Travelogue Israel and Palestinian Territories - 23 to 29 August 2017
From August 23 to 29, a group of 26 JCVPs traveled through Israel and the Palestinian Territories at the invitation of the Society of Israel-Israel to get to know their culture, religions and society. From the first day we realized that the conflict, as well as the local society, are infinitely versatile. A life could be spent getting to know all the groups and perspectives.
Of course, this journey began in Switzerland. In the early morning of 23rd August the participants arrived at Zurich Airport, more than 3 hours before departure. 3 hours before departure? Properly read. Whoever travels to Israel with El Al, has to undergo a special security procedure. With a little nervousness, we asked a brief questioning by the security staff. Not everyone was surprised by this survey. The variety of colorful stickers on our plane tickets, carefully placed there by the security staff, and the lack of clarity about their meaning, caused some uncertainty. After all, everyone made it to Israel. Some later than others. With a roundabout way, a member also made it from his world tour to us.
On the day of our arrival began our tight schedule with our tour guide Moshe Gabay, born in Switzerland, grew up in Schaffhausen, emigrated to Israel. From Tel Aviv we took our tour bus to Haifa, the first destination on our trip. It quickly became clear to us that Israel is actually a small country. Although it has about 8 million inhabitants like Switzerland, it is only half as big. Accordingly, it is crossed relatively quickly. In Haifa, Moshe introduced us to our travel program and explained some basic things about living in Israel, from kosher food to Sabbath rules.
The next day we started our tour of Haifa. This began with a visit to the Bahai Gardens. The Bahai are a separate faith group. Originally from Iran, they represent a universal religion whose faith has strong similarities with Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The Bahaitians around the world have about 8 million people who donate to the Bahai Gardens of Haifa, one of the largest sanctuaries of the Baha'i.
After visiting the gardens we drove to the Technion, the technical college of Israel. Israel is one of the world's leading countries in the field of IT sciences, which is reflected in the fact that large technology companies such as Microsoft or Google have now settled here. But also in the startup sector Israel is one of the leading nations. It has the world's 2nd largest startup sector. In any case, one difference with Switzerland is that entrepreneurial failure is better accepted in Israel. Only 2-3 percent of the startups founded here are successful. Failure is the rule, but is considered an important experience.
We then visited Um El Fahem, an Arab city in Israel. There we could visit a mosque and talk with representatives of a local Muslim peace movement about Islam and the similarities with other religions, as well as the lives of Muslims in Israel.
The program on that day did not end there. The same evening we drove on to the Sea of Galilee, to the kibbutz Degania Alef, the oldest kibbutz in Israel. What is a kibbutz you may ask yourself. The state of Israel was built out of the kibbutz. The Kibbutzim are originally small Jewish settlements that originated in the early 20th century, still in its present state, when the Ottoman Empire reigned in the area. They started out as simple wooden huts and had to learn to be self-sufficient early on. Therefore, the concept of kibbutz quickly became socialist communities, one aspect of which has survived to this day, even though there are not many kibbutz left. From underpants to food, everything is shared and all costs, from operations to weddings, are borne by the community. The kibbutz has given birth to many communities in Israel, as well as important parts of the infrastructure, and the Technion was built by its inhabitants.
We stayed at the Ohalo Manor Guest House, a hotel right on the Sea of Galilee, which actually belongs to kibbutz. This also shows that most kibbutz today are no longer self-sufficient and depend on income through trade with the rest of Israel. Here we also made first acquaintance with kosher wine, which is cooked and served lukewarm before serving. Near the hotel, the Jordan River rises from the Sea of Galilee. The Jordan River also forms the border between Jordan and the Palestinian West Bank.
On Friday we continued our program with a visit to the ruins of Capernaum, the city where Jesus and his disciples lived, and where the ruins of the house of Peter can still be seen today. From Capernaum we visited one of our most special travel destinations: the Golan Heights. The Golan Heights were conquered by Israel in 1967 as part of the Six-Day War, but from the point of view of international law they belong to Syria. Traces of this war are still to be discovered today on the Golan Heights. As a result, the UN has established a demilitarized zone in the area between Syria and Israel, which controls it with blue-helmet troops. The situation has worsened in recent years as a result of the Syrian civil war, due to the active fighting between militias of the IS and the Assad regime. The local situation was explained to us by Shadi Khalloul Risho, an Israeli-Lebanese Christian who maintains contact with Israel's Christian population in Lebanon. He also explained to us that the Christians in the area are Aramaic Christians, and they are still praying in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. The whole situation on the Golan became even more absurd as Israel set up a Coffee & Gift Shop on the Golan. So we listened to Mr Risho's explanations for a double espresso in an air-conditioned café, while a few miles away, war and suffering had been going on for 6 years.
Afterwards we visited a village of the Druze. The Druze are an Arab minority in the region, most of whom live in Israel. The special: they are both friends of Israel, as well as of the Assad regime, because many of their children studied, at least before the conflict, in Damascus. The villages of the Druze are accordingly close to the Syrian border on high slopes, where, it is hard to believe, skiing in winter.
The next morning we left the region by the Sea of Galilee and drove our bus on the highway along the Jordanian border across the West Bank to the Dead Sea. In just 2 hours we crossed the West Bank and saw in this short time for the first time some of the world's controversial Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Before we could enjoy the long-awaited cooling in the dead sea, we visited Masada. Masada is the ruin of the winter palace of King Herod and at the same time the scene of a battle of antiquity between Romans and Jews. At 38 degrees in the shade, we listened between the walls of the fortress of the history of this place. After that we had honestly earned the cool off in the dead sea. It was not an exaggerated cooling, because the Dead Sea is very warm and it is recommended not to swim in it for more than 15 minutes, because otherwise the high salt content of the Dead Sea will drain too much liquid. Nobody was disappointed, because what you hear so often from stories about the Dead Sea is true. You just do not go under the dead sea and always float on top, with the more elegant solution on the back than on the stomach, as some were allowed to learn. It is much more strenuous to try to get your feet on the ground than to let yourself go.
The Dead Sea, however, is, as one must be aware, a fleeting pleasure. Every year it sinks further and threatens to disappear in the long term. The sinking has the side effect that the receding water dries up the salt deposited underground, cavities form and thus the area near the bank repeatedly collapsed. Accordingly, due to this danger, there are fewer and fewer public beaches and tourist facilities. Jordan and Israel are also trying to agree on a project to save the Dead Sea. By means of a channel from the Red Sea, the Dead Sea is to be filled again with water. So far, however, this project failed due to the political will of both sides. The relations between Israel and Jordan are considered relatively good. "Relative" because Israel has only a peace treaty and official diplomatic relations with 2 of its neighbors, Jordan and Egypt. A situation that is almost unimaginable for us as a Swiss, but clearly illustrates the omnipresent Middle East conflict.
Finally we made our way from the Dead Sea to Tel Aviv. The fastest way was through the West Bank and Jerusalem. Along the way we also saw for the first time the massive concrete wall separating East Jerusalem from the West Bank. Israel has built a wall of more than 700 kilometers around the West Bank (only about 6% is effectively wall, the rest is fence). The international community regards this wall as illegal, as it violates the 1949 ceasefire line (the so-called "Greenline"), which, according to the Oslo Accords, would constitute the border between Israel and Palestine for a two-state solution. The wall encloses, for example, with East Jerusalem, which according to the Oslo Accords would belong to the Palestinian territories and is even considered by many Palestinians as the capital.
Tel Aviv itself is a stark contrast to Jerusalem. If Jerusalem is considered a holy city in 3 world religions and attracts a very Orthodox population, Tel Aviv is considered the ultra-liberal and world capital of the LGBT community. In addition to historic cities such as Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron, Tiberias and many others, Tel Aviv was founded in 1909 downright youthful. We can definitely recommend the nightlife.
On Sunday morning we were invited to breakfast in the residence of the Swiss Embassy in Tel Aviv. The Swiss Vice-Ambassador explained to us Swiss-Israeli relations as well as Switzerland's attitude towards the Middle East conflict and its commitment as a mediator. Switzerland actively supports the internationally represented two-state solution. However, the peace process is currently almost non-existent, which is why Switzerland is focusing more on projects for mutual understanding in civil society.
After visiting the embassy, we left Tel Aviv for Jerusalem. Our guide Moshe had prepared something special for the tour of the old town. He conducted the tour of the Old Town along with a Palestinian tour guide. In the old city of Jerusalem, every meter of cobblestones is marked by history. The old town is divided into the districts of different religions and even more so is this division in some of the religious sites. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is claimed by six different Christian groups, all of whom have taken their own holy places within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Experiencing 3 world religions in such a small space is impressive. The visit to the Wailing Wall is as touching as that of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Walls are also present here. The Dome of the Rock is hardly accessible to strangers, only Muslims are allowed to pray in it. These few meters separating the Dome of the Rock and Wailing Wall are carefully monitored from both sides. After the religious impressions we were also allowed to experience lasting impressions of the Jerusalem nightlife.
On Monday it was exciting again. We continued our tour in the West Bank. However, before we visited Ramallah, we made a short trip to a special kind of city: Rawabi. Hardly anyone has heard of Rawabi, but that could change in the future. To describe Rawabi in the context of the Middle East conflict is difficult. This is also because it is part of it that much less seems to fit into the puzzle of the Middle East than even the colorful parts that we already met. Put simply, Rawabi is a new Dubai, a luxury city, completely rammed out of the ground. Construction of the city began in 2012, and around 1'000 flats have been completed and a sizeable proportion sold. Rawabi has state-of-the-art apartments, fast internet, recreation areas, cinemas, cafes, fashion boutiques, an amphitheater with seating for 20,000 people, so everything your heart desires. It seems affordable too. Apartments cost between $ 65,000 and $ 180,000. Bashar Masri, the architect of Rawabi, can probably be described as Samih Sawiris Palestine. His biggest problem currently on demand in conversation with us: Ferrari has not yet moved to the store he has built for her. Something else impressed us: the majority of architects and engineers in Rawabi are women. The message of Rawabi is clear: Everything is possible here, here begins the economic rise of Palestine. If you look closely, you must realize that the facade of Rawabi is already crumbling a bit. On demand, who funded this city is the answer clearly: Qatar. Also, there is only one access road to Rawabi and this may actually only be used by construction vehicles because it is in Zone C. Now you are probably wondering what is Zone C. The West Bank has been divided by Israel into 3 zones: Zone A (Palestinian Security & Civil Agencies), Zone B (Israeli Security and Palestinian Civil Authorities) and Zone C (Israeli Security & Civil Agencies), and the only road to Rawabi is in Zone C. This means that anything going in or out of Rawabi will require a permit from Tel Aviv needs and this city every day the plug could be pulled. It is also noticeable that you hardly see people in Rawabi. This is also the zone classification guilty. Building is actually cheap, but because Zone C occupies most of the West Bank and hardly any building permits are granted, there is an acute housing shortage. As a result, many Palestinians, with the wise foresight that their children would one day move out and start their own families, have taken advantage of the unique opportunity that Rawabi represents, and bought an apartment, but they do not live in Rawabi.
After the short detour to Rawabi we came to Ramallah. Again, we notice that the West Bank is small. From East Jerusalem you need only 20 minutes to Ramallah ... unless you're stuck in traffic. In Ramallah we visited the Swiss Mission. The mission staff showed us exciting aspects of the conflict and interesting details about the situation in the Palestinian territories. In addition, they organized a discussion with representatives of Palestinian civil society and the PLO. It quickly became clear to us that there are more than the two political opinions of Fatah and Hamas in the Palestinian territories. However, representatives of civil society have made it clear to us that the desire for peace is strong, especially the desire for "true leadership and economic opportunity in Palestine". At this point, the political situation in the Palestinian territories has to be briefly explained. The West Bank is governed by the moderate Fatah of the late Yassir Arafat, but in Gaza by the extremist Hamas. About ten years ago, the last elections were held in the Palestinian territories and due to widespread dissatisfaction, for example due to widespread corruption, extremist Hamas won the elections. Today, however, Fatah is still ruling in the West Bank and many Hamas leaders are in Israeli prisons. For fear of a landslide victory of Hamas currently no more elections are held, which contributes to the general dissatisfaction. As a result, Hamas has taken power in Gaza. The Gaza Strip is always very small on the maps on TV, but is home to 1.8 million Palestinians. Because of Hamas' extremist stance and repeated terrorist attacks, Egypt and Israel have launched a land and sea embargo on the Gaza Strip. Hoping to break Hamas' political will in the Gaza Strip, Fatah has drastically reduced its supply of Gaza. The Swiss Mission in Ramallah explained the consequences of this policy. In Gaza, people only have electricity for 4 hours a day. In 2004, 98% of Gazans still had access to clean drinking water, compared with 10% today. It threatens an immense humanitarian catastrophe. There is therefore a certain power vacuum in Palestine, which also suffers the local population.
With these thoughts, we left the West Bank for Jerusalem. In the afternoon we visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial of Israel. This impressively demonstrates the cruelty of the systematically organized machinery of annihilation and the unimaginable extent of human hatred of the Third Reich. However, the museum goes further and shows how Jews from all over Europe tried to come to Israel after World War II in search of a new home. This path was also associated with obstacles and hardships for them, and at the end of this path is Israel, a country, a home. After the tour of the museum we met with representatives of the Swiss-Israel society and discussed racism and hatred and how such crimes were possible.
The day did not end there. In the evening we met with Abu Khaled Toameh, an Arab-Israeli journalist, the only journalist who writes for both the Palestinian and Israeli media, in particular the Jerusalem Post. Abu Khaled Toameh is probably one of the most impressive characters that we encountered on our journey. In just a few minutes, he managed to shake things up, which we thought we'd learned about the Middle East conflict in the past few days. He does not view the conflict as black or white, but critically considers both sides. He too advocates "true leadership in Palestine", but understands it as different from most. The tense situation on both sides has led to a lack of political will in the Palestinian territories to accept peace for less than 100 percent of what was demanded, which would make it impossible for any Palestinian political leader to afford such a peace 100 percent of the required completion. Also, because of the power vacuum in the Palestinian territories, there is a lack of mutual trust in the enforceability of peace. Economic advancement alone is not a guarantee of peace, but the culture of mutual intolerance must be replaced by a culture of peace and coexistence.
Finally, on the last day of our trip, we visited Sderot, an Israeli city right on the border with the Gaza Strip. Sderot has become known worldwide through the constant rocket attacks by Hamas. Sderot is also the reason for the "Iron Dome", the Israeli short-range missile defense system. Since this was installed, the Sderot police have practically only read together the shot-down rockets of Hamas. These are visible for everyone in front of the police headquarters of Sderot. From Sderot, Gaza and the wall surrounding it are clearly visible. Little is heard from there, only smoke is seen every now and then, because it often burns in Gaza. The critical supply situation is also omnipresent topic.
With this final impression, we made our way to Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv and home. Israel and the Palestinian territories will all be remembered for a lifetime. The conflict is not black and white, much more is the Middle East colorful with people, cultures and religions in daily life together. A human life does not seem to be enough to understand the diversity of this region. It is as complicated as it is beautiful and the impressions are formative. It was the same with our group. Friendships were closed and shared memories emerged. This includes our guide Moshe Gabay, to whom we especially want to thank, as he has introduced us to the diversity of this region and we would like to invite you to go skiing. Thanks are also due to the Swiss-Israel Society, which made this trip possible.
We are looking forward to the next trip of the boys CVP!
To view original article in Swiss, Click Here.
To see original translated artlice, Click Here.