The more I see of Israel the more I start to appreciate the diversity. Religious diversity: there of course jews, a large number wearing a small round hat (the kippa); there are conservative jews, dressed in black with an untidy beard. They pray standing up, small prayer book in the hand and while praying they bob back and forth all the time. Muslim Arabs are also to be found in many of the corners, and thus of course also mosques. There are also Christian Arabs, German Christian settlers (which are truly an category by themselves), Druze; a religion which keeps very much to itself, some major religious sites for the Bahai religion, and some Armenian Christians.
As far as nature is considered there are the Golan Heights – the one place in Israel where you can ski. There’s the Death Sea, the desert, the lake of Galilea, and probably other places of interest which I missed up to now. There are biblical places, Jerusalem, the Jordan river (I spent one morning watching the white-robed pilgrims getting baptised by their holy man. It doesn’t look so comfortable, but the official certificate of being baptised in the same place as where Jesus got baptised seems to make up for a lot.)
There are Palestinian territories here and there – the West-Bank is not, like I used to think, one big piece of Palestinian controlled territorry, but consists of about a dozen small chunks of complete Palestinian controlled territories. Of course, as soon as I thought about going to Israel, I knew already that I’d be going to Palestine. From several sources I get the impression that in Palestine the city of Jeriho in the West-Bank is a good place to visit. So one day I go to the road and hitchhike in the direction of Jeriho. The young guy who drops me of just outside the Palestinian territory asks me: “Do you want my telephone number, in case you need any help at all?” He looks a little bit worried, so I answer: “Well, I can give you a phonecall if I get out of Palestine to let you know that I’m allright.” He takes a long look at me, then smiles and says: “No, not necesarry, you’ve got the look of somebody who can take care of himself.”
The branch of the road which goes to Jeriho seems as deserted as the desert surrounding us, except for many taxi’s and small busses of many different models. Some Arabs are waiting on the side of the road. I go say hello, and tell them I’m from Holland. “You’re welcome!”, one guy replies. They stop a taxi, we all crowd in and we drive the 2 kilometers to the Israelian army checkpoint. The driver gets a phonecall, apologizes, and tells us that he can’t take us any further, since he has to go to Jerusalem. The arab in front takes out his wallet and tries out to pay, but the taxi driver refuses. So the arab just leaves the money on the dashboard, and the driver reacts by taking the money and pushing it back at this passenger. In the end the taxi-driver wins. No money is paid.
At the army checkpoint the 18-year old armymen doesn’t notice me at first. But after checking the luggage he notices my face, starts talking in Hebrew, and then switches to English: “Where are you from?”. “Holland”, I answer, he nods, and waves us on.
The arab who tried so hard to pay the driver stops another taxi after a while – there’s no place for everybody though, so he and another man push me in, along with 3 women and 2 kids, while they themselves start walking. We drive to the center of the city, I give the driver some random small money, he thanks me, tries to offer me his services for the whole day, and then drives of. As I look around in the center of Jeriho it’s hard not to notice that the scenery has changed. There are a lot of Arabs about wearing their traditional headgear. Extra long Mercedes taxi’s are everywhere, some of the streets are filled with vendors of small yellow bananas and most people are noticing me.
As I’m walking on the street I notice some 10 muslim girls, most of them wearing a headscarf. I takes a while for me to notice that they are waving; “Hello, how are you?”, one asks. Another interrupts immediately: “What’s your name? How are you doing?”. I greet them back and one of the bravest shouts at me as I pass on: “I love you! I love you!”. I walk on, about 50 meters, and 3 guys sitting in front of a restaurant invite me to sit down; “Welcome in Palestine!”. They insist I don’t walk on without getting a free drink and an orange (“From Jeriho!”, the guy proudly says). So I sit down with them, have a chat and orange and a drink. I walk on, another 100 meters, and some guys standing on the road are starting to talk to me. Then there’s the orange salesman (“You need a place to stay?”), an old men, some schoolkids, two falafal sellers and on and on. Everybody seems to speak English, and most everybody wants to make sure I feel very, very welcome in their country.
I’ve dinner with an Fatach member, a policeman and a Hamas member. It’s not so much that they invited me, as that they just put a plate in front of me; “Here, this is for you.” The guy who’s a member of Hamas tells me about his hobby – motorcycling; “Do you’ve got your motorlicense? I’ve got two motorcycles.” He’s clearly dissapointed that I don’t have the license for this.
Kind people. But exhausting. In the evening I play pool with some new found friends, and really everybody wants to talk me. It’s not that tourists are that rare – I’ve seen a couple around. Even occasional Israelian cars and Jewish looking people can be found on the street (no orthodox or conservatives though). Hospitality is just in their culture, like the Turkish, where I could walk in a major town like Antalya, and still would get invited for chai every 2 streets.
The next day I leave Palestina for the Death Sea. But not without taking with me a lot of stories and interesting memories.