon’s visit set off a five-year Palestinian uprising often called the Second Intifada. The day after Sharon’s provocative visit, September 29, the Israeli government deployed 2,000 riot police to the complex. The prospect of peace hasn’t been very encouraging since then.
It hasn’t seemed to take much to set off a confrontation. Whenever archaeologists dig somewhere, they outrage some group. In the last five years alone, Jewish zealots’ proposal to build a synagogue on the Temple Mount infuriated Muslims, and Muslim proposals to add a fifth minaret ticked off Jews. Arabs protested a plan to rebuild an old earthen ramp leading to the Mugrabi gate. When a posse of right-wing Zionist rabbis entered the Temple Mount, provoking Palestinians and also both religious and secular Israelis who decried that particular provocation. Also. some critics noted that Jews are not supposed to enter the Temple Mount but confine themselves to the Western Wall until the Messiah comes — or something.
The Temple Mount Today
It was against this background that we visited the Temple Mount, again passing airport-style metal detectors, X-rays and bag inspection stations. Day 7 was a Sunday, the Christian sabbath and a “weekday” for Jews and Muslims. The broad plaza was largely empty, save for small groups of Muslims reading the Koran or something under shade trees and some sightseers like us. Neither the Dome of the Rock nor the mosque is open to non-Muslims these days, but I can’t recall which particular incident caused the closure. In the old city beyond the Temple Mount, Christian churches welcomed worshippers from all over the world, while Jewish and Muslim shopkeepers and vendors in the old city welcomed shoppers, also from all over the world.
I reveled in some unscheduled time, sharing some quiet conversation and coffee with a couple of my traveling companions in a shaded cafe. I wandered through the narrow, shop-lined streets for a while. But I bought nothing. In the end, the endless displays of Christianiana made of olive wood, glitzy yarmulkes, rosaries, pottery, T-shirts with slogans like “Guns and Moses,” metalwork, religious and secular costume jewelry, keychains, scarves and shawls were oddly dispiriting. I normally love prowling around marketplaces, but I began preparing for re-entry by spending a quiet, somewhat contemplative afternoon in a day room thoughtfully booked for each of us at the Holy Land Hotel.
Security procedures at Tel Aviv Airport were lengthy, as expected, but not excessive or unpleasant. And then, we boarded our Continental plane for the first of our respective flights home.
Two more faces of Palestine: the capital and a small town with no major landmarks from antiquity
Much of the West Bank and Ramallah in particular remind me of every developing country I have ever visited: Roads in various states of disrepair. Incomplete buildings that are either under construction or abandoned and crumbling. Graffiti. Weed- and litter-choked empty lots. Wrecked cars. Busy markets with small shops open to the street that exemplify the most basic form of capitalism. No big-box stores here. Call it small-box retail.
Roadside repair businesses. Street vendors. Tailors and cobblers working out of impossibly small shops. Storefront doctors and dentists. In short, providers of goods and services that keep a community functioning, along with schools, houses of worship. There are also sparkling office buildings, banks, government buildings, good hotels, high-rise apartment buildings and prosperous residential neighborhoods, symbols of hope for better times to come.
Ramallah, the capital of the Palestinian Territories north of Jerusalem, was often in the headlines during the two Intifadas. Originally an agricultural community and primarily a Christian town, its residents were early adopters of resistance, many joining frequent protests, strikes and demonstrations. It is currently the capital of the occupied Palestinian territories and, if and when Palestine gains independence, it will be the capital of the country.
We started with a lavish poolside buffet breakfast at the Grand Park Resort and Hotel, a pristine property catering largely to business travelers and those with business at consulates in the Palestinian capital. The hotel was built in 1997 as a two-story building and renovated and expanded with three additional floors last year. A large screen was put up in the pool area for World Cup games.
Also, a new Mövenpick Hotel is under construction. The project began in 1999, remained in limbo between 2003 and 2005, was restarted with an anticipated completion date of 2007 and finally seems on track to open fairly soon. The renovation and expansion of one fine European-style property and the projected open of another are positive signs that things are getting better in Ramallah, even if progress is sometimes slow.
Arafat: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly
To Westerners, the name Yasser Arafat is m most often associated with his early years of Palestine Liberation Organization violence. To Palestinians, he not is unlike George Washington to Americans or, in fact, David Ben-Gurion to Israelis — in short, a leader in the battles for their respective independence movements and the first head of government once it was achieved (or in Palestine’s case, partially achieved).
Arafat, who gained world recognition as a terrorist, later was co-laureate with Israel’s Itzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres of the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize. Peres is still alive and active in government, but Rabin was assassinated by an ultra-Orthodox Jew for his peace-making efforts. A decade later, Israel re-declared Arafat to be terrorist and kept him under house arrest for some two years, releasing him only to die in Paris. Some Palestinians believe that the Israelis had a hand in his demise. His simple mausoleum of Palestine stone and glass remains a pilgrimage place for Palestinians, many of whom are willing to overlook the corruption that the political movement he had started eventually deteriorated into.
The Riwaq Center (Center for Architectural Conservation) is an NGO that seeks to inventory, document, protect, rehabilitate and reuse Palestine’s architectural heritage buildings, with the additional benefit of job creation and community involvement. With 50,320 historic buildings in 422 towns and villages, it has undertaken what has already been a Herculean task but one that has already earned it a prestigious UNESCO World Habitat prize in 2006. According to Riwaq’sFarahatMihawee, the immediate priority is to protect 50 of those 422 identified centers and 50 percent of the the historic (i.e., pre-concrete) buildings within them. Sixteen protection plans for cultural heritage protection have been drawn up. Funding is currently available for three out of those 50 priority sites. For visitors interested in antiquities and community, Riwaq’s concept of a mapped Cultural Tourism Trail linking traditional villages is in the works with help from a Swedish International Development Agency.
We drove to the village or EinAreek (aka, AinArik), where we were welcomed by Father Giovanni Santee of the monastic community of St. Benedict. He has been in the Holy Land (here and in Jordan) for 30 years and is one of three brothers and five sisters who maintain this Catholic church as a “place of prayer and peace.” Although they are all originally from Italy, as part of their seven hours of daily devotion, they read the Old and New Testaments pray, say the Rosary and celebrate Mass in Arabic. He says that they maintain good relations with the increasingly large Muslim community and also with the local Imam and Orthodox priest. The clerics communicate on social issues, especially education, that affect the community but stay away from each others’ theologies. He says there are “no fundamentalists” in the village and that neighbors have “lived together for centuries.”
Back to Jerusalem
Even after short time in the gentle tranquility of EinAreek, it was a shock to return to Jerusalem passing yet another choked checkpoint, aggressive graffiti on the wall, children who should be in school hawking CDs and occasionally throwing rocks, and a tattered United Nations flag flying over a World Food Program warehouse.
This was the last full day of touring the West Bank.
I still have one-and-a-half days of touring to report on. Re-entry from this trip has been tough, and I think that my brain is still half-way across the Atlantic. But on this Fourth of July, as the United States celebrates its independence from England, I keeping thinking about the Palestinians and their struggle for their own independence. Colonial patriots fought against the Redcoats, a superior fighting force but one that represented a government an ocean away. The English would have described General George Washington’s ragtag forces as “insurgents,” even “terrorists,” if those words had been part of the 18th century vocabulary. But they prevailed, and 234 years later, America still celebrates July 4 as a day of freedom and liberation.
The Palestinian people want no less. And count me among those who want it for them and hope that they too will have their own Independence Day to celebrate, and that they and their Israeli neighbors will find a way to co-exist in peace.
Wadi Qlt, a final desert drive and the last checkpoint into Jerusalem.
At a Society of American Travel Writers’ conference in Israel a quarter of a century ago, WadiQlt (or Wadi Qelt) was the first stop out of Jerusalem en route to several days of hiking and camping in the Judean and Negev Deserts. Back then, we drove to spot a spot directly below St. George’s Monastery — it might have been by van or by US Army surplus personnel carriers that made their way through the Israeli Army to an outfitter called Desert Safari that might no longer exist.
It was along time ago, and I now can’t remember how we reached the inner Wadi Qlt canyon to visit the Monastery of St. George of Koziba. This 5th-century Greek Orthodox structure is built against the canyon walls — much like Jericho’s Mt. Temptation Monastery, but it was the first I had ever seen other than in a book or travelogue. Wadi Qlt is also the site of an ancient synagogue dating from the first century B.C. and part of a Maccabean winter palace. I don’t recall the synagogue (I’m not even sure whether it had been excavated then), but we visited the monastery and took a short hike along a shaded trail. I was still living back East and was unfamiliar with deserts, deep canyons and oases where there is a source of water, so this was all new climatic territory for me.
Since then, there has been considerable road damage to the route into the canyon, and it is impassable by bus. The Israeli government, which enthusiastically builds fine highways to its settlements, hasn’t repaired the road leading to this landmark monastery on land that is still in Palestinian hands — and neither has the Palestinian Authority. This time, the bus could only reach a pullout with a short trail leading to a Wadi Qlt overlook. A few Bedouins were selling jewelry (lots of camel bone), scarves and miscellaneous souvenirs. Business isn’t too good these days. I bought camel-bone earrings and a white scarf, which our guide Wasim (below, bottom image) said that, judging by the label, probably came from Iran.
As we neared Jerusalem, traffic built up and finally crawled on the approach to the city. We stopped at an overlook on the Mount of Olives for a view over the Old City of Jerusalem, which from a distance looks peaceful and harmonious. We then walked down a steep paved route. Partway down, we passed through a tranquil garden to DominusFlevit, a small, tear-drop-shaped church that represents Jesus’ tears as he looked over the Kidron Valley toward the city and wept for the destroyed Second Temple. In the church, a nun was reading for a small group of worshippers, who than sang a gentle Hallelujah!
The lower slopes of the Mount of Olives is covered with shoulder-to-shoulder graves, because in Christian belief that Jesus will return to Jerusalem, and in Jewish belief when the Messiah comes, it will be to Jerusalem and the Kidron Valley. It seems that everyone wants a prime spot for event. While a sister conducted a service at DominusFlevis, the only people actually in the nearby Jewish cemetery were black-clad men, praying at graves. Women are not permitted in the cemetery. There is also a Moslem cemetery on the lower slopes of the Mount of Olives.
We continued down to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed following the Last Supper and where Judas betrayed him. Ancient olive trees and lovely flowers make this a tranquil spot. The Church of All Nations stands beside the garden. One can only wish that the reality of Jerusalem mirrored the implication of that church’s name, but it is a city full of religious and political contention.
We entered the old city via the Arab Quarter and walked its narrow lanes, following the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, that today encompass the sites of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, at least according to some Christian denominations’ beliefs. Writing in hindsight, this section of Arab Quarter is less congested than the Christian Quarter, and there appear to be proportionally more residents and fewer souvenir shops.
The original church that dates back to the fourth century was damaged in the seventh century, destroyed in the 11th century and soon reconstructed. The cavernous basilica was seriously damaged by fire in the early 19th century, though considering the amount of stone, it is difficult to understand how. It is a complicated place — a church within a church built over other, older churches and small churches and chapels annexed to the main. Each one is presided over by a different denomination, and despite the obvious devotion shown by hordes of pilgrims from the world over, it is a place of sectarian rivalry rather than a place of peace.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the focal point for unholy tussles among a number of Christian denominations. The Greek Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic and Roman Catholic churches each control large parts of the complex, and one order of Eastern Rite monks has been living on the roof for centuries. Competing denominations have even come to blows. In 2002, a Coptic monk assigned to a spot on roof to maintain some kind of ancient claim on an Ethiopian place moved his chair from its official position into the shade, which the Ethiopians took as an affront. A monastic brawl broke out, and 11 monks were hospitalized.
As recently as 2008, two clashes that sank into violence. On Palm Sunday, a brawl erupted when a Greek monk was kicked out of the building by religious rivals and the police called to control the disturbance were attacked by the brawlers. In November, Armenian and Greek monks fought over something during the Feast of the Holy Cross. If Jesus did return, I believe he’d send them all to bed without supper.
The Jews don’t behave any better toward one another. On June 17, two days before our group’s depature for this trip, literally thousands of Israeli police were deployed in Jerusalem in an ugly dispute about court-ordered “integration” of the BeitYaakov girls’ school in a West Bank settlement. Ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi (Jews of European origin) parents defied the ruling forcing them to send their daughters to school with ultra-orthodox Sephardic girls (Middle East origin). The day we were traveling to Israel/Palestine, what was reported as hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews battled riot police, again in Jerusalem, in a protest against the city’s decision to open a municipal parking lot on the Jewish Sabbath, which they view as desecration of the day. Rioting and violence are seemingly all right.
Discord aside, of course, there was food in Jerusalem. We enjoyed another abundant lunch buffet at the Golden Walls Hotel in East Jerusalem and a talk by Father Attala Hannah, archbishop of the of the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem. After checking in to the Ritz Hotel, walked over to the Jerusalem Hotel Garden Restaurant for dinner to the sounds traditional, though over-amplified, Middle Eastern music. It was our last night in the Holy Land, and thoughout the trip, I felt personally safe, even walking through the dimly lit streets of East Jersusalem to and from dinner. In a greater sense, centuries of contention, conflict and violence continue to this day, with Jerusalem at the epicenter.
When it comes to records, an area of desert and water where the jurisdictions of the Palestinian Authority, Israel and Jordan meet, can lay claim to two impressive records. The Dead Sea is the lowest spot on earth, and Jericho claims to be the oldest city on the planet.
Before this day, I had never heard of the Umayyad people, let alone of Caliph Hisham bin AbdulMalek, whose empire stretched from the Pyrenees to India some 14 centuries ago. His palace (actually, a hunting lodge) just north of Jericho was destroyed, not by a marching army like Jericho’s city walls, but by an earthquake. Today, extensive palace ruins contain pillars, walls, mosaics and the stone frame of one lovely reassembled, intricately carved hexagonal window that is said to have inspired rose windows in French cathedrals. A small museum holds artifacts unearthed at the site.
Jericho Resort Village, where we had lunch, is a luxury property by any standard — at least judging from the immaculate lobby with polished stone and gleaming woodwork. Simon Awad of the Environmental Education Centre gave a presentation about threats to wildlife in Palestine, where he said that 537 bird species, 110 mammals and 2,953 plant species have been recorded — not really surprising since it lies at the junction of Africa, Asia and Europe. It is a migration corridor for some 500 birds and habitat to indigenous species and winter visitors. Habitat is continually threatened by dwindling water flow in the Jordan River Valley and Israel’s practice of burning Palestinian bushes that provide food and protection for the birds in the name of security.
Given other concerns, it is not surprising that environmental awareness is not a Palestinian priority. EEC is seeking to correct that with awareness-raising among Palestinians, youth education, community activities and hopefully a growth in eco-tourism. Symbolic of the political problems that impact the environment is that when Israel sought to designate the Palestine sunbird (Cinnyris osea) as its national bird, it had to be pointed out that it was already the official bird of Palestine. Both postal services have issued stamps depicting this lovely little bird. It seems that Israel wants everything that would be Palestine’s, including as much of its land as it can pepper with settlements, control of its water, control of the Palestinian people to move about their land — and now, their national bird.
Lunch was served in a large swimming-pool-view dining room, where a formal white-draped U-shaped table had been set up as if for a wedding party. The salads, as the regular array of dips, spreads and cold vegetables are called, were followed by two imposing pilafs, one with eggplant and one with cauliflower plus chicken or lamb.
In the afternoon, we toured the excavations of ancient Jericho (aka, Tell es-Sultan, below) located in a spring-fed oasis in the desert. Archeologists have found remains of 23 civilizations and date the original settlement to about 9,000 B.C., and the modern city has decided to celebrate its 10,000th anniversary this October — specifically on 10/10/10. Plans are vague at best, but such calender symmetry won’t come along for another century. Successive civilizations have inhabited this low-lying oasis 1,200 feet below sea level. Common citations include the Biblical reference to its habitation by ancient Israelites after wandering around the desert for 40 years, Marc Antony gifting it to Cleopatra and modern Israel’s capture of the city from Jordan during the Six-Day War of 1967. To the archeologically unschooled eye, the ruins don’t tell much of a story, so the many interpretive signs are useful. I just wish I’d had time to read more of them — despite the heat.
We went for a dip in the Dead Sea, stopping en route to Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in the winter of 1946-47 by two Bedouins. I can’t tell you the name of the facility that we used for our dip into the saltiest, lowest-elevation lake on earth, but it included a shaded lawn, changing rooms, indoor and outdoor showers, snack bar and wooden pier leading out to the warm salty, mineral-laden water. It’s a kick to just float in this remarkable sea, but I was mindful of the terrible degradation it has suffered.
With less Jordan River water to replenish it, the sea has shrunk. The water level has reportedly been dropping three feet per year and also shrinking in surface area, causing sinkholes to appear along its banks. Mining and extractive uses, sewage and effluent from fish farms further degrade the lake. While Dead Sea water and mud have therapeutic effects, there’s nothing healthy about the crud now allowed to flow into it. Since it is located between Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian controlled land, there seem to be no immediate prospects for mitigating the environmental problems.
For dinner, we rode six-passenger gondola cars (here called a cable car) from a bottom station next to the old Jericho archaeological site to a stony shelf high on Mt. Temptation, where Jesus is said to have fasted for 40 days and 40 nights and been tempted by the Devil. We didn’t fast but feasted on the terrace of a multi-level restaurant, cafe and row of small shops set into caves in the cliff. And did I mention the outstanding views of the valley below? A monastery also occupies the shelf, but it was not open when we arrived. We watched the sunset and the full or nearly-full moon rise.
We overnighted at the InterContinental Jericho, the best hotel of the entire trip — including the InterContinental Bethlehem where we stayed at the beginning. Stunning woodwork, attractive public spaces and really nice guest rooms made this a traveler’s oasis in a geographic oasis. Oh, to have a half-day of down-time there!
Next stop: Jerusalem.
Award-winning travel blog. Colorado-based Claire Walter shares travel news and first-hand destination information from around the corner, around the country and around the world.