Among the Levantine countries I visited in the Middle East, my experience in Israel was certainly among the most memorable. Getting there, however, was no easy task. From Amman, Jordan, I took a taxi to the King Hussein bridge, which is one of Jordan’s border crossings into Israel. Despite getting there 15 minutes before the official closing time on Fridays (Noon), the King Hussein border was prematurely closed on the Israeli side, and the Jordanian border agent’s personal phone call to his Israeli counterpart on my behalf did not result in an exception being made–I had to try, after all, it’s the American way! My only other feasible options at that point were to spend another night in Amman or take a one hour taxi ride up north to the Sheikh Hussein border crossing, which closes later in the day. I opted for the latter choice, which turned out to be an interesting experience. My taxi driver, a devout Muslim fluent in English, invited me to attend Friday prayer and pulled over at a mosque halfway into our drive to the border crossing. I accepted his offer and went inside the mosque to pray. I noticed a few glances initially when I entered, as I most certainly stood out, but, as was the case in every mosque I’ve been to in the United States and elsewhere, the communal feeling of camaraderie felt present. After about 15-20 minutes, we exited the mosque and I purchased some soft drinks for me and my driver from a store next door as the weather was hot and dry.
Finally, we arrived at the border and I proceeded to enter another taxi which took me to the customs office. My Eritrean background, American passport, and Sudanese birthplace apparently warranted some thorough questioning from the authorities. I was taken upstairs into an office, a seemingly unique procedure, where I was asked about my nationality and my reason for visiting Israel. After a roughly 5-minute conversation, I was given permission to get my exit stamp, which I asked not to receive on my passport but my customs form instead (many neighboring Arab countries refuse entry to tourists who have stamps suggesting entry into Israel). Eventually, I boarded a bus that took me into Israel, a surreal experience given how much I learned and heard about the country. I walked into the customs office and, seeing that my passport contained stamps from “enemy countries” like Syria and Lebanon, agents asked me several interrogative questions about my reasons for visiting Israel, where I would be staying and who I would be visiting, as well as my reasons for going to neighboring Arab countries. My belongings were painstakingly searched and I waited over an hour while the authorities collected both my old and new passports and my Eritrean national identification card. Finding myself the only person left waiting out of a large group that accompanied me on the bus, finally a customs official returned my documents and I was welcomed into Israel.
Though sunset was still some hours away, and it being Friday, the observance of “Shabbat” was prematurely implemented. As a result, many businesses were closed and no transportation options, except for taxis, would be available for the next two days. I needed to get to Jerusalem, which was over 2 hours away, so my only option was an expensive taxi. My driver was a humorous and intelligent Israeli of Iraqi Jewish descent; he helped me get acclimated to Israel by giving me the historical context about the places we were driving past, in addition to talking much about current events. It didn’t take long before we delved right into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s said that one who visits Israel will never watch the nightly news the same way again. I could sense that would probably be my fate as well, and that turned out to be the case. Impressed by knowledge of the issues at play, considering I had no hotel reservations (just an idea of where I wanted to stay), my driver suggested spending my first night in Ramallah (the West Bank city that serves as the de facto capital of the Palestinian National Authority). I obliged and he proceeded to phone his Palestinian Muslim friend to meet us halfway–in a United Nations territory zone just on the outskirts of Jericho–so that his friend could take me to Ramallah. Given my driver was Israeli, he was not allowed to visit or drive into the West Bank, so him and his Palestinian friend had a unique business arrangement in which they referred customers to each other. The Palestinian driver wasn’t allowed to drive into Jerusalem or Israel so he would refer anyone going there to my driver and vice versa. I was inspired and surprised to see that two individuals, who were, as the news would lead you to believe, from enemy states and irreconcilable cultures, were not only friends but effective business partners. Their very real story, no matter how idealistic or naive this may sound, gave me hope–at least for a moment–that a wider peace between Israelis and Palestinians was tenably within reach.
Switching taxis, I was now speaking to my Palestinian driver as he was taking me through the West Bank. In regards to the political situation, he stressed that the majorities in both Israel and the Palestinian territories want peace; it’s the “big people,” he said, referring to the political leadership, that were responsible for the ongoing occupation and political tension; he may have had a point. Both sides have, at varying times, squandered away the potential for a comprehensive peace deal. As one of the most oft-cited cliches about the Middle East peace process goes, “the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” Many analysts say the failure of the 2000 Middle East Peace Summit is the ultimate manifestation of that saying, while others say such a view is far too simplistic. More recently, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, who is widely criticized for his seeming unwillingness to make legitimate sacrifices in the name of peace, has steered Israel–enabled by his right-wing Likud Party–into further isolation. The unification of the Gaza-based Hamas party (officially deemed as a terrorist group by countries like the United States, Canada, and Japan) with the West Bank-based Fatah party is likely to complicate talks with both Israel and the United States. Tensions are mounting and there is much talk internationally about this upcoming September, when the Palestinian National Authority, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, will unilaterally seek a vote of resolution at the United Nations General Assembly in recognition of Palestinian Statehood. The United States has promised Israel it would veto that vote in the Security Council, but others countries seem willing so far to recognize a Palestinian state within pre-1967 borders. Such an outcome, though largely symbolic, could further isolate Israel diplomatically and unleash a slew of uprisings and protests across the region.
As my driver and I approached Ramallah, I was immediately struck by the ostensible signs of wealth in the form of luxury car dealerships, electronic stores toting consumer products from the likes of Apple, and popular American style fast food chains. From the perch of central Ramallah, the notion of a Palestinian state seemed viable. I was dropped off at the center of town and proceeded to grab a bite to eat–a delicious “Shawarma”–en route to an internet cafe. I caught a glimpse in those first few moments of just how creative, tenacious and pliant the Palestinians–a stateless people–really were. There are three accepted denominations of currency in circulation in the West Bank–Jordanian Dinars, American Dollars, and Israeli Shekels. Hotels, shops, restaurants, and PNA administrative offices are found all throughout the the territory.
Searching online and talking to people on the street, I realized that I wasn’t going to find any place within my tastes and budget in Ramallah that night, so I decided to hail a taxi to take me to the border with Israel so that I could enter Jerusalem and spend the night there. It was upon crossing the checkpoint–where passing through metallic mazes so narrow that bringing my bags through was a challenge–that I experienced a sense of weltschmerz viz the humiliation that residents of the West Bank endure from the occupation. Israeli soldiers sometimes enter Ramallah heavily armed late at night in tanks patrolling the streets and neighborhoods. The checkpoints, which in many ways resemble a cattle confine, are staffed by impersonal Israeli soldiers who sit behind barricaded offices and electronically permit Palestinians to come to the window, one at a time, request necessary documentation from them, and then granting or refusing entry into Israel. Everyone you speak with, Israeli and Palestinian alike, will arrive at a different weltanschauung concerning the occupation, but certain qualities of it reminded me of an apartheid state.
Once I passed through the checkpoint I entered a taxi to take me to the hotel where I would be staying in Jerusalem’s Old City. It turned out that this hotel was in the Arab section of Jerusalem, which was captured by Israel from Jordan during the 1967 war. It had a very familiar feel as it was ostensibly quite similar to hotels in many other cities I had visited throughout the Arab world–the outdoor street markets blaring Arabic music, the food stalls serving Arab fare, the shops full of trinkets, and the signs in Arabic all throughout. Israel, as my driver who took me to Ramallah discussed, has a controversial policy about the status of Jerusalem and its Arab residents. Prior to 1967, when East Jerusalem was in the custody of Jordan, Palestinians had carte blanche access to the city, particularly its most endearing sites holy to Islam–the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Temple Mount. Since the city has come under Israeli control, all those who were still living in Arab Jersualem were immediately made into Israeli citizens. A wall was eventually erected around the city and now Palestinians, except those with work permits, are prohibited from entering Jerusalem, even to pray. Israel has since 1980 declared Jerusalem as a “complete and unified” capital of Israel, though most countries of the world, including the United States, do not recognize Jerusalem as its capital and maintains its embassies in Tel Aviv. Most scholars and analysts are divided over the legal status of Jerusalem and Palestinians see East Jerusalem (long annexed by Israel) as the capital of a future Palestinian state.
Politics aside, however, Jerusalem proved to make for an extraordinarily captivating and stimulating place, especially its Old City–a holy spiritual center full of relics and places of worship germane to the three great Abrahamic faiths . I soon found myself, in spite of my staunch secularity, exhibiting the symptoms of an obscure phenomenon referred to as “Jerusalem syndrome.” The infusion of strikingly divergent faiths, cultures, peoples, and histories aligned in startlingly close proximity and in dizzying display was an overwhelming experience that I find difficult to appropriately transcribe. I spent the course of a few days, interrupted only by a short two-day stay in Tel Aviv (a wildly celebratory adventure with friends on the day of the country’s independence) that only left me wanting to return to the “holy city,” exploring this monstrously epic and incomparably special ancient wonder. Highlights of this exploration included the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (the site where Jesus was allegedly crucified and is believed to be buried), the Dome of the Rock (the site where the Prophet Muhammad is said to have ascended into Heaven), the Al-Aqsa Mosque (the third holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina), the Western Wall (one of Judaism’s most holiest sites and where I gave a prayer in the name of world peace), and the Temple Mount (the most important religious site in Jerusalem’s Old City). It didn’t take long for me to realize why this city has been sought after for control by various conquerors, empires, and armies since biblical times.
For a small sliver of what this experience was like, here are a couple of video clips from a procession I witnessed at the tomb of Jesus at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre:
The security presence around Jerusalem was equally evocative in highlighting the city’s storied past and cherished status. Sightings of young IDF soldiers were ubiquitously prevalent. The prominent barrier wall encapsulating the city from the West Bank was also an unmissable sighting. Staying in the majority Arab-inhabited part of the city exposed me to the concerns and lamentations of the largest minority group in Israel, Arabs. Altogether, Arabs form roughly 20% of the country’s population according to government statistics. To my surprise, the locals from this community shared sentiments about Israel that I would expect to hear from disenchanted Palestinians. I heard lamentations about Israel’s characteristics of a military state, burgeoning expansion into occupied territories, and increasingly isolation and hostility towards its Arab neighbors. I found this striking for many reasons. Though I reasoned that discrimination against Arabs probably existed in many elements within Israeli society, the government had certainly taken measures to assert their rights as minorities. Among these “benefits” are affirmative action policies in higher education and employment. Israeli Arabs are also not subject to mandatory service in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). It has even been said, perhaps most notably by Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, that Israeli Arabs enjoy greater freedoms than their counterparts in every other Arab country. I also noticed that such minority rights weren’t as prevalent in the Arab countries I visited. Anti-semitic sentiments featured very prominently in Arab states, even those that ostensibly enjoyed good or peaceful relations with Israel (e.g. Jordan and Egypt). I even saw bookstores in places like Amman showcasing anti-semitic literature such as “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” with introductions from notable Muslim scholars praising racist figures such as Hitler-conferring him with the title “Abu Hitler.” Israel is also the most, arguably only, pluralistic democracy in the Middle East. There are many diverse schools of thought and opinion about the status quo, and many Israelis who advocate for issues contrary to the prevailing order, even those favoring Palestinians. For these reasons, I was surprised to meet the number of Israeli Arabs who seemed disaffected due to living as Israeli citizens.
After my otherwise wonderful time discovering the wonders of Jerusalem, I set off for Tel Aviv, where I was to meet with a San Francisco native and friend, as well as Israeli citizen, Sara Mandell. I boarded a bus full of young IDF soldiers, some of whom were unmistakably of Ethiopian descent, and bore an uncanny resemblance to the people of my family’s country, Eritrea. It was on this journey where I really understood just how geographically small Israel is. The ride from Jerusalem, a city on the country’s eastern border with the Palestinian territories, to Tel Aviv, on Israel’s western and Mediterranean coast, was just 40 minutes long. Though very close in distance, the two cities were figuratively, culturally, socially and psychologically worlds apart. Tel Aviv is a modern, high-tech, sexy and hedonistic city. I was happy to be there during Israel’s independence day celebrations. My friend Sara accompanied me to several houses to meet with some of her other friends, who were quite friendly and sociable. We partied all night and went down to the beach where a decent sized group of us had wonderful conversations until daylight broke. We proceeded to eat some breakfast at a popular diner in a fashionable area of Tel Aviv before returning home and getting some much needed rest. After that epic night, it was easy for me to see why they refer to Tel Aviv as the most lively city in the Middle East. However, unlike Jerusalem, most of Tel Aviv’s attractions can be seen within a couple of days, and I soon found myself itching to return to Jerusalem–a city that I believe planted a spell on me. In no less than two days after being in Tel Aviv, I boarded a bus to return to Jerusalem. Though this time around, I decided to use my perch in Jerusalem to make extensive forays, over the course of a few days, into the West Bank towns of Ramallah, Hebron, Bethlehem, and Nablus. This proved to be a fascinating, disheartening and sobering experience. I first visited Bethlehem where I embarked on the Church of Nativity, the birthplace of Jesus. As expected, it was a rather well developed part of the West Bank, and also an area where Israelis are not permitted to visit, much to my surprise.