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Israel and the Palestinian Territories

February 6th, 2011
Several teargas-grenades came down around me with a loud thud. At first I had to laugh when I saw these rubber balls comically jumping up and down towards me and the rest of the crowd. However, within no time milky-white clouds of gas filled the area, and things were not so funny anymore. Some of the protesters and photographers were lucky; they had brought gasmasks that protected them from the gas penetrating their lungs and eyes. Me? I had to run because without a gasmask it was simply impossible to stay in the area. Teargas makes your eyes and lungs burn like hell up to the point that you really feel that you are going to suffocate. And it gives you a severe headache for the rest of the day.

About fifteen minutes later I heard something passing my ear at a very high velocity. It turned out that the soldiers started to fire rubber bullets at the stone throwing Palestinians. And that I was right in the firing path. Although ?rubber bullet? sounds like something pretty harmless the reality is quite different. Each year rubber bullets kill or cause severe injuries because they are not shot only at a protestor?s lower body. For my own benefit, I decided to move myself out of the direct line between the soldiers and the protestors. So far this has been the closest I have been to photographing a war situation.

I was not in Bil?in, on the West Bank, to protest though. I was there to have a hands-on experience of what was going on in Bil?in between the Palestinian protestors on one side, and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) on the other. And to be sure that my intentions are clear to you, I am not even necessarily pro-Palestinian or pro-Israel, whatever those polarizing terms mean. Once you are locked into such generalized abstract terms you are bound to lose your freedom to make your own choices, as such identifications push you to adopt a whole set of other values that you might not want to adhere to. This is not always appreciated. When sometime last year I had lunch with two Arab colleagues in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, they suspiciously asked me if I was Jewish, after I did not take an immediate pro-Palestinian or anti-Israel stance in the discussion. That does not mean that I do not have an opinion on the human suffering that is clearly visible on both sides.

Jerusalem

One of the many ways the Palestinians suffer is through the Wall. That is especially true for the Arabs living in Bil'in. When the Wall was constructed in their area, it was placed in such a way that a large area of the village's farmable land was not accessible anymore. The people of Bil'in were, understandably, not happy with this. For this reason they hold a protest march every Friday after morning prayers. In some ways it is a predictable show. The protestors come close to the wall and shout their grievances, the soldiers tell them to back down, the protestors start to demolish an entrance gate, the soldiers tell them again to back down, the protestors back down but start to throw stones, and then all hell breaks loose. If the conflict underlying this was not so tragic, one could definitely qualify the show at Bil?in as a therapy session in which a lot of frustration gets released.

Before the march started our group of foreigners first got a briefing from a guy from an Israeli human rights group. He gave some very detailed instructions about the weapons that would be used by the IDF if things turned sour, and what to do if you got unexpectedly arrested. That these instructions were not entirely unnecessary was proven by someone who was severely wounded a year ago when he got hit on the head by a teargas grenade, and is unfortunately still in a coma.

Dome of the Rock (Jerusalem

I realize that my experiences in Bil?in are absolutely not representative of daily life in Israel or in the Palestinian Territories. I deliberately looked for an extreme and I got it. Most people in Israel live in peace with each other, including those from Arab descent. Even in the north of Israel, in the Golan Heights, it felt more like having a holiday in Austria than visiting a country that makes headlines in the news every other day. That reality is less polarized than we might be bound to believe because of media coverage also shows in its inhabitants. In reality there is no ?the Israeli?, nor is there ?the Arab? or ?the Palestinian?. The massive manifestation for Human Rights that I attended in Tel Aviv drew many people from as many backgrounds, with even rightwing extremists protesting for the human rights of the colonists, all celebrating their humanness without incident.

That does not mean, however, that there is no conflict. The drama that is unfolding in this part of the Middle-East is heart-breaking. Not only when you look at it from the Palestinian-side, but also when you look at it from the Israeli point of view, as far as you can even define a Palestinian point-of-view or an Israeli point-of-view. True, given the economic and military might of Israel it is a battle between David and Goliath, but it pays to give some attention to both stories, or (even better) to the many individual stories that people affected by the conflict have. My observation is that, at least on Dutch television, the conflict gets far more attention from the Palestinian point of view then from the Israeli point of view. In some way this is understandable. The ?Davidian? underdog position of the Palestinians generates a lot of sympathy and then it is hard to see that there is also another side to the story. During my stay in Israel, through many discussions that I had with people, I got a glimpse of how many Israelis look at the conflict. Not that I can assume that I now ?get it?, the conflict is so intrinsically complex that I doubt that there is anyone who gets the full picture.

Jewish boys at the Western Wall (Jerusalem)

Peace and security are the focus of most Israelis. Many look at what happened in the Gaza-strip three years ago with disdain, when the thug-o-cracy of Hamas came to power there. Several dozen high ranking members of the competing Fatah party were thrown out of high-rise buildings to cleanse the political system of rival elements. Add to that the ineffectiveness of the Palestinians to end rampant corruption and nepotism in the areas that they control, and one can understand that there is not so much trust in a Palestinian state that does not turn into a safety threatening crooks-nest after inception. When you speak with Palestinians living in Israel you soon find out that they are not even thinking about moving out of Israel if a Palestinian state is created.

Israel's pre-occupation with safety is extreme. At every bus station my luggage was x-rayed and more than once I got interrogated at a bus station because of the Syrian and Lebanese stamps in my passport. Many Israeli's see these safety matters as essential. And fair enough, I felt very safe wherever I was in Israel. Older Israelis point out that Israel was attacked by their neighbors several times and that they are still surrounded by hostile countries, with Iran as the current main threat. There is no doubt in their mind that Ahmadinejad would push the red button if he had one. Many Israelis of my age know someone who has been killed by attacks by suicide bombers on a crowded bus or disco during the more volatile times in the Nineties and halfway through the last decade. Having been brought up in a less volatile part of the world I only started to have an understanding of how this feels after visiting Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

Compund of the Ethiopian Church (Jerusalem)

In the meantime the Palestinians suffer too. Clearly. Although the West Bank has shown a remarkable economic growth rate of 7% last year, it is still 7% of nothing. The economic disparity was evident when I jumped border from Israel into the Palestinian Territories: planned architecture makes way for the hotchpotch of ugly unplanned cheap concrete expansions that are so characteristic for other poor areas in the Middle-East. The further I travelled from the border, the less luxury I found in the shops.

The Palestinian Territories are held in a stranglehold by Israeli politics, with the continuation of settlement on land that was captured during the Six-Day War in 1967 as one of the eyesores. If nothing changes, this stranglehold is simply waiting for the next Intifada, the next violent protest that is driven by the building frustration. In Jordan, that harbors a lot of Palestinians, a Palestinian taxi-driver made this clear to me when in a conversation he pointed his thumb up and said ?Hitler very good man.? It was clear that he did not mean it like the way it sounds, it was sheer frustration. In general it is not only frustration with Israeli-politics, but also frustration with its own rulers and frustration with the other Arab countries that only want to play a marginal role in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A solution for getting out of this never-ending tango seems to be further away than ever, not least because of the current state of Israel?s political situation.

Incoming gasgranades! (Bil'in)

Israeli politics are unfortunately hijacked by rightwing elements that only make up a small part of the population but through the political system have now been given a much larger voice. They are not willing to compromise. And that makes it difficult to move towards a solution, although the Palestinians have made some serious concessions in the past years. Part of this has to do with the Ultra-Orthodox influence on rightwing politics. It is interesting that in every religion there are extremists that are more than ready to sacrifice themselves for a higher ideal but are never able to do something which is easier, to compromise. Not only on the Israeli-side. When I was in a taxi travelling from Amman to Damascus one Palestinian lady worded it very eloquently: ?We, the Palestinians, should realize that Israel is here and that it will not disappear. It is time for us to start living in the now instead of in the past. And from that point we should plan our future, with Israel as a beneficial factor for that future.?

The interesting diversity of this area became even clearer to me when I met some Ultra-Orthodox. The Ultra-Orthodox are not a very homogenous group - it is a very diverse hotpot of all kinds of religious groups. Interesting is that some of these groups do not even recognize the state of Israel as they regard it as religiously forbidden to create a kingdom. Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Moshe Hirsch, who supported those ideas, was even the advisor on Jewish affairs for Yasser Arafat. In Jerusalem you will see a lot of Ultra-Orthodox. I actually found myself surrounded by hundreds of them when I visited one of the more religious neighborhoods. It?s not difficult to spot them: whenever you see someone on the streets dressed like someone from 16th Century Poland, you have found one!

The Church of the Nativity (Bethlehem)

One group is the Breslovs. Although I haven?t managed to see one in real life, they are Ultra-Orthodox youngsters that drive around in vans blaring techno music. The text of their songs is a phrase that apparently links to a long-dead rabbi. With their techno music they are trying to spread joy in the world, along with loads of traffic jams whenever they park their vans in the middle of the road to step out and start dancing.

Jerusalem is not the domain of only the Jews, but also of the Muslims and the Christians. Each of them has their own religious places, sometimes right next to each other. One of the most sacred ones for the Christians is the place where Jesus Christ was allegedly crucified, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I did not find it too difficult to get there, just walk down the Via Dolorosa. Although the route has been changed over the centuries, the Christians still regard the Via Dolorosa as the route that Jesus took to the crucifixion carrying a cross on his shoulders. The devout pilgrims can imitate him by renting a cross for the day and following the same route. Looking at such a circus did not make me feel more religious, I have to admit. The appalling scenes in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre also did not help. The mainly Russian Orthodox and Nigerian Christians there did their utmost to skip the line and more than once I saw an elbow being used to secure an advanced position for the owner. The only one in that church that truly transmitted the spirit of the Christ was the monk that with the utmost patience and compassion invited everyone one-by-one into the holiest-of-holiest, the Edicule.

The Hexagonal Pool (Golan Heights)

Jerusalem is also the home of what is officially known as the Jerusalem-syndrome. Every year there are about a hundred-fifty people that, when confronted with all the religiously significant Christian places in this holy city, start to think that they are the new Messiah and act upon it. After hospitalization these delusions usually disappear within several weeks, leaving the ex-patient with a deep feeling of shame. Less competition for me, I guess.

So religious and enclosed in itself as Jerusalem is, so worldly and non-religious is Tel Aviv. I had a lot of fun with Tel Aviv?s beaches, restaurants and art-deco architecture. In Tel Aviv the Sabbath, the religious weekly day of rest, is not taken that seriously. Tel Aviv does not shutdown from Friday late afternoon to Saturday late afternoon, while in Jerusalem it is impossible to even find a working ATM or bus during that time. The many bars and restaurants give it an international allure that rivals any world city, and for a moment I felt like I was back in Europe. Of course, the hospitality of my friends Sascha and Nina helped a lot too, but Tel Aviv definitely felt a place to spend a bit more time than just the few days that I was there.

Israel and the Palestinian Territories are fascinating, with an immense diversity of landscape, people, religion and whatever else you can encounter in this really small part of the world. I will be back!

Warm regards,
Paul


Next time: Other Worlds

Last time: Yalla! Yalla!


An Ethiopian patriarch (Jerusalem) At the hairdresser (Jerusalem) Praying at the tomb of Jesus Christ (Jerusalem)

Ironing the Holy Shirts (Jerusalem) There is a kosher McDonald's in Jerusalem!

Praying at the Western Wall (Jerusalem) The Dachau-monument at the impressive
Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum (Jerusalem)
Souvenir? (Jerusalem)

The grave of the Ari, one of the
most famous Kabbalists (Tsfat)
The Church of Maria Magdalena
(Jerusalem)
The Al Jazzar Mosque in Akko


The ruins of Caesaria A lizard in the Negev desert. The Wall


Masada



The wall is heavily guarded by the
Israel Defense Forces Bil'in)
The Palestinians in Bil'in do not like the wall,
as it seperates them from most of their farmland
A soldier aims his gun at a handicapped protestor
who deliberately moves too close to the wall
(Bil'in)



Is it a plane? Is it a bird?
No, it's an incoming gasgranade!
(Bil'in)
You'd better wear a gasmask (Bil'in)


Quit smoking (Bil'in) Waterfalls at Banias (Golan Heights)



The Hexagonal Pool (Golan Heights) A Coypu at the Hula Valley Nature Reserve
(Golan Heights)




Nimrod Castle (Golan Heights) A Human Rights March in Tel Aviv With the extremists protesting for the
human rights of the colonists (Tel Aviv)