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Diary of a divided land: Navigating Israel

A street craft fair in Jaffa, one of Israel’s mixed neighbourhoods. The words on the boy’s T-shirt, written in both Arabic and Hebrew, read “I speak Arabic”– part of an initiative to celebrate bilingual communities and give greater visibility to the Arab language. Photo/Dafna Kaplan.

Joanna Wane finds herself amid tumultuous times on a two-week trip to Israel and discovers...well, it's complicated.

Tuesday, 8 May

Jerusalem “returns the love” to Donald Trump for relocating the US Embassy from Tel Aviv, with mayor Nir Bakat announcing a nearby roundabout will be named in his honour.

“Carmel Market?” I plead, stabbing at an increasingly sweat-stained piece of paper with the address of our guest house in Tel Aviv. Our bags are slumped on the footpath but I haven’t yet mastered the Hebrew hoick – it’s Ha’Carmel – and the taxi driver shakes his head, then accelerates away into the traffic.

That distinctive guttural rasp, described as a “backward snore”, seems at least one thing the Jewish and Arab worlds have in common, to the ears of an outsider, anyway. Later, I come to wonder if both sides might find such an observation offensive. It’s the differences that define and divide people here.

Don’t bother with Tel Aviv, I’ve been told by friends who did the hippy trail back in the 1970s. A lot has changed since then. The city itself was founded barely a century ago, but we’re staying in the old Yemenite district near the market, with its narrow, cobbled streets and chill hipster vibe; even the street art has serious attitude. The beach is a five-minute walk away. I love it, instantly.

Bottles of beer and a pink shisha water-pipe for a day at the beach in Tel Aviv – a world away from the Gaza Strip, only an hour’s drive south. Photo/Joanna Wane.

If Jerusalem is the Establishment – old money, conservative, elegant – Tel Aviv is still a chaotic work-in-progress, a modern, secular city with more e-bikes than cars. Gay men stroll hand in hand; in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods, a woman might have stones thrown at her if she’s deemed to be inappropriately dressed. Everyone has a tattoo and a couple of dogs. It’s impossible to believe that the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip is only 80km away and within missile range; some homes in Tel Aviv have a reinforced “protecting room” in the centre of the house.

When Vardit Kaplan served in a combat unit as a teenager during her compulsory years in the army, she believed there’d be peace by the time she had children of her own. Now the youngest of her three sons is facing military service. In 2014, she joined thousands of Israeli and Palestinian women in a movement called Women Wage Peace, campaigning for a non-violent resolution to the conflict.

Many people have lost faith in even the possibility of peace, Kaplan says, but women bring a different voice to the table, with less ego and mistrust. “We create life and see a good life for the next generation as a value above all. Enough is enough. No more.”

Graffiti art on the Separation Wall in Bethlehem, parodying the cosy relationship between Prime Minister Benjamin “Bebe” Netanyahu and US president Donald Trump.

Thursday, 10 May

Israeli forces bombard Iranian military installations in Syria, in retaliation for missile strikes on the Golan Heights. “If we get rain, they’ll get a flood,” warns Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

From Carmel Market, the #16 Sherut (a kind of shared taxi) runs straight past Tel Aviv’s central station, where buses leave on the half-hour for Jerusalem. Somehow we miss the right stop and find ourselves in a deserted plaza that is, quite literally, at the end of the line.

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“Are you here by mistake?” a man asks, and we follow his trail of cigarette smoke to the bus he’s driving back into town. He won’t let us pay and we sit upfront, listening to the story of how his Jewish parents fled from persecution in Morocco when they were teenagers. Israel has good reason to barricade its borders, he tells us. In Arab countries, a Jew might be stabbed in the street. “They will slaughter us like lambs or cattle,” he says. “They have done it before.”

The next day, we cross the border into the West Bank to visit Bethlehem with Yamen, who runs a Palestinian tour company. He knows all about our Lorde’s decision to pull out of her Tel Aviv tour, after being lobbied by a pressure group demanding a financial and cultural boycott of Israel. Well, says Yamen, it worked in South Africa.

Few tourists dollars end up in Palestinian pockets. Israeli tour groups come to queue at the Church of the Nativity, elbowing their way down the narrow stairs to a candle-lit cave where Jesus is said to have been born. But there’s no insurance cover for Israeli rental cars in the Occupied Territories, and it’s easy to feel spooked: the official advice for New Zealand travellers is that the West Bank is a high security risk.

The day turns out to be one of the highlights of our trip. We swing by Mar Saba, a spectacular desert monastery, pay our respects at the church, and walk through a Palestinian refugee camp that began with a few dozen tents in 1950 and is now a ramshackle suburb housing thousands of people. On the outskirts of town, a young shepherd boy lets us cuddle his goat.

A Palestinian girl in Aida refugee camp, near Bethlehem. Photo/Phil Taylor.

It’s hard to explain, even when you’ve actually been there, but the West Bank itself is split into three segregated areas, under either Israeli or joint Israeli-Palestinian Authority control. The city of Bethlehem is Palestinian but flanked on three sides by the Separation Wall, a 700km “anti-terrorism” barrier. Buffering Israel from the West Bank, where it’s known as the Apartheid Wall, it also pushes inside its border – dividing communities and in some cases cutting off farmers from their own land. Travel is severely restricted, although many Palestinians have jobs and family on the other side of the wall.

Meanwhile, some 380,000 Israelis settlers have colonised large chunks of the West Bank, in contravention of international law. Many are Zionists who believe it’s their right to live in God’s promised land; others are young families who see it as a cheap way into the property market. It’s easy to tell which are the Palestinian settlements, though – they’re the homes with black water tanks stacked on the roof. Israel controls the water supply and it’s often shut off for days at a time.

The Separation Wall, which runs for 100km through the West Bank, has become a canvas for political protest. Photo/Phil Taylor.

Sunday, 13 May

Jerusalem Day. Thousands gather in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square in the early hours of the morning to celebrate Netta Barzilai winning the 2018 Eurovision contest for Israel. A satirical parody of her song “Toy” later airs on Dutch TV, set against footage of violence in Gaza.

Israelis call themselves “Sabras”, after a thorny cactus that grows in the desert. “On the outside, there are a lot of prickles, so don’t mess with us,” says Yehuda, our guide on a day trip from Jerusalem to the ruins of Masada and the Dead Sea. “But inside, we’re very sweet. You just have to know how to peel us.”

In the 1980s, Peter O’Toole played Roman legion commander Lucius Flavius Silva in a mini-series based on the siege of Masada, an ancient fortress built on a rock plateau high above the Judean Desert. After the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD, a last surviving band of Jewish rebels took refuge at Masada, where they held out for months, encircled by 8000 soldiers (the Roman camps’ remains can still be seen today).

What must it have been like, with no hope of escape, as they watched an enormous siege ramp taking shape below? When the walls were finally breached, the Romans were met with an “awful solitude”, according to an account of the time. Of the 960 holed up in the fortress, only two women and five children who’d been hiding in the water cisterns were found alive. All the others had been killed or committed suicide rather than be captured as slaves. It’s an unsettling story and I’m not sure how to feel about it, especially given what it’s come to symbolise for the Zionist movement.

Walking back to our hotel, sticky with salt from the Dead Sea, we’re caught up in a huge street parade celebrating Jerusalem Day, the “reunification” of the city in 1967 after the Six-Day War. Families dressed in blue and white – the colours of the Israeli flag – sing and dance in joyous, swirling circles. And for a few blocks, we’re swept along by the fervour of the crowd.

Left: Brothers fly the Israeli flag on Jerusalem Day.  Photo/Phil Taylor. Right: A Human Rights Day parade in Tel Aviv. Photo/Dafna Kaplan.

Monday, 14 May

The 70th anniversary of the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 – and the eve of Nakba Day (the Catastrophe), when an estimated 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled. In Jerusalem, a dedication ceremony is held to open the new US embassy. In Gaza, 60 Palestinians are killed as Israeli soldiers fire on protesters demonstrating along the border fence.

When the enormity of a horror is simply too overwhelming, it’s the small details that leave you undone.

A children’s game called Juden Raus! (Out with the Jews!), where a roll of the dice can “eliminate” a Jewish shopkeeper or business owner from the board. The 184 calories a day thousands of Polish Jews and Roma Gypsies lived (or died) on in Łódź Ghetto. The desperate postcards tossed from transportation trains on their way to Nazi extermination camps. The filmed testimony from men and women whose stories you follow hour after hour – only to learn, as each of them did at the end of the war, that not a single other member of their family has survived.

Yad Vashem is Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. An extraordinary complex on the slopes of Mt Herzl, above Jerusalem, its vast museum is a spike-like shaft through the mountain that begins with the rise of the Nazis in the early 1930s and ends with the foundation of Israel. Most devastating of all is the Children’s Memorial, funded by a couple whose two-year-old son, Uziel, was killed at Auschwitz. In an underground cavern, reflected candles shine like an infinity of stars for the 1.5 million children who died, as their names and ages are spoken in the darkness. 

Left: Street art in the hip suburb of Florentin. Photo/Joanna Wane. Right: “The Little Prince” on a remembrance wall in Tel Aviv for Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, assassinated in 1995. Photo/Dafna Kaplan.

For all the irony in it – that the creation of one homeland came at the cost of another’s – this is the closest you may ever come to understanding what it means to be Jewish. And why they will never allow themselves to be victims again.

Family and friends at home learn long before we do about the killings in Gaza. Here, the US embassy opening is all over the TV news. “I know Jewish friends, now very elderly, who were smuggled out by the Quakers or came on the Kindertransport, and their stories and those of survivors are so moving,” emails my sister, a peace campaigner who lives in London and supports the Palestinian cause. “But they are very distressed by the expansion of illegal settlements, the horrendous treatment of most Palestinians, the blockade of Gaza, the demolition of villages. How can Israel not have learnt from the Holocaust… and that the hatred of ordinary Palestinians grows daily.”

Palestinians at a checkpoint in Deir al-Ghusun on the West Bank, returning home after a family olive harvest on expropriated land on the Israeli side of the fence. Special permits are required to pass through the checkpoints, where long queues and erratic opening times can mean waiting for hours in the heat. Photo/Dafna Kaplan.

Friday, 18 May

Security forces guard the gates to Jerusalem’s Old City as thousands of Palestinians converge on al-Aqsa Mosque for the first Friday prayers of Ramadan.

It’s our last morning in Jerusalem, so we make a final pilgrimage to the Old City, but the atmosphere has shifted. Inside its golden stone walls, soldiers with assault rifles have barricaded the dimly lit alleyways around the Arab bazaar, with its teahouses, T-shirts and trinkets.

A spiritual centre for Muslims, Jews and Christians, this is the Holy Land’s most-contested slice of real estate (which is why Donald Trump’s decision to acknowledge Jerusalem as the Israeli capital by moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv has been so inflammatory). On days of religious significance, it’s a flashpoint for unrest. Last July, three gunmen and two Israeli police officers were killed in a shootout near the mosque. But on the main drag, it’s business as usual, as tourists pour past the barricades with barely a glance.

A security cordon has been set up outside Damascus Gate, but news crews outnumber police, with a phalanx of cameras trained on the gate. They’ll spend all day in the heat, waiting for something to happen. Nothing does.

Up the road, we pass a young woman pulling a trolley filled with protest placards. I ask what she was demonstrating about, assuming she’s either a Zionist campaigning for the right of Israel to protect its borders or a pro-Palestinian outraged by the violence in Gaza.

“Rape culture,” she says – and it’s a shock to be reminded life here isn’t defined exclusively by the conflict.

Security forces outside Damascus Gate, in Jerusalem's Old City. Photo/Phil Taylor.

Sunday, 20 May

Israel closes down for the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, abuzz with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s nuptials the day before. Best news headline: “Five Reasons Why the Royal Wedding was so Jewish”.

The historic port city of Jaffa is a 25-minute walk along the waterfront from central Tel Aviv. The community is far more mixed here, with Jews, Muslims and Christians sharing the same apartment blocks.

In 2012, a group of parents won the right to open a bilingual public school in Jaffa, where subjects are taught in both Arabic and Hebrew, and the religious calendars are combined. Today, some 340 kindy and primary pupils are spread across two sites, and there’s a long waiting list.

It’s one of six bilingual schools across Israel that are part of the Hand in Hand network, including an integrated high school in Jerusalem. The idea is far more revolutionary than it sounds. In Israel, the education system is essentially segregated, in practice if not by law. Jewish and Arab schools follow separate curricula, including their own “historical narrative”, and learn virtually nothing about each other’s culture and customs.

One of the founding parents in Jaffa, Anat Itzhaki, is the manager of bilingual education in the preschool. She says teaching is based on a “deep sense of equality, justice and respect”, whether it’s learning about Nakba Day or the Holocaust. “We believe children are the way we can show that a joint life [between Arabs and Jews] is possible.”

Children from the Jaffa Bilingual School, part of the Hand in Hand network, which is committed to showing that Arab and Jewish communities can co-exist harmoniously. Photo/Dafna Kaplan.

Itzhaki’s husband, Uri Kenan, works in IT. He grew up in an affluent Jewish neighbourhood and didn’t have any Arab friends until university. To most Israelis, Arabs are simply “the other”, he says. “That gathers everything that is ‘not us’ or what we imagine ourselves to be.”

Any solution to the conflict will require compromise, Kenan says, but many see any kind of integration or dialogue as a threat. “Sixty people were shot on Nakba Day and liberal Tel Aviv had a party! Because of Eurovision, not to celebrate the dead, as maybe some in Jerusalem did. But they didn’t care enough to stop it; they didn’t protest it. In Jaffa, we did.”

Many of the couple’s friends have chosen to leave Israel. That’s not an option for Itzhaki. “This is my place,” she says. “Not in the sense of nationality or religion. For me, it’s the smells, the food, the people, the memories, the songs. But I also want my children to grow up knowing Ramadan and Christmas – and believing they can change the world.”

An outing for families from Jaffa’s Bilingual School community. Photo/Dafna Kaplan.

Tuesday, 22 May

In Gaza, a group of Palestinians breach the security fence and set fire to an abandoned army outpost used by Israeli snipers during the border protests. In the west bank, an Israeli car comes under fire in an apparent drive-by shooting. In Jerusalem, demonstrators egg a car carrying U.S. consulate delegates. In the Hague, Palestine’s foreign minister asks the International Criminal Court to open an “immediate investigation” into alleged Israeli crimes against the Palestinian people.

It’s 30km to Ben Gurion Airport and this time, we pre-book a ride. The driver, who’s Jewish, tells us about a big football game his teenage son is playing that afternoon. Then the talk drifts to politics, as it often does here. He doesn’t have much faith in either the Israeli or the Palestinian side. Everyone has an agenda, he shrugs, and there are plenty of hardliners to the right of Netanyahu.

At Border Control, a slip of paper is all that records our departure – replacing the old passport stamp that gets you blacklisted by Arab countries that don’t recognise Israel. There’s an hour to fill before the flight, so I go on a fruitless search for some keffiyeh (head scarves) to take home as presents. Some 1.8 million Arabs live in Israel, around one-fifth of the population, yet their presence is virtually invisible here. Another three million Palestinians live in the West Bank but are generally not permitted to travel through Ben Gurion, instead having to cross the border into Jordan to fly via the international airport in Amman. The two million in Gaza can’t go anywhere.

I think about something Anat Itzhaki said, that the concept of creating a Jewish state only for Jews might have been a legitimate idea on an island where there were no people. “But when you come and there is a people here – the Palestinians are here – it’s much more complicated. The world is not empty.”

At the airport souvenir shop, there are Star of David necklaces, Hanukkah candleholders, rabbi figurines, hamsa “Hand of God” keyrings, and a lovely selection of Armenian ceramics. But apart from a nod to the Middle East with the occasional camel, it’s as if Palestine simply doesn’t exist.

Joanna Wane flew to Tel Aviv courtesy of Cathay Pacific, as winner of the 2017 Cathay Pacific Travel Writer of the Year award. She travelled privately to Masada and Ein Gedi Spa on the Dead Sea with International Travel & Congresses (email annak@internationaltc.co.il), and to Bethlehem with Green Olive Tours, a Palestinian/Israeli collective that aims to provide a “cultural, historical and political understanding” of Israel and the West Bank.

This article was first published in the August 2018 issue of North & South.