I’ve finished my 9 month long break from work and have moved to the Netherlands. For the moment my travelling is more of the short holiday variety. Here I talk about a very interesting ten day dipping of my toe into the promised land: Israel.

A Beginning

It's hard to say where the mythology of Israel's origins end and the real stuff starts. It's possible to take an extremely deep breath and tell a story beginning with God forming the first man from the dust on the temple mount, and arrive at Churchill carving up the middle east, all the while not being quite sure where myth gave way to serious history. The country and the history have a surreal air to them; the stories are too real and the reality too bizarre to tell fact from fiction. The bible tells us that the jews were enslaved in Egypt, then Moses led them to the promised land, where they set up shop, then, as now, with little regard for the people who already called this land their home. God, and later the British, had given them this land, it was promised to them, and that was that. We don't really know if this is true, or if the Jews were ever really enslaved in Egypt. Perhaps this was the founding mythology of the Jedaens; a mere story, concocted to justify the Jew’s ownership of the strip of land on the Eastern Mediterranean which we now call Israel. But then, on the other hand, much of what the bible tells us has some basis in reality: there really was a king David; a battle in Jericho, and a failed invasion by the Assyrians. So maybe the business with Moses and the Pharaoh really did happen, and that’s where the history of the Jews in this part of the world began.

My journey began on a misty Dutch morning in March, an Arab taxi driver scoffing that I was going to Tel-Aviv, and a special area of Amsterdam airport with extra guns and an overly zealous Israel immigration officer (are you a te-r-r-r-orist, have you eve-r-r-r been to I-r-r-r-aq, I-r-r-r-an or [the best one for the guttural hebrew r] Sy-r-r-r-ia) were the perfect framing for my trip to Israel. The fog was so thick that I could barely see the plane as I boarded it. Presumably the pilot couldn't see the runaway from the cockpit of the 747 either; the plane sat immobile on the runway for two hours before we could set off. When we finally did, the route took us over Germany, Turkey and across the mediterianian to the little Jewish enclave in a sea of Arab, which now goes by the name of Israel. All airports are the same, but this one has particularly zealous immigration officers who bombard me with, more absurd questions: "a-r-r-r-e you f-r-r-r-iends with any a-r-r-r-abs?", as if this would be a reason to refuse my entry. I wonder how many people have broken down under the heat of these interrogations and splurted out in a hurry: 'I'm here to join Hamas and marter myself by blowing up an IDF soldier'. I managed not to crack under Mossad (not Mossad's) questions and answered their ridiculous questions with a stoic detachment; they decided to let me in. Hello Israel, I'm here! Who are you? What are you up to? What are your dreams, your dark secrets, your passions and your insecurities? I doubt that I'll find out in the nine days that I'm here, but I can but try.

The 2 hour delay to the flight means that the sun has already set. Not an issue, except that it's Friday, which means the Shabbat. The buses and the trains have stopped, which means a taxi. As all stingy travellers surely know: a taxi from an airport is a last resort, but there really is no other way to get to Tel-Aviv other than a three hour hike through an arid semi-desert. I buddy up with a couple of German (what else?) backpackers, to split the extortionate fare, and we make it to Tel-Aviv. Our taxi driver is a Russian-Israeali, one of many who moved here after the fall of the Soviet Union: much more comfortable in Russian than Hebrew. I could probe more, but it's late and his English is stilted, so we pass much of the journey in silence.


My first impression of Tel-Aviv is that it has the outward trappings of any Middle Eastern city: it's all concrete and dust. Shaddy, winding alleyways smelling of piss and offal. But something is distinctly different: the people. It's not the fact that they are Jewish per se that sets them apart from their Arab neighbours; it’s more profound than that: they are hipsters!

Given that Israel is a country that bleeds history from every unassuming orifice, Tel-Aviv stands apart in it’s ostentatious lack of an ancient past. It was a centre of early zionist immigration when the state of Israel was but a twinkle in Balfour's eye. The adjacent town of Jaffa, however, which forms a continuous conurbation with its bigger steel-clad sister is mentioned in both Greek mythology, and the bible. Tel-Aviv has no such pretensions.

I check into the hostel. Along with the usual German and American clientele, in the room across from me three Israeli teenagers are enjoying a week of partying before enrolling on their compulsory military service of three years. A beer in the war Mediterranean air, and to bed after a long day of travel.

The next day I find a bicycle shop. Well not exactly a shop, but a few bikes chained to a railing in a square with instructions to send a whatsapp message to the owners. Send them some money via paypal, and they will send you the codes for the bikes. Very trusting on both ends. I get the code, the bike unlocks and is mine for the day. The city even has cycle lanes, something unthinkable for most cities in the middle east.

I take my bike down to the beach. Today is the Shabbat (i.e. day of rest), there are many locals strolling on the beach using various hipster forms of transport, including the ubiquitous electric scooter. I still can't really believe this place; think Amman meets San Francisco (I try to get the name Amman-Francisco to stick with my fellow travellers, but to no avail). I don't have too much of an aim today, except to explore the main districts of Tel-Aviv: Flortenin, one of the epicentres of hipster Tel-Aviv, Neve-Tedek, one of the first places where the early zionist came to live in number, which is almost empty on a Saturday, and the lively Rothschild bolevard, a beacon of life on this sleepy day.

From there I go to the big outdoor swimming pool; namely Gordon pool, a 50m outdoor salt-water pool. Only the hardcore older locals are here; it's still March, and not yet that warm. Still I take a long refreshing swim, and get some energy to explore more.

Next stop is the Modern-Art gallery, an avant-garde structure of angular steel and glass. The contemporary exhibits are well over my head, obviously I'm too much of a philistine to understand, but the permanent exhibit is well worth a look, a few picassos, Dalis etc. and some interesting stuff from the locals.

Outside of Tel-Aviv’s modern art gallery, the sun sets prettily by a solitary tree.

Back to the hostel with a stop for some hummus on the way. I meet a few people in the hostel and we go to a bar. It's mostly for tourists; I'm surrounded by young American backpackers, and I feel quite out of place, so I don't stay for too long.

The next day I head into the old town of Jaffa. Jaffa existed long before Tel-Aviv. Much of the architecture that survives is Ottoman in its origin. I take one of the free tours (although not really free as you are expected to tip). Our tour guide, Ben, tells us that the old town is now composed roughly equally of Arab-Christians, Arab-Muslims and Jews, who rub along, we are told somewhat pointedly, quite nicely.

This town, and the surrounding hills, were once famous for their eponymous oranges. When the British came here they were producing so many oranges that they had to make up more and more ways to use said oranges, from whence the famous jaffa cake, just one of the many gifts that this land has given us. On our way we see a small sculpture situated in the narrow Ottoman streets: a Jaffa-orange tree hanging dislocated from the ground, suspended from the nearby buildings. Perhaps signifying, our tour guide tells us, how the modern Israelis are detached from the land they live on. Now land in Tel-Aviv is so expensive that no-one actually grows oranges here anymore; even the ones that you can buy in the local souqs are probably grown in Africa. Tech start-ups are now more profitable than citrus fruits.

As well as oranges one of this land's most famous exports is Christianity. In the old town stands St. Peter's church, which was, our guide tells us, where a life changing decision was made. Around the year 70 ad into one of the local tanning shops wondered a man by the name of Peter, later St. Peter, and symbolic ancestor to all future Popes. In this smelly leather workshop Peter had a vision, in which angels threw animals at him, compelling him to eat. One of these animals was a pig, which was definitely not kosher to the good Jewish man Peter. 'Oh I've changed my mind, you can eat these now, and more or less anything you want', said God, through the mouthpiece of the Angels. Peter had carte-blanche to export Christianity to the goyim, and had taken the first step away from a Jewish sect to a religion in its own right. So, if you are a Christian you can thank this man for your bacon sandwich, and possibly the fold of skin at the end of your penis (if you are lucky enough to have one). Jewah had made the shrewd political compromise at exactly the right moment it would seem, and Christianity gradually spread to the Roman empire, thanks in part to St Peter's revelation; indeed a shrewd piece of rebranding from the omnipotent creator of all things in retrospect. The tanners where Peter had his pork based revelation is now a pretty church on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean, and a place of pilgrimage for bacon loving goy such as myself. Thank you St Peter.

After the tour I head back to the hostel through the various districts of Tel-Aviv, much more lively now that it's Sunday, and to a market. A delicious kebab, and a Libian man sells me some pancakes, wrapped in a napkin sporting Gadaffi's face. I pick up my bag and head to Jerusalem. A short ride in a bus, but a giant cultural leap from Tel-Aviv.


After the jews had taken the holy land, as God had promised them, they started building Jerusalem and the first temple on the temple-mount. The twelve tribes of the Jews split into the kingdom of Judea in the South, and the smaller Israel in the North. The Judeans decided to create a king, the most famous of which, David, founded his capital in Jerusalem, and began to build the first temple on mount Zion.

Clearly God had second thoughts about giving the Jews their promised land, as he sent the Babyloneans to invade, they won, and they destroyed the first temple, and the Jews went into exile. During their exile in Babylon the jews put their finishing touches to the first five chapters of the bible. Judaism took on its (roughly) modern form, asserting that there is only one God (some historians argue that Judaism had worshiped Yahweh exclusively, whilst believing that there were other Gods in addition to Him). This might have been the end of it, how many people have been invaded, slaughtered or assimilated into more powerful empires, except that the jews were different. They kept their identity; Judaism became less centred on a holy place, but on holy texts and customs, allowing the jewish people to keep their religion alive, even as a displaced minority.

The jew’s exile did not last long, as the Persian invaded the Babilonian empire they allowed the Jews to return to their holy land. The jews began to rebuild the temple, culminating in the work of the meglomanically king Herod, jewish vassel to the Romans. He began to build in a big way, probably destroying the temple that stood on the temple mount. Those who have been paying attention will, at this point, realise that if he did destroy the temple here the one he built would in fact be the third temple, however, for some reason, Herod's marble monster carries the moniker of “the second temple” to this day.

The first thing that one notices upon entering Jerusalem is that the people look very different from those in Tel-Aviv. If you were to close your eyes and imagine a Jewish person, unless you are very PC, you might imagine the kind of person you would see in Jerusalem: the men with tight black curls, poking out from under dark black hats; the women modestly dressed, with ankle length skirts, a world away from the beautifully tanned flesh on display in Tel-Aviv.

I find my hostel, and it is already getting dark, but I begin to explore the old town of Jerusalem. The hostel is a short walk from, but outside of, the old town, and the main entrance to the old town is through the Jaffa gate. Funnily enough the first thing I see when I enter is a money changer. (I didn't kick them out and found a religion, in case you were wondering).

The old town, usually overrun with tourists, is incredibly quiet at night, and it is a magical experience wandering these streets in quiet darkness in silence, alone apart from the cool sandstone walls of the old town. The western (or wailing wall) is one of the only sights that is open in the evening. After the Romans crushed the jewish rebellion (around 70 ad) they destroyed the second temple. Now all that remains of Herod's creation is the western wall of the old temple. The Western wall is now one of the holiest sites in all Judaism. Conservative jews come here regularly to pray against the exposed hunk of yellow brick-work. Men to the left, women to the (much smaller) section on the right. I'm able to go right upto the wall. The praying jews completely ignore my presence. There is a slightly voyeuristic feel to watching these people pray, like David Attenbourough narrating the mating turtles. Except that instead of a rutting turtle I'm watching a Hysidic man banging his head against a 2000 year piece of masonry. Surreal to say the least, and that's it for the first day of exploring Jerusalem.

Last remnants of Herod's "second" temple.

The next day I spend on the free tour of the old city, through the various quarters of the old town. One of the quarters belongs to the Armenians. The Armenians were one of the first empires to officially adopt Christianity. Early Christian pilgrims needed patronage and protection in their holy city, to whit the Armenians were granted control of one of the quarters of Jerusalem, hence the name. The Armeninan quarter is home to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, filled to bursting with Christian pilgrims, many from Orthodox Eastern Europe, every bit as fanatical as the jews banging their head against the wailing wall. This is where Jesus is supposedly (not) buried, as of course an actual corpse would give the game away. The myriad Christian sects, finding the sectarian tension between the jews and the Muslims not quite fulfilling enough, are in a state of constant squabbling with each other. The solution is that the keys to the church belong to a local muslim family, and every inch of the holy sight is carefully divided between the various denominations, a state of affairs known as the 'status-quo'. The monks must adhere to the strict demarcation of the various zones of the church with pedantic devotion. A good piece of trivia: look up from the main entrance to the windows above, and you'll see an orphaned ladder sitting abandoned on the window sill. The status-quo forgot to mention this particular section of the church’s frontal facade, and one of the workers left a ladder there between the windows of two of the sects (I forget which). Neither set of monks dare to fetch the ladder for disturbing the delicate peace, so it sits there uncared for to this day.

Our tour takes us to a small hill with a view of the dome of the rock. The muslim Waqf still controls the mosque and the shrine on what the jews call the temple mount, but the muslims call Haram al-Sharif. The Koran documents the night journey of Mohamed to 'al-aqsa' (the far sanctuary), where he finally ascends to heaven, meeting the patriarchs, culminating in Abraham, and finally the mighty Allah himself at the highest tier of heaven. After some back and forth between Muhamed and Allah they agree on the final rules for humanity to live by, and God declares, conveniently for Muhammed and his followers, that this is his final word on the matter, there are to be no more revelations, amendments, alterations or reworkings of the holy-texts. Although the Koran doesn't actually name check Jerusalem itself, saying simply the farthest place, Jerusalem was at the edge of the Mohammedan empire at the time of writing, and already a place of great importance to the Abrahamic religions, so it was generally taken as read that the “far-place” was here on the temple mount. The muslims still control the haram al-sharif, despite the fact that Israel controls the security leading up to the temple mount. Non-muslims are not allowed inside the dome, and the nearby al-aqsa mosque, but they are allowed to approach and see them from the outside. Alas, I never quite managed to arrive here at the right time, so this far glimpse of the golden dome is as close as I ever got, a reason to come back perhaps.

We snake through the other quarters of the old city, the arab quarter being the most striking, it being immediately apparent that something has changed as you enter the tight streets and explore the shiny goods on display in the many souques; it’s like being in Morocco, except with 3G. In many cities people congregate by race or religion, but here it is that much more obvious, and that much more codified. There is sharp line where Jewdiasm gives way to Islam. The people tolerate each other, for the most part, but they also live in completely separate worlds.

The tour ends and I explore a little bit more by myself, and then out of the old town to a charming market called 'Mahane Yehuda' and sample a delicious malawach, a Yemani pancake brought to Israel by the Yemeni jews.

The heavens open, and I'm completely unprepared, my assumption having been that the Mediterranean Middle East would be unending sunshine, and I'm forced to retreat to the hostel for the night.


The next day is an early start, as I booked a day tour down the dead sea cost, to the Roman fortress of Masada, a trip to an Oasis, and a dip in the Dead Sea. Our driver is a Kurdish jew whose family hails from Iraq, but was born here in Israel. I'm struck by this inherent tension between Israel nationalism and the myriad different ethnicities that in reality exist within Judaism. I'm told that there is an inherent hierarchy within Israel, even within the jews. First come those who hail from the western world, such as Britain and America, then come the Ashkenazi and the Sephardic (Spanish) jews, who are themselves divided between those who were wise enough to have left Europe before the holocaust, and those who were not. Then come the Arab jews, not quite as bad as being an Arab muslim, I’m told, but still Arab nonetheless. Finally, there are black jews, who hail from Ethiopia, not quite as bad as being a muslim, but somewhat of an underclass. I cannot tell whether there is real truth in this, but our bus driver seems to think so, and he wastes no time in letting us know his feelings, from the perspective of a Kurd, who are from an outside view essentially Arab (a charge which they vehemently deny). I am becoming side tracked, we are on our way to Massadda, past Bethlehem (where God was born) and Jericho (where Joshua brought down the walls by blowing his trumpet) and onwards towards the Dead Sea, which, incidentally, lies below actual sea level.

The cool(ish) March air becomes decidedly thicker and warmer as we descend below the level of the ocean and towards the receding banks of the Dead Sea. The Sea has been getting smaller and smaller, more and more the term sea seems like a mocking pejorative; maybe one day we will face reality and call it what it now is: a salty puddle. We pass hotels that would have once been sea-front, but now back onto an elongated squelch of mud that eventually, some 500 meters later, dribbles into the water.

Enough of that, we pull into the carpark of Masada. A roman fortress built on a dramatic promontory of rock. As the roman Empire began to flex its sizable muscles, but before it had expanded explicitly into this region, the Jewish king Herod (most famous for his attempts to kill our lord the word unto flesh, in his nascent form) agreed to become the client of the Roman empire, thus the Romans had begun their conquest of this land. The king, with his new found wealth and impunity, began to build on a big scale, including this rather fetching fortress in the middle of the Judaen desert, now adorned with a steel cable car, so that you need not go through the hardship of the hour long walk to the top. In the year 70 AD the Romans had well and truly set up shop in Israel, or Palestinia, as they called it. So much so that they demanded that the jews kept the image of the emperor in the temple mount. The Romans, with a few notable exceptions, were tolerant of the religions of the savages whom they subjugated, but there were limits, and of course all of their subjects had to pay the Romans their due fealty. Judaism, being somewhat more of an uncompromising religion, didn’t see the Roman’s point of view, and they stormed the city and the surrounding areas, claiming ownership once more of an area that we now, roughly, call Israel. The mad Emperor Nero was more than a little put out by these turn of events, and so sent his trusty general, and later successor, Titus to clean up the mess. The Jewish rebels, to their credit, put up a pretty credible fight, but in the end they were no match for the formidable Roman war machine, and were unceremoniously crushed. Although the gentle Roman general no doubt wanted to slap the wrists of the rebels and send them on their way, an example had to be set, so he began to systematically destroy the architecture and culture of Judaism, nailing a few thousand of them to trees, in inimitable Roman style. The scattered Jewish people fled to the known corners of the ancient world, their dreams of jedo-nationalism dealt a near fatal blow, but never quite relinquished. They would have to wait for nearly two millennia for that silently nurtured dream to awake from its millennial slumber. A hard core of rebels, who would rather die than give in to Roman rule, better nailed to a Roman cross, than scrubbing a Roman’s floor and worshiping his gods, fled to Herrod’s fortress overlooking the Dead Sea. Again we meet with this theme that lives in this land, here is a group of men with an idea, a belief or conviction that is so strong that it is either complete and utter adherence to the cause, or it is death. They choose the latter, and I don’t know whether or not to admire them. Whatever the answer, these brave (or foolish) souls held out against the mighty Romans in their hill-top fortress for three long years. The Romans could well have left them there, but the delicate pride of the Roman empire could not stand this slight on its dignity, so, instead, began to build an enormous ramp up onto the hilltop, so they could storm the fortress. The remnants of this can still be seen to this day (it’s enormous). Looking down onto the plain you can still make out the massive impressions of the two roman garrisons that lay siege to Masada. As they entered the fortress they expected a fight, but were met with silence. Joshephus, a jewish historian, who had jumped sides and was documenting the campaign from within the Roman ranks, said this:

They then chose ten men by lot out of them, to slay all the rest; every one of whom laid himself down by his wife and children on the ground, and threw his arms about them, and they offered their necks to the stroke of those who by lot executed that melancholy office; (396) and when these ten had, without fear, slain them all, they made the same rule for casting lots for themselves, that he whose lot it was should first kill the other nine, and after all, should kill himself. Accordingly, all these had courage sufficient to be no way behind one another in doing or suffering; (397) so, for a conclusion, the nine offered their necks to the executioner, and he who was the last of all took a view of all the other bodies, lest perchance some or other among so many that were slain should want his assistance to be quite dispatched; and when he perceived that they were all slain, he set fire to the palace, and with the great force of his hands ran his sword entirely through himself, and fell down dead near to his own relations. (398).

In short they killed themselves, rather than submit to Roman rule.

Looking up to the fortress of Masada, set perilously on a lonely promontory.

Another quote from Salman Rushdie sums up the obstinate refusal to compromise:

“What kind of idea are you? Are you the kind that compromises, does deals, accommodates itself to society, aims to find a niche, to survive; or are you the cussed, bloody-minded, ramrod-backed type of damnfool notion that would rather break than sway with the breeze? – The kind that will almost certainly, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, be smashed to bits; but, the hundredth time, will change the world.” Judaism is that one idea in a hundred; despite the efforts of many it is still here, long after the Roman empire has crumbled into dust.

The morning air is still, just about, bearable, so I take the snake path to the summit; somewhat more arduous than the cable car, but considerably less so than spending three years building a ramp. At the summit I admire the sweeping views of the Dead Sea, and the historically drenched desert. A beautiful place, and a highlight of the tour.

Our second stop of the day long tour is Ein Gedhi, a small oasis in the Jewdaen desert. Very much a beautiful stop, but ruined somewhat by tacky touristification. We’ve to pay to enter, and follow a single path up to the top. Upon passing the turnstiles it’s more or less one long queue to get to the top, so busy with tourists, like ourselves, is this particular spot. I can take or leave this kind of thing. Likewise our last stop on the Dead Sea itself. In my imagination a dip in the Dead Sea is quite appealing, but in reality the overfarming and damming of the rivers has led this once magnificent sea to recede significantly. Meaning the changing rooms that were once by the waterfront lie a 500 meter soggy trample to the murky water. The “beach” is full with Russians on package holidays. I hate to generalise about an entire nationality, but beaches full of Russians make my stomach turn. It’s slightly too cold to float in the water, but too salty to really swim. I do the mandatory rubbing of mud into my body; rather dubiously said to have miscellaneous and unspecified healing properties; and head back early to the car park for an overpriced instant coffee.

The trip to Masada was breathtaking, and for this alone the tour was worth it, but I could take or leave the other two excursions. Once again I’m done for the day, and head back to the hostel.

I’m now at a crossroads in my travels. I don’t quite have time to do everything that I wanted to do: explore the north of the country, with its beautiful towns and mountains; hike in the desert, or be a brave explorer and head into the West Bank. Browsing the website of the tour group that I had used earlier in the day I see a once-a-week tour into the west-bank, by the name of “the dual-narrative tour”, in which the lucky tourist is treated to the opions of one muslim Palestinian, and one zionist jew as he makes his way around the delights of the West Bank, presumably all the while trying to stop his two tour guides from killing each other. As luck would have it, the tour goes only once a week, but is running the very next day: sounds a blast, so I eagerly sign up and hit the hay in anticipation of another early start.


The start is indeed early. In the morning dawn light we are met by our first tour guide, Elliom, a conservative jew, with the attire to match. Eliom, who spent some time living in the US, is to take us, via public transport, to the town of Hebron. To those who follow the wrinkles of the Israel-Palestine conflict Hebron is the Disneyland of religo-ethnic conflict in the region. Much like a Derry/London-Derry of the middle east, but with better humus.

I’m predisposed to antipathy towards such a man as Eliom, but his bumbling charm is hard to dislike. He is clearly opinionated, but is able to present both sides of the debate with some dispassion. I like the guy. He takes us on a number of forms of transport, first an electric tram, then a 500 tonne armoured bus [I may have made this number up] towards hebron. The bus is built like a tank incase of unsolicited homemade incendiary devices that may find their way through the glass and onto our unsuspecting laps. We are told, as way of reassurance, that such an attack has not happened in quite some time; what exactly ‘quite some time’ means is not clarified, but Eliom, in traditional Jewish garb, seems relaxed, and so then are we. As we chop between modes of transportation we are regaled by history and personal anecdote.

The Jewish narrator, on our dual narrative tour.

“The jews and the Arabs of the regions will certainly try to kidnap you” he says and pauses dramatically: “kidnap your opinions that is!” The jews and the Arabs, he continues, are embroiled in some form of victimology poker. The victor is the one who has suffered the most severe atrocities. The Palestinian’s have had their fair share. Hebron’s main attraction is the tomb of the partiach: final resting place of Ambraham himself. As well as being the birthplace of monotheism, it is the site of the Palestinian’s straight flush in the game victomology poker. The site, holy to both religions, and shared between them, was attacked by an American-Israeli jew weilding an automatic weapon; close to 30 muslims were killed at prayer, many children; many more were seriously hurt. Fearing backlash, the Israelis imposed a curfew on the old, muslim, part of the city. The Arabs therein could not help but feel that they were being punished for being the victims of the massacre, thus compounding their resentment. A strong hand indeed! This is the incendiary context to the town that we entered as our heavily armoured bus pulled into the IDF checkpoint.

Our host explains that even the name of the area that we are now in is extremely charged. If you call it Palestine, it means that you are with the Arabs, but if you support the settlers it’s: “Judean Sumaria”. Otherwise one could opt for the slightly more neutral, if dull, “West Bank”, if you want to make an attempt at impartiality. Then there is ‘occupied west-bank’, which again puts you in league with the muslims. Eliome suggests darkly that we buy a shed load of “free Palestine” paraphernalia from the market and show up to Tel-Aviv airport draped in the tricolor flag with the red triangle; luggage full of these trinkets. One might miss one’s flight, he says with dry understatement.

In the Oslo accord Palestine was divided into three areas, A to C. A being those areas controlled directly by the Palestinians, small in area, but containing the main urban centres of the West-Bank. Zone B was to have shared control, and zone C controlled by the Israelis, including the recognised jewish settlements. Zone A, while populus, is small and disconnected, and forms Palestine proper. We might then call Palestine an archipelago, given that it is constituted from isolated urban islands in a sea of C. To enter the Arab zone we must pass through an Israeli checkpoint, with the mandatory teenagers holding automatic rifles. Jews are not allowed inside, obsensibly for their own safety. In our group is a young Israeli from Tel-Aviv, who pretends to be Italian; the guards ask us if there are any Muslims in our group; a young turkish woman keeps stum, presumably she can pass herself off as Greek or Italian to the eyes of the IDF. We are handed over to Muhamad (what else?), the Palesinian analog to our Israili Eliom, not without first being petitioned against what he is about to tell us. Our two guides seem, in a sense, to be friends; they have, after all, set up a business together, and depend upon each other for their livelihoods.

Muhammed takes us to the mosque side of the tomb of the patriarchs; the building is split into two, one side being a mosque, the other a synagogue. For important religious holidays the building is temporarily given over in its entirety to one of the two great Abrahamic religions; the devoted set about transforming the trappings of the building from Muslim to Jewish, or visa-verce. The building is ancient, and long predates the birth of Islam. The Mosque has various Greek/Byzantine trappings, that are glossed over by our Muslim host. A beautiful building, much like many of the mosques I have seen in the past. Muslims shun depiction of the human form, going for simple, repeating patterns, resulting in an understated grandeur. In the centre, deep underground, but exposed to the view through a metallic mesh, is the supposed resting place of our man Abraham. He lies in the centre of the building, rather conveniently, so that both religions can gaze down on him; the partition cuts him in half, so that his left ulna belongs to the jews, and the right to the muslims. As the hitherto unknown businessman from the Arabian peninsula by the name of Muhammed began his conquest of the region, the control of the tomb fell from the Christians to the then nassant Islam. The crusades reversed this state of affairs, but only briefly. Even as the Zionists arrived, control of the tomb layed firmly with the Muslims. But the jews never really left, in tiny communities, worshipping on the steps of the imposing building. If ever they ventured above the third steps they were beaten to oblivion by the occupiers de jour, a flush in our game of victimology poker. It was only until the six-day war in the 1960s that jews were granted some kind of access to their second holiest site; as Israel then seized the Jordanian held territory of the West Bank. The 13 year old daughter of the general in charge was lowered down on a rope through the narrow opening, down into the macabre tomb of the grand-daddy of all monotheism; Abraham, where now our tour group was gapping, and taking photos; rope and 13 year old girl, thankfully, no longer necessary.

The building is dotted with the tombs of the big names from the old testament, with whom I have only fleeting recollection. All the tombs have much of a muchness, but I can tick off the names of Abraham, Shara, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah. Or at least the boxes that contain their skeletons.

After the tomb Muhammed takes us through the Israeli checkpoint, clearly unhappy with the indignity of being searched and questioned by a group of teenagers holding automatic rifles, into the old town. Were it not for its inconvenient location, the old town would be a happy place to spend a touristy afternoon, a beautiful set of cool ottoman alleys built in yellowish stone.

Any sane individual would have left this town; it is no life confined to a small old town, with no real prospect of livelihood, and needing permission to leave. But then leaving would mean the settlers have won. Their discomfort is as a soldier lying in a trench. They can fight the Israeli occupation only by continuing to exist in this little enclave. We are taken to meet some of Muhammed’s friends, all courteous and with excellent English, eager to be listened to, begging us to tell their stories (you’re welcome). It’s hard to scrape a living here, and to live with dignity under the eyes of the jewish occupier.

Along the oldest street in the town, which would be a bustling marketplace under more economically vibrant conditions, a mesh of chicken wire covers the narrow alleyway. Atop one of the old buildings sits a shipping container, painted with the star of David and the Israeli flag. The mesh is to protect the residents below, or maybe the settler above, it is not clear. Trapped in the mesh is the rubbish that the settler throws down onto the defenceless residents below, along with the, sad to say, ubiquitous bottle of piss. At the end of the alleyway sits an IDF turret, replete with sniper, always watching and waiting. This is how it happens, we are told, first comes the settler, plonking his house on top of your house, then come the soldiers, employed by the Israeli state, not to arrest the trespasser, but to protect him, and to make his existence possible, and so to slowly grown the tendrils of zionism.

Amos Oz put it like this.

In 1945 the jews were a drowning man in the ocean, entitled to cling to a piece of flotsam as they drifted in the ocean. They were not, however, entitled to cast off the other survivor they found on the drifting wood into the cold ocean to die. [Paraphrasing slightly].

Whatever your political persuasion, you cannot deny the existence of this shipping container, and the three soldiers funded by the Israili taxpayer to keep him safe; to make his life possible. Full-house beats your flush. Our Israeli friend tells us that the rubbish is planted there by the Palestinians to petition our sympathy; this is implausible, but not inconceivable, however, the existence of the shipping container is undeniable, whenever the moral waters get muddied I think back to this image.

Muhammed is not much of the classical tour guide, but more of a man who wants to rant and walk quickly. He clearly gets bored of our presence, and points us into the new part of the Arab town and tells us to spend an hour exploring by ourselves. The new town is like many in the Middle East, full of bustle and energy, but the locals are polite, and pleased to see us. We are greeted with enthusiasm on almost every corner. There is nothing to see except for the fascinating humans; who are, in anycase, always the star attraction. In Hebron they seem so different to the pretentious cosmopolitan Tel-Avivians, or the serious and studious residents of Jerusalem. The residents are going about their day with ferocious intensity, whilst seeming to do almost nothing at all. It's as if we were visiting another country within a country, which in fact we essentially are. It's hard to go back to the trendy european vibe of mediterranean Israel after seeing the dirty secrets of Zionism hidden here.

Muhammed takes us to a friend of his, and we are treated to a delicious lunch, served by a local family. Our host, a woman, like so many Arab women, demurs as we try to make conversation or thank her, looking shyly to the ground and giving abrupt answers, to deflect the attention of the young men in her living room.

Muhammed is bored, and he tearsly rounds us up and sends us back through the checkpoint to his zionist counterpart. We see the tomb of the patriarch in its Synagogistic incarnation, now from the other side. Much smaller and less grand than in mosque form. The women are not allowed into the prayer room, but he naughtily hurries our group through, despite their chromosomal deficiencies.

We are then taken into the area of the town populated by the jewish settlers; sterile and lifeless compared to the bustle of the Arab section. The people here can not live organically, they must be fed on the life support of the Israeli state; their job is simply to keep their hearts beating and their buttocks firmly within Palestine, in this millenial conflict. They are doing just that.

We are led through the sterile streets to a piece of graffiti done by the local children. A series of pigeons addorn a wall, each being a type of person who lives here in Hebron. One is a tourist with a camera. The muslim pidgeon sports a sucide bombers vest. I can’t help but think that it would be impossible to grow up in a place like this without being psychologically damaged, on either side of the sectarian divide. Our guide pointedly says there is one pidgeon missing; the modern moderate muslim pidgeon, quite; and a generous concession I must say.

We are taken to meet one of the settlers; he tries to convince us of his cause. The jews were given a holy directive to settle this land, and the bible serves as a receipt to the Jews’ ownership of the West Bank, and in particular the tomb of the patriarchs. His argument rests on no-more than taking the bible as the literal word of God, a starting point which cannot be effectively refuted, and against which there is no possibility of progress. The other thrust of his argument is that the Arabs are savage and uncivilised people, who cannot possibly govern themselves, which he says without actually quite saying; nonetheless the message is clear. A truly slimey man.

Our final trip is up to the hill overlooking the town, through an olive grove where a shepherd tends a flock of sheep, the scene is archetypically biblical, and fittingly so, as our guide tells us that this hill has a claim to being the birthplace of monotheism. I honestly can’t for the life of me remember the grounds for this claim, and by now I no longer care; I’m happy to finally make it back onto the bus.

Islam has a lot to be critical of, they tend to ban the most interesting things in life: alcohol, women’s flesh, art depicting the human form etc, as well as often being psychotically ill dispossed to criticism; however, in this case my sympathies are alomst entirely with them.

Amos Oz also said that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a war of religions, but a war of real estate. Here I would have to disagree. Without the fundamentalist Judaism there could be no settlers, and no motivation to live in this sterile town, without real prospect of employment. Only the desire to access these holy sites can explain the actions of these settlers; in their minds they are one hundred percent righteous in their endeavours, because their holy book implores then to take these actions. Take this away, and they are without grounds.

Back to Jerusalem, with my eyelids opened, hard to continue now in this land, after what I now know. The image of the shipping container never far from thought.

With two girls from the tour I go to a trendy bar in Jerusalem to hear some live music and play some pool. This kind of easy freedom, single people of opposite sex freely mixing is seldom possible in the Arab world that I know. It’s easy to see why it is so compelling for us to side with our Israeli allies, they seem so much more like us compared to the outwardly alien Arabs, but a few kilometers from this hip bar the IDF snippers are watching our muslim friends tuck their children into bed.



To them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name [Hebrew: Yad-Vashem] better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever

Having seen a strong hand played by the Palestinians it is time to level the playing field and visit the holocaust museum, or Yad-Vasham, which lies atop a hill overlooking Jerusalem, at the very end of the tram that leads outwards from Jafa gate. The site is vast, and the subject matter familiar. There are many similar museums dotted around Europe, but they all have an undertone of flagellation (quite rightly of course). Yad-Vashem is unique in that it is the story told most directly from the victims point of view. I spend a few tiring hours exploring the site, and impressively haunting buildings. An ever burning flame in an empty hall, with the names of all the Nazi death camps; the carriage of a german transport train set on tracks coming out of the hill; culminating in the hall of names: a vast symmetrical structure with the names and photos of the many victims of the Nazi’s insanity, including my close neighbour: Anne Frank. It’s an incredibly well done exhibit, and there is not much more that I can say on the matter, except that this is for sure the royal flush in our ongoing game of victimology poker.

Man delights not me.

Not yet having my fill of West-Bank action I take the bus to Bethlehem, which is almost a suburb of sprawling Jerusalem. Stepping off the bus I am again unmistakably transported into this Arab country-within-a-country. Unlike Hebron, Bethlehem is well on the tourist map; it is, afterall, where God was born. Stepping off the bus I am accosted by taxi drivers pleading with me to let them take me here and there. In that unmistakable Arab manner they are mortified beyond words at my rebuff.

There is an enormous church, which I skip, aside from a cursory glance at the interior. The real reason that I am here is to spend the night in the hotel which adjoins the separation wall, built and funded by our man Banksy. “The walled-off hotel” boasts the worst view in the world. Each room is decorated with paraphernalia from the graffiti artist, along with an art gallery and a highly informative museum on Palestine. There is no show of presenting both sides, yet the museum is one of the best explanations of the conflict that I have seen. The museum is done in a self deprecating 1970s style science museum. We are greeted with an awkward animatronic of Balfour, jerkily signing Israel into existence, and then shown a video narrated by an enthusiastic British voice telling us about the various wars and intifadas since Israel’s inception in 1947. Worth a look.

In the morning I joined a walking tour given by the locals, taking us along the partition wall. A relatively recent creation, started in the 2000s amidst the second intifada (uprising). The Israelis say that it is an anti-terrorist measure, whilst the Palestinians call it a separation or aparthied wall, designed to keep the Arabs separated and divided. It runs roughly along the green line (the agreed upon area between Israel and Palestine), except that it is far longer than the actual border, as it makes regular incisions into Palestine, in order to gobble up a Jewish settlement and important religious sites. Military experts will tell you that such an extension of the area you need to defend is not tactically sound, making the claim that the wall is solely for protection implausible.

We are taken along a long length of the wall, covered in political graffiti, by our likeable tour guide. Despite the heavy subject matter he keeps a light rapport with our small group. The end of the tour is a refugee camp; the people have lived here since as long as most of them can remember. The refugees are so dug in that the ‘camp’ looks like a normal town. Not a nice one, but a town nonetheless. Except of course that it lies constantly in the shadow of a 10 meter concrete monstrosity. It is here, of all the camps in Israel, that the refugees are the most harassed, as this is where the IDF are most on edge. We are regaled by stories of constant brutality. Children who have been shot at or blinded by plastic bullets. All armies will have young soldiers who make crazy mistakes, but the response of the Israeli government to these atrocities is ambiguous at best. A soldier who shoots at a child is rarely punished. Despite the real complexities of the situation the Israeli government could make a small step of arresting illegal settlers, and punishing soldiers who commit random acts of violence. Our guide is moderate and fair; he has no animosity towards the jews, and does not conflate Zionism and Judaism. He even has compassion for the IDF soldiers, who he concedes are victims of their circumstances. All the Palestinian voices I’ve heard seem measured and moderate; I wonder if this is the norm, or if they are simply better at hiding their lunatics, they surely do exist afterall.

the dividing wall
Politically charged tour, set against political graffiti, on a concrete wall.

We are led back through the muslim cemetary which sits underneath an Israeli watch tower. The soldiers throw their rubbish down onto the cemetery, as well, as always, their bottles of urine. It’s hard to stay reasonable when your dignity is being pissed on in this manner. It’s also hard to see how this could ever end happily. The Palestinians have been held hostage for too long for the Israelis to risk releasing them; they are too angry, too desperate and too powerless to come to an arrangement.

Not a typical holiday then, I’ve eschewed the mountain top view and the mediterranean beaches for a tour of a refugee camp, and the chance to look at a few kilometers of concrete. Good decision I think.

Back again to the city of Jerusalem. This time, being so close to the checkpoint, I walk across. A bored soldier, again a teenage girl, grills me without too much interest and lets me pass, and I get back onto the bus into the city centre. The day is wearing on, and it’s Friday, so I take one of the last buses leaving Jerusalem, in order to fit in a final stop on this little break. I’m going to the northern city of Haifa, right on the seafront.


Haifa is a beautiful, chilled-out city in the north of Israel, built around a hill on a peninsula jutting into the Mediterranean. A fitting place to spend the final day of my travels. The owner of the hostel is a beautiful woman from Jerusalem. The setting is a million miles away from the incendiary atmosphere of Jerusalem, and the desperation of the West Bank. It’s like the last few days were a bad dream. This is the only side of Israel that many visitors see. The people here are almost as hipster as those of Tel-Aviv, and lean towards the left of the political spectrum. It’s possible to ignore what is going on in Palestine from here; but of course it is happening. But then life goes on, and so does my holiday.

I meet some Germans (again) in the hostel, and we go to a few bars. The final morning I browse the many splendid eateries in the German colony. Once a protestant German settlement in the 19th century, now Haifa’s poshest neighbourhood, and spend some time reading and beginning to write this blog. Naturally, I explore the baha’i gardens, Haifa’s tourist centrepiece. I’m not in a position to explain to you the meaning or the context of this cryptic religion, but suffice to say they are into gardens in a big way.

And that’s really it. Train back to the airport. Flight across the mediterranean. I don’t know what to make of this confusing place. Beautiful, generous people. A living breathing history so rich it is hard not to get bogged down in. Skeletons in closets. Complex situations. Achingly beautiful dark women. Amazing food. As I fly back across the mediteranean the plight of the palestinians goes on. As my normal life begins to pull me back in I think of them less and less, until the conflict fades from thought, another insoluble problem in the face of which I am completely powerless and ultimately, indifferent to. Still I managed to stuff my face with humus, and bring back a suitcase full of baklava, so not a wasted trip.

Looking down onto the Baha'i gardens, down to the German colony, and the mediteranian sea.