Saturday, January 19, 2008

A Fragile Jerusalem

A fragile peace amid centuries of tension
By John McBeth, Senior Writer

TOURISM BOOM: A street in Jerusalem's Old City. Despite the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict, tourists are thronging Jerusalem again, to the delight of taxi drivers and tour guides. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

FOR a journalist from Asia making his first visit to the Holy Land, it would be brave and also incredibly foolish to try to delve into the rights and wrongs of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But coming from a region in a constant state of change, I have often wondered whether today's Israel-based correspondents find it intensely boring to be covering essentially the very same issues that their predecessors were doing more than half a century ago.

Oh sure, the Middle East - and Palestine in particular - will always occupy the headlines as long as the region remains a source of much of the world's oil and a potential flashpoint for a wider global conflict.

But much of what happens here seems to be a replay of an old movie, with a plot that has stayed pretty much the same since the 1967 Six-Day War that left Israel in control of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.

People of my generation, of course, remember the Holocaust and a lot of our early sympathetic thinking was shaped by that and by the Arab nations ganging up on a nascent Israel - not by whether the Palestinians deserved a homeland too.

That view has become much more nuanced over the years. Indeed, many of my frustrated colleagues have come to the conclusion that the Israelis and the Palestinians deserve each other in their stubborn refusal to reach a settlement.

That frustration also seems to partly stem from the fact that it is almost impossible for a disinterested journalist to write a balanced story about Palestine - or at least one that satisfies all the protagonists. It is easy to understand why.

It was hard to ignore our Muslim taxi driver when Israeli soldiers pulled us over and questioned us as we approached Tel Aviv in the early hours of the morning. 'This only happens to Muslims,' he said with a resigned shrug. 'They think we are dangerous people.'

But it is equally hard to ignore another reality. While the ugly security fence now surrounding much of the West Bank may have deprived many Arabs of their livelihoods, it has been largely responsible for a drastic reduction in suicide bombings.

So the best plan for the casual visitor is to try to ignore recent history and go back in time - to the days of the Bible and even before that. In a city as ancient as Jerusalem, it isn't difficult when confronted with vistas that have changed little in a millennium or two.

New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Steve Erlanger says the prevailing fragile peace is reason enough to spend time in 'an extraordinary city at an extraordinary time'. The tourists are back and taxi drivers and tour guides are happier on both sides of Jerusalem - the mostly Jewish West and the mostly Arab East.

There are freeways, of course, but once inside this city of 600,000 people, don't look for glass towers or other examples of modern architecture that mark the skyline of Tel Aviv, the Israeli capital only a 45-minute drive away through the low-lying Judean hills.

Even newly built office blocks are designed along the same lines as the earliest buildings, leaving an overall impression of dun-coloured timelessness. For all the monotonously unending stonework, however, it is uniquely compelling.

Then there is the scale of everything. I always imagined there was more distance between all those places of Biblical significance. Yet there is the Mount of Olives, literally overlooking the Garden of Gethsemane and the Church of the Agony where Jesus prayed after the Last Supper.

Just across a small rocky valley from there rise the walls of the Old City, encompassing the Temple Mount, with its golden Dome of the Rock, the Al-Aqsa mosque, the Wailing Wall - so revered by the Jews - and Calvary, where Christ was crucified.

It is all a little too much to take in, particularly if you haven't read the Bible for a few decades and are struggling to remember what relevance each location has in the overall scheme of things.

'It can be very moving here - and that's one of the things I like,' says Erlanger, an old friend from Bangkok days. 'They recently uncovered the real Siloam pool where Jesus told the blind man to wash his eyes and see. It has beautiful drain covers for the rain in the shape of olive leaves.'

Erlanger is fascinated by the big debate of the day - whether King David and King Solomon were merely 'chieftains on a dusty hilltop'. I keep asking myself another question: If we were the Romans, what would we have made of that troublemaker Jesus in those times?

Only those who live in Jerusalem can sense the tensions that exist just beneath the surface. Crossing through the concrete security fence into Bethlehem for a tour of the Church of the Nativity involves some waiting - but not much.

There is a temporary hold-up when Israeli soldiers question whether our car, which belongs to an international television network, has the necessary insurance cover to enter the West Bank. It does and we are allowed to proceed.

But at other checkpoints into the West Bank, I'm told, the waiting can be endless. It is a point of tension in itself for Palestinians trying to eke out a living, perhaps as much as the Jewish settlements that are allowed to encroach on Palestinian land.

For a people who rely on tourism for their lifeblood, it also doesn't help that no-one raises a finger when a pack of Arab youths besiege our car in an apparent effort to intimidate us into giving them money.

But here we lurch into dangerous territory. So let's head east out of Jerusalem, past Jericho (now doesn't that ring a loud bell) to the shores of the Dead Sea and then south along a barren escarpment to a place a military historian can really relate to: Masada.

It was here, in 73BC, that 936 Jewish freedom fighters committed mass suicide after a besieging Roman legion built a massive rampart of stones and beaten earth that breached the defences of the mountain-top redoubt.

Today, a cable car carries tourists on the 900m ride to the top of the 200,000-sq-m mesa where they can wander through the structures first built by King Herod the Great and gaze down on the ruins of the Roman camps and siege ramp.

Until recently, recruits to the Israeli Defence Force took their oath atop the ancient fortress, vowing: 'Masada will never happen again.' But out there, on the eastern edge of the Judean desert, the politics of the Middle East seem far away, part of a much different world.

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