Israel: Where security is a matter of great concern

Thursday January 22 2015

Israeli soldiers from the Golani Brigade take part in a military training exercise in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights. AFP PHOTO | JACK GUEZ

On the departure board notice at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport are details of flights to Zanzibar and Addis Ababa.

But unlike a decade ago, most Israelis do not travel to East Africa. The threat of terrorist attacks has meant that more Israelis are staying home.

On a New Year’s visit to the country, our first ever, my wife and I decided to travel up to the magnificent ruins of Petra in Jordan — clearly worth the rating of the second wonder of the modern world (after the Great Wall of China.)

We had expected there to be some security issues on the border, but, given that Jordan is one of the few Middle Eastern countries with which Israel has at least reasonable relations, we did not anticipate the extent to which we would be questioned — on both sides of the border.

What is particularly disconcerting, having passed through Israeli border control, is the complete lack of vehicle traffic between the two countries.

Leaving the Israeli border control, you have to walk approximately half a kilometre through a no-man’s land marked by barbed wire, mines and watching towers. Israeli guides take you to the border, and Jordanian guides pick you up on the other side.


On our return, we were questioned as to whether anyone had asked us to carry anything for them, or to speak to anyone in Israel. Had we let our luggage out of our view at any time?

We replied in the negative to all their questions, and our luggage was scanned through special airport check devices — three times.

It is difficult to explain to anyone who has not visited Israel the extent to which most people in that country feel under siege.

Many Israelis say the bombardment of the Gaza Strip last year was a justifiable act.

They see most of their neighbours as bent on their destruction. Most do not even accept Israel’s right to exist as a state.

The result is that everywhere you go you see young men and women carrying weapons. Some are carried openly — as with soldiers or reservists. Some are hidden away in holsters.

Everywhere you go — to a bus station or even a shopping mall — you are searched and your bags scanned. Everywhere, there are warnings to look out for packages left where they should not be.

Israel is a beautiful country with an extraordinarily rich history – particularly to the Islamic, Christian and Jewish faiths. This is a land of conflict, fought over by Christians and Muslims for centuries, and more recently by Jews and Arabs.

In the Negev desert south of Dimona and Beersheeva, time has stood still since the era of Moses and the exodus from Egypt. You can see the ruined cities of the Nabataens at Mamshit and Advat, which are thousands of years old.

Here too is the historic crater of Mitzpe Ramon, crossed by Abraham and his descendants, with its ancient routes still visible in a land hardly touched by rainfall.
Moving south towards Eilat, the present political realities of Israel become apparent.

Nearing the border with Egypt, a massive mined fence has been created, the length of the country up to the Gaza Strip.

Come within 10 metres of it and it will set off alarms and the Israeli military will turn up. It was built over the past 10 years, after Palestinians crossed from Egypt and shot passengers in a bus.

Talking to Israelis it is clear that they view the West — indeed most of the world — as being complacent about the threat of Islamic extremism and terrorism.

“We think the West has woken up rather late to the threat of these groups and their followers,” one tour guide told us.

Museums show the struggle of Jews fighting for an Israeli state, or the achievements of the Israeli Defence Force in protecting their land.

“We are in survival mode,” another tour guide told us. “We don’t know what will happen next.”

That Israelis see themselves as victims is hard to argue with. Tourists are welcomed, but most Israelis are unwilling to talk politics unless they feel comfortable and have spent some time with you.

We will go back to Israel — we did not visit Jerusalem or the Dead Sea or the Sea of Galilee.