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Published: March 16th 2018
Visiting Israel evokes a reaction from friends and family. Isn't it dangerous? What about the Palestinians, the wall, Gaza? Why go, you're not religious?
Well, Jerusalem isn't the little town I'd read about in the bible as a child. It is a modern city with traffic jams and super-trams. But there are so many names we half-remember. The Mount of Olives offers us a great view of the old city. The Garden of Gethsemane still contains olive trees.
There are also sites and names that we remember from more recent news programs. Getting to the Al Aksa mosque and the Dome of the Rock requires queuing and being security screened. The same is true to visit the western, or wailing, wall. But it is all very civilised and polite.
Three religions have a claim, a need, to be involved in the life of Jerusalem. Significant events in Jesus's life occurred here, including the last supper, his trial, death and burial. Mohammed ascended to heaven from Temple Mount, the same location as Judaism’s first temple.
Everywhere we see Jewish Haredi men dressed in their traditional long black coat and trousers, white shirt and a black, wide-brimmed, tzitzit hat.
They are queuing at the bus stops; carrying home the shopping; heading for work; taking the kids to school.
We spend a day wandering around the old city, all little lanes, souks and tiny shops. There are tourist sites around every corner ... and tourists too. Every site is busy and this is not peak season. Many of the sites are stunning and one has to respect the joy that visiting them brings to the faithful.
There are churches of every denomination but the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, containing Jesus's tomb is tricky. The church is claimed by Roman Catholic, Armenian and Greek Orthodox churches so they administer the church jointly. But the keys are held by a neutral, Muslim, family who unlock the church every morning.
We drive across into Bethlehem in Palestine. We go through a checkpoint in the wall – a huge, ugly wall like all political walls – and enter the West Bank. You may think the West Bank is Palestinian but, in reality, less than 20% of the West Bank is governed by the Palestinian Authority.
Strangely, going through the wall only gets us into the Israeli governed West Bank.
Further down the road into Bethlehem, we finally enter the Palestinian governed West Bank – but here there is no wall, no checkpoint, nothing to tell us. Confused? Even the locals, we are told, are confused.
Bethlehem is, of course, where Jesus was born and we visit the church that was built over that spot. It is strange to visit a site so venerated by so many people.
Bethlehem, today, is a busy little town and feels very different to Jerusalem. It feels very Arabic and is, of course, largely Muslim.
We enter and leave the West Bank three times, always easily, quickly and without incident. When in the West Bank we never know who is governing the land we are on and, generally, nor do the guides. Predictably, our Palestinian and Israeli guides have different views and use different language about the situation. The Palestinian seems more open to questions, the Israeli more defensive. Interestingly, our Israeli guide tells us he cannot enter Palestinian Bethlehem.
Even before the Crusades, Christian visitors came here to seek out the places they knew from the bible. Often they would build a church where the biblical event took place
and, inevitably, there was some guesswork. The actual location of many miracles will never be known but this probably doesn't matter.
Up in northern Israel, we are again on disputed land – the Golan Heights. Once Syrian, these hills were occupied by Israel in 1967 after Israel had suffered years of indiscriminate bombardment from the hills. The road is very close to the new border, the valley to our left is in the Lebanon. High in the misty hills, we turn south-west. Just a kilometre to our left is war-torn Syria.
There are still signs of the war here - bits of tank by the roadside; cordoned off mine fields. The kibbutz where we sleep has warning sirens and a shelter, last used when Katyusha rockets were fired at Israel. Twice during our time here the sirens have sounded – just drills, we are assured.
We sail across the Sea of Galilee and then lunch on the shore, fish of course. It’s a nice change from falafel or shwarma. The food has been good here but rather more expensive than the UK. Tomorrow we will head south down the Mediterranean coast to Tel-Aviv.
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