I arrived home on April 30, 2002 from the Promised Land, with a completely new understanding of the Middle East; specifically the relationship and cultural differences between Israel and its immediate neighbors. I saw the touristy things, and I saw the things most tourists will never see.
Before I start: I will tell you that I was not the only tourist in Israel. I am certain there must have been at least one other. But; if there was, I couldn’t find him or her. The shops were empty, not figuratively. Literally.
Many of the hotels were closed. And the second hotel where I stayed, the Dan Pearl, a four star suite hotel was void of tourists. As a matter of fact, there was some twenty guests in the hotel when I was staying there. And I paid $80 US per night, which included a magnificent Israeli breakfast and all taxes. The usual price is generally more than $200 US per night.
To suggest that the Intifada is not doing harm to Israelis; Arabs and Jews alike, is an understatement out of all proportions. Israel is reeling from the astronomical loss of tourist revenue. As are the Israeli and non Israeli Arabs. There are no winners.
If you ask any Israeli Arab what he thinks about all of this, he will tell you how badly he wants the Palestinians to cease and desist from acts of violence. What many people don’t realize, is that Israel has more than 1.2 million Arab citizens. And many non Israeli Arab residents who live in East Jerusalem. All of whom make their living from an economically strong Israel. Not to mention the millions of West Bank Arabs who depend exclusively upon Israel for all kinds of work.
This is not to suggest that the Arabs; Israeli and non Israeli, are not supportive of the Palestinians. They are. But; by a vast majority of the Arabs who live with, near or amongst Israelis, they are not supportive of the murder, terror and depravation.
I also spoke with virtually every Israeli I came into contact with, and asked them the same questions. “Are you willing to trade land for peace? Are you willing to close down the settlements? Are you willing to find some way to share Jerusalem as a joint Israeli and Palestinian capital”? And to a person (100%), including some real hard right conservatives, the answer was yes.
What was also unanimous amongst the Israelis with whom I spoke, was their absolute commitment to do whatever is necessary to protect and preserve Israel. Also consonant amongst these Israeli Jews, was their support for what Ariel Sharon is doing in terms of punishing Arafat, and in his unrelenting war against the terrorists.
That said, I will continue with a superficial synopsis of my trip.
Instead of finding a conventional tour group, or trying to muddle on my own, I sought out and hired a private guide with the clear understanding that he was to take me wherever I wanted to go. I wasn’t just interested in seeing the Land of Milk and Honey according to the brochures. I wanted to see, hear and feel the forces that drive the region.
Like all tourists, I dutifully went to see the Western Wall, the Knesset, the Supreme Court and its rose garden. I went to Yad Vashem, the Golan Heights, The Jordan River, the Dead Sea, the Sea of Galilee and Masada, which I climbed up and down, rather than opting to take the cable car.
I also went to Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jaffa, where I hired a rescue boat whose captain took my guide and myself onto the Mediterranean, where we pursued an Israeli gun ship, just so I could have a closer look at it. And in Haifa, we visited the fabulous B’Hai Gardens which is very often referred to as the eighth modern wonder of the world.
I did many of the things expected from a tourist. But I also did things most tourists would never do. I toured a chunk of the West Bank. I went to the Shebba Farms where the murdering Hizbola keep shelling into Israel from the Lebanese Hills with their Katusha rockets. I toured the Golan Heights all the way up to Syria. I went into a Druze village and Palestinian Villages where Hizbola was quite active and ever present. I wanted to see for myself, what drove these people and how they lived.
I also broadcast three radio shows back to North America. The first was to Rochester New York, on WHAM at 6:30 AM (eastern time). WHAM is America’s 6th most listened to News/Talk radio station. The WHAM broadcast was sensational for various reasons, but specifically because of its location. I stood atop Masada, where in 70 AD, the Jewish Zealots chose mass suicide rather than enslavement at the hands of the Romans.
From this unbelievable perspective, I told the Americans what I saw and experienced in Israel and surrounding areas. Even though I have had some extraordinary radio broadcast experiences before doing this one, nothing I had done previously could rival doing a live radio show all the way back to North America, from the lofty height of Masada.
To Israelis, Masada represents an iron resolve; never to bow a knee, and never to surrender. Upon military graduation, Israeli personnel climb the cliffs to Masada, just as I had done. And from the top of Masada, they make a pledge never to surrender.
The two other radio shows were in Western Canada. The first on the Leslie Primeau show in Edmonton. The second with Stirling Faux on the Corus Western Canadian network. Both of these shows were incredible and shocking. I was totally unprepared for the comments of the callers.
I spent a considerable amount of time during the night, on or around Ben Yehuda Street where many of the suicide murderers wreaked havoc and terror. Ben Yehuda is a pedestrian mall several blocks long, and is the tourist’s Mecca, where gift shops, restaurants and banks abound.
What was once a tourist area teeming with people, is now a ghost town frequented by Israelis with a business purpose for being there. Many of the shops were closed. All of the shops were devoid of customers.
I ate at the Sbarro Pizza Parlor which was bombed twice. This restaurant is located just one block over from Ben Yehuda on Jaffa Street, which is one of Jerusalem’s busiest thoroughfares. It too was virtually empty.
I intend to write a series of articles on my trip to Israel, and relate my own experiences and emotions concerning the things I saw and heard. And I will tell you why I am thoroughly convinced that there will be peace in the region, sooner rather than later.
And I will tell you why the Arabs have such a hatred for Israel. All of which I understood before my trip. But now clearly better understand after the trip.
The areas which comprise Israel, are far more complicated than one can imagine without actually being there and seeing them for yourself. What we think of in terms of distances that separate the many cultures being in miles, is actually better described in inches.
Israel, in geographical relationship to its Middle Eastern neighbors is nothing like I expected, or was mentally prepared for. These are the things I will attempt to relate to you in a series of subsequent articles.
I hope that what I write will be as interesting to you, as it was fascinating to me.
And now that I am back in Canada. There’s no place like home.