Excursion to Israel and Palestine

Saturday, 27 September, 2014

Words & Photography by Paul Vassiliadis

During the winter break, a team of University of Melbourne students travelled to Israel to join the archaeological excavations at Tell Es-Safi/Gath. I took the opportunity to tour both Israel and the West Bank.

Though there were many other travellers there, neither Israel nor Palestine are popular destinations for Australians. As such, I thought I would reflect on my experiences visiting one of the most intriguing places on Earth. Though I was expecting ubiquitous bulletproof glass and constant security checks, I instead found a cosmopolitan society more or less like ours.

My biggest impression from Israel and Palestine is how much more nuanced the situation must be, compared to what we hear on the news and social media back home. Alongside moderate Israelis and Palestinians, who generally agree on the idea of a two-state solution, there are also extremists on both sides. Talking with moderates from both sides, each conceded that it is impossible to placate the radical members of their respective groups, or to have conflict end in anything other than victory. Thrown into the mix are also a great deal of other groups: Israeli Arabs make up about a fifth of Israel’s population. There are also communities of Israeli Bedouin, Bahá’ís, Druze, Samaritans, and dozens of Christian denominations, all of which have had a presence on the same land for centuries and regard it as intrinsically sacred, but have varying interpretations of the conflict.

For the most part, both Israel and Palestine operate just like any other country. There are bars and cafés, cinemas, popular music and youth culture. Most of the people are friendly, modern and well-educated. I had thought I would be going to a place where guards would stop me every ten metres. But both Israel and Palestine were cosmopolitan and vibrant and my travels were resoundingly safe.

In many cases, co-existence between the communities is peaceful. For example, the main tourist attraction in the northern coastal city of Acre is its large mosque, which is run by Arab Muslims even though the population of the town today is overwhelmingly Jewish. I spent three nights in Nazareth, Israel’s largest Arab city. The population here is bilingual in Hebrew and Arabic. I noticed some pro-Palestinian graffiti on the walls, yet there are also Arabs in politics and the public service, evidently not totally opposed to the idea of helping the wider Israeli community. When an Arab boy in northern Israel was killed by a rocket attack from Lebanon, Jews and Arabs alike were equally outraged.

In just under a fortnight, I crossed between Israel and Palestine more often than most locals are able to in a lifetime. Despite being neighbours, many Israelis have never had contact with West Bank Palestinians, nor have the Palestinians been able to meet regular city-dwelling Israelis. The most bizarre part about it was that, as a third party, I almost had a free pass over the border.

Whenever I was in a vehicle with Israeli numberplates, we were never made to stop at checkpoints and could travel through Jewish West Bank settlements unhindered. Yet big red signs warned us that it was illegal for our driver to enter areas under Palestinian control, even for a short visit. On the flipside, taking an Arab bus back to Jerusalem from Bethlehem, we were forced to stop before the infamous separation barrier. As a foreigner, I could stay on the bus and watch as all the Palestinians filed out, underwent thorough security checks, and reboarded. Three teen boys were denied entry into Israel and had to walk back toward Bethlehem as our bus continued to Jerusalem. Even within Jerusalem itself, one would be hard-pressed to find a Jew in the Muslim Quarter of vice-versa, though tourists regularly stroll from one to the other.

It was normal to maintain a level of vigilance around Jerusalem, even when I was chilling out in one of the city’s many bars or cafés. Mostly, this just meant being a bit more aware of what was going on around me. Normality can quickly erupt into violence. On occasion, streets would be closed off and I could see smoke or hear sirens, though information was scarce. I didn’t feel unsafe, however, because the trouble was contained and far away.

Arriving at our dig site at Tell Es-Safi felt like entering a different world. Catching up with classmates from Australia and meeting people from a wide range of universities, it felt like summer camp. As we dug at the archaeological site and washed pottery, the countryside around us was quiet and peaceful.

Sadly, Tell Es-Safi did not stay that way for long. On the evening of my first day of digging, a siren sounded through the kibbutz in which we were staying. Initially I paid little attention, but when I heard screaming and running, I opened the door to my room. Speeding towards us above our heads were three balls of fire. There was pandemonium as we weren’t sure where our nearest bomb shelter was.

Over the next four days, we experienced twelve similar rocket attacks from Gaza, accompanied by a run to the closest bomb shelter.

It is impossible to describe a rocket attack. The entire day is spent in anticipation. Sometimes hours would pass without a siren, and we would forget that they could happen at any second. As soon as a siren would ring, everybody would drop what they were doing and proceed immediately to a bomb shelter. Over time, this became normal. It became routine.

At night, I slept with my shoes on and I carried my passport on my person at all times. Instead of showering, I would soap and shampoo my body dry and then rinse off in under half a minute, for fear of a siren going off. At all times, I was aware of the quickest path to the closest bomb shelter.

For four long, jittery days, the mood at Tell Es-Safi was one of constant alertness and fear, not so much for ourselves, but for our worrying families back home.

After those four days, I decided to cut short my time in one of the most riveting parts of the world due to concerns over my personal safety.

It is my deep wish to visit Israel and Palestine again, under more peaceful circumstances, so that I can continue exploring one of the most interesting and beautiful places on Earth.