Exploring the Middle East: Mankind’s Invention? A Tale of Two Countries

Ever since the first time I was in Israel to celebrate turning 40, I commented that if Israel didn’t exist, someone would invent it. That’s how powerfully it seems mankind needs to have conflict. We will create it if it isn’t there. Israel and its long and often tortured history is there to remind us of that. We as travelers can learn from what we see is happening there. And it’s not just about peace accords or treaties being broken, or which side of the Israeli/Palestinian issue someone takes. Real estate is real estate. It’s what we do with real estate that matters, and how we can learn from conflict for the common good and insert it into our daily lives that becomes a traveler’s teachable moment. It’s also about how we learn to live with that which we can never change.

I was reminded about the history during my experience in London’s Heathrow airport where I had to change planes to get to Tel Aviv on my British Air flight in 1993. I boarded the flight on Boxing Day, on December 26th, . So did many Orthodox Jews, dressed in their religious attire. The song playing as people boarded was, “Its Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas. “No I thought, it didn’t look like Christmas anywhere on this plane, where I was one of the few passengers who wasn’t dressed like that. I was not asking for kosher meals, and I wasn’t going to the back of the plane to pray. But England was decidedly pro-Palestinian in 1947 and helped the Palestinians smuggle arms into Israel. Their anti-Semitism was well known, although getting better in recent times. But they did not quite get this one right, as easy as it would have been to do so in 1993. All the English I met had been booked by their travel agents to stay in Palestinian East Jerusalem. Americans stayed in Israeli West Jerusalem. Each side was well entrenched.

I knew after my first trip in 1993-94 that Israel would never get this problems figured out, and I was there during the Oslo Peace Accords, when there was hope for peace everywhere. The locals, all very friendly, gave me the big tip offs. First it was when I went in to buy soda. Geopolitical issues had gone commercial. Only the Arab stores sold Pepsi, the Israeli stores sold Coca Cola. The British and other European tourists preferred Palestinian East Jerusalem hotels; for Americans it was Israeli West Jerusalem. Over the years, the great divide has only deepened. The infrastructure for this divide was firmly in place, and money was changing hands across the globe because of it.

Back then, and before either of the two the Intifadas, any tourist could easily go to the Al Aska Mosque, and even go inside. I was travelling alone with a camera that I didn’t want to lose, and cameras weren’t allowed inside the mosque, nor were shoes of course. I looked at the big pile of shoes and cameras outside the mosque, and the younger version of myself that was traveling solo, was afraid they would be stolen. I was fearful of this in a land where there weas a long culture of eye for and eye and tooth for a tooth! But of course, this didn’t occur to me. Nor did the fact that out of that huge pile of shoes and cameras, mine in particular would most likely not be singled out.

So, I asked a young man standing around how much it would cost if he watched my camera and shoes. Or perhaps he offered it up. In any event, I listened to him, then said I would think about it. Then another young man approached me and gave me a different price. I might have started to bargain with him, since I mentioned that someone else had quoted me one price, and he had quoted me another. I was startled at his reaction. He told me that I should never trust my things with that other guy, that surely there would be a problem. So much for Muslim brotherhood. I looked at the big pile of shoes and cameras outside the mosque, still didn’t feel comfortable just leaving them out (even though there were much better shoes and cameras to steal than mine). I eventually found someone who was probably taking advantage of this American just fine, but without all the quibbles. But this exchange made me laugh and made me wonder about the future of Arab and Israeli relations.

If the Arab population doesn’t even trust each other, how can Israelis or Americans do any sort of negotiation or business with them at all? I concluded it was impossible. Doing any sort of business transaction required taking a position, to eliminate the impossible. And some of those positions go back ot World War Two, as I learned on the flight over.

Fast forward 25 years, and I returned to Israel with Overseas Adventure Travel on their trip Israel: The Holy Land and Timeless Cultures. It was exactly as secular as I wanted it to be, with  the right amount of religious sites to satisfy my tastes for antiquity across all three major religions. But what I learned is that the politicians, when trying to arrive at a solution during the Oslo Peace  Accords in the 90s, made things even more jumbled then it was before. And what I learned ensured even more division.

A major player in the derision was the Palestinian Authority and the decision to have three sets of roads in the contested West Bank, classified as areas A, B and C. Area A is for most of the Palestinian villages and towns to pass through, and its free. Area B is largely under Palestinian civil authority but is largely controlled by the Israelis and is off limits to Palestinian security forces. It is however, considered an area that can be used by both civilian sides   Area C has a long history, but is intended for Israeli use only.

When I first heard about this on the trip, it only confirmed for me that try as they might, things will never really get settled there. The heart of any country is its roads and infrastructure, and now that has been divvied up as well, with Area C having a rather torturous history. In our own country we have been having issues having infrastructure legislature passed. But we are not precluded from driving down one highway or the next based on who we are. It was legal at one time, but no longer. So regardless of what side of this divide, what position one has in terms of Palestine and Israeli discord, imagine how difficult it must be for those who live there to try to make peace in a divided land. Infrastructure issues often unite people of different cultures, even if done for political or financial gain or security reasons. In Jordan, the Saudis built roads to Saudi Arabia and Iraq; and in Uganda, the Chinese built roads. The Chinese in fact, have an infrastructure initiative across much of Asia,

There is likely more to the story of how infrastructure plays a role in world affairs. We as travelers need to understand that wherever we go, if bombs and missiles are flying and both sides continue to exchange fire, blood is shed on both sides, and ultimately each side forgets who started what. It doesn’t matter what the roads are named, if you purchase Pepsi, Coke or Sprite, or who watches your camera. The division is there.  We are best off learning and understanding the history as much as possible, and looking at the current state as a cultural norm.

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