Crossing the border from Jordan to Israel is like stepping into an alternate universe. Israel is a pocket of the west in a world of deserts, ramshackle cities (with the exception of damascus), and arabs. As such, crossing the border was an extreme reverse culture shock.
Its like teleporting from the backdrop of a BBC middle east report onto the set of desperate housewives. Its a strange experience, you start to doubt that a couple of hours earlier you were actually in a bleak and hostile desert surrounded by camels, scorpions, and beduins. Photo - This is the middle east? where did all the trees come from... temple mount, Jerusalem
As well as having westernised infrastructure and housing, Isreal is conveniently located on the western side of a narrow crescent shaped slice of fertile land that circles the middle east. This means that unlike its neighbours Jordan and Syria, Israel has trees and grass and all of those things that we take forgranted in NZ. Im sure that the fertility of the land is probably what lead the first settlers to the region. As such, Israel is known in the middle east as 'the land of milk and honey'.
When i arrived at the Israeli border, i was confronted by a dozen or so young ladies carrying machine guns (guys and girls between the age of 19 and 22 are serving a compulsory 2 or 3 year stint in the army, and are required to carry M-16 rifles or glocks. Some of the dudes look like a baddie off 'Rambo', and the pistol cladded girls looked like something out of 'Charlie's Angels').
One of the 'border control officials' grilled me about Pakistan and Syria. She didn't fall for the "I like to go trekking in the mountains" line. Oh no, she saw right through that ridiculous excuse. So she requested the assistance of the Israeli Intelligence Agency to consider my case for getting an entry visa. Ironically, about 15 Islamic people wearing the full traditional dress got straight through the border while i waited. I had to bite my tongue to stop myself from inappropriately pointing out this irony to the border patrol.
I waited patiently (playing my guitar) for three hours before they were convinced that i hadnt been training with Al qaida in the NOrth West frontier of Pakistan. Unfortunately, by this time it was too late to get on a bus to Jerusalem so i had to stay in one of the most boring towns on earth - Biet Shian (that may be a little harsh). I was exploited by the only local taxi driver, who was well aware of his monopoly power, as there was no bus running from the border to the nearest town.
Then the YHA informed my that a bed was NZ$66 for a bed. I laughed, thinking he was joking. He wasn't. I found alternative accommodation in a nearby B & B, thanks to some helpful locals.
I intentionally arrived in Israel just in time for the Hebrew New year, which i spent with my friend Dekels family in the Northern city of Haifa. The food, and the company, was fantastic. A big thanks to Dekel and family for showing me such wonderful hospitality.
Haifa is a pleasant green city, on the mediterrainean coast in northern Israel. Haifa is seen as being quite a relaxed city, with less political and ethnic tension that Jerusalem. However, Haifa is close to the Israeli-Lebanon border, and was the target of a series of rocket attacks from Hezbollah forces based in Southern Lebanon in last years month long war (I have since visited a Hezbollah camp in Beirut). Haifa residents (including my hosts) were forced to take shelter for several weeks in their mandatory bomb shelters, and were able to come out only at night (ROcket attacks ceased at night because firing rockets in the dark would reveal Hezbollahs position to Israeli patrol aircraft).
After the new years celebrations, we headed to Dekel and Michal's home in Jerusalem, where i crashed with the for a few days (thanks so much girls!). Jerusalem is full of extremist jews (dudes with funny beards and long black coats over suit and white shirt), extremist muslims (wearing robes and head scarves etc), and christians. There are also a whole bunch of preppy looking teens who look straight out of American Pie.
THere is a lot of tension in the air because there are so many religious fanatics living in a small city. The problem being that the city holds great significance for three religions, and each group have different ideas about how the world should be. I have noticed that the Israeli Jews and the Arabs don't want anything to do with each other. They seem to ignore each other on the streets. I haven't met a jewish israeli that has a muslim friend (though i'm sure there must be some).
More generally, the people of Israel are an incredibly diverse bunch, in terms of race and culture. Israelis themselves have come from all throughout europe, the US, Africa, and Central Asia. And then there are the muslims. This makes that activity of people watching rather fascinating - every day is like a costume party in Jerusalem.
I have found Israeli people to be somewhat sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinian arabs. However, those whom i have met have all strongly of the belief that the jewish state of Israel is both necessary and justified.
The general view seems to be that (1) the decision by the Palestinians to reject the UN proposal for the division of Palestine in 1948 (2) the ongoing attacks on Israel; and (3) corruption in Palestinian leadership is to blame for the bad situation in which the Palestinians now find themselves. When i say bad situation, i mean that the average wage of a Palestinian is US$1,100 per annum, compared to US$21,000 for an Israeli. Many Palestinians have fled from poverty in the occupied territories (Gaza and West Bank) to refugee camps located in neighbouring arab countries, im not quite sure how this would render them better off...
The Dead Sea was totally bizarre, you can sit in the water as though you are sitting on an inflatable tube, except with no inflatable tube. This phenonomon is caused by extremely high saline levels in the water. It buzzed me out much more than i thought it would. The problem for me was that the salt penetrated all of the cuts that i never knew that i had. I made a fairly quick exit from the water, but the blistering sun was not much better.
Tel Aviv is a much nicer place than i expected. It is a big city, but still has quite a cool funky vibe to it. It is referred to as the party city of Israel. Plenty of good bars and cafes lining a beautiful beach (for a city beach), and some shops that actually interested me. Nice to be able to chill out and swim on an urban beach without having to pay (i was asked to pay NZ$15 to swim in the sea of Gallilee, it didn't happen). I had a swim and then sat in a great beach bar that had free internet. It was a nice touch actually. Beyond my computer screen was a golden sand beach, and the glistening mediterrainean. NExt to my screen was a cold beer. At that moment I reflected on the bleak London winter that i will soon face, at least i'll be able to run in that climate without melting (i'm clutching at straws now). Photo: View beyond my computer screen at the internet pub in Tel Aviv - great idea that is.
After a few days hanging out with my wonderful hosts, i jumped on a bus to the Red Sea town of Eillat, in Southern Israel. This is where my next fantastical adventure began - Sinai Peninsula, EGYPT.
For more Israel photos, see my previous blog.