It was surprisingly cold in the Holy Land. In Jerusalem, I needed a hat and gloves while London basked in sunshine, and in Hebron, I found myself sheltering from both snow and rain outside the Cave of the Patriarchs. In my mind, the 'Middle East' equates to warm weather, so such conditions were disconcerting.
I last visited Israel (but not Palestine) more than a decade ago, but this time arriving was much less straightforward. To save money, I'd got a budget flight to Budapest and then an absurdly cheap flight from there to Ben Gurion Airport (£8.43). During the red-eye stopover in Hungary, I was offered a blanket and food, for the terminal was full of transiting Ukrainian refugees.
Two PCR tests were required to enter Israel, one taken within 72 hours of departure, the other upon arrival. Technically, I was supposed to 'quarantine' at my digs in Jerusalem for up to 24 hours while awaiting the all-clear. Mercifully, this arrived just in time for dinner and as Shabbat – Israel's Friday-Saturday statutory day of rest – came to an end.
Unusually for me, I was about to join a group tour of Israel and Palestine rather than travelling solo. It helped that a friend of mine runs an outfit called 'Political Tours'. This specialises in taking politically-engaged individuals, typically Brits, Americans and Australians, around the world's hotspots. My friend's mother and wife were there, as were a mother-and-son from New York, an English artist and a retired Californian academic. They were all good fun.
We started the tour as any tourist would, visiting Jerusalem's Old City, the Western Wall and the Mount of Olives, but we also ventured into East Jerusalem – which has a curious status within the city administration – to see one of many 'security' walls which now demarcate Israeli and Palestinian territory. This evoked Belfast and its 'peace' walls although, as I came to appreciate, the situation in Israel-Palestine is much more complicated.
On Monday we set out for Ramallah, the largest city in Palestine, which involved navigating the rather grim Qalandia checkpoint, easy enough for white tourists, much harder for Palestinians, many of whom had abandoned their cars before entering. This was my first introduction to the maze of different jurisdictions which anyone travelling in the region has to navigate. As one Palestinian guide told us, it's a bit 'like hopscotch'.
The A, B and C areas are a legacy of the 1993 Oslo accords, a five-year 'interim' agreement signed under the auspices of the United States and EU. The Israeli Army vacated areas A and B, mostly larger Palestinian cities and towns, which came under the civilian control of the Palestinian Authority, while Israel maintained control of land, water, borders and airspace, all of which generate tension: land because the Israeli settlements in area C continue to expand; water because the supply is unreliable in large swathes of the West Bank; borders due to the extensive system of walls and bypass roads which connect Israeli settlements to one another and to Israel; and airspace because Palestine is not permitted to have an airport of its own.
A former Israeli Government spokeswoman we later met in Tel Aviv claimed the existence of an airport would amount to 'sovereignty' for Palestine (someone should tell the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). She also politely challenged what she suspected were the group's views on what we'd seen in the West Bank, arguing that every country had 'discrimination'. A deputy mayor of Jerusalem had also politely implied hypocrisy when observing that the UK had 'an established church' (true) which could not be over-ruled by parliament (false).
There are so many different narratives and perspectives in Israel-Palestine, and therefore several different realities. We also met settlers, mainly Americans; charming, decent people but politically disengaged. Asked about the situation on their doorstep, they could not offer much beyond 'some of my best friends are Arabs'. Less ideological Israelis regard such people as 'extremists' (their term, not mine), though if one traces the arguments back, they all lead to the same place: that God chose Israel as the land of the Jews, and that's that.
Naturally, not everyone accepts this. In Ramallah, we saw teenage boys taking turns to throw stones at Israeli soldiers stationed on the outskirts of the city. One had a sling. Later, we saw a security wall which had been built across a once-busy road, as a result of which economic activity in that part of the city had ground to a halt. All of us were left with the overwhelming sense that we were visiting a massive open-air prison.
This is justified on the basis of security. A decade or so ago, we were told more than once, going to a restaurant in Tel Aviv did not feel safe because of the constant threat from terrorist bombings and shootings (again, this will be familiar to any Troubles-era resident of Belfast or Derry/Londonderry). Once checkpoints and walls were stepped up, Israel's largest city felt safe again. This is indisputable, though such end-justifies-the-means arguments have obvious limitations.
A day in Nablus was particularly memorable for its eclecticism. In the morning, we explored the Balata Camp, established in the early 1950s and now basically a permanent settlement (those descended from its original inhabitants gain hereditary refugee status), followed by a Greek Orthodox Church devoted to Jacob's Well. Later, we had lunch with a woman's organisation in the Old City, followed by a tour of an intensely atmospheric soap factory, where squares of soap were stacked in cones to dry. Our final port of call was the brand-new Palestinian city of Rawabi, full of high-end retailers but hardly any people.
Sir Tony Blair had once visited the same soap factory, and indeed the West Bank (or Palestine) has grown used to political visitors over the past few decades, all of whom doubtlessly mean well but usually achieve little. Both Israelis and Palestinians told us of their frustration at individuals dropping into the region and suggesting solutions which to them appeared easily achievable. This is why taking a 'side' in Israel-Palestine, as in Northern Ireland, misses the point: if one side were unequivocally good and the other wholly bad, then there wouldn't be a problem in need of a solution.
Hebron was the bleakest of all, now a divided city (H1 is controlled by Palestine and H2 by Israel) at the centre of which is the Cave of the Patriarchs. This has separate entrances for Jews and Muslims. Each can glimpse the tombs of Jacob et al
without seeing each other. Through a mix up, we got to see both sides. Entering via the Israeli settlement, which now surrounds part of the site, we were asked repeatedly what religion we were. Soldiers then warned us not to go back into H1 because it was too dangerous. We ignored them.
Talking to Palestinians was also a sobering reminder as to the United Kingdom's role in the current situation. In August this year, it will have been a century since the League of Nations granted the UK a 'Mandate' to administer what was then known as Palestine. That Mandate, like the Balfour Declaration that preceded it, included guarantees regarding the Arab population.
In Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, there are streets named after the East Lothian statesman Arthur James Balfour; in Ramallah his name is a dirty word, his image cancelled with a large red cross on a banner opposite the tomb of Yasser Arafat. History in this part of the world is contested, as is almost everything else.
David Torrance is a writer and historian