By S. V. Kirubaharan –
For a long time I dreamed of visiting the Holy Land and observing the Palestinian – Israeli conflict at first hand, a dream which eventually materialized. Recently we visited where Jesus began his ministry, giving birth to the then new religion, Christianity.
One can’t by-pass Israel’s formalities – the immigration procedures, Jewish cities, currency, etc. when visiting the Holy places. It was both nerve-wracking and wonderful. Before setting off on our journey, some of our friends said they were concerned asking whether this trip was so important at this critical period in time. After travelling for about four hours we arrived at Tel-Aviv’s airport, named after the first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion. In the queue for immigration, some new arrivals seemed to panic a bit. But we didn’t notice any abnormal situation during our time there. Yes, of course departure from Tel-Aviv airport is more fraught.
Having travelled extensively in the Middle East, except to Oman and Iraq, my observation is that Israeli immigration procedures and formalities are better, more polite and more acceptable than in other Middle Eastern countries. I still remember how customs officers in Saudi Arabia go through baggage and throw into the bins any non-Muslim religious objects they find. Also they confiscate Mark & Spencer items of clothing. I could write many pages about my experiences at various airports in the Middle East.
In Jerusalem our place of residence was one of the convents. We entered the old city through Lions Gate and were able to see the old city of Jerusalem from the roof top of the convent. During our stay we walked around many areas of the old city including Via Dolorosa, Damascus Gate, Western Wall, Dung Gate, and Jaffa Gate.
Israeli Army and Police were to be seen at every nook and corner of the old city. The composition of these forces seems multi-ethnic, some from Africa. We did not witness any disturbance during our stay in Jerusalem or in any part of the Palestinian territory.
Old City of Jerusalem
In the old city of Jerusalem, we visited the Jewish Western Wall – Kotel ha-Ma’aravi (Wailing Wall). The Hebrew expression is that (these) ‘Walls have ears’. In fact, this is where Jesus prayed and worshipped.
The third holiest place for Muslims after Mecca and Medina is the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Temple of the Mount in Jerusalem. Here, non-Muslims are allowed only on Sundays, and only for two hours. When we were inside the compound of the Temple Mount, a Jewish family was visiting and Muslims gathered to pray in the compound, started to shout, ‘Allahu Akbar’ (GOD is great). Foreign visitors who have no knowledge of the day to day happenings in the old city, may consider all these things to be disturbances in Jerusalem.
On Fridays, walking the “Stations of the Cross” is led by the Franciscans, starting from Via Dolorosa in the Old city and ending at the Holy Sepulchre. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is identified as standing on the place where Jesus was crucified and where the tomb of Jesus is. Pilgrims from all over the world can be seen there.
We went by coach to Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee and the River Jordan – the Baptism site. In Nazareth, the Basilica of the Annunciation is venerated as the place where the angel Gabriel told Virgin Mary of her conception of Christ. Jesus spent his childhood in Nazareth.
Next to the Sea of Galilee also known as Lake Galilee, is the home of St Peter. In the late 4th century A.D., the ‘White Synagogue’ was built on the remains of the “Synagogue of Jesus”. In Tabgha, on the Northwest shore of Lake Galilee, stands the Church of the Primacy of St Peter.
In fact, the authentic site of the baptism of Jesus is in Jordan, not far from the Dead Sea. A few years ago when I attended a UN conference in Jordan, I went there. The conference took place at the King Hussein Bin Talal Convention Centre – KHBTCC, next to the Dead Sea in Jordan.
The authentic site of the baptism of Jesus, in Jordan, is not maintained by the Jordanian authority or by the Christians. It was very interesting to see the difference between it and the River Jordan in Israel. The river in the Jordanian side has minimum water and is very narrow. The Jordanian guide told us that the water in the river Jordan is diverted for farming in Israel and so the Jordanian side has poor water flow.
Our visit to River Jordan on the Israeli side confirmed what was said by the Jordanian guide. It is much wider and has good water flow. Mango trees and banana plants can be seen in those areas.
St Anne’s Church near the Lion Gate, on Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, is believed to be the birth place of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The church is owned or managed by the French. A French flag was flying inside the compound. In Jerusalem, French influence can be seen in many places.
We went by foot to Jaffa Gate, Mount Zion and the last Supper room – Cenacle, and visited the City of David which is in the ancient city of Jerusalem, dating from the pre-Babylonian era.
The Mount of Olives is not far from the old city, situated in the East of Jerusalem. The ‘Church of All Nations’ there recalls the agony of Jesus. There is a huge Jewish cemetery nearby, with the Muslim cemetery just opposite it.
In 2004, the Palestinians wanted to bury the body of the President of the Palestinian Authority Yasser Arafat, near the Al-Aqsa Mosque or anywhere in Jerusalem. But then Prime Minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon refused this burial to take place in Jerusalem. Eventually Arafat was buried in Mukaata (Arabic word for headquarters or administrative Centre) in Ramallah in the Palestinian territory.
We attended a Mass at the altar of Calvary in the Holy Sepulchre. We walked around in the Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Armenian quarters which provide a wealth of information about the old city of Jerusalem.
Our visit to Bethlehem was one of the saddest among our visits to the Holy places. The Church of the Nativity is said to be the oldest church in the world and the birth-place of Jesus. We visited the spot believed to be where he was born and a few yards away presumably where he was cradled as a new-born baby.
The people in the birth-place of Jesus lack of all sorts of freedoms, lack of business, lack of employment, etc. The wall built by Israelis around the Palestinian areas, even around individual houses are causing tremendous hardship among the population.
The Garden Tomb in Jerusalem is near the Damascus Gate. It is maintained by Protestants and has a slightly different narrative compared to that of the Holy Sepulchre.
In Israel and Palestine, there are no “price tags” for items sold in shops. Prices start very high and through good bargaining, items can be bought for much lower prices. This is the advantage of bargaining. But when we consider ‘Chamber of commerce’ policies, in places where the whole world visits or comes on a pilgrimage, a standard price should be displayed. That would be better for the country as well as for the shop-keepers and customers.
Visit to Palestinian territories
Our visit to Bethlehem and Ramallah speaks of the actual political situation between Jews and Palestinians. The old city consists of all four communities / denominations / religious groups – Jews, Muslims, Christians and Armenians living in close proximity.
The gigantic Wall, constructed from anti-explosive cement, is earning sympathy for the Palestinians. It is a wall which speaks of agony, aggression and slavery. One could talk for hours or write pages about what the people within the walls undergo.
We paid our respects to the veteran ever-loving freedom-fighter Yasser Arafat. His tomb is well-guarded and honoured by the Palestinian security forces.
There are two different number plates for vehicles in Palestine and Israel. The one for Palestine has ‘P’ and the one for Israel has ‘IL’. There are strict regulations on using all these vehicles. We could not see any vehicles with ‘P’ in Israel, but there were many vehicles with ‘IL’ in the Palestinian territory.
When we were talking to some Palestinians in Bethlehem, we found they are not aware of international awareness of their issue. The UN Human Rights Council in Geneva has a full day programme during every session on “Human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories”. This gives an opportunity to the majority of UN members to raise their concerns on behalf of the Palestinians. Also they enjoy the full support of the second largest inter-governmental organization, after the UN, namely the “Organisation of Islamic Cooperation – OIC”. It has a membership of 57 states.
The Palestinians are very clear in their international policy. They are very well aware that there are aggressive states who refuse to respect the rights of other ethnic groups in their own country, hiding behind the pretext that they are supporters of the Palestinians.
The Palestinians say that they don’t need the support of anyone who suppresses other communities and nations. We acknowledge the Palestinians’ clear policy and identity.
This may be a good message for the Palestine solidarity group in Sri Lanka, especially to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his so-called academics. How can they genuinely support the Palestinian struggle, while they suppress the other ethnic groups and practice extreme racism in Sri Lanka?