At Istanbul S.Gokcen Airport, we were waiting to board our flight to Tel Aviv when I witnessed a heated exchange between two women. Something about it made me feel a certain degree of apprehension about the next stage of our trip. Back in May, I’d had my first taste of the Middle East during a five day stay in the Old City of Jerusalem and a brief sojourn to the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the West Bank. That experience and subsequent reading about the military Occupation of the Palestinian Territories had left me feeling somewhat uneasy about spending any more time in Israel.
These feelings became more heightened as we flew over the Israeli coast and the Mediterranean port of Tel Aviv. We landed at Ben-Gurion airport, named after David Ben-Gurion (1886 – 1973), a passionate supporter of the Zionist movement, founder of the State of Israel in 1948 and a prime mover behind the establishment of a dominant military culture within the country. Ben-Gurion became Israel’s first Prime Minister from 1948 to 1954 and served a second term from 1955 to 1963.
As expected, the queue at passport control was long and mind-numbingly slow-moving and it was 45 minutes before we were through. The huge influx of people was perhaps due to Sukkot, an annual week-long Jewish holiday that celebrates the gathering of the harvest. This year the holiday was from the 4th to the 11th of October. Typically, Jews celebrate Sukkot by sleeping and sharing meals in a Sukkah – a simple tent with at least three walls and a roof made from dried foliage – meant to represent the kind of dwelling once used by Jewish people during harvest time.
We too were in the region for a harvest, but it had nothing to do with Sukkot. The primary purpose of our visit was to participate in a retreat in the West Bank, centred around helping the Palestinians harvest their olives. Prior to the retreat, we had three nights in Israel to rest after travelling and adjust to our new surroundings.
From the airport, we got a train to HaHaganah station, named I presume after Israel’s first paramilitary group Haganah, from which the current Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) evolved. Several hundred metres from HaHaganah is the Central Bus Station, a confusing multi-story complex that could be mistaken for a Third World market. To enter, we had to pass though a security checkpoint, staffed by an armed guard and all of our luggage had to pass through a scanning machine. Once inside we tried to make sense of where we were. There was a complete absence of signage in English and anyone we asked about directions pointed us the wrong way.
Eventually we found our way to a bus stop, not inside the Central Bus Station at all, but on one of the nearby streets. We caught a bus to the Airbnb apartment we’d arranged to stay at in Jaffa at the southern end of Tel Aviv.
Jaffa (Yafo) is an ancient port city that existed a long time before Tel Aviv was even considered. Urbanisation has connected it to Tel Aviv as if it were a district within the larger city, referred to now as Tel Aviv-Yafo. Back in the years prior to Israel becoming a state, Jaffa had a large Arab Palestinian population of around 80,000 and was the economic and cultural capital of Palestine. It was particularly well known for its oranges, many of which were exported to other parts of the world.
Just before the creation of Israel in 1948, ninety-five percent of Jaffa’s Palestinian population was forcibly removed and over the years replaced largely by Jewish immigrants. Since the 1980’s the population of Palestinians living in Jaffa has gradually increased although the demographic of the city today remains predominantly Jewish.
A number of Israeli people I would later speak to on the retreat said that despite being Israeli citizens, the Palestinians living in Jaffa and other parts of Israel do not have the same rights as Jewish Israelis and are treated more or less like second-class citizens.
One of the most prominent visuals in Israel for the newly arrived visitor, is the prevalence of young people in military uniforms. They are commonly seen at bus stops waiting for transport to their base or to their assigned posting, but are also visible in other places frequented by regular civilians. Most of these ‘soldiers’ will be carrying an assault rifle, slung over their shoulder. It is typically an American-made M-16 although this is gradually being phased out and replaced by the newer and more specialised Israeli-made Tavor. There is something quite unnerving at first about seeing these kinds of weapons in the hands of such young people.
The ubiquitous nature of the military presence was exemplified in a large mural at HaHagana train station. It used stylised drawings to depict the typical national rail system user demographic. Besides women with kids and prams and young men with surfboards, the soldier with rifle and kit bag stands amongst them on the platform.
Israel has for the entirety of its existence had compulsory military service and these days men and women who have reached the age of 18 are required to enlist. Although it varies somewhat according to age, men are required to serve 32 months and women 24 months. After their compulsory service it is mandatory for men, and women without children, to remain part of an active reserve force. While service is ‘compulsory’ there are a significant percentage of the population who manage to avoid it for various reasons, a trend which is apparently increasing.
In Jaffa, to save money on the Airbnb, we’d only booked a room rather than an entire apartment. This proved to be not so convenient. Our host, an Israeli woman with strong ties to the US, had informed us only days before our arrival that she would have a friend staying. By friend, she meant a woman who had stayed with her previously as an Airbnb guest, and they had presumably become friends. It felt a bit weird being in the home of two strangers after we’d spent so much time on our own. To add to a certain disengagement I felt with being there, I had to prepare for the fact that Israel is really expensive compared to places like Greece and Turkey.
The apartment was quite warm, popular with mosquitos and it was hard to make our room dark enough to sleep well. It was also quite dirty. Everything was covered in a thin layer of fine dust. Being mostly desert means this region of the world is naturally quite dusty and I guess, difficult to keep clean.
The next morning I had a chat with our host before she left for work in the food technology industry. She was born in Israel but moved to America when she was four and remained there for the next twenty years. She returned to Israel because she liked how “messed up the Middle East is” and also because her “tribe” was here. After doing a degree in food technology, she was hired by a private investor to promote his food tech company and also to write about the industry in general.
She asked me how long we planned to stay and what we planned to do in Israel. I mentioned the retreat in Palestine and immediately there was a brief moment of awkwardness and silence. Never has the term “elephant in the room” been so recurrent or appropriate as it is when discussing anything to do with Palestinians or the Occupation with an Israeli. Quickly I changed the subject and asked more about her work.
She described Israel as one of the world leaders in food technology with both government and private companies researching and developing products and services in all kinds of areas. One company is researching meat alternatives where animal cells are mixed with other ingredients like soy to produce products that taste like meat and have a similar texture. There is another company researching the development of a product that will not only taste like meat but look like it as well, although the technology for achieving it is still some way off and seems to involve something akin to cloning.
There are companies producing pesticides from snake and scorpion venom that don’t harm natural ecology, and protect vital bee habitats. Other companies are creating biodegradable food packaging and ‘smart’ lids for jars, with built-in sensors that were first developed in military applications. The sensors can monitor various data such as the chemical composition of the food inside, how much food remains and how long it will last.
When I heard all this and combined it with what I know about Israel’s competence and experience in developing military and security products, I imagined Israel being at the forefront of expertise and control in a possibly more dystopian future world.
Later in the day I had a chance to chat with the ‘friend’ who was staying there as well. She’s a dancer from Montreal, staying in Tel Aviv until November to learn as much as she can about a new dance movement called Gaga. It was invented by an Israeli guy she first met in Canada. Students of Gaga improvise their movements based on the visualisation of images. Although I’d never heard about it before, Gaga is apparently quite well-known in Tel Aviv. Her intention was to teach the dance method in Canada when she returned there later in the year.
The next day we met some people who would be joining us on the retreat. They were staying with Yotam (not his real name), an Israeli friend who took us to a place in Jaffa renowned for its hummus, called Abu Hassan. Yotam is a tradesman who works mostly in more upmarket Israeli suburbs, usually built as satellites around larger cities like Tel Aviv. He is against the Occupation and understands that he lives in a country where human rights violations are being ignored. He says most Israelis don’t know what is really going on with the Occupation – they are fed a different narrative. Even the word ‘occupation’ has been re-phrased as ‘re-population’.
The hummus came in bowls with a generous pour of olive oil and a serving of pickles, onions, fries and falafel. It was a very satisfying meal and surprisingly filling. Yotam explained that he liked to have this around mid-morning as his first meal of the day and he wouldn’t need anything else until dinner time. There was a lot of debate amongst citizens of the city over where the best hummus places were, he said and Abu Hassan generally ranked highly.
We heard that Yotam recently renovated his apartment and by all accounts from our friends who were staying there, it looked amazing. He said the government provides assistance to Israelis with renovations due to a law requiring all new buildings to have a reinforced strong room, either on each floor or in each apartment. The strong room is designed to provide some protection against rocket and missile attacks particularly if occupants do not have enough time to make it to one of the numerous bomb shelters located throughout the city. In the rare event of an attack, an air-raid siren would sound giving citizens of Tel Aviv approximately 1.5 minutes to find shelter.
After the hummus we walked to another place, a few blocks away on Yefet Street, for coffee and Kunafeh. Made from cheese pastry soaked in a sweet syrup, Kunafeh is actually an iconic Palestinian dessert. As we sat on the pavement outside the cafe we talked and watched the busy street. Motorised bicycles are very popular in Israel and young men ride them with a particular kind of reckless abandon in Tel Aviv. They weave in and out of traffic at considerable speed, sometimes two to a bike and often with a mobile phone held to one ear. Right in front of the cafe they would screech to a halt, stopping just short of cars in front of them, doing their best to unnerve anyone who was watching. Yotam said there were lots of injuries due to reckless riding on the bikes but the government and local councils, despite making some assurances, were doing little about it.
The way people rode the motorised bikes in that carefree manner suggested something of a ‘cowboy’ element – an attitude that cares little for rules and likes to flirt with danger. There is also a noticeable hippy culture that exists, perhaps more because of the climate, the beach and the desert than about promoting peaceful coexistence. The strong military culture provides a secure bubble in which such forms of expression can grow unchallenged, fuelling attitudes of arrogance and self-entitlement. The notion of the ‘tribe’ and identification as ‘settler’ in a possibly hostile land leads to this paradoxical view of the young Israeli as a kind of ‘hippy warrior’ – desiring peace amongst his own kind, but prepared to do battle with everyone else.