An exercise in caution on an unforgettable and overwhelming journey of discovery
I HAPPENED to be pondering on how the security situation in Israel continued to be fast moving, tense and unpredictable, when my iPhone pinged with the news of the latest atrocity unfolding at Ataturk Airport, Istanbul, where I was due to fly to the next morning from Tel Aviv, en route to Stansted.
I was in Jerusalem at the time, where one hears of ongoing violent incidents in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Old City, particularly in the Damascus Gate area. Earlier in the day, from the spectacular vantage point of the rooftop of the Austrian Hospice in the Muslim Quarter, I had gazed across the four religious quarters of this straggling Old City.
Two days previously, on the main road which links Tel Aviv with Jerusalem, I had passed the skeletal remains of military vehicles, bombed and abandoned from the time of the Six Day War; relics of a brutal conflict between Israel and the Arab nations in June 1967. As history records, Israel’s decisive victory included the capture of the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza Strip, West Bank, Old City of Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. The status of these territories has subsequently became a major point of contention in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and also marked the start of a new phase in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, due to the creation of hundreds of thousands of refugees and bringing over one million Palestinians in the occupied territories under Israeli rule.
Tensions clearly remain high in Israel, and Jerusalem in particular. I was, therefore, not surprised to see a high military and police presence upon visiting the Old City, with spot checks being numerous. (This was to be the same in Tel Aviv, with metal detectors present at malls, government buildings and train stations.)
And yet in this biblical Holy Land, those most sacred of sites within the Old City of Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount complex, Western Wall, Al-Aqsa Mosque and Church of the Holy Sepulchre, were thronged with tourists during my time here. Of course, it could be said that nowhere in the world is one totally safe in the present climate. As a travel writer, I have to justify each trip I plan for its merits. Israel had been on my proverbial bucket list for some considerable time, and it was thanks to Pegasus Airlines, who have a new route to Tel Aviv via Istanbul, and the Israel Ministry of Tourism, that I was invited to go.
A total of 3.1 million tourists visited Israel last year, according to figures released by the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics. Countries serving as the origin for this number were France, Germany, UK, Ukraine and Italy, respectively. Interestingly, the number of Israelis travelling abroad set an all-time record, with a total of 5.9 million departures recorded in the same year, representing an increase of 15 per cent compared to 2014. More than a quarter of all departures were made during the summer months of July and August.
The CBS estimated the sharp increase in the number of departures to be a result of the introduction of low-cost flights in Israel, and a result of the high value of the Israeli currency (the shekel) compared to the US dollar and the Euro at that time.
I will be reporting on my stays in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and a journey to the Dead Sea, in the coming days, so please stay tuned to the site.
- Images © Michael Cowton Photography/Essential Journeys
Tel Aviv: the city that never sleeps. Read it at https://www.essentialjourneys.co.uk/tel-aviv/