Sheltering under the Jaffa Gate during a torrential downpour, we glimpsed a snapshot of Jerusalem’s distinctive diversity. The intensity of the rain had forced at least forty or fifty people into the small medieval tower on the edge of the Old City.
A group of Christian clergymen from a range of ethnic and denominational backgrounds were huddled in one corner, several orthodox Jews were close to me on the opposite side, and there were men and women in traditional Islamic garb interspersed throughout.
A young, enterprising teenaged boy walked in and out of the rain, shouting “‘brella! ‘brella!, ‘brella!” slyly shaking excess water from his demo model onto woefully underdressed locals and tourists – myself included – hoping we’d reach the conclusion that an umbrella would be fifty shekels (€12) well spent. Smiles and glances of shared annoyance at both the weather and the intrusive sales technique were exchanged across religious lines, and in that five minutes I felt we could have been in any cosmopolitan and tolerant multicultural city.
In April 2016 I spent a week in Israel with nine other students and two instructors as part of an MA course at the Johan Skytte Institute for Political Studies entitled Practical Fieldwork in Conflict Areas. In previous years, Professor Eiki Berg has led fieldtrips to (among others) Cyprus, Moldova’s breakaway region of Transnistria, and to Nagorno Karabakh in the south Caucasus – the latter making headlines recently with a flare-up of violence and rhetoric between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The Israel-Palestine conflict is enduring, highly complex and generates strong and emotional opinions throughout the world. The opportunity to get on the ground and observe the people and places first-hand, rather than through the lenses of media reports and academic writings was very appealing. Our busy and varied itinerary yielded a wealth of experiences that could fill several long blog postings, so this short account is by no means extensive!
We set foot in the Middle East at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport in the early hours of Sunday morning. Our highly hospitable hosts, Ben Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), had a minibus waiting to take our travel-weary group the 100km south to the city of Beersheba, and to our accommodation at Ben Gurion Tower, just off Ben Gurion Boulevard. Subsequently, my first sleep-deprived observation was that David Ben-Gurion’s name is everywhere. Israel’s founding father and first prime minister is immortalised in infrastructure up and down the country in streets, schools and parks, his image even offering helpful advice at the airport in the jolly style of a Nintendo Wii avatar.
After catching a few hours sleep, we headed to a neighbourhood café for our first taste of Middle Eastern cuisine, before attending our introductory lecture at the university. Hummus and falafel – a sort of small, deep-fried ball of chickpeas and spices – were to become our dietary staple for the week. Stuffed into pita bread with as much salad, vegetables and sauce as possible, only the most agile amongst us were to avoid a souvenir trouser or T-shirt stain. Our guide, Yoav, tactfully suggested if you don’t get it all over yourself, you’re just not eating it properly. I think I got full marks.
Ben Gurion University
The building of a university in Beersheba was an attempt to promote development in the Negev desert during the late 1960’s. Today it acts as a major catalyst for the city’s expansion, with an ambitious new technology and research park, and the planned IDF (Israel Defense Forces) Technology Campus, both of which will create many jobs and utilize BGU’s graduates and research expertise.
The main campus itself is very pleasant. Its interesting architecture, palm trees, lush green spaces and numerous stray cats are accessible only through perimeter security posts staffed by armed guards. Metal detectors, bag searches and ID checks are mandatory, and while such measures were alien to someone who studied in the UK and now Tartu, they were not intimidating.
Regarding security, a little more worrying for me was the casual manner some very young – presumably conscripted – soldiers on the city streets carried their rifles, swinging loosely side to side as they texted at busy bus stops or ambled along with a significant other. Such behaviour didn’t seem to faze the locals: I presume it was very normal.
Anyway, with regard to our programme, we had a set of lectures on subjects including EU-Israeli relations and the Israeli political system. Dr Ayelet Harel-Shalev detailed her research looking at the experiences of female combatants in the IDF, and one evening we had a special and very entertaining talk on the politics of the Eurovision Song Contest. We also had two fieldtrips-within-a-fieldtrip, to Jerusalem and to the semi-nomadic Bedouin communities of the Negev.
On our way north we met Professor David Newman at the side of the road, very close to a stretch of the separation barrier that demarks the Palestinian-administered West Bank. In more densely populated areas, eight-metre high concrete walls have been constructed, some dividing individual settlements, separating Arab communities from each other as much as from Jewish communities.
However, out in the sparse countryside, a less imposing – albeit electrified – fence marks the boundary. It loosely follows the Green Line, or pre-1967 Arab-Israeli War borders, but frequently cuts inside to incorporate Jewish settlements within the West Bank. An IDF patrol passed on the security road adjacent to the fence, but didn’t trouble us. Perhaps more unnerving, minutes later a resident of the nearby Jewish settlement drove by at a snail’s pace, eying us with suspicion. Professor Newman suggested he probably saw us as another biased group of liberal Palestinian sympathisers: this apparently a prime spot for fence-gazing.
Before heading to the Old City, we visited the south-western suburb of Gilo in occupied East Jerusalem, home to approximately 40,000 mostly Jewish residents. It sits atop an exposed hill, the geography leaving its inhabitants open to sniper and mortar fire during the Second Intifada, or Arab uprising, in the early 2000’s. Our guides pointed out the government’s extensive programme of defensive measures, such as reinforcing windows and masonry. An interesting feature was also the insular nature of many apartment blocks in the neighbourhood. This quasi-gated community style is inward-facing, appealing to families on security grounds, but doing little to aid community integration efforts.
Despite the comparatively outrageous prices for drinking out (€6-10 for a half-litre of beer), the opportunity to observe and meet some locals outside of an academic environment made it an educational investment – or at least that’s what I kept telling myself. In a neighbourhood rock bar, the barman chatted to us for several minutes. He insisted that Jerusalem, his hometown, was not Israel: “Jerusalem is Jerusalem”, i.e. an entity of its own. He loved it, but said living there was of course scary at times, especially in the early 2000’s during the Second Intifada.
Another evening, in a break from the falafel-hummus eating routine, several of the group headed to a neighbourhood fish and chips bar. Being British I took little convincing. Here, a nineteen-year-old eating at a nearby table overheard our conversing in English and said hello. Her parents had recently emigrated from Hong Kong and she was taking a year out before starting at BGU.
Most Israeli teenagers do not have this luxury of choice, as two years of military service is compulsory for the vast majority of citizens immediately after high school. Because the young woman was not Israeli by birth, she had an exemption, yet emphatically told me she would serve voluntarily after her studies. We had heard from various lecturers that even amongst left-leaning, more secular Israelis, enthusiasm for the service is the norm, those young people expressing opposition can be socially ostracised. It was something she had to do – to help defend Israel, but had sympathy for Palestinians.
Our second daytrip focused on the Bedouin people, a semi-nomadic ethnic Arab group living mostly in the Negev desert. The Israeli government officially recognises the seven purpose-built settlements or townships it constructed between the 1960’s and 1990’s. There are, however, approximately 40 unrecognised villages that do not appear on any official map.
Our guide was Kessem, a Jewish-descent Israeli from the northern city of Haifa who worked for an NGO called The Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality. She took us to one such village, now earmarked for demolition, to meet an eccentric elder. Offering us tea, he spoke of his family’s experiences over the years. He was candid about the broken promises and empty gestures made by successive British and Israeli authorities, yet was not bitter and still believed negotiation, and working with groups like Kessem’s would lead to an eventual solution. “They don’t recognise the village, so we cannot pay tax….we would pay tax if we could, but we can’t because we don’t exist!”
Less than half a kilometre away, the Israeli government is building infrastructure for a new Jewish town using workers of Bedouin descent. I asked if this was awkward or upsetting for him in any way – it is similar to Israelis hiring Palestinians to build the wall that will serve to inconvenience their compatriots the most. His reply was similarly non-judgemental, suggesting it was their choice, that they had to make money somehow and so had nothing against them.
Following this, we headed to Lakiya, one of the recognised townships, where we learned of a project that helps vulnerable women – chiefly the widowed and the divorced. The scheme enables them to make money from traditional craft works, but can only receive payment if they attend educational programmes. My word count is too far over to elaborate further, but here is their web site for more details.
On Saturday morning we said goodbye to Beersheba and the Negev, as we had an afternoon meeting in Tel Aviv with Estonian’s ambassador to Israel, Malle Talvet-Mustonen. Our stroll to the embassy revealed a very pretty city, with tree-lined avenues and a lovely beach. On arrival we were informed that owing to the Sabbath and being situated inside an office block meant no running water, which is an innovative method for preventing work on the holy day. The ambassador was still able to feed us with biscuits and offer drinks, the latter a bit risky considering the previous point! She spoke of her duties and areas of cooperation between the two states, and happily – if not diplomatically – answered a range of questions from the group.
We had been warned constantly to expect some serious scrutiny when departing Israel. A range of anecdotes circulated the group gleaned from internet posts or via a friend’s friend’s colleague’s cousin. Five hours of intense questioning, meticulous retracing of our week’s travel, intrusive investigations of private email and Facebook messages, confiscated memory cards and laptops… none of us had the pleasure of this treatment. Our taxi was half-heartedly quizzed at the perimeter fence, and once in the terminal, a security agent spoke to the group for a minute, but seemed to quickly realise we were not a threat. Beyond that it was, with slight a hint of disappointment, all quite routine.
I think we all felt we benefited tremendously from our week in Israel. Being in the field you can’t simply put down the article, close the web browser or turn off the TV. The explicit imparting of knowledge by academics or village elders who have lived the conflict is a highly valuable facet of learning, but it is sometimes the small nuances of regular daily life that offer the most intriguing insights.
Big thanks to our hosts, guides and lecturers from Ben Gurion University and to Professor Eiki Berg and Eoin McNamara for leading us.
Andrew Whiteoak is a first year International Relations and Regional Studies student. All photos in the post are from Andrew’s and the group’s shared archives.