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Travelling in Israel in this climate

November 28, 2015, The Daily Telegraph

Ben English

Ben English - Jerusalem - Old City

Travel and politics: Ben English visits Israel

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going to Heaven, we were all going the other way. Charles Dickens, Tale of Two Cities, 1859.

In the shadows of Christ’s birthplace, trade is brisk at the The Swarma House. Western tourists, pilgrims to this holy of holy Christian shrines, chow down on the chicken and lamb wraps on plastic seats besides Palestinian residents of Bethlehem. It’s a happy and harmonious scene, as the cheerful cooks and waiters joke and chat with their customers. Which makes the images on the TV screen above the diners all the more jarring. The footage shows a Palestinian man arguing with Israeli soldiers at a roadblock before leaving. He returns with a rifle and shoots at the soldiers, who return fire and kill him.

Overlaying the images, broadcast on the official Palestinian Authority network, a male Arabic singer can be heard. “There is nothing more beautiful than martyrdom,’’ he sings. “My land calls me and there is nothing sweeter than martyrdom. This land raised free men, glory and suffering have been sown in it. Whenever it is thirsty, the blood of the righteous martyrs will water it.’’ The segment is followed by a 10-minute tribute to Yasser Arafat, the late, great demi-god to the Palestinians, before others who have died attempting — often successfully – to kill Israelis are lionised as holy heroes. Some victims were soldiers, others Israeli citizens going about their day in Jerusalem, or Haifa, Jaffa, Tel Aviv.

The same material is broadcast daily into the West Bank and, 74km south-west, to the sealed city of Gaza. The Israelis have a name for the propaganda machine: Pal-y-wood. Down the road from Bethlehem, patriotic murals adorn the 8m walls that tower over sections of the West Bank celebrating yet more soldiers “martyrs’’ of the cause. Blood is the dominant motif, the blood of the enemy and martyr flowing together without a trace of irony.  Listen to the spokesmen and women for Palestine and the language is equally stark: The barrier is branded the “apartheid” wall, a prison that cuts them off from their true homeland to the east – the Palestine that was ‘theirs’ until statehood for Israel was declared in 1948. The Palestinian Authority, the modern political face of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, uses its media apparatus as a potent weapon to maintain the rage.  According to a former executive of its main newspaper, the PA uses its complete control of the media to saturate its populace with anti-Israel dogma. And it is with the same zeal as modern history’s most infamous dictators.

“It was like working for Saddam Hussein’s ministry of information,’’ says one-time Al Fajar editor Khaled Abu Toameh. “We would sit in a small office in East Jerusalem and wait for instructions from the Palestinian Authority on what size the picture of Yasser Arafat should be. Now it’s much worse.’’ Khaled, now a senior writer with the Jerusalem Post, says the strategy has worked well – too well. “The Palestinian Authority is shooting itself in the foot. They are unleashing this massive wave of incitement against Israel. In the mosques, in the media. And that drives people into the arms of the Palestinian Authority’s rivals, Hamas. That is why Hamas has become so strong.’’

Khaled, a Palestinian Muslim living in Israel, says it is now all but impossible to bring Palestine to any form of settlement because its citizens have been brainwashed to hate and distrust Israel so deeply. A key factor is the Palestinians persistent claims that Israel assassinated Arafat. 
“A few days ago, 11th anniversary, they said the Jews killed him, but we just have to find out how they did it. You laugh, but that’s a blood libel,’’ Khaled said. “You are actually telling generation after generation these Jews killed one of the greatest leaders of the Palestinians. “Even if 10,000 Palestinians come and stand in the public square and openly confess that they murdered Yasser Arafat, nobody would believe them. Why, because the blood libel is already out. “It’s like the libel that Jews control the media and they control the Congress and Jews are behind 9/11.

“I still run into people in Ramallah who tell me how the Jews planned 9/11, there was a phone call five minutes before and the Jews left the buildings. I still run into Palestinians who tell me the Jews release rats into the old city of Jerusalem to drive Arab families out of their homes, as if the rats can distinguish between a Jewish family and an Arab family. And I still meet people who tell me Jews use sharks to drive Arab swimmers out of the sea and they use dolphins to spy on Muslims.’’

It’s a lurid narrative that is largely ignored on the world stage but is crucial for PA leader Mahmoud Abbas – now in the 11th year of his five-year term – to keep his tenuous hold on power. “On the one hand they are inciting against Israel because they have to be politically correct, otherwise their people would kill them as traitors, but behind the scenes the PA is doing some good things,’’ says Khaled. “They are conducting security coordination with Israel, they are helping Israel fight Hamas in the West Bank. “Now they are not doing that because they have changed their ideology and they are going to become members of the Zionist movement. “They are doing it because they are realistic and they know that without Israel’s presence in the West Bank, Hamas will eat them for breakfast.’’ The Israelis are in no rush to forge the so-called “two-state solution’’ because they fear the PA is to weak to rule in its own right.

The concern is that if Palestine is to become a state and insists Israel keep its security forces away, there is a real danger Hamas or, worse, Islamic State would take control. “We have no natural resources,’’ one of Israel’s top peace negotiators says in an interview. “But we have one resource in abundance: bad options.’’ “There would not be enough pages in every newspaper on the planet to contain the debate” It is futile and pointless, however, to repeat claim and counterclaim about the wall or anything else that is contested between the two adversaries – and that pretty much includes everything under the blazing Middle Eastern sun. There would not be enough pages in every newspaper on the planet to contain the debate. As the saying goes: two Jews, three opinions. And that’s before the Arabs enter the fray.

But to the newcomer, it is hard to conceive from the militant imagery of the West Bank, the emotion-laden words and pictures of television, Facebook and Instagram, that anybody here could ever contemplate - let alone wish for - peace with the “occupying force’’. And indeed that is a view that both sides can actually agree upon: Peace ain’t coming to this part of the world anytime soon. “The aim, naturally, is to win hearts and minds of those who influence hearts and minds”

We are here as guests of the Jewish lobby in Australia, which each year funds a week-long tour of Israel and the Palestinian territory for up to eight journalists to give a boots-on-ground look at the country, its history, its people, its challenges and its future. The aim, naturally, is to win hearts and minds of those who influence hearts and minds. We are given top-level access to Israel’s powerbrokers, strategists and political leaders as well as the bold young entrepreneurs that have helped build Israel’s growing reputation as global innovation capital – the world’s greatest ‘start-up nation’. We even meet a settler – the type of Zionist whose move into contested territory has blighted Israel’s claim to be fair-handed in its dealings with the Palestinians. The whirlwind tour sweeps from the Gaza checkpoint through Jerusalem, atop the fractious Muslim-controlled Temple Mount compound in the ancient capital, to Bethlehem and Ramallah within the West Bank to meet Palestinian Authority leaders. But it is a flight from Tel Aviv to Golan Heights on the border of Syria to the east and Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon to the north, that puts the century old dispute over Palestine into a wider perspective. The Palestinians will tell you their blood feud with Israel is a David and Goliath struggle, with Israel cast as their all-dominant US-backed military giant against the poorly-funded, barricaded minnow robbed of resources.

From the air en-route to the border, the broader canvass of Israel’s place in the region becomes clear. It is tiny. And to the east unfolds hostile lands that stretch for thousands of kilometres, from Syria, through collapsing Iraq to the power Israel says it fears most, Iran. Israel – the crucible of three continents - is surrounded by forces that by and large would be happy to see it vanish. At Golan, we stand atop a bunkered mountain peak that will form Israel’s first defence front should Iran, Islamic State, Palestinian Jihadists or Hezbollah attack. “See that mountain to the left?’’ says our guide, former Israeli intelligence army major Sarit Zehavi, pointing to a peak about 10km north of our vantage point. “That is Lebanon. That’s an Israeli base next to it and Syria on the right. Down there, that town on the plain (about 8km from us, that’s controlled by IS, and that town over there near the checkpoint, that’s controlled by (al-Quada-affiliated) al-Nusra. The Palestinian Jihadis are active in that town behind IS.

As we gaze down upon the Syrian witch’s brew, latte-laden tourists bustle out of the gift shop. It might seem like doomsday, but business - and life - goes on. 

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