Monday, October 24, 2011

Visit Palestine

At Hisham's Palace; note the flag

IT WAS Raf's third; and - embarrassingly - Louis's ninth, the UK excluded. I'm talking countries, or I would be if things hadn't gone so awry in 1948. We had wheels, serious jeep wheels, and felt we should see more of the state they call Israel than just the view from Tel Aviv's golden sand into the Med.

And so, instead of turning left to the beach, we turned right to East Jerusalem, and beyond. To Jericho, to be precise, which is thought to be the world's oldest continuously inhabited city. Or one of them, although given it lies in the middle of a rocky desert, and didn't seem to have a whole lot going for it beyond masses of bananas and an over-priced cable car, I struggled to see why. More pertinently, it's in the West Bank, making it part of the Palestinian Territories, or, for kiddie country tally purposes, Palestine.

It certainly felt like another state: we might not have needed our passports, but we did pass through a Palestinian-controlled checkpoint. Israeli number plates (yellow, as oppose to Palestinian green) meant we got stopped, but saying we came from England saw us waved through. Not that they'd have stopped anyone with our liberal credentials. I mean, Robert Fisk is a colleague! Once through, the striking red, black, white, and green of the Palestinian flag hung from every possible vantage point. Per capita, it's a close call who waves more: Israelis or Palestinians.

Louis was under strict instructions not to repeat the faux pas he made on our first weekend: shouting "I love Israel" while sitting at an East Jerusalem cafe. (To be fair, he was reading it from his new mini Jerusalem jigsaw we'd bought at the Garden Tomb's gift shop. In the interest of BBC impartiality I'd hoped to find its Palestinian equal but all we came home with was a - free - camel.) DJ attempted to explain why affirming his affection for Israel would go down quite so badly, but short of deploying the Steamies vs. Diesels Thomas the Tank analogy I'm still working up, I'm not convinced Louis got it. And why should he, when even after my crash course in Middle Eastern politics I'm still struggling.

It sounds basic, but I found the lack of Hebrew on signposts striking. Especially when Arabic is liberally scattered throughout Israel, even if in the case of place names, it apparently just translates the Hebrew equivalent, rather than using the Arabic version of a town: so, Acre, for the northern coastal crusader town, and not Akko, as it's known in Arabic. Everywhere was also vastly more poor, albeit not quite on the scale of Gaza, which DJ likened to Dar-es-Salam after his trip there last week. Everywhere, that is, apart from the isolated pockets where the US has splashed its cash in a futile attempt to dull its pro-Israeli bias. Thus the site of Hisham's Palace, an archeological gem from the 7th century, had been newly tarted up with US money; as had the odd road.

The only tourists were religious ones: it was one in, one out to the cave atop the Mount of Temptation, where Jesus is reputed to have invented willpower, defying the Devil's attempts to make him break his 40-day fast. Fun as the cable car ride was up there, I fear we got more of a kick out of the political tourism than the religious stuff. That said, Bethlehem is also in the West Bank, so I guess we'll get another chance to combine the two.

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