Monday, December 25, 2000
Visit to the revered land of Jesus' birth
A popular joke in Israel goes: "In Tel Aviv you play, in Jerusalem you pray and in Haifa you work".
These are Israel's three main cities. In Tel Aviv, everyone works very hard and when night falls, the extravagance is there for all to see in the various sleek cars and modern clubs.
Jerusalem, one of the most famous cities in the world is a giant metropolis built on numerous hills. It is actually a very modern city with most of its 600,000 inhabitants going about their lives peacefully as they rub shoulders with pilgrims attracted by the various historic sites and soldiers whose duty is to watch over the tense atmosphere that prevails as Palestinian youths battle Israeli soldiers.
Jerusalem is a city loaded with symbolism, claimed by three main faiths which all insist on unhindered access and Palestinians who say the city is their capital in a conflict that has raged since the Jewish nation got independence in 1948.
Says Mr Emmanuel Nachson, spokesman at the Israeli Foreign Ministry: "Israel is at a crossroads, in the history of the Jewish people. The two options are to move quickly and reach a peace agreement with Palestinians, or embrace war. The heart of the onion is the old city of Jerusalem".
This is an issue that splits most Israelis and means any ruler can fall depending on the mood prevailing in Jerusalem's Old City where Arabs live. Currently, the debate is over who should occupy the post of Prime Minister after the resignation of Mr Ehud Barak. Mr Barak's top opponent, Mr Benjamin Netanyahu, now says he won't stand in elections due in February unless the whole Parliament - and not just the premier's post - is contested.
The main issue is the peace process, or the need to live peacefully with Palestinians. Says Mr Yossi Katz, a member of the Israeli parliament: "The peace process is a fact because we share the same piece of land with Palestinians."
The conflict involves much more than Jerusalem. It is best epitomised by the dispute over Temple Mount; or to Arabs, the Al-Aksa Mosque.
The current clashes were sparked off by former Israeli Defence Minister Ariel Sharon's visit to the prayer site that Jews believe was their first temple, built by King Solomon in 970 BC. It was destroyed in 586 BC and rebuilt in 525 BC.
It was not until 691 AD that an Arab, Abdel Malik ibn Marwan, built the Dome of the Rock mosque at the site. The Dome was built on top of the Jewish temple. Muslims believe Prophet Mohamed rose to heaven from the top of the mosque.
Currently, Israel controls the whole of Jerusalem, which it describes as its "eternal capital". The area around the Temple Mount is so sensitive that police handle everything with a "silk glove".
This unsettled nature of Jerusalem can be seen even in the main chamber of the Israeli Parliament, or Knesset. Here, the city is portrayed as an apple with a piece missing, depicting the long-running conflict that the Jewish nation thought had ended with its victory in the Six Day War in 1967 that saw it reunify Jerusalem.
The main problem is in the southeast part of the city where there is a very big Jewish population that is being attacked, not by residents of the area, but by groups that Israeli authorities claim are armed by Mr Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority.
The Jewish neighbourhood of Gilo has come under shelling from nearby Bejallah. What one sees on TV or in pictures published in newspapers are groups of youths hurling stones but what is not visible are gunmen who constantly exchange fire with Israeli troops.
Israelis say Gilo has always been a Jewish area, even from biblical times, and there is no way its residents will pull out. This is a common statement in the area where anything can be explained by a quote from the Bible.
Though very tiny, Israel has many geographical features. It has two seas, the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. It has two deserts, the Negev and Judea, and one major river, the Jordan, that supplies the country with drinking water. The main language is Hebrew.
However, the one fact that places the country in world focus is its link to Jesus Christ, the man Christians believe was the Son of God sent to save mankind from its sins. Millions of pilgrims pour into this land to see the various sites preserved over the years and served by a magnificent road network.
In the Valley of Galilee for instance, a place where one can find some of the biggest banana plantations in the world, lie many famous sites linked to Jesus.
One such site is the Capernaum, the place next to the Sea of Galilee where it is believed Jesus lived at the home of his faithful disciple Simon Peter. Capernaum currently boasts a modern church on top of the ruins of Simon Peter's home.
In this town, a copy of Jesus' famous "Sermon on the Mount" sells like hot cakes. Such sites are scattered around the country, with Nazareth - Jesus' hometown in the north where a modern church exists at the site where the angel appeared to Mary, Jesus' mother - one of the main beneficiaries.
The ruins of the house of Joseph (Jesus' guardian) still exist. On top of them stands a modern church run by Franciscan missionaries. Souvenir shops in the town do roaring business.
But the bad news is that at this time Bethlehem, Jesus' birthplace, is out of bounds to anyone who cares about his safety as it lies within areas affected by the Palestinian uprising.
Haifa, the third largest city in Israel, can be said to be secular as it boasts only Mount Carmel, which features in the Bible. The city is built on top of the mountain and is served by an underground train that climbs to the very top.
Haifa hosts the headquarters of the Bahai faith. It is generally a workman's town. The most outstanding feature is the beautiful Bahai Temple with its one-kilometre-long garden that rises to the top of the mountain.
However, apart from the religious fervour and the tension between Palestinians and Jews, Israel is a safe place. The only reminder that it is a security-conscious country is the many soldiers who stride along its streets, guns at their sides.
But most of the soldiers are simply busy on their mobiles. Israel has a rare system where soldiers can leave their bases with guns. Such troops are highly revered and cars can be seen stopping for them to cross roads at any spot, even if pedestrians are not allowed.
As one of the guides said, "we may appear European but we are not a rich country". The fact, however, is that Israel is a rich country with over $31 billion in exports by a population of just six million. Its economic growth rate is among the highest in the world, at six per cent in most of the 90s and into the new millennium.
Since riches and brawn go together, Israel has got so far so fast - given that it only got independence in 1948 - due to many factors. One of these is its special relationship with the United States of America and the talent that many of its people have. Many had been successful businessmen, engineers and professors, even before Germany's Adolf Hitler started the Second World War.
Amid Hitler's massacre, Jews felt they needed to flee but had no guarantee of entry in any country, including the United States. As such, many had no option but to turn to the only land they knew as their homeland. Others who were not directly affected by the Holocaust also came to Israel from other countries.
The result is that Israel is a major cultural melting pot, with people who lived in over 60 countries crammed together. Among them are Ethiopian Jews, or Falashas, who however find that life isn't as rosy as they expected in a state dominated by European and American culture, far removed from the village life they were used to in their mountain villages in Ethiopia.
But still, most Falasha are settling in well. Many can be seen in army and police uniforms and at various shopping malls.
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