I was in Israel & Palestine for 2.5 weeks in Dec 2012. There were 5+1 things in particular that surprised me.
1) Mea Shearim
Mea Shearim is a neighbourhood of Jerusalem where ultra-Orthodox Jewish people live. It was established in 1874, in Ottoman times, and, more importantly, people here are anti-Zionist and anti-Israel. They are sometimes referred to as Palestinian Jews. They believe that Zionism is a man-made concept and that the lands where Israel is should be given to them by the messenger who will return to Earth, not by man. They get on well with Palestinians and often demonstrate against the state of Israel alongside them.
Significant portion of men in this community refuse to work and refuse to do military service. Instead, they collect benefits from the state and study the Torah all day long. The neighbourhood looks like a ghetto from the 1940s and residents are relatively poor. When I was taking photographs a few little kids shunned my camera. At one of the parks children posed for the camera but their mother came over and ushered them away.
Hebron is a divided city in the West Bank. But it’s not like other divided cities in history in that one side is Palestinian and the other Israeli. No! There are 180,000 Palestinians and 500 Israelis (protected by 2000 Israeli soldiers). In the historical centre of the town, one building is Palestinian, one Israeli, one Palestinian, one Israeli, dotted here and there.
There is the Abraham Mosque, which is divided into two — it’s sacred for Jews too as it’s built on Abraham’s tomb. It was split after an American Jewish settler opened fire on people praying in 1994. There is Shuhada street, which is like a buffer zone, all shop shutters have been welded — though in the evening Israeli settlers go on a stroll with their little kids down this street. The Palestinian bazaar has a fence above it, to protect the people from the rubbish thrown by the Jewish settlers living in the homes above (see the picture). Both sides accuse each other of throwing stones. There are numerous checkpoints to manage this complicated demarcation. Palestinians have to cross checkpoints to visit their relatives. Jewish settlers carry weapons. A few times every day Israeli soldiers go into the Palestinian side to reconnoitre.
Hebron was a city that took my perception of humanity to a different level. Why on earth do people do this to each other? On one of my visits, I saw a young American Jewish settler mother with her kids on the lawn in front of Abraham Mosque. I wondered why would someone ever want to bring their kids up in such a place. Why not choose a peaceful place? Why create such tension?
3) Refugee Camps
In 1948 when Israel was created, more than 700,000 Palestinians were evicted from their homes and lands, and ended up in what were supposed to be temporary refugee camps. I visited two of these in the West Bank: one in Nablus, one in Ramallah. These days, the camps are like neighbourhoods, or actually more like slums. Buildings are so close to each other that some of them don’t get any sunlight. Apparently the reason for this is, initially people were in tents, then as years went by tents were replaced with one story, then two story, three story buildings. There is no planning, no proper infrastructure.
These camps, especially the one in Nablus, are also where the more militant Palestinians live. There are posters of young men holding Kalashnikovs, shrines to those who have been killed, flags outside the homes of those who have just been released from Israeli prisons.
4) The range of immigrants and political views
From my year in Ethiopia, I had heard about Ethiopian Jews who had been airlifted and brought to Israel in early ‘90s. In Haifa, there is a whole neighbourhood of Russian and Ukrainian Jews. I met French Algerian, Brazilian, Chilean, Mexican Jews. And of course a lot of American Jews, and some of these American Jews exaggerate their Jewishness with their choice of attire such that they look more like Hippie Jews! I was told, however, that Jews from places like Ethiopia and Ukraine are discriminated against, usually employed in menial jobs, and not wanted as neighbours.
What was also interesting was the range of political views these people had. Some claimed to be secular Jewish, others liberal Zionist, non-Zionist Jewish, Israeli, some were supporters of a one state solution, others wanted two states… It seemed as though they picked and mixed different terms like a cook inventing spice combinations.
5) Bauhaus architecture in Tel Aviv
If you take a walk around downtown Tel Aviv, you will come across whole neighbourhoods of Bauhaus architecture, which was brought to this city by German emigrants from 1930s onwards, after the Nazis came to power. Bauhaus buildings are characterized by right angles and in some cases rounded corners and balconies. They tend to be whitewashed or painted in light colours. They have a summery feel. I like that an architectural style created in a Northern country is so suitable to the Mediterranean climate.
5+1) Israeli Army
The Israeli Army is not just white Jewish, it’s multicultural. There are brown and black soldiers. There are Muslims and Christians. There are even volunteers who are neither citizens of Israel nor Jewish. In Tel Aviv I met an Australian soldier, who was about to start a stint with the Israeli Army. At the hostel in Jerusalem I met two German guys, who had just finished their term. They were 19-20 years old, one was fat and bald, the other lean and quiet. In the internet room I saw them playing war games on the computer. At the bar the fat one was making crude racist jokes. It was clear they were not fond of Muslims. Observing them, I wondered who would have been their target had they been living in the 1940s.
One evening, returning from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, at the checkpoint, I saw a boy and a girl soldier making it out in the booth, as the boy ordered Palestinians through the X-ray with a wave of his hand. I saw girl soldiers whose nails were painted pink, and the one in the picture with the pink daypack at the Tel Aviv bus station.