When I first entered through one of the city gates into Old Jerusalem I found myself squeezed amongst hundreds of people each holding an unlit candle, politely pushing and shoving each other to get to a particular spot in The City. With great difficulty I managed to squeeze my way through the narrow walkways and escaped through an opening where I encountered hundreds more waiting eagerly for something spectacular to happen. With a big question mark dangling over my head I surveyed the crowd looking for clues. After a few queries my ignorance of the reason for the public congregation was quickly abolished. [photos]
The upcoming event was related to the day of the week. It was Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday and everyone was waiting for the Church of Sepulchre to open up so that they could light up their candle with a fire inside the Church representing Jesus. Some devout Christians had come from far away lands with their own lanterns which once lit by the fire of Jesus would be taken back home. I thought for a moment, “Well, that’s a lovely ritual.” That was my first impression of Old Jerusalem.
After that interesting cultural experience I decided to rest up at one of the many Internet cafés tucked inside our holy city. Only a few minutes had passed before the unholy face of the city exposed itself. Sitting inside the café in the narrow alleyway I heard someone yelling outside. When I looked out I saw a group of men in khakis chasing someone down the alley. Bewildered by the commotion I went outside to investigate. I was told that an Arab man had stabbed someone and the police had used tear gas to control the situation. That was my second impression of Old Jerusalem.
Throughout my journey I realized that this type of violence is common and accepted by everyone as a way of life. Despite its holiness, I seemed to be always reminded that I was in a police state. There were guns and khakis everywhere and almost always sported by very young men and women.
Steering back into our quaint little ancient town, Old Jerusalem is a labyrinth of tiny streets lined with shops and stores and houses and of course numerous religious buildings. Enveloped inside a protective wall made of large ivory coloured stone it is essentially a religious theme park offering a smorgasbord of brand name religions and faiths. Every direction you look you will find a building or a monument or a person representing a derivative of one of the three main flavors of the Abrahamic school of thought, i.e. Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
The town is almost one square kilometer and it is roughly divided into four neighborhoods, the Jewish, the Christian, the Moslem and the Armenian section. Each neighborhood houses a significant monument corresponding to each religion. The Temple Wall is in the Jewish Quarter, and it is considered the most venerable object on the planet, as far as the Jewish faith is concerned. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is in the Christian Quarter and it is also considered the most respectable object on the planet according to Christians. It is where Jesus was buried and later resurrected. Now, the Moslem Quarter is a bit more interesting.
Inside the Moslem quarter there is a gated and tightly guarded area called The Temple Mount which houses two mosques, the Al Aqsa Mosque and The Dome of the Rock. The latter is the golden dome that represents Jerusalem as shown in the media everywhere. It is the most visible landmark of the city. The golden dome is not the Al Aqsa Mosque which is actually smaller and hardly noticeable. Within the religion of Islam “The Rock” which is surrounded by the gilded dome is the third most revered site on the planet because it is where Mohammad ascended to the heavens and met with God and Moses and obtained the blueprint for his new religion.
Now, it gets a bit complicated at this point because the Orthodox Jewish faith also makes a claim to this historic rock. According to them, it is where Abraham offered his son Isaac to God and it was also the center piece of Solomon’s Temple, before it was destructed. This very holy rock, which is actually hollow like a cave, has changed ownership many times throughout the centuries and it is currently the focal point of the Arab/Israeli conflict. Until they sort out this “minor” contention let’s look at this holy site’s entrance rules. Traditional Jews forbid Jews from entering the Temple Mount because they may defile their most sacred site.
Modern Jews argue that the sanctity of the site ended when their temples were destroyed centuries ago. While the argument continues amongst the Jews, nevertheless, they along with everyone else are allowed into the site as tourists during certain hours as long as they do not pray, unless they are Muslims. Once inside the Temple Mount site only Muslims are allowed into the two mosques. The rules inside the Temple Mount are set by the Muslim custodians of the site.
Now, the Orthodox Jewish ban did not stop Ariel Sharon, the former prime minister of Israel, from entering the site in the year 2000 which created a fury among the Muslims. When I questioned a tour guide who was witness to the event about the reason for Muslims’ anger, since non-Muslims are allowed to enter the premises, his answer was that it was the bullish style of his entrance and being accompanied by a large number of security personnel that upset the Muslims. From his explanation I gathered that the Muslims were offended by Ariel Sharon’s arrogant style as opposed to his faith. If that was really the case, it is yet another example of how clashing egos create history. That day marked the beginning of the 2nd Palestinian Intifadha.
Moving on and quickly swerving out of the way of politics, a few minutes later the sound of horns and drums pulled me out of the café once again. A colourful parade had begun and the procession kept marching throughout the alleys and squares of O.J. I sat on a bench and watched Christian monks in their brown hooded robes mixed in with the Rabbis in their black flannel coats and hats along with a whole host of other religious outfits each in an array of designs and colours. It was a religious feast for the eyes; truly a moving sight. The festivities ended with an Islamic call to prayer blaring out of the local mosque inadvertently producing an elegant finale to the entire religious celebration. And made the three spiritual flavors taste much better together. Diversity is always a good thing.
Outside the walls of the Old City, I was taken on a tour of West Jerusalem including an area which belongs to the Ultra Orthodox Jews. This neighborhood was quite fascinating. Firstly the inhabitants do not accept the State of Israel because they claim that only the Messiah can create the State of Israel, not simple mortals. Therefore according to them Israel is a blasphemy to the Jewish faith. This is another thorn in the Israeli government’s side which is simply ignored.
Since it was also Passover the shops lining this neighborhood were all closed. Just to be clear, this area was outside of Old Jerusalem. The other item worthy of notice was the sign posted at the entrance to the neighborhood which reminded tourists that the area is not a tourist site and that the photographer would risk getting hurt, perhaps hit by a rock. The sign itself was somewhat humorous and at the same time it was difficult to resist taking pictures of the locals in their ethnic Jewish outfits with the long coats and hats and the squiggles on the side of their faces. Saturday or Sabbath was the Jewish holy day and that explained the hordes of families dressed up in their best strolling through the streets.
The next morning I woke up to a glorious Bethlehem morning. Outside the guesthouse the breath of absolutely fresh air almost knocked me out. Surrounded by an array of evergreens, I was actually in a village near Bethlehem sitting on top of a magnificent hill overlooking the valley below and the rolling hills beyond. It was a dramatic contrast to the stale, smoggy and humid air I was used to back in Dubai, not to mention its flat treeless desert land. After a wonderful breakfast I took a stroll around the premises and discovered orchards and gardens of mint all surrounding the guesthouse on the hill.
Ironically from where I was standing a Jewish settlement recently built inside the West Bank was also visible. I was enjoying the scenery when J.B. called. I had met her the day before while sitting on a bench in the Old City. I couldn’t help overhearing her conversation with a Romanian woman sitting next to her. Her story was that she was a Christian American who had married a Romanian Jew in the U.S. He had introduced her to Israel where she was exposed to both Arabs and Jews for the first time. She was strongly pro-Israel at first but as time went by she found that the Arab hospitality and warmth had won her over. She was an avid Christian church activist but traveling back to America she felt alien with respect to the American ways and culture. The discovery in her new sentiments did not help the marriage either which subsequently ended in a divorce. Upon her return to Israel she was determined to become engaged in charity work and began by helping a certain Arab family living in one of the villages around Bethlehem.
Not wanting to miss a great opportunity to discover more of the surrounding area and its people, that morning I arranged to be picked up by my newly found friend J.B. and her driver and drive up to the next village. On the way through the rolling hills our friendly Arab driver pointed out several Jewish settlements and enlightened us with his perspective on the issue. I’ll elaborate on that later. We reached the family house where we met with the elderly parents and three of their ten children. With a request from J.B. we had stopped on the way and she had bought several kilograms of chickens and bread as donation to the family. Previously she had been just giving cash and now she had plans to purchase a sheep for them and to assist them in setting up a green house to grow vegetables. Her generosity was admirable given the fact that she had just sold her only possession, her house, in the United States and was collecting a small amount of social security. After hearing her mission back home in America some of her friends had opened up their purses and she was hoping that she would be able to get more funding as her plans developed further.
The houses in the Bethlehem region are noticeably large and attractive completely built with a striking cream coloured stone called Jerusalem Stone found in the Jerusalem and Bethlehem region. When we walked into the living room I was surprised to find the well kept set of sofas and love seats furnishing the entire room which was covered with large clean tiles. The parents were dressed in the typical local Arab costumes and were displaying their customary warm greetings and hospitality. The girls couldn’t enter the room because of the male driver’s presence. The young man of the house who was our contact person sat on the sofa across from us.
I was introduced briefly and then I began my inquiry into the hardships of living as a Palestinian under occupation. I was told by both the young man and the driver that the current restrictions placed on them had made life extremely difficult to continue. With some six hundred checkpoints placed all over the Palestinian Territories the entire country has been divided into several sub countries. For instance there are several regions in the West Bank which now have border control, including Bethlehem Ramallah and Nablus. Each city has a single entry point controlled by the Israelis.
To help the reader understand the situation better, imagine having just one entrance into the city of Los Angeles and every time you want to leave the city you must pass through that particular entrance where your passport is checked by Canadian patrols sitting at the gate. Furthermore imagine that Canadians are building blocks of townhouses next to your house in Los Angeles and they are permitted to carry handguns in case you decide to attack them. Also you may own some property in or around LA but you are not allowed to build any thing on that land because the Canadian government says so. Your water and electricity are also controlled by the same entity. And finally you as an American can not enter Canada without a special permit which is only issued on an hourly basis, meaning you must leave Canada by a certain hour otherwise you’ll get into trouble. Sounds strange but that’s essentially how it is in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. In Israel your I.D. card defines your ease of movement. The Israeli government issues four different I.D. cards. They are colour coded and permit different rights of movement.
And then there are the U.N. Refugees who are in camps all over the place. Their ID cards correspond to their location. The ones who fled to South Lebanon do not have any type of Identification Card, hence no formal status. What I found most outrageous and mind-boggling was the status of the East Jerusalemites, all Arabs. They hold a temporary Jordanian passport in addition to an Israeli travel document. When they leave the country they must leave this document at the border and obtain a receipt. Now if they lose this receipt or do not return within three years they will not be allowed back into the country, meaning Israel AND the Palestinian territories. The only way back in is to get your family in Jerusalem to hire a lawyer who will on your behalf spend six months proving to the Israeli government that your center of life is your birthplace, Jerusalem, and that your life depends on returning back to your home and family.
Amazingly enough while the Arab Jerusalemite is forced to spend time and money along with his dignity in order to convince the Israeli government to let him back to his legitimate home, a Jerusalem based organization, called Nefesh B’Nefesh set up in 2002 to promote Jewish immigration to Israel, is offering up to $60,000 to non-resident Jewish people from North America and other English-speaking countries to seek residency in Jerusalem and beyond. I’ll leave the reader to ponder about that one for awhile.
My personal experience at the annoying check points was not particularly pleasant either. Every morning when I took the bus from the guest house to Jerusalem our minibus had to stop at the checkpoint located at the edge of the Bethlehem region. All the passengers had to leave the bus. The bus had to be checked by the Israeli guards, who a few minutes before were standing about enjoying their morning cigarette. Then one by one our I.D. cards had to be checked and then we were allowed to board again.
Now back to the village in the West Bank; from the village we were driven to East Jerusalem where the taxi driver lived. Jerusalem is basically divided into two sections, East and West. East is where the Arabs live and the West is where the Jews live. Our driver graciously invited us to his home for coffee. It was a beautiful apartment overlooking the Jerusalem valley offering a great view of the Dome of the Rock. We discussed hiring a lawyer to help the young man back at the village to get a permit to enter Jerusalem so that he could attend university. As mentioned in the chart there are several types of permits, each specifying the duration permitted to stay in Jerusalem. One type permits you to stay till 5 pm, another type allows till midnight. If caught in the city after hours the permit will be taken away.
During the remaining days I managed to visit a few other cities in Israel including a settlement. I found that the entire country is quite segregated and each ethnic group keeps to itself. The status quo on the Israeli side was to accept the passive aggressive police state as a fact of life. And of course the active aggression was directed towards the Palestinian side.
One evening, while having dinner with an ex-military Israeli friend who had served in South Lebanon I came to realize how we classify and locally shape our prejudices towards a certain group. From his perspective Palestinians were the least educated and lowest entities on the food chain. He loathed having to communicate with any Arab. He was quite surprised when I informed him that in the Arab world, especially in a booming town like Dubai, Palestinians are in fact considered among the most educated and informed Arabs. The conversation taught me even more about how our minds deal with stressful environments. I was at first perplexed at his utter shock that I had visited South Lebanon.
“It was quite a surprisingly pleasant experience in fact,” I said. He remarked that he had also visited that place except he had a gun on his shoulder and he was sitting in a tank.
“It’s the most dangerous place in the world!” he added.
I assume we all travel to places for different reasons and therefore have different perspectives.
“Hmm, when was the last time a bomb went off in Jerusalem?” I asked.
“Two months ago,” he replied.
“When was the last time anything blew up in South Lebanon?”
“Two years ago.”
I could understand the difficulty in admitting one’s birthplace and a lovely city such as Jerusalem, as being among the most volatile cities in the world, but statistically speaking it is. Life becomes less stressful when we tell ourselves that our enemy is living in the more dangerous place, not us.
I also met Israeli Jews from the other end of the political spectrum. This group was generally pro-Palestinian and some of the members were affiliated with ICAHD, Israeli Committee Against House Demolition. Their views and comments were remarkably in contrast to my army officer friend’s view. They considered the Israeli government a fascist regime but also admitted that they were a minority and were labeled as traitors by some.
As an outsider, who was not accustomed to witnessing any form, signs or symbols of violence, therefore not desensitized yet, it was difficult to ignore the deafening silence of an eerie quiet civil war. It was eerie because everything and everyone seemed and looked normal yet you knew it was only superficial. Everyone was mistrusting of the other side and virtually bursting to tell an angry and outrageous story about the enemy.
One incident which left its mark on me is worth recounting. Most taxi drivers in Jerusalem are Arabs from East Jerusalem who speak Hebrew. One late evening my ex-army friend spent a few minutes instructing one of the drivers in Hebrew where to drop me off. I climbed into the cab and we took off. Most of the way we were silent but when I got out of the cab and wished him luck and expressed my hope for things to improve, it was like I had popped open a jar full of anger and pessimism. In broken English the Arab driver spent what seemed like several minutes explaining that there will never be peace in Israel. I waited till he vented and calmed down then said my final goodbye. Walking up the steep hill towards the guest house my throat was gripped with a lump. It had been one of my saddest days. Earlier that day, I had met and heard a lecture by a Christian Arab peace activist, Elias Jabbour. His father had been the mayor of a small town in Israel and had watched the Israelis move in and take over his town and his land and there was nothing he could do about it. Later that day I had also visited one of the Israeli settlements and saw what happens to a piece of land after it’s taken over. The taxi driver surely capped it off appropriately with his comments. It was truly a sad day.
Despite the rampant hopelessness I am still optimistic that eventually the Israelis will come to their senses and realize that living in a perpetual police state reminiscent of the Nazi days is not sustainable nor is it conducive to building a healthy and long lasting society. Creating an initial fear in the citizen’s mind and then instigating anger on the other side resulting in terrorist activities from that side which in turn feed the initial fear creates a vicious cycle of fear to anger and back to fear. Any sensible person will conclude that this system will eventually implode. I believe a fundamental change in attitude has to be made by the Israelis and begin to place themselves in their “enemy’s” shoe. They may in fact find that they have become their own worst enemies. With my recent anecdotes and photos I hope to encourage readers to visit Israel and the Palestinian Territories, to experience life in the home of the longest running conflict and share their first hand observation as well.
* PART 1: Road to Jerusalem, literally