Israel continues to be a pretty interesting place. It is such a small country but so full of striking contrasts. The landscape has lately been what is amazing me, now that I am in the south there is quite a bit of hiking to do. I try to get out every other day, I’ll get to that later though. There also seems to be a large disparity in the income here, things are very expensive but most people make very little money. Finally, of course, there is the Israel-Palestine issue.

It just so happens that I decided to take a day and go to Hebron. This seems to be the center of the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinian Authorities. I say authorities because after talking to normal people on both sides it seems that the average person doesn’t really hate anyone, but both Authorities are extreme in each respective direction. I took a Palestinian bus to Hebron for a day to primarily see another West Bank town and to visit the Abraham Mosque. The mosque was not so interesting, just half a mosque and half a temple. Many of the patriarchs are buried here, so it is a holy place. The surrounding city, however, is anything but holy.

When you walk around either side of Hebron, you encounter evidence of the conflict. In the first glance, there is an Israeli settlement here of about 500 people. This sits in the center of the old town, but can’t be accessed from the town. There are 2000 Israeli soldiers here protecting the settlement. However, it seems that the settlers are not interested in having soldiers protect them. After talking to some of the soldiers, they don’t really want to be there either. There are tear gas canisters laying in the gutters of the street, bullet casings around and it seemed that many of the guard shacks were riddled with bullet holes. It probably doesn’t help that nearly the entirety of the West Bank is walled in. As near as I could tell, neither side is completely to blame. Most people in the West seem to have a different opinion, but I think that changes once they get here. The average Israeli seems to just want to live where ever they want to live and the average Palestinian just wants the same. They way people on both sides describe it, there are really only about 10% of the population on each side that are very fanatical and hate everyone not like them. Unfortunately, while they aren’t the majority, they are the ones who make the most noise. On the way back to Jerusalem I was given a not-so-clean demonstration of a minority not behaving in such a way that helps the majority. Apparently an aid agency has been removing the rubbish from Palestine, but they lost funding and so now no one removes the trash. Instead of creating a local solution, some of the people, in protest, plow the trash to block the road then light it on fire. I cannot imagine how this actually helps anyone. I guess in the end, I am reminded of something that a Palestinian friend of mine in Boston told me once, and she meant it for both sides – There will never be peace until people can recognize that their enemy is also their equal.

My next stop was in the north on the coast, the town of Haifa. The first impression came in the form of a choking smog. It was as bad as anything I had seen, even in China. The smell gave away that it was from a local plant producing asphalt and it just happened it was conveniently next to the bus station, so when the wind blows the right way it asphyxiates the city. Once downtown though it was a little more diffuse. Haifa is the center of the Bahia faith and they have some magnificent gardens here. Of course you can only look from the top or bottom of the hill unless you are of that faith. Apparently if you walk them in a certain way, it is supposed to be a spiritual experience. Otherwise, there is pretty much nothing going on.

So I fled further north to the town of Acre. This place has a lot of character as it is a very old port town. It was also a main landing place for the crusaders and the British and pretty much anyone else to ever occupy the area. The old city has the usual twisting tiny roads that easily get you lost, a nice port and some massive walls. Even more interesting though are the tunnels that run beneath the city, most where built by the crusaders for some reason I couldn’t quite identify. But then it started to rain. Thanks to the rain I met an American who had a car and we headed north to some caverns on the coast that are right at the Lebanese border, called Rosh Hanikra. These were pretty amazing and reminded me a lot of the things I had seen in Niue, although in a smaller and much less impressive scale.

I caught a bus to Nazareth next. Unbeknownst to me, someone in Lebanon had fired rockets into Israel, so there was a steady stream of fighter jets flying north, presumable to destroy something. In contrast, however, Nazareth is very interesting in that there are Muslims, Jews and Christians living within very close proximity to each other and peacefully. There are no soldiers walking about, no hate signs, or areas closed to the other religions. I couldn’t find an answer to why they can be so peaceful here and not elsewhere. You hear the call to prayer and simultaneously hear church bells from the basilica and all of these are capped by the Israeli flag with a big Star of David. When I talked with the locals, they simply replied that their were no extremists here.

The main reason I came to Nazareth though was that it was the start of a trail that went all the way to the north end of the Sea of Galilee. I based myself out of the Fauzi Azir Inn, which is an old ottoman mansion. It is really a beautiful place to stay. The name of the trail is “The Jesus Trail” and it is supposed to cross some beautiful country, however, it seemed the first day, 25 km, was mostly construction sites and illegal dump sites. So I skipped the rest of it until I got to Tiberius.

Once in Tiberius, I rented a car for the day. I drove up north to see Nimrod’s Castle, but it was only later that I found out it was built by Saladin 1300 years ago and not Nimrod himself 3000 years ago. Then I headed over to the border with Syria. This was an interesting experience. There is a lookout that allows you to see over into the other side. In between the two nations is a UN buffer zone. And lots and lots of land-mines. Coming from the Syrian side the evidence of the conflict was apparent. Automatic weapon fire was a common sound as was the occasional explosion. I headed back to Tiberius and stopped off to visit Mount of the Beatitudes. This is where Jesus gave the famous Sermon of the Mount. It was very peaceful. Then I did some more hiking in the Arbel area, up a huge cliff and along some cliff dwellings and back to Tiberius. This hike was a real challenge, but the rewarding views were fantastic.

Once Shabat was over, I moved down to Ein Gedi. I tried to stop in Jericho but the buses were not running, for some reason. Then I ended up waiting in the Desert for three and a half hours waiting for another bus to Ein Gedi. Fortunately, a man named Eran was kind enough to pick me up and give me a ride. He was hauling tile and I think he wanted some company for the drive through the desert. That was fine, we had some good conversation the whole way.

Once in Ein Gedi, I checked into the only hostel around and it was a whopping US$38 for a bed and another $20 for dinner. Israel is so expensive. I came here for two reasons, to float in the dead sea and to hike. The main hike here is up a canyon, called Wadi David. It was really fantastic and there are some sections where you can go off trail and see some really amazing formations in the mostly-dry river bed. Although, the ranger yelled at me for trail-running which I can’t see anything wrong with. Israel really likes their rules though. Floating in the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth, is also an interesting experience. I say floating because it is kind of difficult to swim there. The sea is so salty that it burns your lips or any cuts you might have. Not only that but the salt makes the sea very wetting so it feels a little slimy on the skin, but in a good way. Once you get out you have to shower right away, otherwise the salt dries the skin and that is not such a nice feeling.

I took a day and went to the amazing fortress of Masada. Well, there isn’t much left here. This was the site of the Zealot’s last stand against the Romans. The fortress was unsackable as it sits high atop a very steep mountain (it was a difficult hike) and had a water supply and huge cistern. The Romans tried for years to get to it but always failed. Then they decided to build a ramp up the side of the mountain. When the Zealots realized the fortress would be sacked, they chose 10 men to kill the other 200 people and then one man to kill the remaining 9 and then himself. Apparently this was the end of the Jews in Israel for awhile. Oddly, this place is now a site for school trips from around Israel, for some sort of indoctrination. It certainly isn’t to indoctrinate them into being respectful as near as I could tell though, as all the school children I came across where rude little things.

After enough of the expense of Ein Gedi, I headed to the much cheaper and just as interesting Mitzpe Ramon. This is a town situated on the edge of a giant “crater”. Although its not really a crater, it is the remains of an ancient sea that removed all the loose soil that was once here. Apparently it dates from the time of Pangaea, so I guess it’s been here, or there, or somewhere, for awhile. The views here are majestic, sort of like the Grand Canyon, except much wider. There are also many horned animals, called ibex here.

I went for a long hike yesterday, maybe 20K or something. First is a descent down into the crater and a hike along the lower edge to bring you to a place called the Carpentry. There are sandstone columns here that formed in a similar way to basalt columns, and I guess this is the only known place on earth where this particular type of geology exists. I then hiked across the crater, which is a very isolated and desolate walk through the desert. On the other side there is the solidified magma chamber of an extinct volcano. Its a mountain known as Ramon’s Tooth. A short, but steep climb up and over this led to the Ammonite Wall, a place of fossilized creatures that once ruled the seas. I am planning on staying here a few more days and hope to get at least one more hike in. Part of the attraction is the hostel I am in, the Green Backers, is very peaceful and has great hosts. Tonight starts Shabat so I couldn’t really go anywhere if I wanted to.

Ahh, and what is Shabat, all the non-Jews ask. Its the Jewish Sabbath, so everything shuts down from about 2 on Friday till sundown on Saturday. This isn’t so bad, its like any other weekend except that the buses stop too, the stores are not open and even the cash machines take a Shabat. Then again, since everything is closed, it isn’t like you can spend your money anywhere anyway.