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10 Things To Know Before Visiting Israel and Palestine (original)
By Matthew Teller – my original below, CNN’s version here
The Holy Land makes for inspiring, depressing, fascinating, confusing travel.
To some, the chunk of territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is all Israel. To others, it’s all Palestine.
For most, though – as so often in this region of shifting truths and manipulated histories – it’s a bit of both.
Things are rarely black and white. The country is painted as a war zone, but it isn’t: most of the time, in most situations, travel is safe, comfortable and rewarding.
But you need to come prepared. Take the place at face value, and not much makes sense. What you see is often less telling than what you don’t see.
1: When you visit Israel, you’re also visiting Palestine
The sovereign state of Israel came into being – apologies for the euphemism, and for glossing over the previous few millennia of history – in 1948, on a sliver of land along the Mediterranean coast, in the northern hills and the southern deserts, including the western districts of Jerusalem. This is where Israeli culture and the Hebrew language still dominate.
The eastern parts of Jerusalem (including the ancient walled Old City), plus a kidney-shaped piece of land either side of Jerusalem, and smaller chunks around Gaza and in the Golan region did not form part of Israel in 1948, but have been occupied by Israel since 1967. That occupation is deemed illegal under international law. These areas are where Palestinian culture and the Arabic language are strongest.
A Palestinian state, should one ever materialise alongside Israel, is likely to be centred on that kidney-shaped territory, known to most of the world as the West Bank.
Pockets of Israeli culture thrive across the West Bank in “settlements” – Jewish-only townships whose presence contravenes international law. And pockets of Palestinian culture remain strong across Israel, from the urban clamour of Jaffa and Haifa to rural hamlets in the countryside and desert.
When you visit as a tourist, you’re visiting two nations overlaid on top of one another. See only one, and you see only part of the whole picture.
2: Terms of engagement
Onlookers frequently cast the conflict here as between Jews and Arabs, but since some Jews are Arab, and some Arabs are Jewish, that’s not quite right.
Axe-grinders on both sides like to evoke an enduring death-struggle between Muslims and Jews. But historically no such struggle existed.
In truth, the problems of the last century or so are political – and it’s worthwhile knowing who’s who.
Most Israelis (a political identity) are Jewish (a religious identity) – and most take pride in their country’s ethnic diversity: European Jews, Russian Jews, African Jews, American Jews and many others mix more or less freely.
(There’s a reason for that: if you can satisfy Israel’s religious establishment that you’re Jewish – according to complicated rules of birth, ancestry or conversion – you instantly become entitled to Israeli citizenship and state benefits.)
Palestinians (a political identity) – most of whom are Arab (a cultural identity) – are chiefly Muslim, but there are substantial minorities of Palestinian Christians and others. Many face restrictions imposed by the Israeli state on their movement, rights and access to services.
3: Centre of the world
Medieval texts called Jerusalem the centre of the world. Few people forget their first visit to the Old City at Jerusalem’s core, still encircled by the crenellated walls built by the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in 1538.
Within this tiny area, roughly 1km square, the Via Dolorosa – walked by Jesus – leads to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, reputedly where Jesus was crucified and buried.
Steps away, Jews pray at the Western Wall, the last structure remaining from the Jewish Temple, destroyed by the Romans.
Nearby, the Al Aqsa mosque, mentioned in the Quran, stands alongside the golden Dome of the Rock shrine commemorating the Prophet Muhammad’s mystical Night Journey.
In terms of religious significance, that’s quite a plateful. And in amongst the holy sites, daily life roars on: souks crowd the narrow, stone-flagged alleyways, children go to school, libraries jostle with restaurants.
For some, it can be too much. Around 100 tourists each year succumb to Jerusalem Syndrome, a psychiatric condition linked to the city’s atmosphere of intensity. Sufferers typically show signs of prolonged agitation and religious fervour, spending days – often dressed in white robes (typically a hotel bedsheet) – declaiming religious verses or preaching public sermons on moral purity. Most recover.
Do a walking tour of East Jerusalem, such as those run by Green Olive Tours, or make a pilgrimage to the Palestinian city of Bethlehem – where Jesus was born – and you’ll run into Israel’s infamous security barrier.
This eight-metre (26ft) high wall of concrete was built to stop Palestinians moving freely between the West Bank and Israel proper. It mostly runs inside West Bank territory, rather than on the boundary line.
With its armed guards, watchtowers and fortified gateways, it’s as stark a symbol of Israel’s military-enforced occupation as you could dream up.
5: Bubble city
An hour away from Jerusalem, down on the coast, secular-minded Tel Aviv swings along amid beach parties, designer brands and hipster attitudes.
During the Jewish shabbat – the day of rest, which runs from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset – West Jerusalem remains quiet in prayerful contemplation but Tel Aviv lives the high life, seaside promenades crowded, stores busy and lounge bars packed.
This hedonistic city, gazing west into the Mediterranean sunset, has also carved out a new identity as a gay capital, offering a uniquely accommodating welcome to LGBT visitors and residents alike.
In a country where the Jewish religious establishment generally calls the shots, Tel Aviv embodies a bubble of liberality and easygoing apathy. That’s great if you want to party – but Tel Avivians are also renowned for sticking their heads in the golden beach sand and pretending everything in the garden is forever rosy.
6: Signs of conflict
Israel has military conscription, which means you’ll often see young, college-age men and women in uniform, an automatic weapon slung over their shoulder, travelling between postings on public transport.
Having that weapon dangle inches from your face on a crowded bus while its owner laughs with her friends takes some getting used to.
Expect airport-style security at hotels, malls, bus stations and other public buildings, with metal detectors at each entrance and guards searching bags.
7: Leave the city behind
For the best of the Holy Land, get out into the countryside.
The West Bank is crisscrossed by walking trails. Many are devoted to nature, some – such as Birzeit’s Sufi Trails – to culture.
One of the best is the Abraham Path, linking the Palestinian cities of Nablus, Bethlehem and Hebron in a two-week trek – also manageable in shorter day-stages, with overnight stops at homestays and rural guesthouses.
Israelis have a long tradition of nature tourism, centred on national parks, wildlife reserves and forest walks, including the stunning Jesus Trail, which coils through the hills above the sparkling Sea of Galilee.
To stay, plug into Israel’s network of ‘zimmers’ – rural B&Bs ranging from farmstays to exclusive country retreats.
8: Red, Med and Dead
Israel is hemmed in by sea.
For the Red Sea, go snorkelling and beach-bumming in Eilat.
For the Med Sea, aim for the stunning cliffs at Rosh HaNikra.
And for the Dead Sea, float your cares away at Ein Bokek, where the salty waters of this inland lake effortlessly support your body.
9: Just deserts
Don’t miss the vast, scorching desert that fills Israel’s southern third – known as the Negev in Hebrew or Naqab in Arabic.
Head to the engaging Kibbutz Lotan, an agricultural community in Israel’s deep south run on environmentally sound lines: they have fine ecolodge-style cabins for visitors to get a flavour of frontier life.
But despite the camels and the tents, few of the Negev’s hippyish ecotours have much to do with the original inhabitants of this desert. To meet them in person, book ahead through Bedouin Hospitality – a social enterprise founded by civil rights activists – to be hosted among bedouin tribes and hear stories of desert life.
10: Prickly on the outside – and the inside
Sabra is the Hebrew word for cactus fruit – prickly on the outside, sweet in the middle. It’s also how native-born Israelis proudly describe themselves.
The metaphor is very apt: social graces aren’t high on Israel’s list of priorities, and service in shops and restaurants can be brusque. But if you peel away the prickly exterior of contempt there’s generally warmth and affability beneath. Maybe even a smile.
Yet in terms of tourism it’s almost as if the sabra has been reversed. Travel in Israel seems sweet: everything works, the history astounds, landscapes wow. But dig below the surface to peel back the ready-supplied narrative and you soon encounter the prickles of competing histories, neglected places and untold stories.
Intriguingly, the same word in Arabic, saber, connotes patience and tenacity: tough hedges of cactus are still used to mark land boundaries across the West Bank, and the idea is linked to a key concept in Palestinian self-identity – sumud, meaning steadfastness or quiet resolve.
One plant, two peoples, three interpretations. So typical.