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Sacred and Profane - Tel Aviv, Metulla & the Golan Heights, Israel

Greeting from the Holy Land!

note: it with such sadness that we watch the violence raging anew across the region that began in mid 2000. Our visit was during a time of relative peace that many hoped dearly would last. As the region is swallowed up in spiral of violence, we look back at our fond memories of this deeply historic and spiritual place, and we pray that peace will come again. We hope that all parties will find a way to live and worship together and see each other as one and the same, a part of all humanity.

What a great time to be here while history is in the making. For the first time in a long time, peace is on the horizon. Israel embarked on this course, first making peace with Egypt, then Jordan, and now six years ago, signing the historical Oslo peace accords, setting in motion a plan to make peace with the Palestinians, headed by Yassar Arafat, head of the formerly underground, PLO.  Of course, the peace process is fraught with risks and perils. Israeli prime minister Rabin was assassinated four years ago, and the occasional suicide bomber strikes hoping to derail the peace process, but still it moves on and gains momentum. There are even hope that peace may be had with Syria and Lebanon, ending the state of war on Israel's borders, but time will tell.  To see it first hand is absolutely fascinating.  

Ann and Doug heading off to Syria at the Purple Line

We landed at the Tel Aviv Airport and went through a long and thorough security check, immigration and customs. Already, we can feel the tension in the air. From the first moment we stepped foot in Israel, the difference is palpable and very obvious, namely the guns. Since Israel has been in a state of war with any number of neighboring countries since its foundation in 1948, there is mandatory conscription, meaning every boy and GIRL must join for three years upon completion of secondary school (high school). It is most disconcerting to see young kids slinging M-16 assault rifles at the mall. Especially the girls. How's that for equality?  When we look at them, they look so young and they are (18-21 years old) The girls wear makeup and do up their hair, then don fatigues and a machine gun and head out. Most of the time, they wear their army issued green clothing, but we have also seen young kids in regular dress (baggy shorts and t-shirt) that still sport a gun that is almost as big as they are (M-16 are 3 and half feet long). They seem normal enough from the front, until they turn and you see their weapon of mass destruction, slung casually across their back. 

Disconcerting to say the least, but worse, we are actually getting used to it.  Having talked to quite a few soldiers, they are great and cannot wait to be done with it all. We hope they stay safe and that the peace comes to the region, but until then, you have to fight for your beliefs and your right to even exist. That air of paranoia will take a long time to dissipate, if ever. But once out in Tel Aviv, the political realities seemed, at least, a little further away. 

The artist community of Jaffa

Tel Aviv is the middle east Miami. The waterfront, the promenade, the ritzy, glitzy shopping arcade, the chic restaurants, the abundance of pastel architecture and of course, the body conscious people strolling through it all. All flash and dash for a modern city with almost no history. People pursue recreation with a vengeance, in reaction to such overwhelming tension. How does one live life under a constant threat of annihilation? Party like it's 1999...

The other unique thing about Israel is that, as a Jewish nation, religion and government are intertwined making for conflict and contradiction in the sacred and the secular.  Shabbat, the Jewish holy day of rest begins on Friday at sundown and continues til Saturday at sundown.  At that time, the cities are deserted.  No public transportation runs, all the stores are closed, and no one walks the streets, except for the stray traveler such as ourselves looking hungrily for any restaurant or even a mini-mart that is open. If you don't eat before sundown, you don't eat. We found one restaurant shortly before sundown. We ate quickly, then as we were finishing our meal, the owners hurriedly closed the exterior shutters to avoid the appearance of being open and politely ask us to hurry and finish and leave.

Speaking of the cuisine, the three key words are: hummos, falafel, and kebob. And thats about it. Its good, but how much of it can you have.  We have been to a few hummos joints where they slap a plate of hummos, some raw vegis and a pile of pitas before you and it's a meal. We are not complaining, but the other day, we gave in and had a burrito at a tex-mex joint (it felt good not to have hummos at every meal.) So much of the soft, creamy mixture as a staple of our diet, has seemingly wrecked havoc on our intestinal system and we are in the throes of digestive woes. Nuf said.

From Tel Aviv, we travelled north to Haifa, where we met up with Stas, our friend Dmitri's cousin and a Russian immigrant to Israel after Russia cracked down on its Jewish population forcing many to flee there and the US.  He showed us around Haifa (the new Israel silicon valley) and we drove out to see some Druze villages (one of the few Arab communities fully integrated into Israeli society)  

Alley entering into Acre with side ramps added for cars.

From there we headed to Acre, a small community on the Mediterranean that was still in a time-warp. An old Crusader fortress built by Richard the Lion-Hearted, it is a stunning city on the water surrounding by the old defensive walls. The narrow, dusty streets meandered into dead ends or bustling souqs (markets), kids on donkeys raced by, and no sign of cars or other modern implements. The community was mostly Palestinean and the town lacked much of the infrastructure we saw in nearby places like Haifa. It makes for wonderful tourism but not much else. Many a local can be found on the high rocks outside the walls of the city, fishing for a day's meal.

From there, so far north in Israel, we decided to visit the more unusual destinations, the areas plagued by violence and war.  First, we went up to Metulla on the border with Lebanon.  That is the location of the Good Fence, so called because Lebanese are allowed to cross into Israel to work, but only if they have a relative in the South Lebanon Army, the proxy army of Israel that is fighting the terrorist group, Hezbollah in the security zone. 

We had lunch with the numerous soldiers stationed there and from our seats, we had an incredible view of southern Lebanon.  Just over an hour's drive and we could be in Beirut. Missiles are occasionally lobbed over into Metulla, the biggest Israeli city in the area, to this day, but thankfully we saw no action. Lebanese money was touted as souvenirs at the few shops in the area. Mostly, just lonely soldiers hoping not to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Note: The SLA was disbanded and the Israeli army retreated in May 2000 and many Lebanese with ties to the SLA fled to Israel in fear of reprisals. It came swiftly for those that did not make it out. I am unaware of the fate of the Good Fence.

From there, we went into the Golan heights, considered by some to be occupied territory of Syria. After the six day way in 1967, the Golan Heights was annexed by Israel and the Purple Line was drawn (the de-militarized zone.) The unfortunate reality of that is that lines were drawn through towns and even through families and neighbors.  We visited the shouting fence, so called because families on both sides of the line gather there with megaphones and shout to each other across the purple line, in order to communicate and keep in touch.  Such are the realities of war. We waved to Israeli soldiers above us, then to their Syrian counterparts across the way and finally to the UN guys, smack in the middle. It seemed a dead community, its heart torn out; bodies that go through the motion of life.  

Hiking in the Golan Heights

Much of the Golan Heights are deserted. In a largely deserted region, the Golan Heights is in stark contrast, a lush green oasis with hiking opportunities for the strong hearted and a good deal of water reserved. But the importance of the area lies in its strategic elevation, and the ability to launch operations and strikes against Israel. Currently, however, there seems to be some hope on the horizen of Israel reaching some understanding with Syria and establishing treaties and ties to end the state of war. It is generally understood that Golan Heights would most likely return to Syrian control under those circumstances.

Next episode: We attempt to walk in the footsteps of Jesus

over and out

ann and doug

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