“Why would anyone want to visit an aggressive, racist, right-wing country?” was a comment I saw before I decided to travel to Israel. I’ve lost count of the number of conversations I’ve had about this country that have led to intense debate and extreme anger, yet followed by the notion that it would be an interesting place to visit because of its rich and ancient history, incredible landscapes and vibrant cities.
The history of Israel is complex. The history of the modern nation of Israel is about changes and conflicts that led to new settlements and the displacement of people within a country once known as Palestine. I’ve lost hours sifting through articles trying to make sense of it all.
The simplest way I have understood it is that during British administration of ‘Mandatory Palestine’ from 1920 to 1948, various misinterpretations and conflicts surrounding issues such as Arab independence (in response to them helping to drive out the Ottoman Turks who controlled much of the region) and the support of the pro-Zionist ‘Balfour Declaration’ (calling for the reinstatement of the Jewish “national home” in Palestine in repatriation for the Jews exiled by the Ottoman Turks during World War I) led to the rise of two nationalist movements – the Jews and the Arabs.
Civil war led to the Arab-Israeli war in 1948, with the ceasefire a year later forming the partitions we see today – the newly formed Israel, the West Bank that borders Jordan (with both Jewish and Arab settlements) and the Palestine Government controlled Gaza Strip in the west.
Whether you are pro-Palestine or pro-Israeli, it is not for me to judge what is in itself a complicated debate and one for political experts, not a travel website. We all interpret things differently, are influenced by different cultural factors or simply don’t understand enough to have an opinion.
I don’t condone and nor can I fathom how and why a nation can suppress another, with brick walls, partitions and what has said to a breach of basic human rights. I don’t condone the actions of the Israeli government, nor those of the Palestinian Government (fighting violence with violence) that spark so much anger and fury amongst many. But think of the majority of the people living there – the people who are in no way representative of the actions of a ruling party or of an era of long-standing conflict, the majority of whom want one thing. Peace.
Religion, land and war go hand in hand, but we must take note of the communities outside of the regimes and decision-making; take note of the historical sites, grand religious monuments and incredible landscapes that existed before any of this and which should be celebrated, enjoyed and shared.
As someone said to me: “I hope you experience an Israel that isn’t so rough and full of hate as portrayed by media all around the world.” This is exactly what I want to do and tell you about. I’m travelling around Israel working with Tourist Israel and Abraham Tours, a combined offering in the region that caters for the independent traveller looking to get off the beaten track a little. I also liked that their tours in Israel and the West Bank are designed and executed without bias, so that you can formulate your own opinions.
Here’s an overview of what I saw in Israel in two weeks, and the ground you too can cover with ample time outside of a city break trip.
- 1 Where to Go in Israel
- 2 Why Visit Israel?
Where to Go in Israel
Jerusalem – One of the World’s Oldest Cities
I was based in Jerusalem for a few days, exploring one of the oldest cities in the world sacred to Judaism, Christianity and Islam by foot and by bike, seeking out quiet back alleys, neighbourhoods and forgotten pathways. All this, alongside ancient treasures on a Holy City tour visiting Jewish (King David’s Tomb, the Western (Wailing) Wall and remains of the ancient Jewish Temple), Muslim (the site where the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven, the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque) and Christian sites (the Via Dolorosa along which Christ walked to his crucifixion, the room of the last supper and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) in order to understand the rich history and religious complexities of Jerusalem.
READ MORE: Travel to Jerusalem – A City of Both Religious Calling and Contemporary Culture
The West Bank – Culture and Landscape
We all hear about the West Bank, but rarely do we get an insight into the culture and history of the region. In this region you can visit:
- The key historical spots of Bethlehem, Jericho, Taybeh and Ramallah.
- The Samaritan village at Mount Geriszim and learn more about the Samaritan people whose history dates back to the Roman era.
- The Balata refugee camp and the close by old cities of Nablus and Sebastia are full of rich history and ancient sites of worship, yet are prime destinations to gain insight into the complex Palestinian refugee issue in the area.
- The Dead Sea to float in the salt waters, 400 metres below sea level.
The West Bank – History and Conflict From Both Sides
On what is called the ‘Dual Narrative Tour’ in Hebron, this is your chance to explore both perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a place that is one of the four holy cities in Judaism and a sacred place in Islam. I spent the morning in ‘H2’ – the Jewish ‘settlers’ area and the largest city in the West Bank – and the afternoon in ‘H1’, the Palestinian area.
Northern Israel – The Mountainous Terrain
From swimming in the Sea of Galilee, traversing the mountainous terrain of the region to exploring Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth, you can explore this stunning natural landscape with great historical significance. Also, make sure to find time to visit the Roman ruins in Caesarea and Banias Nature Reserve.
To the far north is Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city where you can marvel at the magnificent view of Galilee from Mount Precipice before heading to other northern cities including Akko and Rosh Hanikra, the latter being known for its caves and tunnels that were once hidden for centuries.
Southern Israel – The Desert Lands
Close to the West Bank border, I visited the Masada Fortress, to witness what has been dubbed as one of the world’s best sunrise before visiting the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve.
READ MORE: Adventure in Southern Israel – The Natural Wonders of Masada, Ein Gedi and the Dead Sea
Mitzpe Ramon, a town in the Negev Desert, founded as a camp for the workers building the road to Eilat in 1951, is also the site of the 6 km wide, 450 meters deep Ramon Crater.
Tel Aviv City – Israel’s Vibrant, Cosmopolitan City
In Britain, our news has always been filled with bad press about Tel Aviv and few know of it as a thriving cosmopolitan city. As a city lover, what better way to end my time in Israel than in this young, arty and vibrant metropolis that sits along the Mediterranean coast.
READ MORE: Visiting Tel Aviv – My Four Favourite Neighbourhoods In Israel’s Second Largest City
Why Visit Israel?
Travel to Israel and the West Bank and see how independent travel in the region is safe, accessible and a means from which to gain a new perspective on a country negatively blasted by our media.
I worked in partnership with Tourist Israel and Abraham Tours, who planned an itinerary based on personal interests as well as what will work best with the ethics of this website. Abraham Hostels kindly supported my stay in Jerusalem and facilitating my accommodation elsewhere.
I did not visit Israel with a political agenda and nor did the parties I worked with operate with one. All opinions will remain my own.