Even if you’re not religious, everyone has heard of the Holy Land, including especially Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Everyone also knows about the conflict between Israel and Palestine, although one or the other may not be recognized by some, and it seems impossible to have an opinion on the matter without being considered anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, pro-Israel or pro-Palestine. The most confusing thing is to have both Israeli and Arabic friends, despite what religion they practice or if they even identify as Jewish or Muslim, since the Holy Land is also filled with Christians and atheists. Then there are also Arabic Jews, like the Yemeni’s who have a huge presence in Israel, and the Christians are divided between Orthodox, Protestant, and Catholics from all over Europe, North America and the Middle East. The land is considered holy by all these groups, but slight differences in beliefs and customs still make some hate eachother with a vengeance I’d never thought religious groups could tolerate.
the Western Wall
Despite the tensions and daily threat of terrorism, I still felt uneasy with the extreme Israeli security. I was questioned and searched both on my way in and out of Israel with utmost scrutiny, as if I had already been targeted as guilty of something dangerous but neither of us knew what. Traveling by public bus and walking around the pedestrian streets, I crossed paths with visibly armed civilians and 18 year old female soldiers carrying M16’s, yet Palestinians were stopped, searched, and detained if they even had so much as a kitchen knife on their person. I was never sure if people could see I was a tourist, or if they suspected I’d be Israeli or Palestinian, but so much artillery out in the open never made me feel safer. The Israeli police and soldiers, who are everywhere, especially in Palestine, would sometimes have their guns pointed on my from barricaded roof tops where I saw nothing but deep down the barrel of a rifle. It was always unclear who was protecting or who was suspecting.
the fortress of the Tower of David at night
Jerusalem is primarily in Israel, although East Jerusalem has a Palestinian town that you can only enter through a checkpoint. A part of touristy old Jerusalem, the Dome of the Rock, is a shrine that Muslims control, but still you have to enter through an Israeli check point and I couldn’t enter because it was the wrong time of day. I could visit the 19m high West Wall, the only part of the Temple Mount complex left standing and thus considered the most holy place in Judaism.
empty Shuhada street
I was also allowed to visit the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Bethlehem, the burial place of Abraham who both the Jews and Muslims consider a fore-father. The building around it is split in half between a Mosque and a Synagogue, and both entrances are controlled by Israeli’s, similar to the whole city of Hebron which the tomb is located. Its a city of 11,000 Arabs surrounding a fortified settlement of 500 jews protected by 1,600 Israeli soldiers. Still the Israeli’s control where the Palestinians can walk, open shops, worship, or run businesses, and the old town of Hebron and Shuhada street, once bustling market places, are ghost towns today.
a checkpoint in Hebron
Only in Tel Aviv was the city free of checkpoints, but instead there were random searches by security guards to enter any public spaces like bus stations or markets. Besides that, the city felt like a bustling neighbourhood in Manhattan, or a Mediterranean sea-side town filled with artsy cafes and high-fashion shops. It was amazing to me it was the same country as Jerusalem, a city plagued with constant terrorist attacks and an uneasy feeling of racism and religious strife. It was even more hard to believe that Palestine doesn’t exist to many, in a place where there were clear boundaries and lines drawn between them and the others, even as extreme as an 8m wall being built around the West Bank. Its not even possible to enter the Gaza strip, making it seem more of an intentional prison than a part of Israel. But who am I to judge, when much of the world still doesn’t understand, so I certainly couldn’t wrap my head around any of it, although something about it all seems very very wrong.