After joining the UJS (Union of Jewish Students) political trip to Israel, I have decided to channel my experiences, thoughts and reflections in a diary. Here are just a few extracts;
This morning we were introduced to Mark Regev, the international spokesperson for the current Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. He was upfront and robust, and spoke with a great deal of political realism. I was particularly surprised by his admiration of what he called the “professionalism” of British journalism. This was not something I expected him to say in a post-Leveson era (not to mention the inherent bias against Israel in certain sections of the British media)! We then travelled with Richard from ‘BICOM’ (Britain-Israel Communications) to Bethlehem in the Palestinian territories. He was a great source of knowledge, coupled with moderation and a healthy dose of cynicism!
As our non-Israeli licensed bus bumbled through the checkpoint, I was immediately struck by the sudden change in landscape between the two sides. Once we passed the armed guards, I paid great attention to the graffiti on the security barrier. Concrete murals delivered to us everything from worship of Leila Khaled (the former hijacker in the ‘Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine’) to injunctions to “make hummus not walls!” It was very special being in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. Palestinian children proudly waved flags and played bagpipes in front of the Church of the Nativity.
We spoke with some Palestinian activists from ‘One Voice Palestine’. I was enamoured by their dignity, their eloquence and a profound wish for a peaceful future for Jews, Christians and Muslims. Unfortunately, their knowledge of certain facts was as liberal as their politics. One of them, Wassim, claimed that only 25 rockets had been fired from Gaza at Israel in the last decade! I doubt the residents of Sderot (whom we are meeting later this week) would appreciate such an under estimation.
We spent the afternoon in the hilly outposts and settlements of Shomron – a municipal district of what the Jewish settlers here call ‘Judea and Samaria’. In other words, the heartlands of biblical Israel. The rest of the world prefers to call it the ‘occupied West Bank’.
Growing up as a Jewish lad in Blighty, I had been conditioned to expect Jewish hillbillies and Kahanists. I was actually pleasantly surprised by the settlers we met from the Yesha Council. They can certainly do PR!
They evoked a similar desire for coexistance as the Palestinians we met at Bethlehem. At one factory near the large settlement of Ariel, it was impossible to separate Arab from Jew. One Palestinian worker told us whilst he dreamed of an independent Palestinian state, he feared the impact that a boycott of the settlements would have on his livelihood which was wholly dependent on his Jewish employer.
The Jewish settlers treated us with great hospitality and fantastic wine. Regardless of the political controversies and my own reservations, I had been exposed to a perspective of which I may not necessarily agree but which I have come to show enormous respect.
Its become a cliché but one cannot encapsulate the helplessness of it all. Many of these settlements are going nowhere. Neither are the Palestinians. Somehow, some heroic decisions need to be made.”
Its Christmas day! Today we travelled through the Old City and East Jerusalem.
Our guide Jeremy took us through the Armenian, Jewish, Muslim and Christian Quarters. For the second time in my life I saw the Kotel and the Western Wall – always an emotional moment for even the most secular of Jews (myself included). We thwarted the Islamic Waqf by entering the Temple Mount. The architecture was simply awe inspiring.
The Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre were all strong reminders of the importance of demarcating space in this most ancient of cities. The contesting Christian orders, the separate sexes in the Kotel, the ‘judenrein’ gardens of the Temple Mount… its as if the paving stones themselves have taken on a life of their own and chosen to reject certain soles from trodding upon them. But of course its not the stones; its the people who have demarcated them and imbued them with their arcane theologies.
Its fundamentally a part of the human condition to make idols out of objects. My sincere hope is that one day these sites will be open to all – they are products of the human imagination but also some of the greatest displays of human genius. Why then should they not be universal?
That afternoon we snaked our way through the impossibly arranged Jewish and Palestinian districts of East Jerusalem. Whereas Jews and Arabs practically lived side by side in the Old City, here they never see each other except for the odd rock or riot.
Finally we went to the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) in West Jerusalem. There we met both a reporter from the Jerusalem Post and Nachman Shai – a Labour member of the Knesset. Both were terrifically interesting in their own way. It was a real experience to not only be in a central arena of world politics but to hear delightful insights into the great and garbage of Israeli political life! They gave us great advice about presenting Israel’s case in Britain and how to counter the rejectionism of the most extreme anti-Israel elements.”
Today we visited the northern borders of Israel, particularly Syria and Lebanon. It seemed appropriate that on Boxing Day we saw the enemies of Israel in the boxing ring that is the Middle East.
At the Golan Heights, I peered over a snowy landscape reminiscent of Middle Earth. The cold bit my ears and made my ears ache. This wasn’t the only part of my body that ached. As I stared at the obscured horizon, I was in full knowledge that I was also intruding into an abyss which has claimed over 130,000 lives. We could in fact see Druze villages whose populations had been coerced or slaughtered by the various combatants.
Even more disconcerting was the view into Lebanon, just north of Qiryat Shmona in the Galilee. The cedar trees and citrus groves of the valley concealed a dark secret. Our guide Michael pointed us towards the red tiled houses and told us to look closer. We were being watched. Low and behold one could see the yellow and green banners of Hezbollah being draped out of their windows. This was not out of choice.
Michael – himself an Israeli veteran who had served in South Lebanon – told us that following the withdrawal of Israeli forces from South Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah militias had forced their way into these towns. Instead of executing all of the inhabitants for ‘collaborating’ with the ‘Zionist entity’, they had forced them to display their banners and install their rockets and artillery in their living rooms and garages.
I was acutely aware that thousands of rockets, imported from Iran via Syria, were aimed at us – primed to be fired on the first orders from Tehran. In the words of the late Carl Sagan, these were genies ready to be “rubbed out of their lamps”. UN peacekeepers stood watching this tense landscape with a pathetic indifference, as they had done so during the catastrophic war of 2006. I use the term ‘peacekeepers’ here very loosely.
I left these borders with an acute awareness of the vulnerability of this country. I now write in the seemingly safe confines of the Tel Aviv metropolis. Tomorrow these inhabitants may have to run for the shelters.”
Today we made our way to the notorious frontier with Gaza. We stood at a vantage point which was a memorial to the Black Arrow Unit (commanded by Ariel Sharon) which fought Palestinian ‘fedayeen’ guerillas in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Crackling shots could be heard from a nearby IDF firing range.
I saw the security fence and a few hundred metres behind it, towering blocks of flats. This was Gaza City – the domain of Hamas.
I won’t lie and pretend I wasn’t terrified – the threat of a Qassam rocket being fired at us was not neutralised in my mind by the heavy military presence, the ‘Iron Dome’ defense system or the sirens and shelters which would offer us sanctuary should a rocket fall.
Later that morning we saw what happened when this mentality coincided with the demands of everyday life. This was Sderot – a primarily Moroccan and Russian town that was just 2 km east of Gaza. The central bomb shelters had been turned into a rather erstaz looking playground.
The memorial to those whose lives had been claimed in rocket attacks was placed in the central roundabout of the town.
As I write now in Jerusalem this Shabbat morning, I have truly seen what it means to suffer on the Israeli side. As Simon our guide briefly reminded us, were we on the other side of the security fence we would have heard a different story entirely from the people of Gaza. I will do my best to remember them as well as the Israelis – and ultimately their common humanity.”
I am currently procrastinating in the departure lounge of David Ben-Gurion International Airport (near Tel Aviv). It has been an incredible trip this past week – even this morning we saw three excellent speakers; a legal spokesperson from the IDF, the Director of Communications at Google Israel HQ and the brand new studios for international news channel ‘I24’ (known as Israel’s answer to Al Jazeera).
I would like thank Maggie, Ben and Yair for doing an outstanding job in organising, coordinating and facilitating this trip with the UJS. I would also like to thank all the speakers and guides who have accompanied us, especially Lali from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She provided great insight into Israeli life – as well as a lot of hilarious banter!
Whilst I am still confused and on certain issues undecided, I feel I am returning to Britain better informed and even more determined to educate people about Israel and fight delegitimisation on campus.
The people of Israel I have met have shown an extraordinary resilience, spirit and humour that has truly inspired me. The Palestinians I have met radiated a humanity which has given me hope. One day I wish to visit the people of Gaza in order to truly understand the facets of their national and historical narrative.
I leave this diary with the famous words of Theodor Herzl, who once proclaimed “If you will it, it is no dream”. Israel is no dream – it is a beautiful reality, and a reality which I am eternally grateful to have experienced in such depth.”