If you’re at all like us, you were brought up thinking about the concept of a country as a pretty straight forward thing. A country has its own territory and borders, a government, an official flag, its own set of laws, and things of the sort…. there’s never much vague about it. So it’s a bit of a shocker to be driving through the West Bank and exploring the Dead Sea area, where these so called “country” concepts don’t apply in the usual sense. That’s because even though most countries would say this area belongs to a country called “Palestine”, Israel (and some other countries) disagrees, claims this territory as its own, and occupies it as though it’s a part of Israel (a very complicated history called the “Arab Israeli Conflict”). The fact that Israel occupies it, plus the strength of Israel’s military, renders pretty much meaningless the opinion of the “Palestinians” (and the rest of the world’s opinion for that matter) about which country the land belongs to. Israel is here, and that’s just the way it is.
So what does it mean to drive through a region that most people call an “occupied territory”? We really didn’t know what to expect before we entered this one. So as we approached the Israeli / Palestine border, it was a surprise to discover who was there guarding it…. nobody! And if we weren’t watching our GPS maps, we wouldn’t have noticed any evidence of a border crossing at all, it’s just a continuation of Israel straight into the occupied land. Israeli flags wave here in the West Bank, not Palestinian ones (at least in the areas we’ve driven), Israel constructs the roads, the fuel stations are also Israeli, Israel applies its laws here, there are villages filled with Israeli homes scattered around (“settlements”), the national parks are run by Israel, and so on… for purposes of moving around here on the ground, we definitely feel we’re in Israel.
As for the Palestinians, there’s a few million of them here in the West Bank, but they live in their own cities where they have some amount of their own control, often behind high concrete walls setup by Israel (“barriers” is the term Israel prefers), with lives that are heavily regulated by the Israeli Defense Forces present everywhere here. As we drove past Shuafat, a Palestinian village just outside Jerusalem, we peeked over the 8 meter encircling wall/barrier with curiosity about what life is like behind it, and realized we can’t possibly comprehend anything about it. Palestinians can’t use the roads, their access to anything from the outside world is hampered, their movement is heavily restricted even within the walled cities, all of which makes its development as an independent country completely impossible. The Palestinians see it as a brutally oppressive illegal occupation, and the Israeli’s see this as necessary to protect their own national security, and justified under the Geneva Accords. It definitely looks like a miserable situation, and after seeing this whole thing in operation, we doubt there’s much possibility for peace here in the near (or far) future.
We on the other hand, are free to explore and enjoy this extraordinary territory as we please. And that’s a good thing because it gives us easy access to the Dead Sea which caught our curiosity some time ago. At 418 meters below sea level, its shores are the lowest dry place on the surface of the planet. And with the dense water in the Dead Sea being a ridiculous 30% salt and other minerals, swimming here isn’t really swimming at all….laying on top is a more accurate way to describe it. We rub its mineral-rich mud on our faces, we explore the historic sights in the mountains, and we don’t pay any attention to where Palestine ends and Israel begins…. because for the purpose of our exploring these shores, it makes not the slightest bit of difference to us.
So here we go again… it’s time to head back to the boat in Eilat and get the thing moving towards the Suez Canal. We’ve invited family to meet us at our circumnavigation finishing line in Greece for a blowout family party, and we’ve got less than two weeks to get there. The weather window looks perfect, and we all know what that means: we’re gonners.