israel & palestinian territories 

travelling through turbulent lands


journey profile

Where: Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Jerusalem, Dead Sea, Jericho, Bethlehem. Israel & Palestinian Territories, Middle East
When: February 2011
What: The Dead Sea, Dome of the Rock, Wailing Wall, West Bank wall, Nativity Church, Oldest city in the world, Manger Square, Temptation Mountain, Israeli/Palestinian checkpoints.
How: International flights, Hostel transfer, Walking, Taxi, Cable Car, Marashutka.
Counter: 2 countries
Illnesses or mishaps: Witnessing a rather ugly argument about religion at the Wailing Wall; nasty Sunburn causing me to wrap a scarf around my head


Taking advantage of reasonably-priced air fares and an impending holiday, we decided to maximise the potential of Israel by splitting it into a two-step holiday starting in Tel Aviv and heading south eastward to the world famous capital Jerusalem - the epicentre and point of intersection for several world religions. That was the plan but, as you'll see, the three-night, four day trip multiplied. I am very glad it turned out that way. An Israel-only holiday quickly absorbed Palestinian territory. The Palestinian Territories are comprised of two geographically unconnected scraps of land: Gaza and The West Bank. It is the latter we visited, thanks to the help of an Arab Israeli taxi/tour driver called Jason. For a total of £175 he took us, across two days, into the West Bank, Palestine, the holy sights of Bethlehem, the Dead Sea with its supposed magical salt-based properties, and the ancient city of Jericho - the oldest city on the planet.

It was money I'd never planned to spend and had Jason never approached us in the hotel lobby in Jerusalem, we'd never had gone to any of these places. His local know-how got us through both Israeli and Palestinian checkpoints - he knew the things we were to say (and not to say) to the severe looking Palestinians/Israelis with the machine guns, who took to peering through the taxi window at us as if trying to read the truth of the driver's story in our faces. I am not a great liar and thanked my lucky stars they never resorted to questioning me. The sad truth is that 'no Jason' would probably have resulted in there being 'no West Bank' element in the trip which, in my opinion, was the undeniable highlight. His religion and Arabic ties gave him direct access to the West Bank, whilst his Israeli citizenship meant that he had the backing of Israel and could travel freely in the country. In meeting him our visit to the two countries was transformed from a mere trip in to an adventure...




the troubled jewish homeland

Israel is a tiny country which punches way above its weight on the world stage. Where Israel's concerned, small certainly does not mean insignificant. For such a little country Israel rests worryingly on the international consciousness; a place of religious tension, division and violence which regularly hits the international headlines. Diametrically opposed and deeply held beliefs have to share a very compact geographical space here, competing to win the religio-political argument and, in doing so, win the right to rule over this small slice of the Middle East. Israel's problem is that it is at the heart of a much broader proxy battle between two huge religious and political megablocks - it is the uncomfortable junction point where the West and the Arab Middle East meet. This is so much the case that having an Israeli stamp in your passport poses a very real threat of non-entry at airports in Arabic or Muslim countries. Luckily the Morocco stamp in my passport did not cause me any real issues but they did check all of my stamps. And carefully. Israel is essentially isolated on a peninsular dominated by the Arabs - it teeters on the very northern edge of the Arabian Peninsula or 'al Jazeera' in Arabic (and yes, this is what the news channel name actually means). This goes some way to explaining the way Israel is and how, as a foreign tourist, you will see and experience the country: security, security and more security.

Rather than reassuring you, the levels of security leave you feeling paranoid and exasperated. At some point you will probably experience a feeling of frustration with it too, at having to empty your bag for the umpteenth time in one day, at relaxing with a coffee on a beach stroll and having to behold scores of machine gun-wielding youths walking past in khaki, at the abrupt way you will be spoken to by anyone involved in the country's security. Israel is 'security cubed' and, as a result, feels unfriendly and unwelcoming. This is also security without smiles. These people are serious. Deadly serious. When approached by any security-related personnel my advice to you is to smile, remain polite and, crucially, have your 'backstory' sorted with anyone else you are travelling with. This seems silly, as you are not lying, but any hesitation or slightly differing answers to abrupt questioning at the airport could raise unnecessary suspicion. For instance, do you consider yourselves university friends? How did you meet? Where did you meet, exactly? How long have you known each other? These intrusive questions, especially in your immediate post-flight docility, have real potential to wrong-foot you and therefore elicit "erms" and "uums" rather than clear responses. You may both also, without thinking, give differing stories to the same question. Cue having your bags searched, cue further questioning ...or worse. And this is when you are white skinned! Expect far heavier treatment if you are non-white, specifically if you happen to be Arab-looking. Good luck with that one.

Israel is as complex a country as it is small. It is a bizarre and fractious collection of very different centres: Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Jerusalem. All of these places are remarkably different and each could, rather convincingly, exist in different parts of the world, let alone in the same country. Israel is a country on the edge - geographically and metaphorically. Tel Aviv felt like a mirage. It had all the glitz and glamour of a cosmopolitan city but with a lingering threat of an unsavoury security incident just below the surface. Jerusalem was like a tinder box just waiting to ignite - the actual heat from the sun serving only to ratchet up the metaphorical temperature of the place which you can't help but pick up on. Israel is not a place you can relax: expect to get searched entering restaurants, cafes, transport hubs and shopping centres, expect hard questioning and an unpleasant welcome from airport staff trying to weed out suspected terrorists, expect military personnel and machinery on your trip to the beach. Jaffa was the only little oasis we found during our stay there.

Of course, my trips abroad are not about relaxing and ensconcing myself far away in a sanitised, artificial retreat in the hills somewhere, or sunbathing moronically on the beach whilst ordering fish and chips or a 'full English'. I travel to see. I travel to witness. I travel to capture. Thus, if your travel preferences are something along the lines of mine, Israel is a fascinating country to visit. It is an experience of world import, often for good reasons, but too frequently for the wrong ones. Just brace yourself.


tel aviv

israel's modern metropolis

Tel Aviv has had a dangerous and exotic quality for me ever since the Gulf War in the early nineties - Tel Aviv regularly a target of Iraq's scud missiles, reporters often live from Tel Aviv's apartment balconies wearing gas masks or running for cover. We arrived at sunset- by the time we got off from the plane it was pitch black. The first evening was a bit of a write-off - it was Monday and most outlets were closed. On first impressions, and in the dark, Tel Aviv looked like an Israeli version of the Costa Del Sol. I was worried. Day two started much more promisingly after a chance encounter flicking through our snatched copy of 'Time Out Israel'. In what seemed like the fastest lift on earth (my ears popped - 49 floors/189 metres in 10 seconds), we went to the top of the Azrieli Tower, affording us stunning views across the city and out into the Mediterranean.

Although I'd checked weather details before leaving for Tel Aviv, the heat really took us by surprise, hastily resorting to £20 worth of sun care on the second day - to be followed by a hat purchase in Jerusalem for 65NIS. Whilst in the coastal city, we also took in several Bauhaus buildings, the Bauhaus exhibition, a walk along the beach to Jaffa, and amazing sunset view on the final night. Something that will strike many about Tel Aviv, is the level of military presence. We travelled around Israel but, during out short time in the city - Israel's modern and bustling financial capital, seeing young Israelis in green combat uniforms and carrying machine guns was common. A little unsettling when you are relaxing with a coffee or walking along the seafront. Tel Aviv is incongruous at its heart: a latte coffee does not belong in the same place as machine guns, high-class shopping boutiques do not feel appropriate alongside military helicopters zooming overhead. It is this incongruity which is Tel Aviv's innate contradiction. There are reminders everywhere of the vulnerability of the city: an afternoon saunter into a shopping centre is often preceded by an airport-style scanner search of both bag and body - hardly the way to make you feel in the mood to splosh the dosh. The serious and the frivolous jostle for supremacy in Tel Aviv and it is an unhealthy alliance for the superficial tourist. For the serious traveller, however, it adds a socio-political dimension to a visit to Israel - underscoring the fact that Israel is unwanted and disliked by too many of its neighbours.


The rather impressive view of Tel Aviv's cityscape as seen from the top of the Azrieli Observatory.


The fantastic Azrieli Towers: one triangular, one cylindrical, one rectangular.


Bauhaus architecture : A key trait of the style is rounded curves.


Two examples of Tel Aviv's architectural hangover from the 1970s - apartment blocks along Yurushalayim beach. Farleft, the iconic Fire and Water Fountain in Dizengoff Square.


Israeli military presence: soldiers patrol the promenade with machine guns and, right, the military communications tower. Helicopters circle above you, too. We hope you enjoy your holiday here...


Synagogue with Hannukah lights and, right, one of the many stray cats living along the promenade.


Stunning sunset along the promenade with silhouetted watchtower.




the ancient muslim port city

Jaffa had many of the atmospheric and historical things that were clearly missing from Tel Aviv (to give Tel Aviv its due, it is only just one hundred years old). I have given Jaffa its own section as it is worlds apart from its younger upstart 2km further up the coast. There were many parallels with Marrakech in Morocco: hustle and bustle, dirt and filth, noise and car horns, and single storied ruinous buildings. Unlike Marrkech, however, this place was far tamer and less in your face , although the odd disabled beggar could be seen. Great views greeted us at the top of St Peter's Monastery. Jaffa's old town is a must for anyone visiting Tel Aviv; Tel Aviv gets all of the glory and attention, whilst Jaffa sits quietly waiting for you to visit.


A mosque minaret on Jaffa Hill looks out to harbour. 


Looking out to sea with the silhouette of Old Jaffa in the background and, right, Tel Aviv in the distance looks like it is growing out of the rubble of Old Jaffa in the foreground.


Jaffa Arch, St Peter's Church peeks through the palms and Jaffa flea market.


At Jaffa's Harbour wall. Right, lighting hangs for sale in Jaffa's flea market .




the holy city

I was less impressed and wowed by Jerusalem than I'd expected - perhaps this was part of the problem. I'd had high expectations of Jerusalem but it was very much like Marrakech in all the wrong ways. Stroppy taxi drivers and menacing beggars wanting to 'show you the way' (for a small fee of course). Many in Jerusalem see you coming; they know all of the tricks in the book and will use every one of them to get at your money. It is a gritty, frantic place.

The views of Jerusalem's icon - the Dome of the Rock, glittering in the sun, was a sight to behold, as was the sight of scores of Jews kissing The Western Wall. More strangely was the sight of Israeli soldiers with machine guns dangling, looking serious and armed to kill, sharing such emotion and respect at the Wall alongside others. Never before have I seen violence and devotion in such close proximity. Whilst we were there, a group of Ultra Orthodox Jews, and an Australian tourist, were engaged in a heated debate which looked like it could so easily have spilled over into violence, with one Jew threatening, "Come here again and there will be trouble." He meant it - and with so many machine guns about, it was time to leave the Western Wall Plaza and head for to the relative safety of a restaurant. The labyrinthine markets and heat made staying within the walled confines of old Jerusalem unpleasant enough; we spent the rest of our time outside of them, settling for a restaurant overlooking the Tower of St David.


Iconic Jerusalem: the alluring golden of The Dome of the Rock.


At the Wailing Wall with the golden Dome of the Rock in the background.


Israeli military personnel, complete with guns, pose for photographs at the Wall and, right, a UN vehicle parked near to our hotel - a sign of a very troubled, and interesting, country.


The Western Wall or 'Wailing Wall', the most sacred place for Jews on the Western side of Temple Mount.


A characteristic Israeli settlement clings to the hillside in western Jerusalem. 


The 'All Nations' cafe where we stopped for a coffee and a bit of brief respite and, right, the colourful facade of the Church of All Nations.



palestinian territories

heading Into the Palestinian-controlled West Bank

Despite your initial impression of the Territories being influenced by hard-nosed military personnel wearing green combat uniforms peering into your vehicle at checkpoints (take your passport), Palestine felt remarkably different once you entered it 'proper'. There was a real respect for the guest, for the tourist who had taken time to visit their land. It was a warm hearted place. Our guide into Bethlehem was my first introduction to Palestinians and proved to be just like all others that followed; respectful, dignified, calm and always starting with the greeting, "You are welcome". It is a respectful greeting I have come across in many other parts of the Muslim world, most notably Jordan and Kuwait which I was to visit years later.

We travelled around Palestine, also known as The West Bank (being located on the left bank of the River Jordan), in a taxi, taking in key sites such as Jericho, the Dead Sea and Bethlehem. It was truly powerful to see road signs for 'Gaza', 'Hebron' and 'Ramallah' - the places you see and hear so much of back home on the news - for all the wrong reasons. Every tourist is, of course, an outsider to which the hardships and injustices of the Palestinian predicament can be told. Indeed, this telling of the troubles and the inequality between the Territories in the West Bank and the expansionist policies of Israel, is something you should expect to hear. People want you to know - they take time out of their day to relay what it is like on the ground for the average Palestinian. You can't help but feel they are fruitlessly fighting against a far more powerful country. You have to admire their resolve and tenacity - you can't help but feel you are visiting the losing side. This hurts as, on a trip such as this, you realise who really is exacerbating the tensions and the friction. And whilst both sides are hardly squeaky clean, it becomes quickly apparent that it is not Palestine. The West Bank Wall cuts through the Territories like a knife - slicing up and dividing Palestinian from Palestinian. The power struggle is starkly weighted in Israel's favour, serving only to make your trip around Palestine more poignant and its people more endearing.


Welcome to the Palestinian Authority: entering Palestine at the notorious Israeli checkpoints (I really shouldn't have taken this photograph; had I been seen there could have been real trouble) and, right, a rather poetic message on my phone welcomes me.




the birthplace of jesus

We were whisked through Israeli checkpoints into the West Bank by Jason, who then hooked us up with a contact of his who took us on a whistle-stop tour of Bethlehem, including inside The Church of the Nativity and Manger Square. He vanished as quickly as he'd appeared once we made it back to the car. We had effectively crossed an international border by going through these check points, entering into the land of the Palestinian National Authority, and out of the hands of the Israeli government. Little was I to know that having visited Palestine and the West Bank could, indeed, cause problems back in Tel Aviv with the airport authorities. Our visit to Palestine was therefore kept on the 'downlow'.


A colourful part of the West Bank security wall flanks the view over the hills into Israeli territory.


Striking graffiti on the West Bank security wall. As if the concrete pillars are not tall enough, there is also metal fencing running along the top, too. Graffiti on the Palestinian side reveals the raw emotions, the politics and creativity of the Palestinian people.


West Bank wall graffiti detail, one alluding to Martin Luther King's most famous line. The dividing wall in Bethlehem a stone-throw away from where Jesus was 'born'. Some locals feel that the graffiti has turned these ugly walls into a creative space, others say that by writing on them, you legitimise them. Bottom, a selection of graffiti on the Palestinian side reveals the raw emotions, the politics and creativity of the Palestinian people. Interestingly, the vast majority of wall graffiti is to be found on the Palestinian side, not the Israeli side. Banksy himself has also used this as a canvas for his work, although I never got to see any.


West Bank wall observation tower and, right, at the foot of the wall on the Palestinian side.


Bethlehem vista : Arabic writing and an arrow points out towards the hills.


Omar Mosque overlooks the famous Manger Square - the stuff of school plays and many a Christmas tale.


Omar Mosque looks into a Bethlehem side street where traditional Palestinian clothing hangs out for sale.


Inside the Church of the Nativity: an aged candle adds a sense of spirituality to the place and, right, the opening to the area where the stone upon which Jesus was born is secreted. Also, a picture depicting scenes from the nativity and, right, touching the stone upon which Jesus was 'born' - a right of pilgrimage for Christians world-wide. 


Inside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem where Jesus was 'born'.



the dead sea

the lowest and saltiest sea in the world

For 700 Shekels we were taken into the West Bank for a second time. More checkpoints, more machine guns and whizzing past Bedouin settlements in the desert, we made it to the world's lowest sea level point at -420 metres. Kalia beach, where we spent two hours playing in the mud and sea, also sported the world's lowest bar! We got there at just the right time as scores of Spanish, Russian and Israeli tourists arrived just as we were leaving. The sea water tasted like nothing I had ever experienced - the salt levels were unbelievable. Throwing caution to the wind we packed mud all over us, a substance known to be extremely high in Bromide, Iodine and Salt - causing you to float in the water when compared to normal oceans. Tantalisingly, we could vaguely make out the country of Jordan in the distance. I would visit Jordan the following year.


Desertlands (1): mountains like this were all over Palestine.


Desertlands (2): a man in a traditional thawb gown escorts his camel and a tourist down to the Dead Sea. 


The Dead Sea is the lowest sea-level point in the world.


Playing with the famous mud of the Dead Sea which later played havoc with my sunburnt face. 


Dead Sea at 180° with the towel we hired for 18NIS (£3).




the oldest city in the world

Jericho was definitely a local city for local people and has the accolade of being the oldest city in the world being, as it is claimed, 10,000 years old - the remains of which we could see if we paid the Palestinian Authorities Department of Antiquities £1.50 - which we promptly did. The site included the world's first ever tower and first ever staircase. Jericho is also known as the place of the Tree of Zachaeus which means more and measures higher on the interest scale if you happen to be religious. I'm not. With time running out we made for the cable cars from the foot of the ancient ruins up to Temptation Mountain. The people in Jericho were extremely polite and welcoming; we were often greeted by locals with the opening line, "You are very much welcome to Jericho." It was clear that many locals appreciated us visiting their city.


Desert views of the Jericho mountains and houses as seen from on-board the cable car on the way back down from Temptation Mountain.


The floor mosaic sums up Jericho's claims to fame: the lowest place on earth being 1300 feet below sea level and the oldest city in the world at 10,000 years.


On the bonnet of Jason's tour mobile which has a yellow number plate (signifying Israel). Those cars with white and green plates (Palestinian) are forbidden to enter Israel and, right, a donkey takes the shade of a local gigantic cactus.


Nabu Musa mosque on the outskirts of Jericho. The driver made a special stop off for me to take this photograph - it is really rather a nice mosque and, right, the Tree of Zacchaeus, the sycamore tree which Zacchaeus the tax collector climbed up in order to see Jesus walk through Jericho. Right, a Palestine scarf on sale in a tourist shop.


The Monastery of Temptation clings to the side of Temptation Mountain as seen from on-board the cable car we were on. This is said to be the mountain where Jesus was tempted by the devil; Jesus managed to resist of course, because that's the kind of man he was.


The 10,000 year old foundations of the world's first city.The world's first tower and staircase are also here and, right, old mortar bowls. Right, an extract from the Qur'an wards off evil and bad luck on the cable car up to Temptation Mountain. 


A camel takes it easy near Temptation Mountain and, right, a camel calmly holds up traffic just outside Jericho. 


The extent of Israel's wall becomes clear as we approach Jerusalem, its watch towers and walls staffed by soldiers with live rounds, zig-zag everywhere. There are places where Israeli motorways run through Palestinian territory with walls on either side - so the Palestinians can't use the road - even though it cuts straight through their land: the territory is Palestinian all around, but the road is Israeli. Some of these walls run right through Palestinian villages - splitting villages in half; separating Mother from Daughter and so on. Craziness.



travel tips

  • Obviously, be careful where you point your camera, particularly in areas where security concerns are heightened.
  • Be mindful with wearing shorts, too, as these are seen as too informal for some religious sites.
  • Ensure that you remove any evidence of having visited The Palestinian Territories when re-entering Israel (carrier bags with addresses on for example). This will ensure you get far-less hassle from border soldiers if they check.
  • Try to buy a few souvenirs in The Palestinian Territories to support the local economy; Israel tries to restrict the flow of tourists into the Territories and the financial benefits of your visit is much needed.



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