An intense week in Israel full of stories with many threads.

Just over a week ago I was sitting in Queen Alia International Airport in Amman, wearing a short sleeved blue and cream striped dress, a pair of tights and a scarf around my neck, with my head uncovered. I wish that someone had captured the moment on ‘film’.

Sitting to my right on the strip of seating was a group of Muslim women wearing black niqabs (the only thing visible was their eyes) and to my left was a couple of women wearing hijabs (their faces were visible) and traditional black Jordanian long sleeved dresses with red embroidery. I stood out.

One man walked past smiling at the juxtaposition.

I was waiting for a plane to Abu Dhabi for my connecting flight back to Sydney after spending a week in Israel at a Media in Conflicts Seminar. But this isn’t really where the story starts. But then, I’m not really sure where it does.

Roadside stalls in rural Jordan

On the road to the bridge

Starting at the beginning sounds like the best idea, so perhaps I could start with the taxi driver from the same airport a week before who drove me without much trouble to the Sheikh Hussein/Jordan Valley Bridge crossing between Jordan and Israel, or rather within 100 metres of the bridge. 

We arrived and he told me to “walk down there”, so I paid him and started walking and when he drove past me on his way to turn around I asked if I had to turn right and did so after he nodded.

Thinking it seemed odd to be walking that way, about a minute later another taxi turned up calling the first driver a “donkey” for giving me the wrong directions and sending me up a road with the next town being 35 kilometres away at the end of the Jordan Valley. The new bloke then took me through the first two checks to get over the border and made sure I knew how to get to the other side of the Jordan River in one piece.

I didn’t have a lot of luck with taxi drivers in general throughout the week.

The driver that took me into Jerusalem along with a Palestinian family decided to hit me up for the shortfall of his special deal with his friends which he denied existed and even denied they were his friends. His English became very patchy and after a standoff in a back street of Jerusalem with me handing over more money in small increments, I finally got my bags out of his boot and left yelling less than friendly words after him.

I also found a very nice taxi driver who was very helpful and drove me to Tel Aviv after I missed the train by two minutes because I had spent too much time in the Old City, but I’m sure he overcharged me seeing “desperate sucker” written across my face. But we had a good old chat along the way about his family and his life as a Palestinian with Israeli identity documents.

He told me his life was pretty good. It had its limitations, but he had a family he adored, a beautiful wife, two sons and a daughter who he spoilt rotten. He thinks too much emphasis is put on boys, so his daughter gets more of his attention than his sons.

His name was Mohammed (of course it was, just about every Arab taxi driver I have ever had has been Mohammed). He used to have a Romanian fiancée, but when it came to crunch time, she didn’t want to move to Israel, so their relationship ended.

But Mohammed still has fond memories of Romania. He loves the green and the lush forests and he would love to visit other parts of Europe, but it’s too hard for him he said. Even though he has Israeli papers and is eligible for a Jordanian passport, he doesn’t want one of those. I lost his train of thought about here, but it seemed he was confused when it came to national identity.   

Missing transport from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv became a theme of my trip.

Part of the seminar was a daytrip to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv and after a long day we had a couple of free hours so I went back down into the Old City. On the way back to the bus, I stopped to ask for directions just to make sure I was on the right path.

View to the Old City of Jerusalem

“Just after the traffic lights, turn right up the stairs and then walk straight ahead.”

I followed those directions and ended up in a construction site.

Already late for the bus, I found my way out and onto the right street, started running seeing the bus ahead of me. But I lost sight of it for a moment and as I came around the bend I watched it driving off into the sunset towards Tel Aviv.

Out of breath, sweaty and annoyed I had just missed the bus, I ran into Gili and Nissan, two of the Israeli participants of the seminar who were staying in Jerusalem a little longer that night. They very kindly phoned the bus and then took me up to the public bus station after finding out our bus was already on the highway.

The seminar organiser Mayaan was so apologetic the next morning, but for me it wasn’t a problem, it was just another tale to tell.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Maybe I should start with the actual seminar. Media in Conflicts Seminar: 37 young journalists from over 20 countries with varying experiences meeting in Tel Aviv to learn how to report on conflicts, with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a case study.

I’m now very well versed on the official Israeli line of the conflict. Some of the people we heard from were military personnel, security specialists and a Member of Knesset. It was the last one that made the biggest impression on all of us I think.

Dr Shai gave the last speech of the seminar and in case anyone in the room was left in any doubt, Israel won the 1948 war and it will continue to fight until it’s victorious, and the Palestinians seem to be their own worst enemies. And in case you are wondering, carrying a hand gun doesn’t count as being armed, at least not in Dr Shai’s eyes.

I was sitting in a row with a Spaniard, a Canadian, an Irishman and Finn (sounds like the beginning of a joke) and we were all taken aback to say the least by what Dr Shai was saying. I felt that he gave Israelis a bad name and portrayed them in a very poor light.

The Israelis I met that week put a real face to the nation for me. They helped me understand that the beliefs and the opinions of Israelis about the conflict, about Palestinians and even about themselves are wide and varied. They often joked: take a group of five Israelis and you will find ten different opinions.

Problematically for them, the rest of the world sees the likes of Dr Shai speaking and take him to represent the rest of the nation. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Many of the other speakers echoed Dr Shai, perhaps not quite as virulently, but we also heard from other Israelis who had a very different take on the conflict and also Palestinians, whose views vary as much as the Israelis’.

One of the more inspiring set of speakers for me was the Parents Circle Families Forum. A group of Israelis and Palestinians working together to try and create understanding of the other, and to foster a path that everyone can walk along towards peace. To join the group you had to have lost a family member to the conflict.

Aisha Aqtam (Palestinian), Ayelet Harel (Israeli), Mazen Faraj (Palestinian) and Nir Oren (Israeli) spoke candidly of their personal loss and the anger they all felt afterwards. Nir and Mazen told us of the revenge they wanted to take and the more extreme thoughts they once had for the other side.

But realising that further violence peace does not beget, they made a choice to sit down and listen to the other side. To understand what the other perspective is and to realise they all wanted the same thing – an end to the conflict.

Dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Sun rays through the dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem

Aisha and Ayelet spoke about finding a common connection through motherhood and both believe that women are the most important people in the world, as they are the ones who have the ear of their children.

No matter which side of the fence (wall, security barrier) they lived, all the speakers sparked a lot of debate and intelligent questioning.

For the international participants, the chance to speak to everyday Israelis, was a chance to understand, perhaps for the first time. It was a chance to realise there isn’t just two sides to the story, there’s dozens of them.

On a more practical level we heard from conflict journalists about their experiences. We learnt that photographers are likely to be killed first, that you can spot the Irishman in the war because he is the one singing and dancing, that raw video footage can fetch a very nice price and that just getting out there and finding the story is the only way you will.

Israeli videojournalist Itai Anghel also taught us the value of looking Latvian. Apparently Latvians don’t draw attention to themselves in conflict zones and don’t show their emotions, that is, how scared they really are, which is likely to hinder them getting the story and getting people to trust them. So it’s better to look Latvian.

But we were all left wondering if there are stories worth dying for. That was that one of the more hotly contested questions amongst the speakers.

I think they all agreed though that personal security was important, but perhaps that dying doing what you loved doing wasn’t all that bad.

Speaking of security, perhaps that’s where I should start the story.

Security is a hot topic in Israel and is taken very seriously. I knew this from the last time I visited, but this time I was placed under just a bit more scrutiny.

My first issue is I am an Australian born British citizen travelling on a British passport that has Arab country stamps in it. That, and I’m a journalist.

Getting across the border from Jordan after I had been dropped by my Jordanian saviour at the Sheikh Hussein/Jordan Valley Bridge was a task.

First I was stamped out by Jordanian customs. Then I got on a bus, moved 50 metres down the road until a Jordanian border guard got on and checked our passports. Then we drove over the Jordan River and stopped on the other side of the bridge for the Israeli guards to check the underside of the bus with mirrors. And then we drove onto the Israeli terminal building.

From here, everyone took their bags inside, lined up to have their passports checked by two people and then move onto the bag x-ray. Except for me.

In my case, there was a lot of whispering between the two people and then a third was called in and they asked why I was visiting Israel and then asked for identification that I was a journalist. Still whispering they finally waved me onto the x-ray machine.

Women praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem

Women praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem

This is when the real questioning began.

Why was I there? Why was I there last time? How long ago was I there? How long am I staying this time? What is my father’s name? What is his father’s name? (That one caused a few issues as he couldn’t get his tongue around the name Lyall) Where do I live? Where have I lived for the last ten years? Do I have an Australian passport? Why do I have a British passport? Why am I British? Which countries have I visited in the last ten years? (He got annoyed when the list became very long, I think his actual question should have been: which Arab/Muslim countries have you visited in the last ten years as that’s what he actually seemed to be wanting to know).

And then some of the questions were repeated, was he trying to catch me out?

But I did get my entry visa (in my British passport) and finally I was allowed to leave.

Security is everywhere in Israel. It’s on the streets in army uniforms; it’s at the entrance to many buildings in the form of metal detectors; it’s on the border of Israel and the Palestinian West Bank in the shape of a fence/security barrier/wall;  it’s in the demeanour of the people who live wondering when their security will be breached; wondering when a militant will blow themselves up, fire a rocket or when a soldier might indiscriminately stop them and pull apart their car or launch an air raid.

The toughest security I faced though, was at Ben Gurion airport, flying out to Amman to head home.

Again, those Arab stamps in my passport caused me problems and the customs officers wanted to know everything about the last time I visited the region  and why I went to Morocco seven years ago. They made sure I understood it was “for the security of everyone”.

My bags were searched and tested with a fine tooth comb and all my camera equipment was pulled apart, switched on and run through the x-ray machine. I stood patiently (with only one hour of sleep after partying in Tel Aviv on my last night) and watched. The girls were very nice about everything, but I did start to wonder when I was taken out the back to another room.

Fortunately, it wasn’t a cavity search. It was a metal detector test, and a very thorough one at that.

After arriving three hours before my flight, I had to walk straight onto the plane.

The border between Israel and the West Bank

The wall snakes around the West Bank

As frustrating as it all was, and ultimately it didn’t make any difference to me as I still made my flight, I do understand why it happens. I understand the need to protect and defend, and what’s more I uphold every country’s right to, and believe every country is responsible for doing so.

Beginning the story with the tough security though, would detract from the beauty of the land, the people and the cultures.

So, perhaps I’ll start the story with my first night in Jerusalem.

I arrived on a Friday and at 6:30pm the siren went off marking the beginning of Shabbat (the Jewish holy day). I sat happily in a back alley restaurant in West Jerusalem eating little lamb pies with radish, egg and a tomato, cucumber and onion salad dressed in oil and lemon and lime juice and after dinner wandered down into the Old City.

The Old City dates back to the Bible. These are the streets Jesus is said to have carried his cross through and where he was crucified. It’s where the prophet Mohammed was taken by his steed Buraq before he ascended to heaven and where the Jews go to pray.

And on a Friday night, they pray as well as sing and dance.

The Western Wall of the second temple that was destroyed by the Romans in 70CE is the place Jews go to pray and place prayer notes in the cracks of the wall. It is as close to their holiest site as they can get which is on top of Mount Moriah inside what is now the Dome of the Rock Mosque (the big gold dome with blue walls).

The third holiest place in Islam

The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem

The first temple was built by Solomon in 957BCE, but was destroyed 70 years later when the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and exiled the Jews.

The second temple was built by Herod who cut the top off the mount and backfilled the area to create a flat plain. The only problem was Herod wasn’t much of an architect and didn’t realise the dirt would all wash out if he didn’t reinforce it. So he had some arches built to hold it all up and built a very grand temple on the top of the mount.

It stood there for just under five centuries before it was destroyed by the Romans. The wall that’s left stands on the eastern side of the Western Wall Plaza, an area in which you can’t use a camera on the Sabbath – it’s considered “work”, something strictly forbidden on the holy day.

Walking down to the Western Wall (or Kotel in Hebrew) I was surrounded by men in black suits, broad brim and rabbit fur hats and sporting ringlets, others were just wearing dress clothes and a kippa (skull cap). The women with the suited men were usually wearing wigs or scarves, long skirts and long sleeved shirts. The children were dressed the same and it was interesting looking at the mix of people.

I watched the parade up and down the main street of Jerusalem for the next 24 hours, people walking back and forth to the wall on the holy day to pray. Walking being the operative word, as they’re not allowed to drive on the Sabbath. In fact there are some very conservative Jews who throw rocks at driving cars on the Sabbath.

That highlights the different mix of people that live in Jerusalem and nowhere else is that mix more evident than in Old City.

Connecting alleys filled with houses, schools, cafes, churches, mosques, synagogues, Muslims, Jews, Christians, Israelis, Palestinians, Armenians, Greeks, food shops filled with falafel, kebabs, shwarma, baklawa, bread and juice, aromatic spice shops that you can smell ten metres away, pharmacies, clothing stores, jewellery stores and others selling every tacky souvenir you can imagine. Wooden statue of Jesus on the cross anyone?

The city is divided into quarters, Jewish, Armenian, Muslim and Christian (in no particular order). The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is there along with the stations of the cross, there’s the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa mosques and the Kotel.

But the mix and perhaps clash of cultures that is so evident on the inside of the walled Old City, is not quite as visible in the new city. Here it looks like any modern Western city, women in short shorts and singlet tops, business clothes, bars, clubs, restaurants, shops and markets filled with bread, biscuits, heavenly pastry, divine halva, strong spices, fish, meat, fruit, vegetables and every tacky souvenir you can imagine, and a new tram system that seems to have a caused a lot of controversy as it was built. But like everything that creates controversy at first, it is now very well used.

Tel Aviv is not so different from the new city of Jerusalem, except the humidity is higher, there’s not as many Orthodox Jews on the street and there’s no tram. But walking down the street you could almost mistake yourself for being in Europe, except for the incomprehensible signs and the people stopping me to ask for directions in Hebrew (or least I assume they were directions). A language I know five words of, but many seem to think I speak.

Gili kept wanting to speak to me in Hebrew and now even Facebook is advertising to me in Hebrew. Jonathan from Lebanon told me that I should perhaps take that as a sign I should be learning the language.

I guess that leads me onto the people I met at the seminar. Perhaps they are the beginning of the story, after all  it is them that have had the biggest impact on me.

Being amongst journalists with the same professional interests as me, made me feel alive and stimulated, something I haven’t felt for a long time. Knowing there are other people crazy enough to throw themselves into the deep end of conflict to find stories that matter makes me smile.

I learnt so much from them all; from Gili, Leigh, Maya and Nitzan I learnt so much about the make up of the Israeli nation; the proud experience of military service and the years of reservist duty after that; that Ultra Orthodox Jews don’t recognise the state of Israel as they’re still waiting for the Messiah, and it is only he who will create the state; different views on settlers, some feel they are a security threat; different views of the government and its policies, not everyone agrees with the official line; that there are some Israelis who want it all and others who are readily willing to compromise for the sake of peace.

With Geneviève from Canada I shared laughter and a joy of people watching; we dubbed some clubbers on our last night “glow in the dark people”, for their fluorescent clothing glowed as they checked and preened themselves in the bathroom mirror. We also shared a lesson given by Wesley from Ireland about leprechauns.

According to Wesley they do exist and they also have sex.

Wesley also taught us to Irish dance, some of us were quite good, or was it the beer making me think that?

With Teemu from Finland (though he’s more Israeli in character these days) and Jonathan from Lebanon I shared a dislike of modern art; I won’t repeat our exact words, but needless to say it wasn’t art we appreciated as much as others did.

But that’s just a few of the people I spent my week with, and the frivolity of leprechauns aside, we all shared serious discussions, fun, laughter, stories, experiences and ideas. There was no stand out annoyances, no judgmentalism and no bickering (except in the boys’ room over the air conditioner).

To Vanessa, Esin, Luciana, Pavlina, Elena, Angeles, Roxanne, Daniel, Fabio, Cornelius, Wesley, Martin, Benny, Nastassja, Claudia, Mayuri, Geneviève, Pamela, Carl, Felix, Jonathan, Javier, Crystal, Nitzan, Rotem, Asya, Maya, Nir, Teemu, Alona, Gili, Leigh, Alon, Nissan, Ori and all the staff not least Mayaan, Yoni, Gal and Letícia – thank you.

I’m still not sure where the story begins, but wherever that point is, I’m pretty sure it hasn’t yet ended.

And one last thing, if an Arab or an Israeli tells you something is five minutes away, it’s more likely to be 30 minutes away.

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