Holy Land, Holy City, Holy War: July in Jerusalem

text by Justin MacDowell / image via Eindtijd Informatie

When the sirens ring, Israelis living close to Gaza have about 15 seconds to run for shelter. In Jerusalem, it’s a minute and a half. I became a target in a mob attack, simply for walking with a Palestinian unitmate in Zion Square. I wore a touristy Israel shirt to a market in a Palestinian neighborhood and narrowly escaped being beaten by employees and people off the street. I had managed to get myself caught in the middle. Then the rockets began to drop.

From the Galilee down to the Red Sea, I wanted to see every inch of Israel and the Palestinian territories. Considering myself well educated on the Middle East – a passionate interest stemming from the issues surrounding my home country’s occupation of Iraq, I was motivated to find a way to The Levant.

Yet when Pegasus flight 781 touched down at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Int’l Airport on July 1st, I hadn’t a clue what I was in for. US-mediated peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority had failed two months prior to my arrival and both the West Bank and Gaza appeared to be apathetic and generally quiet.

It appeared a perfect time to study “Israel & International Law” with ten other internationals at Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Rothberg International School. It’s located on Mount Scopus, a unique location in Jerusalem since becoming a UN-protected area within Jordanian East Jerusalem during the 1948 war that established Israel. It was captured in 1967, and, today, remains a controversial site and receptor of numerous attacks over the years. Mere kilometers away there stands the 8-meter-high concrete Separation Wall.

Then, on June 12th, news of the triple kidnapping of three teenage Jewish settlers south of Jerusalem went viral. Israel blamed Hamas, a Palestinian faction that runs Gaza. This is what began a tragic chain of events that led to war.
All three victims had been found murdered the day I arrived.
Jerusalem is beautiful, ancient, historically and culturally rich and religious. Yet it possesses surprising modern twists such as the light-rail system, which was completed in 2011. However, these paradoxes are obvious and you can feel the tension in the streets whether in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City or on Jaffa Street in Jewish West Jerusalem. This was something native students said is always present – regardless of whether a new war is brewing. To them, Tel Aviv, a liberal metropolis, and Jerusalem, a religious stronghold, were two different worlds. We were in a place where two cultures, two societies, and two ways of life collided.

Classes began and so did my exploration of the city. Soon, revenge for the triple murder took place in the form of a kidnapping and live immolation of a 16-year-old boy from Shuafat refugee camp near Mt. Scopus. Jerusalem began to see what was called “the largest clashes” in its modern history. Riots, retaliation, and mob attacks plagued both sides for weeks.

Rockets caused cancellations for all Tel Aviv trips scheduled for my class, but our professor Dr. Leonard Hammer was able to make up for it with speakers at The Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, a leftwing think tank, and NGO Monitor, a rightwing non-governmental organization. I visited the northern coastal city of Haifa, known for its harmonious mixed population. However, massive protests gripped the city and Southern Lebanese militants launched rockets causing the first sirens in the Mount Carmel region in eight years. At 3 in the morning. Just my luck.

My unitmate Wassim took me to his home in Nazareth for a weekend, my favorite place I visited. The hospitality I experienced reminded me of The Netherlands. This time, I had great timing – major protests waited another week before gripping the Galilean city. Towards the end of my trip, as the war between Hamas and Israel intensified into a ground invasion, the U.S. Embassy began sending messages to American citizens warning them to refrain from going beyond the Separation Wall into the West Bank until the war ceased. So I spent a majority of time in the Old City of Jerusalem, wandering through the markets sprawled over winding ancient alleyways. I wandered through the enormous Yad Vashem, the famous Holocaust museum in West Jerusalem. It hosts over one million visitors a year, making it the second most visited tourist destination behind the Western Wall.

The day I left, an unknown assailant shot an Israeli soldier outside Hebrew University on Mt. Scopus. Two kilometers away a teenager hijacked a bulldozer and flipped a public bus before police shot and killed him. Multiple ceasefires fell through. I had left a country in the midst of chaos and turmoil, but on the ground, in my unit, I was welcomed by Israelis and Palestinians and forged close and lasting relationships with them. From Ramadan to Shabbat dinners, I experienced unmatched generosity and kindness. The regret I experienced during my first days, convinced I couldn’t have had worse timing, had long slipped away. Indeed, it felt like I was leaving family when I hopped in the sherut, a shared taxi, and headed back to Ben-Gurion, ready for the next adventure.

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