Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Travel Blog: Day Three in Israel - Yad Vashem, security barriers, Palestinian politics and a light show

We began the day with a primer and discussion on Israeli politics with our guide, Lior. He told us that Isrealis are increasingly annoyed with the country's constant coalition governments, leading to governments and leaders that can't lead. He said they've had 12 education ministers in four years, so getting things accomplished is difficult. He also noted that corruption scandals have tainted nearly every party. There's a growing sense among people that the system needs to change, although it's unclear what sort of electoral reform is favoured. He added the constant coalitions, necessitating political comprimise, have led to blurring of traditional left/right lines. Whether that's good or bad, I think, is another debate.

Next we visited Yad Vashem, Israel's holocaust memorial and museum. It's a very large complex on a mountain, including an educational centre, archives and the museum, which is quite impressive architecturally. The museum itself is triangular in shape, carved into the mountain and emerging on either side. As you walk through it you're slopping up toward the light at the end of the tunnel but you can't go straight there; you're forced to weave through the exhibits on the sides. It's meant to symbolize that the Jews didn't know where their journey would take them.

The museum exhibits focus strictly on the holocaust, using personal stories of victims and survivors to take it out of the history books. It was well done. And as you emerge at the end into the light, you're greeted by a beautiful vista looking down on Jerusalem, meant to symbolize the home the Jews found in Israel after the holocaust.

A few years ago while in Berlin I visited that city's impressive new Jewish museum, and I found the exhibit style and even some of the architectural choices similar to Israel's. I think what really got to me at Yad Vashem though was the separate Children's Memorial. The emotion had probably built through the morning, but I felt it most as I walked into the very dark cave. The ground slopes sharply and it's too dark to see, so you're forced to advance slowly gripping a handrail, the cavern illuminated only by two candles reflected by many mirrors, as a sombre voice slowly reads the names and ages of children who died during the holocaust. It was very simple, yet very powerful.

After lunch we met up with Avi Melamed, a security consultant and former advisor on Arab affairs to the Mayor of Jerusalem, for a security briefing and tour of the controversial security barrier/fence between the West Bank and Israel/Jerusalem.

While he admitted that it has proven highly controversial, unpopular with some Israelis as well as Palestinians, and also very expensive, Melamed claimed it has contributed to a share decrease in attacks. I suppose the question is if the prices, in all forms, is worth it, and how long it will be before their enemies adapt.

While it's often refered to as a security wall, the barrier is actually mostly fence. There's a closed patrol road beside the barrier, and a dirt section beside it to check for signs of infiltration. Movement sensors are tied into regional command posts, which dispatch patrols when movement is detected. I was reminded os the U.S./Mexico border and those who want to build a border there, but of course there are key differences in the U.S.: it's an established politiclal border so no one is cut off from their homes or land, it's much longer and less populated, and the Mexicans crossing illegally are looking for jobs, not violence.

One overlook we went to in the Arab section of Jerusalem, from which we could see clear to Ramallah in the West Bank all the way around through Palestinian villages to Bethlehem in the distance, included a large set of ruins that Melamed didn't tell us about until the end. It turned out the ruins were to be a summer palace of the Jordanian Ryal Family, back when Jerusalem was part of Jordan, and the land, although abandoned, still belonged to the Hashemites as Israel, as a peace gesture, hadn't seized it after the war. So I hope they didn't mind us taking in the view.

As happened on the other overlook on the first day, what struck me the most here was just how small the disputed areas are, and how interwoven Palestinian and Israeli/Jewish villages are. The situation doesn't lend itself to easy answers.

Melamed also made an interesting point on terminology. Depending on which side of the question you come down, you would call Israeli construction in disputed areas either settlements, or neighbourhoods. And some of them in the more contentious areas to the south most likely do look more of the temporary settlement variety. But we drove though some of the areas of Jerusalem that Obama and Biden called settlements, and they certaintly looked like established, thriving, permanent neighbourhoods to me. complete with bus service, grocery stores, schools and synagogues. Avi said he doesn't think Obama misspoke on the matter; he believes the U.S. made a deliberate choice to say settlement.

In the evening we had dinner with Khaled Abu Toameh, an Arab/Palestinian/Israeli journalist and Palestinian Affairs correspondent for the Jerusalem Post (formerly owned by our own Conrad Black) who I'd place firmly on the right-wing. He's certainly a man of strong opinions not afraid to express them, even when they fly against the popular line.

Toameh said he'd never heard about boycotts of Israel until he came to Canada. He'll write for anyone that gives him a free platform. And in a statement that would stun some of our more leftish speakers in the days ahead when we repeated it, he said many Jews and Arabs miss the "good old days before peace."

While the concept of Oslo was good, Toameh said the implementation was bad because Arafat was unable to deliver. By taking millions of dollars from the West and building a casino or diverting it to Swiss bank accounts, he said Arafat succeeded in radicalizing the Palestinian population, driving them to Hamas. Even Christian Arabs voted for Hamas in the last election to punish the PLO for taking their money, he said.

However, Toameh said because such stories aren't anti-Israel, most main-steam media outlets won't cover them. He's worked as a fixer for many Western journalists and he said their editors tell them they want only anti-Israel stories, not internal Palestinian stories. For example, he said when Hamas beat the PLO it pushed them out and they fled to Egypt who wouldn't let them in. It was Israel that stepped in and transfered them from Gaza to the West Bank, but he saisd that story hasn't been told.

Toameh said we have gotten a two-state solution: Gaza, and the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority (PA) is supposd to be the government, but they're not even in control of the West Bank. They're only in power, he said, thanks to the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), and if they were to withdraw, Hamas would take over immediately.

We can't move forward with the peace process, he said, without a willing (and in control) Palestinian side, so Obama needs to go to the Palestinians and tell them to get their act together: one stable government, no militiat. Then we'll negoiate. After 16 years, he said the fact we're now having proximity talks speaks volumes.

On the elections won by Hamas, Toameh said the international community insisting on the vote when Abbas told them he couldn't win was a mistake. Even the majority of Arabs in Jerusalem votes Hamas, he said. If you want to have an election, you need to respect the results.

On the poll cited by Khaled Abu Aker of Amin Blogs the day before that most Palestinians don't really expect a full right of return, Toameh said it was one poll, the pollster was beaten, and there have been no similar polls since. By those standards, I think Frank Graves has gotten off easily.

Finally, Toameh told us he regualrly vists North American university campuses, and he finds American campuses more radical that Hamas.

(Read fellow blogger Terry Glavin's take on our dinner with Toameh.)

And on that controversial statement, I'll say that we ended our day with the light-show at the Tower of David in Old Jerusalem. I wasn't sure what to expect but it was actually a pretty cool show. You can get a taste of it in the video.

Tomorrow we leave Jerusalem for the busting seaside metropolis of Tel Aviv, vistiting the square where Yitzhak Rabin lost his life, visiting a hospital making a difference, and having lunch with some Canadian bloggers now living in Israel. And driving an electric car.

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