AT the end of my military service in the mid-1980s, and before I was readmitted to the University of Stellenbosch, I hitch-hiked through Europe. Israel was my most eastern target. After months travelling, I took a boat from Bari in Italy to Patras in Greece. Then, after much wandering in and around Athens, I charted a course to Istanbul in Turkey, and from there south to the village of Marmaris.
Marmaris sits comfortably in a valley along the Turkish Riviera (also known as the Turquoise Coast), between mountains dotted with pine forests and the clear waters of the Mediterranean Sea. It is a popular sailing and diving destination.
In a local hunting club, the beer was cold and the atmosphere full of joyful life. Alcohol does not tolerate injustice, and in the early hours I encountered a restless Turk and landed a blow. The Danish girl with me later claimed the Turkish police were looking for me, and at first light I hurriedly fled by ferry to the Greek island of Rhodes.
As the boat left the port, I cursed myself; I still wanted to see if I could drive across the border into Iran, but now that dream lay in shards at the bottom of a booze glass with so many others. Then, in Rhodes, a New Zealander and I also found ourselves on the wrong side of the Greek legal system, but that's a story for another day.
After idling away some time on Crete, I went to Tel Aviv by boat via Cyprus and hiked in the general direction of Haifa and western Galilee in northern Israel, looking for Kibbutz Ga'aton. Soldiers roamed the length and breadth of Israel, but on the Lebanese border the olive-green uniforms of Israel's military were everywhere. I was 22 years old and the women soldiers casually strolling along the streets with machineguns slung over their shoulders were an instinctive attraction. No woman with mascara would ever do it for me again.
Arriving at Ga'aton, I am one of 46 volunteers; 11 men and 35 women. The men are from all over the world but the women are mostly godless Scandinavians. Ga'aton is bad for your moral values, an otherwise loud Italian whispers on the first night over dinner of staple foods in the kibbutz dining hall.
My first job at the kibbutz is with bananas. I load the tractor and trailer under instruction from Abed, a middle-aged Arab who doesn't understand a word of English. We resonate with each other in an odd way and share a lot of laughter without any words being spoken. When, after a night of boozing and partying, I still haven't shown up by 5.30am, he wakes me. Together we walk in the darkness to the tractor. I sit on the mudguard, and with the other volunteers on the trailer we make our way to the seemingly endless plantations.
For breakfast, Abed would chop tomato and cucumber into cubes then pour a sourish white sauce over everything. We would share a bottle of Coke. Not once did I see Abed pray, and I never saw him again after my time there.
After this past week's paramilitary invasion of southern Israel by the Sunni Islamic political organisation Hamas, I feared for Ga'aton and wondered about Abed.
I'm pretty sure most Israelis do not use their religion as justification for their struggle with the people of Gaza and the West Bank. Being Jewish is more cultural than religious in many places. The establishment of Jewish territory in the Middle East in 1948 was also driven by religious and historical claims, but since then many aspects of life have been secularised.
I put my hopes on the two-state model. Israel is a place where the Jews can take refuge from persecution and extermination. But why there, among the Palestinians, and exposed to an unresolvable conflict?
The word Palestine is derived from Philistia, the name given by Greek writers to the land of the Philistines, who in the 12th century BC occupied part of the southern coast between modern Tel Aviv–Jaffa and Gaza. The Palestinians have a common enemy in the Jews, but while today they are culturally primarily Arab and Islamic, many of them identify instead with earlier Palestinian civilisations.
By the way, Israel is an incredible source of prehistoric discoveries. The oldest fossils of anatomically modern humans found outside Africa are of the Skhul and Qafzeh hominids, who lived in today's northern Israel 120,000 years ago. In around the 10th millennium BC, the Natufian culture existed in the area.
As for more recent events, the claims to land and sovereignty by the people of Gaza and the West Bank are not unfounded. Gaza last had an election 17 years ago and the West Bank has been under Israel's control since the Six-Day War in 1967. The mutual incomprehension between the Israelis and the Palestinians — and the accompanying violence — is too irrational to make sense of, but perhaps it would also be a fallacy to think every Palestinian shares Hamas's overall picture of Israel's sometimes brutal political presence.
Hamas was founded shortly after the First Intifada (uprising) in 1987 with the ideal of using armed resistance to end the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. In 2007, after a legislative election, Hamas became the de facto government in the Gaza Strip. Israel and Hamas have been in military conflict ever since.
For Hamas, the very existence of Israel is inherently illegal, and it considers the Palestinian-Islamic state to stretch from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean. Hamas rejects the internationally proposed two-state solution. I have read enough to be convinced that Hamas is fundamentalist and corrupt and that it will never engage in a political compromise with the Jews.
Hamas, compared to some other jihadist voices in the Middle East, is a moderate movement. Yet its charter clearly advocates genocide with the inclusion of the hadith (prophecy), “Oh Muslim, there’s a Jew hiding behind me. Come and kill him.”
The blunt axe cuts both ways, but neuroscientist Sam Harris makes an important distinction between the Jews' existential struggle for survival and Hamas's struggle for liberation. He argues that Hamas would wipe out every Jew if it could, but Israel would not commit genocide in its struggle with the Palestinians. He's probably right, but Israel's retaliatory devastation in Gaza over the past few days makes me wonder if his argument still holds water.
And it is a fact that many residents of Gaza and the West Bank have lost their lives at the hands of Jewish settlers and Israeli soldiers in recent decades.
The contradictions and indifference cut across cultures and demographics like a blowtorch. Distrust and vanity come to maturity with predictable regularity in existentially tense ecologies where God's word is read with a blunt index finger.
The kibbutzniks (permanent residents of the kibbutzim) treat volunteers like children and rarely make conversation with them, but their straightforward way of life reminds me of the Afrikaners when they're not ruled by their drive to survive: close-knit family structures, intelligence, calculated expectations of the future. They're not terribly religious either, except when it's absolutely necessary. Yet in Israel I too often heard the phrase “the only good Arab is a dead Arab", a kind of narrative that was rare even in apartheid South Africa.
Israel's contradictions are poignant and confusing. My compassion for the minimalist way of life of a kibbutznik makes me want to give them the benefit of the doubt. Yet the cruelty of being human amid such fanaticism and cursedness is too deeply rooted for my simple understanding. Abed also tried to understand this, even though he lived away from the kibbutz in a neighbouring community where poverty and alienation were the hallmarks of his humanity.
But back to my trip. After a month, my anxious need for decadence is overcome by my Calvinist genetics and I hitch-hike to Nazareth via Haifa. At the Basilica of the Annunciation, I wonder about God and inquire about Jesus, but the Arabs are a majority in this city and are concerned only with Allah and Muhammad.
An underground synagogue where Jesus supposedly studied the word of God is a curiosity. At St Joseph's Church, I listen for free from the back while a tour guide tells a bunch of paid-up visitors from America that this is where Jesus's earthly father had a carpentry workshop. Then, after two days of demanding cultural-historical experiences, I leave Nazareth, completely convinced that Jesus and Muhammad manage to live together in relative peace.
In Jerusalem, I linger nostalgically at the Wailing Wall, the Western Wall of the Temple. Apparently, the term Wailing Wall, a translation of the Arabic “El-Mabka", or Place of Mourning, appeared in English literature sometime in the 19th century. In French it is “Mur des Lamentations", and the German “Klagemauer" sounds as morbid as the Afrikaans “Klaagmuur". The designation stemmed from the Jewish practice of coming to this site to mourn the destruction of the Temple and the loss of national freedom it symbolises. In Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East, no word or truth is born of simplicity, and no one and nothing lives on in consensus.
Later, I follow the evening star in search of Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, south of Jerusalem in the West Bank. Here, the birth of the son of God is certified with an inlaid silver star in a cave below the 6th-century Church of the Nativity, which shares Manger Square with the 15th-century Church of St Catherine and the Mosque of Omar from 1860.
There's something magically unreal about the place. At a flea market, an Arab invites me over for tea and his 10-year-old son proudly shows me his father's rugs. I don't understand a word of what the child is saying but his poverty-stricken appearance breaks my heart.
Beyond the West Bank and the Judean Desert, hitch-hiking opportunities become scarce. A Palestinian family picks me up and Israeli soldiers at a military roadblock sceptically inquire about my reason for being there. It feels like non-Jews' lives are being run with a mixture of distrust and bigotry.
In the midst of this experience, my empathy is with the Palestinians, the people of Gaza and the West Bank, but I also understand the existential fears of the Israelis. As a non-believer, I don't trust faith-based political motivations. The secularism of the Jews is refreshing yet strange to me; the Christians back home wrongly made me believe that God's chosen people are deeply religious.
Israel is a relentless mix of desolation and high-density cruelty. It is as if the Middle Ages still dictates the values and norms of being human.
I travel on cheerfully, through the Judean hills west of the Jordan Valley, Negev in the south, to the Dead Sea. During the day, I talk to Palestinians who, with endless patience and grace, convince me that international organisations and the Western world are not losing any sleep over their suffering. I sleep restlessly along the way, and on some days I walk more than 20km in the scorching heat.
Eventually, I end up on a beach on the Red Sea in a city called Eilat, famous for its endless white beaches and underwater reefs. My money is tight and I am urgently looking for an income. You don't really get paid for your work on a kibbutz, so I look out for something on a moshav (a kind of Israeli agricultural settlement) where the daily wage is reasonable.
Before 5am every day, farmers come to pick up manual labourers for the day. Then, in the evening after a long, hard day, a smorgasbord of foreign cultures and nationalities gathers in the Peace Café to spend the shekels earned in the bloody heat on drink, food and each other. Late at night, we fall asleep on the beaches of Eilat, right beneath the signs that forbid exactly that.
Those rituals repeat for a month or so until I begin to long for a life on the road somewhere away from the desert and the distrustful questions of gleaming gun barrels. The Englishman who boards the boat with me in Tel Aviv jokes that I am at last leaving a country without fear of being kicked out first.
Now, nearly 38 years later, little has changed in Gaza and Israel. In the days, months and years to come, a million children in Gaza will know nothing but hunger, fear and violence. Think of them and a godforsaken Israel when you tuck in your offspring's blankets at night before turning off the light.
I will never be able to forget the images of fleeing young people and the bloodcurdling gunshots under the encouragement of “Allahu Akbar"; my kids are the same age.
And I wonder where Abed is.
♦ VWB ♦
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