Israel is a place of great interest, historical and cultural but also disappointing. The unpleasant part of the experience begins at the entrance of the country and the long wait for border controls. I personally experienced it on my first visit at the land borders with Jordan, where I had to wait for more than 2 hours for a thorough personal interrogation before approval by the intelligence service. The stamps of Arab countries in the passport makes trouble greater, especially that of Lebanon, the most hostile country for Israel. Surprisingly, on my 2nd visit and despite the border personnel’s mistrust about my 3 visits to Lebanon, 4 to Malaysia, 1 to Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and Bangladesh for tourism, my wait lasted only 5 minutes, maybe because I’m now in their files. Exit procedures from the country can be even more time consuming, so it is good to have plenty of time before your flight. A proof of visit to Israel could prohibit a subsequent visit to many Arab countries, but the passport is not stamped so it cannot be evidence.
Walking on “Via Dolorosa” following Jesus’ steps to the crucifixion, being at the center of spiritual energy of the three great religions, is a thrilling experience. Every corner of the walled ancient city of Jerusalem is a piece of history. But the sacredness of this place and the picturesque monuments, stone-built buildings, alleys and middle-east bazaars, are greatly disturbed by the overwhelming tourist activity. Overcrowded visitors flood the streets and form long queues at places of worship. Especially in the center of the Christian faith, in the Temple of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the rock of Golgotha, where Jesus Christ is believed to have been crucified and buried, the presence of tourists mainly from Eastern Europe creates an impenetrable situation. The queue for the pilgrimage is enormous at all times, and devotion gives way to rudeness, impulses, and a general behavior of biasing divine blessing.
The focus of the Judaic religion and the most sacred place of prayer for the Jews is the Wall of Tears (Western Wall). After the queue for security check at each entrance, you enter a large courtyard that leads to the ancient wall built of large stone blocks. There, mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews in typical attire of black hats, payots (hair sidekicks), high stockings are praying on the wall or reading the Torah, the Jewish Bible. Men and women are located in different sections along the walls. On the sacred day of Shabbat (Saturday), larger crowds dressed in more formal attire gather, photography is banned, and shops, services and transports are limited in all Jewish territories.
Just above the part of the ancient walls is the Temple Mount, which is an important religious site for Jews, Christians and Muslims, as it is believed that the Temple of Solomon was built here, Abraham tried to sacrifice Isaac here and also Mohammed ascended to heaven to meet God. After the occupation of Jerusalem by the Arabs in 637 AD. the Dome of the Rock, one of the earliest examples of Islamic architecture, was built. Israel and the Palestinian Authority claimed sovereignty and, after the six-day war in 1967 and the conquest of eastern Jerusalem from Jordanian control, eventually surrendered the monument back to the Muslims to maintain status quo. Since then it has been a friction point for the two communities with occasional episodes of rioting, while non-religious prayers and even religious symbols are banned upon entry.
The emotions in the devouted atmosphere of the historic city are intense, while outside the walls the modern city has a beautiful and clean look. Unfortunately, this is not the case with the people you meet.
Jerusalem, besides the tourist spoilage, is degraded by the behavior of its Jewish inhabitants. I don’t ever put “labels” on particular nationalities, but according to the attitude I received here, I’d easily award the prize of the most hospitable, rude and unhelpful people. Very few bother to answer a visitor’s questions and help him, while shopkeepers are rude and sometimes aggressive, unleashing a curse on someone who would not prefer their shop or restaurant. The prices in the country are unjustifiably high in terms of food, accommodation and transportation, but what maximises disappointment is the low quality of services and taxi drivers trying to cheat you.
Hebron – Palestine
The scenery is changing dramatically in Palestinian territories. Behind the sad concrete walls that separate the two communities and despite the rubbish and the general image of abandonment, you meet extremely friendly and hospitable people. If one takes one of the buses near Jerusalem’s “Damascus Gate” and heading south, will be soon in the historic city of Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus. With the exception of the Nativity Temple, the city is not interesting or picturesque. From here small, outdated buses depart to Hebron. The atmosphere and architecture of the Middle East is even more intense in this city with the beige buildings and street market. Visitors are few and this is just one of the reasons that excite locals and make them so welcoming. Walking down the alleys of the old town you will meet one of the many army checkpoints, marking the Jewish “H2” district. At all checkpoints soldiers were very friendly with foreigners and not thorough in checking. No passport was asked, just a question about religion. The main monument of Hebron is located in this district and is the Cave of the Patriarchs. Above the cave is a large rectangular building dating from the Roman period, the Christian aftermath, the Islamic conquest, the Crusaders, the Arabs once again and finally of the Jews who split it into two sections, the synagogue and the mosque in 1967 .
According to tradition, here is the tomb of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah. For the Jewish faith it is the second most sacred place after the Temple Mount. Abraham (Ibrahim) is a major prophet of the Islamic faith as well.
The situation in the H2 district is constantly tense, with barbed wire on the roofs of buildings to prevent rival communities from throwing objects to each other. There have been many bloody incidents, with the most deadly one being the slaughter of 29 Palestinian pilgrims in the mosque in 1994. The remaining Palestinians are victims to a policy of bans, resulting in closures of homes and shops and restricting their movement. Everybody welcomed us kindly, talked to us about their problems, and no one pressured us to buy something. We were offered big help by a senior tour guide who regardless he apparently has very few customers, offered us his services completely for free! Some, even asked us if we needed money, something I witness for first time anywhere, especially in a poor place. The soldiers of the checkpoints were polite as well, not only with us but also with the children of the area, even with a Palestinian who mocked and verbally abused them.
Palestine was a reward for the controversial experience of the visit Israel, a destination on its own.