I arrived in Israel by land via Jordan, and honestly I wasn’t sure if they were going to let me in. At the very least I expected 6 hours of tough interrogation, as I heard is common in cases where Israel finds you suspicious. It’s not unheard of to have Israel immigration ask to see your phone and access to your email accounts, etc. As a Colombian with a Lebanese last name (Lebanon and Israel have had wars between them) who recently spent 3 months in Lebanon, I was expecting the worst. I went to cross the land border by bus and was very happy to find that there were only 5 minutes of basic questioning before being welcomed into the country.
I spent the first few days in Jerusalem, a fascinating and hotly disputed piece of holy land that is home to the some of the most sacred sites for Judaism, Christianity and Islam. I had the pleasure of being hosted by my friend Yehuda who I had met at the beginning of my trip in the Philippines.
In Jerusalem I spent most of my days exploring and wandering the Old City which feels like you are walking in a history book and is a melting pot where in the same alleyways you are rubbing elbows with Orthodox Jews, Christian nuns in the Mother Theresa outfits and hijab covered Muslim women.
Within the old city that is surrounded by huge walls that were constructed initially by the Ottomans you can find neighborhoods for the 3 major faiths with their holy sites. Islam has the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which is considered the 3rd holiest site in the Muslim Faith. Judaism has the Western Wall also referred to as the Wailing Wall which is the remains of the 2nd (the first was also destroyed) holy temple. And Christianity has the Holy Sepulchre, which is a Church built on the site where Jesus is supposed to have been crucified and initially buried.
Throughout time and presently there has been lots of violence and disputes over who Jerusalem should belong to or be controlled by. Both the greater city and the smaller Old City is full of Israeli army and police and you feel tension and I even heard the gunshots one day of a Palestinian 16 year old girl getting killed by Israeli soldiers after waving a knife at soldiers. This wasn’t the only case of violence as while I was in Israel and Palestine there were many people killed (mostly Palestinians as is statistically the norm.)
I then went to Palestine which is also called The West Bank & Gaza Strip / Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) . While it hasn’t yet been recognized as a country by the United Nations, 136 (70.5%) of the 193 member states of the United Nations and two non-member states have recognized the State of Palestine.*
I first spent a few days in the North in Ramallah from where I explored and went further up north to Nablus that has a beautiful Old City, the best Kanefeh (a local desert that has cheese) and some of the friendliest people who all stop to greet you.
I also spent some time in Bethlehem, where I visited the Church of the Nativity, but was more impressed by the Banksy Hotel and museum inside which is in front of the partition wall that has great street art and political messages on it. I also visited the Dheisheh Refugee Camp.
I then went and volunteered for 2 weeks in Hebron also known as Al-Khalil which is a very interesting place that has an Old City which was recently named a UNESCO world heritage site. It has the Ibrahimi Mosque and Cave of the Patriarchs which is supposed to be built over the tomb of Abraham. What makes this city really interesting is the tense situation where Palestinians and Israeli settlers live very close to each other. I volunteered with a Youth organization, the International Palestinian Youth League (IPYL) where I was writing a proposal to seek funds for projects to empower the Palestinian youth.
Next I had a huge change of scenery and went to Tel Aviv, which became one of my favorite cities in the world for its amazing quality of life. To me it’s the love child of New York, Miami and Barcelona. It has a vibrant art scene visible in its ubiquitous street art and is not too big and has a great bicycle infrastructure and culture where it seems people love to be outside as much as possible. Life seems to revolve around a huge strip of beach where people go to when they can to hang out or play sports when they are not at bars and restaurants socializing.
Tel Aviv is also a beautiful example of diversity, tolerance and coexistence. A surreal moment for me was cycling past Muslim families (25% of the Israeli population is Muslim) breaking their Ramadan fast in the same area where the city’s world-famous Gay Parade and party had ended. My Israeli friends told me the city is like a bubble independent from the political climate of the rest of the country and the Far Right leaders in their government.
While I was first very put off by the prices in Tel Aviv which perhaps are “normal” to those paying U.S. and European prices, I was able to find work and actually managed to save money for my travels during the 2.5 months I spent in Tel Aviv. I was able to do this because of the amazing kindness and generosity of many of my friends who let me crash on their couches for a month and a half (Thank you Danielle, Eran, and Laurie!). And after spending only $50 dollars in 9 months on accommodation (I did this by Couchsurfing), I even treated myself and rented a room in an apartment for a month in Tel Aviv, which did feel pretty nice!
I by chance ended up meeting someone who led to a job working at a nursery or Pre-Kindergarten where I taught (english and art) and played with children . While I had never worked with Children before I loved the experience which was full of letting out the inner kid in me (it’s not too far beneath the surface 😉 practicing patience and humility and observing human behavior as it is begins to develop when we are very young and being surrounded by pure joy, love, gentleness. Beside this job, I also did some translations and even gave Salsa dancing and Spanish lessons.
Above pictures of my time in Tel Aviv, the Dead Sea and a camping trip up north near the border with Lebanon and Syria.
Below pictures of a few of the many reunions I had while in Tel Aviv, including that of my little brother Matias who surprised me and it was amazing to spend a week with him after not having seen anyone in my family in more than 2 years.
After almost not being able to do so, I finally left Tel Aviv to check out some other places in the South before crossing the border into the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt.
I stopped by the smaller college town of Be’er Sheva where I was hosted by some very nice people before going to Mitzpe Ramon which is home to spectacular nature around the Negev Desert including a gorgeous crater I did some trekking before making it down to Eilat the city in the very south of Israel before officially entering Egypt.
While I have been studying this topic on my own for a few months while in the region through varied sources, I recognize both the immense complexity of the conflict. While some might get offended with my views (I hope not, as we’re all entitled to our opinions) That being said, I think that both sides have valid claims to this land and both need to recognize each other’s right to their own country, existence and sovereignty.
Palestine needs to stop attacking Israel or resorting to terrorism. Israel needs to recognize Palestine as a country and until then not allow or encourage Israelis to settle in the West Bank. They also need to stop trampling on the human rights of Palestinians and using the excessive force and collective punishment while they are occupying the Palestinians land in what many call an apartheid state.
Either way I have great admiration and love for both the people of Israel and Palestine and I long for them to make peace as they are BOTH home to some of the warmest, kindest and most welcoming people I have ever encountered.
I urge each and every one of us to investigate, read, learn (At the bottom of this post I include several informative links, or use your own search!) and more importantly visit both countries so you can come to your own conclusions and help push for a solution.
Top 5 Recommendations for Israel and Palestine:
5. Go see some of the natural beauty of the region such as the famous Golan Heights in the North bordering Syria or the Mitzpe Ramon crater which is stunning and home to spectacular hiking in the Negev Desert.
4. Visit the Dead Sea and float above the water of this lake with water 10 times saltier than the sea. It also happens to be the lowest point on earth!
3. Visit Jerusalem and see the epicenter for this city-museum full of history and melting pot of religions and people. Explore the Old City as much as you can!
2. Visit the West Bank of Palestine and go to as many places as you can, or at least to:
– Hebron (Al-Khalil) to see the old city and how it is divided and both Israeli settlers and Palestinians share tight spaces including the mosque, the Tomb of the Patriarchs (where the tomb of Abraham is supposed to be, which is holy to Muslims and Jews.
–Bethlehem: Go see the partition wall in front of the hotel with a very informative museum inside where world-famous street artist Banksy decorated the hotel and rooms.
–Nablus and its beautiful old city in the north and Ramallah the administrative capital.
1. Visit Tel Aviv and enjoy this amazing city. Get yourself a bicycle (there are city rental bikes) and definitely visit: old Jaffa and the atmosphere around the flea market and eat hummus, beaches, Rothschild Boulevard, check out the gritty street art filled Florentin neighborhood. The Modern Museum of Art also has a stunning collection and the museum itself is an architectural work of art. Best of all, soak up the great energy of this city and it´s beautiful people.
Additional information :
States that recognize Palestine:
Israeli talk show talking about Palestine injustice
US Aid to Israel: 38 Billion during 10 years
International jews againts occupation
Dheisheh Refugee Camp
Palestinian teenage girl killed at Old City while I was there