Blood in the Sand
“What is your plan in Israel?” asks the customs agent.
“To travel around and see the country.”
“And what is this ‘travel’? Define ‘travel’ for me,” he orders, sitting back and lacing his fingers over crossed legs.
There’s a pause.
“Ahm, I’m going to catch buses from place to place and see some stuff,” I tried. I’m hung over and not in the mood.
“You know, Israel is a dangerous country and I’m worried for your safety,” he lies. “Are you planning to go to the West Bank?”
“No,” I lie back.
He calls my friend Shirley, who has been waiting for me for two hours in the arrivals hall, on the number she’d given me and I hear her shouting at him over the phone.
“He doesn’t know what he’s doing or where he’s going,” he tells her in abrasive Hebrew. “You know how young foreigners can be influenced by extremists.”
Three hours after my arrival, my passport is returned and I’m shown the door. Shirley greets me with hugs and apologies. “You’re not allowed to kill anyone while you’re here,” she says, “or I’ll be in big trouble.”
Shirley’s family takes me in like a son. In the mornings I take a clean, air-conditioned bus to central Tel Aviv, where I spend my days swimming, watching beach volleyball and sipping coffee in trendy cafes. I see women in bikinis for the first time in a couple of months. Many of them are pleased to meet an Australian.
“Are you Jewish?” they all ask.
Tel Aviv is cool and secular, a place where young professionals with 1.3 kids drive hybrid cars to jobs in high tech industries. Amongst all this are the open air markets, the best shawarma you’ll ever eat and the ever-present teenagers in olive uniforms with big black machine guns hanging from their shoulders.
One day, Shirley’s father Emil and younger brother Roy take me to go fishing in the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus apparently once walked on water. The sea is really a lake framed by low hills and old resorts, and as far as I can tell, there are no fish. Emil is a veteran of two wars and shows me a scar on the top of his head where an Egyptian bullet went right through his helmet and grazed his head in 1973. He was 19 when the countries surrounding Israel simultaneously invaded on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur.
“I killed lots of Arabs,” he says.
In Jerusalem, I stay with Shirley’s sister, Nataly, who is studying there. My first stop is the famous Temple Mount, a fortress-like hill at the eastern edge of the ancient walled city. In Jewish scripture, the Temple Mount is the place from where the world expanded into its present form. It’s also where Abraham supposedly went to sacrifice his son, Isaac, because god “told him to”. It is the most sacred spot in the world for Jews. So when the Romans kicked them out of the city in 70CE and destroyed the temple on the mount, the Jewish diaspora spread across Europe and the Middle East, barred from their “homeland” for hundreds of years. While the Jews were away, Islam swept across the region under the Prophet Mohammad. In 620, so they say, Mohammad was magically teleported from Mecca to the Temple Mount, before being sucked straight up to heaven to meet some other prophets. Thus, the holiest spot in the world for Jews also became the third most-holy site in the world for Muslims. As there was no Jewish temple, the Muslims built the gold-plated Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque to commemorate Mohammad’s ascension, and the Temple Mount remains under Muslim control today. Since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, the Jews have a “homeland”, but have had to make do with worshipping at the wall directly under the Temple Mount, known as the Wailing Wall. And as if all this wasn’t enough, Jesus had to go and get himself crucified just up the road at a spot now covered by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, making it the focus of Christianity as well.
You can feel the tension in the heavy desert heat that cloaks Jerusalem during the day. Hasidic Jews in heavy black suits, black hats, beards and curly side locks scurry through the Arab Quarter on their way to prayers, past Arab women swathed in hijab and youths in sweaters lounging behind displays of dates and tourist tack. Observant Muslims, too, wear beards and cover their heads in the baking heat. A lot of problems might be solved if everyone just stripped off a layer or two. Amongst all this are the American package tourists, Armenian monks, blonde tourist girls in pants short enough to excite the Arab boys and Spanish and Italian Catholics who, to simulate Christ’s final hours, pay to rent giant wooden crosses for the day and drag them around carrying on like madmen. On the western side of the old city, modern, Jewish Jerusalem stretches out in high rises, malls, shopping streets and eventually, suburbia. There are ultra-conservative Orthodox Jewish neighbourhoods modelled on pre-WW2 European Jewish communities, which is where the bearded black-hats come from. On the eastern side, Palestinian East Jerusalem is a warren of dusty streets baking in the valley between the old city and the Mount of Olives, overlooked by the Dome of the Rock and the Disneyland of cathedrals representing, it seems, each and every Christian denomination from Serbian Orthodox right through to the Assyrian Church of the East.
I take one of the wheezing blue buses that go to the West Bank, which Israelis make an uncomfortable joke of calling an “Arabus”, to what Israel calls a “security wall”. At the wall, which is there ostensibly to protect Israeli citizens from bomb-toting Palestinians, men with machine guns herd me and about 20 Palestinians through a series of cages, metal detectors and thorough bag checks. Extremist organisations responded to increased security by putting weapons in children’s schoolbags, so now soldiers rifle through pink Dora the Explorer backpacks as well as my own.
The wall cuts right through Bethlehem, a grey, modern town surrounded by illegal Israeli settlements built within the Palestinian West Bank and centred around an ancient church built on the site of the stable where Jesus is supposed to have been born. The wall is an attraction in itself, coated in murals calling for peace and support for the Palestinian people as well as the odd piece of racist, anti-Semitic graffiti. There are watchtowers and cameras everywhere, and in places the wall is blackened by fire. Refugee camps surrounding the town have become permanent places of residence, where children brandish the keys to houses abandoned by their great-grandparents as Jewish soldiers advanced to carve out their homeland under the shadow of the Holocaust.
During this most recent war, Shirley wrote me to say rockets were falling near her apartment in Tel Aviv. At the height of hostilities, she was in bomb shelters several times a day. Her boyfriend had been called up for military service. When she went to be with her parents, there were rockets falling there too.
The real losers in all this, however, are Palestinian civilians. Israeli soldiers and pilots killed around 2000 of them in the most recent war, and the world’s leaders merely ask Israel to “show restraint”. Imagine the international outrage that would break out (quite rightly) if Hamas had killed 2000 Israeli civilians. Hamas, the Islamist party that governs Gaza (a smaller, more isolated Palestinian territory separate to the West Bank) also cares little for the lives of its citizens, placing caches of weapons near schools and firing rockets from the roofs of hospitals and apartment blocks where families live. In the most recent war, they managed to kill a handful of Israeli citizens, while the placement of their weaponry brought bombs down on children and the sick. This is, of course, a PR win for everyone.
“Look at what they’ve done!” the Hamas official can scream at the camera.
“Look at what they made us do!” the Israeli politician can shout back.
The latest ceasefire is holding, for now, and the latest round of peace talks in Cairo will do nothing but maintain the status quo. Israel will go on squeezing the Palestinians under the auspices of security and the United States will continue allowing them to do so. Hamas will go on firing rockets from schools and with each Israeli bomb that blows away another apartment block, Hamas and other extremist groups will find new recruits in the fathers, husbands and brothers of the dead.