Israel's Good Name

Hevron

In Uncategorized on July 16, 2014 at 3:28 AM

Taking the liberty of chronologically skipping some posts that I simply haven’t gotten around to writing and are long overdue, this is a summary of a really interesting day I had last week in Hevron (Hebron), of which I am quite eager to share. I started my day in the very Anglo town of Efrat, just south of Jerusalem, at the very start of the ongoing Operation Protective Edge. Without getting to into too much military detail, I then drove further south through Kiryat Arba and then into Hevron – quite an interesting drive. This drawing by Scotsman David Roberts does not at all depict how the drive was, but it is a nice drawing:

Hebron in 1839

Hebron in 1839

I thoroughly enjoyed driving the narrow, winding Old City streets and then passing Me’arat HaMachpelah (Cave of the Patriarchs) where key Biblical couples such as Adam & Eve and Abraham & Sarah are buried – a place I have not yet merited to visit. Continuing on down al-Shuhada street, we then turned up Tarpat street towards Tel Rumeida – where some antiquities and some Jews can be found. The first thing I noticed were the signs and the excavated ruins beside and beneath a housing building. Tel Rumeida is what’s left of the Biblical Hebron – a very important city in Judaism and King David’s first capital city. King David’s own father and great-grandmother, Yishai (Jesse) and Ruth, are even buried locally at Tel Rumeida. Excavations began in 1999 and the findings are remarkable: a huge wall built some 4,500 years ago, another wall from some 3,800 years ago and ruins of the ancient city with remnants from the times of the Kingdom of Judah and the Second Temple period.

The tomb of Ruth and Yishai

The tomb of Ruth and Yishai

Before spending time at the ruins I popped up into the tiny military outpost, set up to protect the local Jewish population, and headed for the tomb of Ruth and Yishai. On the way I saw the tiniest vineyard, it made me wonder how tasty the wine would be…

A tiny vineyard

A tiny vineyard

Beside the tomb pictured above, there is the ruins of an ancient synagogue and unlike any other ruined synagogue, this one is being brought back to into use, which is smart.

Inside the ancient synagogue

Inside the ancient synagogue

Leaving the holy site, I walked down to Tarpat Junction to gain some knowledge from the soldiers guarding at the checkpoint. They began to explain to me the dangers of the city; that every night there is rioting on the other side of the checkpoint, in the Arab-only Palestinian-controlled part of Hevron. I peered through the bulletproof glass and saw the rocks littered all over – probably recycled each night. What makes Hevron so volatile is that it is the only city in Palestinian control that is also inhabited by Jews, and therefore partially in Israeli control. The Palestinian controlled section of Hevron is known as H1 (in which no Jews are allowed) and the Israeli controlled section of Hevron is known as H2 (in which Arabs are partially allowed) – a real mess. While I was learning all this a jeep pulled up and three officers strode up. I was startled to see a brigadier general approaching, later identified by myself as BG Tamir Yadi, commander of the Judea and Samaria region. He was accompanied by a colonel whose identity I don’t know, and a female lieutenant – probably his aide. The general wanted to go into H1 and so I decided to tag along…

Entering H1

Entering H1

It felt really strange entering the Palestinian controlled area, passing the sign warning that Palestinian police have authority. We walked to the next junction and stood as spectators as the senior officers talked. I peered into a grocery store, watched traffic, spied a butcher blow-torching chickens, having a very Arab experience. I felt like I was a tourist in Egypt or Syria – but with an M16 at my hip – I didn’t spot any Hebrew anywhere, nothing glaringly Israeli. Suddenly an old man in traditional Arab garb and headpiece, with a cane gripped in his right hand, walked by and stopped by the senior officers to pay respects. I heard Arabic mumblings and then the officers wished the old man a “happy Ramadan” and away he shuffled.

A glimpse of the Arab shopping area in H1

A glimpse of the Arab shopping area in H1

The general decided that he had enough spectating and we walked back to H2, where the officers got back into their jeep and drove away. I bid farewell to the guards and walked back up Tarpat street to continue exploring Tel Rumeida. I stopped at the first ruins and got a better look. This here is residential structure from about 4,500 years ago and a “Four-Room House” from the time of Hezekiah, King of Judah some 2,700 years ago:

Archaeological dig under a building

Archaeological dig under a building

I then found the lookout to Me’arat HaMachpela, in a grassy plot with some olive trees, and I gazed out at the world’s most ancient tomb – so close yet so out of reach (at the moment in my day).

Olive trees and Hevron

Olive trees and Hevron

Convinced that there was more, that I simply wasn’t looking well enough, I began to explore. First I came upon an old rusted blue Schweppes delivery truck, then someone’s wine press and so I returned to the area of the tomb and the synagogue. While there I heard someone call out, in English, “Soldier, soldier!” I turned around and saw some people standing in an elevated garden calling out to me, cameras in their hands. I asked them what they wanted and they demanded that I remove the Jewish settlers from their land. Not wanting to get into some heated argument about a plot of land I knew nothing about, I explained that this was a very interesting moment for me and that I was sorry that they felt the way they did, probably not such good footage for their usages…

Disgruntled civilians

Disgruntled civilians

Exploring from a different approach up the hill, I stumbled upon the Antiquities Authority’s latest excavation but unfortunately it was gated and locked and there was nobody there for me to sweet-talk my way in. But while I was there, walking on a dirt path towards the al-Arba’in mosque, I found myself looking down on the ancient Jewish cemetery which had been in use for hundreds and hundreds of years until 1936 when the local Jews were evacuated by the British.

Ancient Jewish cemetery

Ancient Jewish cemetery

With so much more to say about Hevron, including camera-wielding Swedes and the trials and tribulations of Yusuf Aza who just couldn’t remember to bring his ID and clearance pass with him to enter the Jewish cul-de-sac, I fear for being long-winded and I shall therefore bring this adventure to a close. Hopefully one day soon I’ll get to visit the parts I couldn’t catch this time around…

Nachal Amud II

In Uncategorized on May 26, 2014 at 3:25 AM

Last week Sunday was the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer, most famous for the lighting of bonfires and the annual pilgrimage to the grave of Rashbi in Meron, which becomes a bigger and bigger event every year. This year I attempted to visit Meron as soon as Shabbat ended, a relatively short drive, at the far foot of Mount Meron, but the roads were closed and we were forced to turn back. Sunday morning came and I hopped on a bus to Tzfat (Safed) to attempt a hike to Meron via Nachal Amud with some friends including Nechemya who hiked Nachal Kziv with me.

Waiting at the Saraya in Tzfat

Waiting at the Saraya in Tzfat

We all met up, packed some food and water and hit the road, leaving Tzfat along the Industrial Section and entering what is known as HaAri Forest. There, in between the trees and splashed with bright blue paint, we found the grave of Brei d’Rav Safra (the son of Rav Safra) who lived sometime in the 300′s CE. Born in Babylon, this sage moved to the Galilee and was mentioned in the Zohar, the famous book on Kabbalah associated with the aforementioned Rashbi.

Grave of Brei d'Rav Safra

Grave of Brei d’Rav Safra

An acronym for Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, Rashbi lived during the period after the destruction of the Second Temple. He and his son fled the Romans and found shelter in a cave in Peki’in (just minutes away from Ma’alot) where they were nourished by carobs and fresh spring water for thirteen years. The cave is still around today, and so are the carob trees and fresh spring, however, due to an earthquake, the cave is mostly collapsed and the spring was rerouted a little downhill.

Hiking with Mount Meron in the distance

Hiking with Mount Meron in the distance

After a little lunch we continued on, the twin peaks of Mount Meron acting as our compass as we reached the ridge above Nachal Amud. As we walked along the ridge, heading north, we looked down and saw these old ruins but we fought temptation and forged onwards.

Old ruins down below

Old ruins down below

As we walked we began speaking of caves and Nechemya tried to recall where along the side of the ridge he found a big cave on a previous hike. And so we dropped down the side of the ridge, making our way over and around huge rocks, thorn bushes and more. After a while I began to appreciate the small thorn bushes; they made great footing to step on for going downhill. Then we came across some torn up fur littered all over, from a fox or jackal.

Torn fur from a fox or jackal

Torn fur from a fox or jackal

And then, as we kept going downhill, we saw a tree and Nechemya announced that we should check where the tree is. We dropped further down and then lo and behold! a cave. There was a smaller cave and then a cave that we actually entered, using cellphones and a penlight to see into the gloom. Unfortunately, there was nothing really to be seen but it was cool being in an unmarked cave and it fueled our desire to find more caves.

From within the little cave

From within the little cave

Then, looking further downhill, we spotted a stone pillar splashed with bright blue paint – another grave. We fought gravity as we made our way down safely, at last reaching the grave of Rabbi Nehunya ben HaKanah, another great sage from the time of the Second Temple. One of the forerunners of Kabbalah, even before Rashbi, several of Rabbi Nehunya’s teachings were told over to us by Nechemya and so when we stumbled upon his very grave it was an amazing moment, encapsulating two thousand years of history.

Pillar marking the grave of Rabbi Nehunya ben HaKanah

Pillar marking the grave of Rabbi Nehunya ben HaKanah

After some time spent at the grave we continued on down, heading for Nachal Amud. Climbing down an ancient stone wall running alongside the stream, we spent some time at the stream – each doing their own thing. I tried something new with my camera; the “soft water” look of a tiny waterfall:

''Soft water''

”Soft water”

Then we found an orange tree, with ripe oranges dangling up high, but with the aid of a stick I enjoyed a fresh, organic orange plucked from nature. Then we resolved to continue our way towards Meron, this time walking along the stream.

Nachal Amud

Nachal Amud

But then we came across another distraction, what looked like a Crusader-era inn or something. We crossed the stream, much deeper now, on a fallen log and entered the ruins, looking around.

Ruins across the stream

Ruins across the stream

Up on the ruins’ roof, where grass had taken over, we admitted that we would never reach Meron before dark and the hike to Meron after dark would be too difficult. In efforts to salvage Lag B’Omer, my friends began a small fire and we watched the sky grow dark.

Impromptu bonfire

Impromptu bonfire

Some two hours later we extinguished the fire and resolved to make our way out of Nachal Amud, via the stream trail and then out towards the main road. And so we set off, using a light or two to guide us. I don’t recall ever doing such a night hike so it was definitely interesting, but I was a little nervous of running into wild boars. Even the jackals and wolves that come out of their hiding places at dusk to roam the land didn’t bother us as much as the thoughts of the wild boars. We found the trail and then came across some buildings – a series of Crusader-era mills, if I’m not mistaken.

A section of wall in the darkness of night

A section of wall in the darkness of night

At this point I left my camera alone and grasped a penlight instead, aiding me in my attempt at sure-footing my way out of the wilderness. We left Nachal Amud and began to climb up the elevation of Nachal Sechvi, a dry streambed filled with huge white rocks. At one point we stopped and laid down on a huge flat table-top stone, relaxing. I suggested that we keep completely silent for a few minutes and that suggestion paid off. The chirps of the bats overhead, the rustling of the leaves to my right, the yelping of a jackal behind further upstream and then the frighteningly close grunting/panting to the left. It was then that Nechemya decided we should announce our presence. Continuing on upsteam, another funny thing happened: Nechemya, who was running point, whispered for us to stop and told us that there was something big up ahead. Confused and nervous, we grasped our sticks and proceeded cautiously but with making threatening noises. As we got close we saw that it was a tent and the poor inhabitants were probably more scared than we were. So, as we passed, I whispered “sorry guys, good night” hoping to help. At last, after a nice long uphill hike in the dark, we reached the road. We watched as convoys of police and buses passed by rapidly, nobody stopping for three sweaty hikers carrying big sticks at the side of the road in middle of the night. So we walked, and eventually made it back to Tzfat where we enjoyed pizza and beer before crashing. What an adventure…

Army Trip: The Bahai Gardens & Paintballing

In Uncategorized on May 20, 2014 at 3:25 AM

This blog post is about a surprise little trip one Sunday morning a few weeks ago, a trip of educational and fun purposes for our platoon. Our trip destinations were to the Bahai Gardens followed by paintballing, both conveniently located in Haifa. We boarded the base’s army bus and then drove to the other side of Mount Carmel to visit the Bahai Gardens, the huge terraced garden that marks the side of the mountain for all to see from miles away.

The Bahai Gardens of Haifa

The Bahai Gardens of Haifa

I had visited the Bahai Gardens twice before, taking the daily 12 o’clock tour of the first seven or so uppermost terraces, but our trip was to the next terraces down – a section I thought was closed to the public. We entered the gardens and walked down a shaded tree-lined path taking us to a junction with a nice stone house marked “Private”.

Private

Private

We stepped into the particularly hot sun and headed for the Shrine of the Bab, the morning feeling extra-hot, heated from a desert wind known as “sharav” (or in Arabic: “chamseen“). These desert winds, usually coming from the east, can even carry large amounts of sand and smother the country in heat for several days at a time. Despite the heat, the Bahai gardeners were working full steam ahead and there was even one guy working on the exterior of the shrine.

Working on the shrine's exterior

Working on the shrine’s exterior

As I have already written about the Bahai, and their Haifa gardens, as linked above, I will only briefly touch on some of the details. This shrine, the crown jewel of the garden, is a golden-domed tomb of the forerunner of the Bahai faith, the Báb who was born in Persia in the year 1819. The Báb was executed in 1850 and in 1909 his remains were smuggled to the Holy Land and he was buried on Mount Carmel. The shrine was completed in 1953 and the expansive gardens we see today were begun in 1987 and have only been completed and opened to the public in 2001.

Looking up at the Shrine of the Báb

Looking up at the Shrine of the Báb

Several of the soldiers in my platoon entered the shrine, removing their shoes as required. Nearly all who entered were either Muslim or Druze and I didn’t feel comfortable entering – I’m also a little unsure of its status in regards to Jewish Law, although it seems to be fine because it isn’t even a house of worship. I did, however, take a photo through a keyhole but it didn’t come out too interesting looking. We then proceeded to the observation section of that terrace, and then I took this photo as we walked back, looking out at Downtown Haifa (note the yellow haze coming in from the east, the aforementioned “sharav“).

Looking out at Downtown Haifa

Looking out at Downtown Haifa

Sweating buckets, we got back on to the bus and drove over the mountain, heading back to the Carmel Coast. There, we disembarked at the paintballing place outside the Congress Centre, near Castra. I had never been paintballing, so I was justifiably looking forward – itchy trigger finger and all. We entered the site and began donning protective gear: camouflage overalls, imported Russian flak vests and JT X-Fire masks. I made two decisions as I dressed; one, to leave my phone behind and two, not to wear my glasses under my mask. In retrospect, I should have taken a video of the battle that followed but the glasses situation wasn’t as flexible. We grabbed our Tippmann 98 paintball guns and headed up to the final staging area.

Gearing up

Gearing up

The first thing we all noticed was the incredible heat. Then we needed to choose teams – I heard a lot of suggestions such as “Bedouins vs. Druze” but in the end it was colour-coordinated and at random. We loaded up and entered the arena, forefingers caressing the smooth metal trigger. I mourned the fact that my visibility was limited – I could merely see heads and torsos on the far end of the field, broken up by tall dry grass and old oil drums. I spotted an easy target and sent some paintballs to him, not knowing if I had made contact or not. Then, bam! I watched a paintball hit my gun and then ricochet onto the far left side of my mask’s goggles. With the wet yellow paint just resting on my mask, I slithered my way to the next cover, occasionally firing at enemy troops.

Posing before the battle

Posing before the battle

What made the experience so interesting was that it was exactly like “Call of Duty” (or any similar FPS game): there was tall grass, assorted metal barrels and containers to hide behind, the sound of “bullets” pinging off said barrels and containers, and most importantly, a cacophony of Arabic yells – battle cries. The only language I heard during the gunfight was Arabic, talk about realism… I snapped out of my reverie, let loose some more paintballs and leapt behind some cover. I fired more and then realised I was shooting blanks. I turned to the man next to me and saw Ali Na’al behind the mask. “I’m out!” I cried, my voice muffled through the mask. Firing blanks himself, Ali admitted the same and so we sulked back to the last staging ground. I had thought that we were to reload and reenter the fray but I was wrong and the intense battle lasted mere minutes, as everybody ran dry. Examining myself, I found wet paint splattered in two more places, although indirect hits: my left thigh and right ankle. In summary I’d say that paintball is amazing and I’m really glad to have had the chance, but that corrective eyewear is a must, as well as smaller, more organised teams. With that, we shed our borrowed clothing and sat down for lunch before heading back to the base.

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