Travellers tales – the Arabs are restless

I referred to this earlier but it might deserve a separate post.

The year was 1994 and it was I think, March. A few in our company had been planning a trip to Israel for quite a while to visit the franchisee and this trip was to include a visit to Jerusalem to see some potential new locations. Normally the visits didn’t go far beyond Tel Aviv which is where the companies headquarters were. As the time to confirm flights approached the number of people included in the trip started to shrink. The other members of the party were American citizens and the company, a large US Corporation, had been issuing ‘travel advisory’ messages of increasing strength until the “Cave of The Patriarchs massacre” happened at the end of February. From then on the advice was quite simple – “DO NOT GO TO ISRAEL”.

For the link-shy amongst you, a Jewish guy, Baruch Goldstein, a member of an extreme right-wing religious Zionist movement, entered the cave system in Hebron with his machine gun and plenty of ammo. He proceeded to kill 29 Palestinian Muslims and injure another 125. He was overwhelmed and disarmed by other Muslims who then beat him to death. There was widespread condemnation of the act and nobody was prosecuted for killing Goldstein.

The caves and Hebron generally are the second most holy site in Israel after Jerusalem for Jews and is venerated by Muslims and Christians also. It is said to be the burial place of of four Biblical couples: (1) Adam and Eve; (2) Abraham and Sarah; (3) Isaac and Rebekah; (4) Jacob and Leah. According to Midrashic sources it also contains the head of Esau, and to Islamic sources, is also the tomb of Joseph. So, it’s no surprise to find plenty of people there praying.

Hebron is a popular place for unrest, murders. In 1929, 67 Jews were murdered by Arabs. In 1994 the above took place and in 2002, 12 Israeli soldiers were killed and 16 civilians injured when Palestinians opened fire as they returned from prayers. I’m not what God and all those buried there think of all this, but I’m sure they’re not impressed.

Anyway. As all the Americans had taken heed of the travel warnings and canceled their trip, I was now the only person left. Had I been the family man I am today, I would have probably done the same, but I wasn’t and so after a few calls to check the reality on the ground I confirmed my flights.

I’m very pleased that I did. The visit to Jerusalem was just fantastic and seeing how all these religions focus on such a small area was amazing. So many super-famous religious places for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike and all within a short walk of each other, or in many cases, on top of each other, is mind blowing. Not only is there a curious mix-up of buildings but also of people. Deeply religious people of all faiths mixing it with Chuck, the loud-trousered, white-sneakered tourist from Texas and students and business folk and all the time the normal residents of the city try to get on with things. I remember feeling very uncomfortable when in the line of people passing the Stone of the Anointing in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. There was I, an interested day tripper while all around me was much wailing and crying from people for whom this was a monumental moment in their lives.

Even if you don’t believe in any of the religions represented in Jerusalem, it is hard not to come away convinced that something pretty significant happened here.

In the aftermath of the massacre, Jerusalem was tense though. There were film crews everywhere, especially by the Western Wall where there had been growing incidents of Arabs (above) throwing stones at Jews (below). Just as I was taking in Jerusalem, the person I was travelling with, Itzhak, asked if I would like to see Bethlehem. “Bethlehem?”, I thought, that rings a bell… “Of course I would!”, I said. He explained that it was a short drive away but it might be difficult because it is an Arab town and because of all the trouble….etc. I asked him to try anyway and we’ll see what happens.

We arrived at Bethlehem and the town was closed to visitors. The Israeli army had the place surrounded and all streets were barricaded and had ‘border patrols’ in place. The main aim of this action was to contain the angry Arabs inside their own town and not let them spill out and cause trouble elsewhere. Itzhak, an ex-Israeli army commando, spoke with the guards and they allowed us through but told us to be careful. I noticed now that Itzhak was even more nervous than I was and I remember thinking that this was perhaps not a good sign!

I have memories of driving uphill towards the town square, the only car on a street lined with Arabs staring at us and not exactly waving or looking in any way welcoming. We got to the square (Manger Square) and parked the jeep, the Church of the Nativity stood off to the left. We were almost the only people there, perhaps another 15 people in total, of which at least 10 were Arabs offering postcards or tours of the church. I imagine in more peaceful times Manger Square must be a zoo and the queues for Jesus’s birthplace very long! I asked Itzahk if I might look inside the church and he said, “Quickly!”. I asked one of the Arab guides for help, to save time, and he took me straight to the main event, the birthplace of Jesus. Again from memory, this was at some basement level and I was shocked at how small and unassuming it was. After a moment there we retraced our steps back through the church to the square where I found an even more nervous Itzhak.

I was now caught between a gaggle of Arabs pulling at me to go visit their uncles shop or the bells or something and Itzhak who just wanted to get out of there. To be fair, as an Israeli soldier he was probably taking more risks than I was. I decided that leaving before something happened was the best idea, so we jumped in the jeep and got out of Bethlehem.

The rest of the trip was less eventful, aside from the usual interrogation at the airport on the way out which, given the climate, was more intense than usual.

What are the things I might pass on from this trip?

  • Everyone should visit Jerusalem
  • Don’t believe everything you read in the papers, or in ‘travel advisory’ warnings
  • You only live once and, when travelling, who knows when you might get back to the place you’re in, so make the most of it while you can.
  • You can be rewarded for taking some risks, but don’t be stupid about it.
  • Always have a camera with you. On this trip and many others, I didn’t and I very much regret it now.
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