The population of Israel lives with what seems like a collective siege mentality. The nation is flanked by the Arab states of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt; its borders are imbued with both a cultural and military significance. Frontiers that are defended patriotically, the scenes of previous bloodshed, invasion and endless political dispute.
Conflict and battles do not, of course, tell the full story of Israel. Perhaps there is no full story – it is still unfolding. One Israeli tells me, “The good thing about the Middle East is that if you don’t like the way it is today, then wait till tomorrow.” And within the shifting sands of the region, Israel is still a new nation, a country of immigrants carving out its identity. With three weeks to travel around Israel’s borders, I wasn’t sure if it would be enough time. As it turned out, geographically it would be easy – the country is indeed tiny – but it was the conversations that slowed me down. Every one builds to a political discourse, turns into a history lesson, and ends, sometimes after hours, with a resigned shrug and the words, “What can we do?” Mount Megiddo, the Biblical site known as Armageddon, is prophesised to be where a battle will destroy the world and it felt as good place than any to start a journey encircling the nation. Having reached its modest peak after walking up a meandering concrete path accompanied by Japanese tourists, I met a Palestinian man with an electric strimmer, killing off the sparse weeds growing on the rough, dusty ground. He smiled as I took his photograph and then I bought him a cup of tea. We sipped our drinks on Armageddon and had the first of those debates that would define the journey: this time, who makes the best hummus, the Arabs or the Israelis?
Omer Weiner became a cowboy in 1967 when a kibbutz was established in the newly captured Golan Heights, seized from Syria in the Six Day War. Today, he tends 1,000 cattle with the help of Akbash shepherd dogs that bond with the calves and protect them from wolves. Weiner bristles at the idea of the Golan Heights being handed back to Syria for the sake of reconciliation.
“Surrounding Arab states went to war with us, and we fought for our lives and won,” he tells me, his weather-beaten face turning suddenly serious. “We took land, but as we say, the losers must ‘eat it’. Why start a war if you are not prepared for the end result?” Like many Israelis, Weiner has hardship and suffering etched into his family’s recent past. His grandmother died at Auschwitz and his father came here to join the British Army’s Jewish Brigade, fighting in Egypt during the Second World War.
As we rode back on our horses, Weiner twisted in his saddle and said, “For 2,000 years we promised our children we would return to Israel. It was the one place we felt we belonged. I am not that religious but this is our legacy.”
I asked Weiner to consider the situation through Palestinian eyes. He waved his hand in dismissal. “At the end of the 1800s, Jews started to emigrate to Israel. There were Arabs here, yes. Bedouins, Druze, people from Syria, Jordan, wherever. But it wasn’t a nation. We bought land, we settled, and the British suggested the boundaries of a Jewish state, then left. Then the surrounding Arab states declared war on us.”
In Israel everything is political, there’s no breaking with the past. My name, I am told, sounds Arabic. My Swedish assistant is asked to explain why a newspaper in Stockholm published a sensationalist article about Israeli soldiers killing people for their organs. Israelis are internet savvy, a nation of bloggers and followers of worldwide public opinion. They care what the world thinks and are up to date on every comment, news report and editorial analysis.
Over the weeks, I saw an extraordinary range of people and geography, but almost every Israeli had that same agonised feeling of being unfairly judged by the world. In harsh desert, on white sand beaches, in frontier towns populated by fiercely nationalistic Israeli settlers and business districts with soaring modern skyscrapers the message is the same: give us a break, we need a homeland. And if we’re attacked, we will fight back. And it’s hard not to feel sympathy, especially when you listen to the stories of ghettos, hardship and extermination that seem to blight every family’s history. But could people understand the Palestinians’ viewpoint? It seemed few could.
The wall is not the cause, but it is a symbol of everything that has gone wrong in Israel. A snaking mass of concrete and barbed wire, the “separation” wall as it is called in Israel, is an eyesore estimated to stretch almost 500 miles, dividing large parts of the West Bank from Israel. Some sections are made of concrete slabs eight metres high and three metres wide. Aside from the issue of the wall encroaching substantially into Palestinian territory, there are approximately 30,000 Israelis in Jewish settlements on the Palestinian side of the wall. And on the Israeli side, Palestinian-owned orchards and olive groves have been cut off from their Palestinian farmers in the West Bank. The Israeli authorities, supported by much of the Israeli population, say the wall is a last resort to hinder attacks by suicide bombers, referring to it as a “security fence” or “anti-terrorist fence”. Palestinians call it a “racial segregation wall” or the “Apartheid wall”.
For 20 years, supporters of the two-state solution have focused on a peace process that reverses the effects of the Six Day War of 1967. Their solution involves ending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, which began that year, and letting Palestinians rule the land they lost. But even freezing the building of new Jewish West Bank homes is proving difficult.
On my final day in the country I crossed through an Israeli Defense Force (IDF) military checkpoint in the wall and took the road to Kiryat Netafim, a religious hilltop community that is home to some 470 Jews in the northern part of the West Bank. Two young female Israeli soldiers armed with machine guns stood at the gate, politely barring my way. They asked why I wanted to come in and looked embarrassed. A man arrived half an hour later, describing himself as the head of internal security for the community. Dressed in a black T-shirt and combat trousers, he also carried an automatic weapon with banana-clips of additional ammunition. He offered me biscuits and apple juice and told me that God had given them this land and that nobody could take it away from them. I explained that I was not here to take it away, but that I would like to enter the town. He asked me to wait while he made some calls. Two hours passed and the sun went down. Then a police Jeep arrived with two policemen and an Israeli army officer. The army officer apologised for making me wait. I asked what we were waiting for. He paced around uncomfortably and said they couldn’t decide whose job it was to decide whether I was allowed to enter or not, the army’s or the police’s. Finally, in total darkness, I left Kiryat Netafim, with a large plastic tub of biscuits decorated with the brand name Nostalgia. As I drove away, one of the policemen said, “Will you be back tomorrow?” I said probably not.
Alex Cicelsky, director of the Lotan Centre for Creative Ecology, a green kibbutz in the desert, says, “All Israelis and Palestinians are in trauma, every one of us. We’ve had wars every couple of years and our kids come home dead. People are afraid. All we want is to be left alone.”
Cicelsky was 13 years old when his family first came to Israel from America. “Coca-Cola was written in Hebrew on the bottles! There were great looking Jewish girls in shorts. And the food! I just fell in love with the place.” Cicelsky worked on an onion farm and then in 1983 began Kibbutz Lotan on an arid scrap of land in the Negev Desert. “We were offered land in the West Bank, but we didn’t want to be in dispute with anyone over the land, that’s not sustainability. The question is how do we balance this nation where we have Arabs, Bedouins and Jews? The Palestinian people are not the enemy. I have very good Palestinian friends. For the masses this is ridiculous! But it only takes a couple of crazies to lob rockets over the border from Gaza and ruin it all. But we have short memories – we can change. I think the potential for peace is tremendous. Have you ever heard the McDonald’s theory? That two countries that have McDonald’s will never go to war with each other. I hoped that globalisation might bring us peace. In the meantime, both the Israelis and the Pales- tinians need female governments. We basically need mothers in charge.”