Seeing the Other Side: An Alternative Tour of Israel

2015-08-31 09:10

Suraya Dadoo suggests interesting places to visit in Israel, and offers some useful travel tips for South Africans.

Mention that you’re visiting Israel, and you’re likely to receive mixed responses in South Africa. Depending on who you speak to, you’ll hear that Palestinians are terrorists working against peace, or that Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians are reminiscent of Apartheid South Africa. Many South Africans want to go there and see for themselves. So, here are the places that I would suggest you visit if you really want to see all sides of Israel.

Getting through the airport

But first to get through Ben Gurion Airport. Apart from the usual “Vot is de purpose of your visit to Israel?”, you’re also asked what your father’s and grandfather’s names are, and where they were born. Best you brush up on your family history during the flight! Things can also get a bit awkward if you’ve ever tweeted #FreePalestine, or shared those pics on Facebook of that one (and only!) time you and your friends attended a Gaza protest. You’d better have DIRCO on speed-dial, just in case.

Alternatively, you could ask the Israeli embassy in South Africa, to give you a letter before you leave South Africa, begging the Israeli security to be nice. But that doesn’t always work. Just ask Democratic Alliance MP Yusuf Cassim! Between 4 and 24 hours later (depending on the length of your questioning) you’ll finally be out of the airport. Welcome to Israel! (Note: If you’re travelling on an El Al flight from OR Tambo, you’ll experience this Israeli “hospitality” on South African soil - complete with racial profiling, interrogation, and threatening security officials).

  South Tel Aviv First stop Tel Aviv. With its golden beaches and lively cosmopolitan outlook, it is Israel's most modern city. You can soak up the sun, shop until you drop, and enjoy the city’s buzzing café scene. Make sure you also head to south Tel Aviv, the African refugee hub of Israel.  Here, you will see first-hand how the current Israeli government, dominated by ethno-religious and right-wing parties is openly hostile to asylum seekers.

If you’re lucky, you might even see Israeli politicians leading an angry crowd through Levinsky Park chanting "Sudanese to Sudan! Tel Aviv for the Jews!"

Black South Africans, travelling alone, are advised to keep their South African passports with them at all times. You might be mistaken for an infiltrator (Israel’s term for refugee), and hauled off to a detention centre faster than you can say "Holot"

Jerusalem: A Holy City

Jerusalem is a holy city. For Muslims, a visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, is a must. Travelling on a foreign passport certainly helps. If my husband were Palestinian, he would have needed to obtain a special permit to pray, as Israeli law dictates that all Palestinian men under 50 must obtain a “pass” to get into Jerusalem to pray at Al-Aqsa.

Christian tourists should visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre — the place of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection from the dead. As a tourist, you don’t have to compete with pesky indigenous Christians to worship at this sacred site since Palestinians from the West Bank and Bethlehem are forbidden from even entering Jerusalem without a permit from the Israeli authorities.

 

Palestinians at the Israeli “security” barrier trying to attend Friday prayers at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem 

  In and around Bethlehem, there are 32 Israeli checkpoints, roadblocks and gates that limit how Palestinians can move around the city.

For an authentic “only-in-Israel” experience, put your passport away and join the Palestinian line at the checkpoints here, and in the Occupied West Bank.  

Life of the Bedouins

Travel south on Route 60 to the Negev Desert and the world of the Bedouins. Explore the unrecognized villages that they live in - without basic services such as electricity, water, schools or health clinics. Find out from residents how the Israeli government continues to “encourage” them to leave their traditional lands through demolishing their homes, sometimes entire villages, poisoning their crops, and expropriating their land for new Jewish farms or communities.

The Occupied Territories

Of course, no trip to Israel would be complete without visiting the Occupied Territories. Although this might complicate your exit from Ben Gurion airport (you’ll read more about this later), it’s more than worth it.

Walk along the unique Shuhada Street in Hebron, where 250 000 Palestinian residents must walk on the other side of the street to accommodate a thousand Israeli settlers. Try not to travel in a vehicle with Palestinian number plates, as Palestinians vehicles are not allowed on Shuhada Street in order to protect the settlers (who incidentally already receive protection from more than 2000 IDF soldiers stationed in the area).

Palestinian residents and Israeli settlers walk on separate sides of Shuhada Street in Hebron, West Bank

  Share your toyi-toyi! South Africans are renowned for their protest skills, so why not share your toyi-toyi with the residents of Bi’lin or Nabi Saleh villages on a Friday afternoon, in their weekly protests against the construction of the Israeli Apartheid Wall that is eating into their land?

It would be advisable to have travel and medical insurance as Israeli soldiers usually intervene, resulting in injury, and sometimes death, to protesters. Pack a gas mask if you intend on joining them.

  

Experience a Friday protest at Bi'lin village or Nabi Saleh

Have lunch in the village of Susya, where residents will tell you how they live in constant fear of being evicted and having their homes demolished. You can also head up to the Jordan Valley to witness the contrast in life for the indigenous Palestinian population compared to that of Israeli settlers living in neighbouring settlements (illegal under international law).

 

Ma’ale Adumim is the third largest Jewish settlement in the West Bank with a population of 39 000. With its lush palm and olive trees, roundabouts and parks, the settlement stands in stark contrast to the village of Al-Jahalin situated right next to the illegal settlement, but with no access to water or electricity – and facing the constant fear of being displaced for the second or third time as the settlement expands. 

While you're there, visit one of the hundreds of Israeli settlements in the OPT. Speak to settlers and find out what their views are on the peace process and coexistence with Palestinians.

What about the Gaza Strip?

I would have suggested visiting the Gaza Strip, but with Israel severely limiting access through the Erez Crossing on land, and enforcing a naval blockade, and Egypt controlling the Rafah crossing, it’s virtually impossible to get in. They don’t call it the world’s largest open-air prison for nothing! If you were to get in,  there would be no shortage of locals available to show you around the rubble, since 40% of Gaza’s population is unemployed. Finding a place to stay might be a problem though, as very few homes and buildings that were destroyed during Operation Protective Edge last year have been rebuilt. This is mainly due to Israel allowing very little construction material into the Strip.

Gaza’s hospitality is legendary, and while most residents will happily share the little food that they have, you’ll probably need to take your own bottled water, since 90% of the water in Gaza is undrinkable.

The water treatment plant urgently needs spares, which Israel won’t allow in. It would also be advisable to take some of your South African loadshedding supplies along. Gaza’s only electricity plant was bombed last year by Israel, resulting in power outages of up to 18 hours a day. Israel hasn’t allowed spare parts into Gaza to repair the facility.   Leaving Israel

It’s tough getting into Ben Gurion Airport, but leaving quickly once you’ve told the airport security you’ve seen all this is impossible.

You’ll be directed to a special queue, where Israeli airport security will empty your suitcases and reveal all your dirty laundry (literally!) Expect many questions about who you met, and what you saw. Officials will go through all your recording devices and delete “inappropriate” images and recordings. I would suggest getting to the airport at least 12 hours before your flight departs to ensure that you are able to clear these “security” checks and make your flight.

Recently, Israeli Ambassador to South Africa, Arthur Lenk, encouraged South Africans to visit Israel. I agree with him. Experience Israel for yourself.

Suraya Dadoo is a researcher for Media Review Network , a Johannesburg advocacy group. Find her on Twitter here.

See also: The truth behind "fact-finding missions" to Israel

An edited version of this piece appears on Travelwrite

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