Israel 101….. June 2018

My travel blogs are basically aide memoirs to allow me to relive the experiences in years to come. Sometimes, I need to step back by blogging because overloaded with information, I need to sort out a framework to present facets of the experience.

It’s hard to find a framework to talk about our trip to Israel; there are so many prisms operating here. You don’t go to Israel for fun. There is bad business afoot. This blog is basically my sorting through the information I need to understand Israel on the ground. It is to hammer key facts into my head.

More traditional travel blogs with pics on Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth will follow.

I could background how Israel has come to this sorry pass but history is available in many places, analyses of it are myriad and this blog is about my observations and experiences.

The photos below are a small smorgasbord of the range of facets of Israel.


A typical scene in a plaza in Jerusalem



New architecture below the King David Hotel



Palestinian women shopping in the Old City



Desert landscape about 10 kilometres outside Jerusalem



A Banksy painting on the Palestinian side of the dividing wall


The beach and modern high rise Jaffa

However, here are some key facts in a nutshell:

The State of Israel is predicated on the fact that 1100 years BC for a period (variously reported as from 80 to 208 years) there was a Kingdom of Israel ruled by David and then Solomon. Over the next 3 thousand or so years the land was ruled by many nations from the Canaanites to the British.

Zionists, in the late19th century in the face of increasing hostility in Europe, identified the need for a homeland. Long story short, the turning point was the Balfour Declaration, a public statement issued by the British government during World War I announcing support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine then an Ottoman region with a minority Jewish population (3 to 5% of the total).

From that point it was game on. The Jewish State of Israel was declared in 1948 and the Palestinian exodus (known as Nakba or The Catastrophe) followed. More than 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes.

There is a litany of words and a parade of characters associated with the Jewish occupation of this tiny, contested area of land, the Haganah, Exodus. the Oslo Accords, the Camp David Accord, Arafat, Ben Gurion, the Six Day War etc. etc. All dramatic, all failing to resolve anything.

Before I went to Israel I attended a series of lectures about the history and current dilemmas. It wasn’t till I got on the ground that I began to understand. To help with that understanding we spoke to the excellent Jonathon Cook, a former BBC journalist who now lives in Nazareth with his Palestinian wife and family. Jonathon has a web site and blogs regularly. I cannot recommend his work too highly. My Facebook feed also gets regular posts from Jewish Voice for Peace. As soon as I arrived home, I joined the Australian Palestinian Advocacy Network, such was my horror at this apartheid State.

Israel has many stories starting with the justifiably angry besieged Palestinians, to the Arab Israeli citizens, to the seemingly decent secular Jews who simply shake their heads and say they don’t know what the solution is, right through to the frightening ultra orthodox Jews who believe Israel is their destiny at any cost.

For me the 2 photos below say much about Israel today. The first is the ultra orthodox Jew praying wherever he might be; the second a tired seemingly beaten Palestinian man outside his business in the souq in Nazareth.




Israel, ruled by the Knesset, consists of 2 lands:

  • the Israeli state and
  • the Occupied Territories, that is the land of the Palestinians increasingly being controlled by Israel.

Israel is:

  • a colonial power
  • a theocracy
  • an apartheid State

Israel is financed through:

  • $5.4billion a year in US aid
  • $2.4billion a year from rich US Jews
  • high tech and arms development and sale
  • agriculture
  • tourism
  • African diamonds
  • the sale of military and security expertise through companies said to be owned by some senior military people

One of a number of similar posters on the streets of Israel pointing out the special relationship between the current USA and Israeli Governments. 

Jewish Israel seems to be at various levels of conflict on 4 fronts:

  • Gaza– occupied in 1967 where 2+ million people are confined to an area about 20 miles by 10 miles, probably the most densely populated in the world. Gaza is governed by Hamas, the bete noire of the Israeli Government. Although coastal, Israel blocks 85% of the maritime rights of Gaza as agreed by the Oslo Accord,
  • the Old City and East Jerusalem where about 400,000 Palestinian people live.  Although Israel absorbed East Jerusalem in 1980, 7 UNSC Resolutions have declared that Occupation null and void.
  • the West Bank (pop 9 million), also occupied in 1967, but negotiated in the Oslo Accords to consist of 3 Areas A B and C. Israel is slowly cannibalizing those Areas with Israeli settlements so the West Bank, (notably Area C where 62% of the West Bank is under Israeli control), looks like Swiss cheese. The Palestinian Authority governs the remainder of the West Bank.
  • the demographic struggle and war of attrition within its own territory  – e.g. a Nazareth story (see following blogs)


DSC06749Here is the top of the fence the Israelis have built to keep the Palestinians out of the State of Israeli. It is likely the new white high rise Settlement in the distance is on West Bank  occupied territory.

There is also the war Israel is fighting with much of the world through the Blockade Divertissement and Sanctions (BDS) movement and the ever-bubbling conflict with Iran.

Outside these mostly Jewish/Palestinian Muslim struggles, overlay the Christian Arabs and the significant Christian holy places. Curiously although the Christian myths seem on an international scale to be the most dominant in the region, in reality, on the ground their manifestations are quite modest in impact.

Who are the Israelis?


A sign outside a shop in Jerusalem

We met many charming Israelis who were quite prepared to talk about the problem but in every instance finished the conversation by repeating the mantra, “It’s complicated”.

One conversation with a delightful leftish young man who had worked with a Jewish NGO helping children with cancer in Gaza, said how the good works had to stop “in case Hamas found out”.

Nothing more than that brought home to me how the Zionist narrative about the evils of the Palestinian leadership in Gaza is totally part of the Israeli Zeitgeist. I couldn’t help comparing it to the way German people absorbed the rhetoric of Hitler when it came to the Jews.

This young man who had Palestinian friends also said: “We know the world condemns us and we don’t like that.” Hopefully because of these sentiments, the BDS and other movements will have some impact on the Knesset.

I also talked to a secular Jew visiting from Atlanta who was going to meet Palestinians and who had tenuous contact with Jews for Peace. Like so many others, all she could say was: ”It’s complicated.”

Another note about the power of rhetoric was the way people spoke of the current defined large area of Israel as if it has always existed. Conceptually they seemed to have dismissed other nations like the Romans and the Ottomans who had ruled for much longer than the 75 years Israel has existed contemporaneously or the 80+ years they ruled 3000 years ago.

Some facts:

  • In 1914 Palestine had a population of  657,000 Muslim Arabs, 81,000 Christian  Arabs, and 59,000 Jews.
  • The population of Israel has grown to 8.8 million in 2018; about 1.1 million are Palestinian and have had some limited form of citizenship. As of July 2018, Palestinians with some form of citizenship now have no recognition as citizens because the Knesset passed legislation recognizing only Jews as full citizens.
  • Resulting from this July 2018 legislation Palestinians can only be second-class citizens. The law says that only Jews will have the right of self-determination; Hebrew will be the only language of the State and that Jewish settlements are a national value and should be promoted.
  • This is outright apartheid and at the time of writing there had been large demonstrations against this law especially by Druze citizens. Many of the top ranking IDF officers are from that community and have resigned from the army since the legislation was passed.
  • Around 40% of Jews are secular, 40% traditional Jews and 20% ultra conservatives.
  • There are 120 nationalities so the State of Israel cannot be defined by nationality.
  • Despite the founding documents that said all peoples were to be treated equally, only Jews were allowed the right of return even before the latest legislation which excludes all others from full citizenship.
  • All Israeli citizens serve in the army for 3 years from the age of 18.
  • One million Russian Jews arrived in 1990 all claiming heritage; some people think their entitlement was tenuous.
  • For 10 years new immigrants pay no taxes and there are grants and other incentives to entice Jews to immigrate.
  • Under the Law of Return only Jews can immigrate which is seen as a key tactic in controlling the demographic.
  • There are now 700 Jewish commercial farming communities receiving benefits such as cheap water
  • In 1948 Palestinians owned 94% of all land; now Jews own 82%
  • In 1968 the city of Jerusalem was 6 sq k now greater Jerusalem is 70 square ks


DSC06746Part of the wall (with watchtower) the Israelis have built near Bethlehem, a Palestinian town, to ensure Palestinians do not have free access out of the West Bank. We were told that during Ramadan 40,000 people queued near here to go through the gate to attend Friday prayers at the Al Aqsa Mosque.

Who are the Palestinians?


A T-shirt for sale in the Muslim Quarter.

  • In 2018 the Palestinian population of the State of Palestine is just over 5 million.
  • The Palestinian population in Palestine is growing at about 2.4% per year, which is 33% higher than Israel’s growth rate. The population is also the youngest in the region, with a birth rate of over 4 children to every woman.
  • It is estimated that more than 6 million Palestinians live in a global diaspora. The countries outside the Palestinian territories with significant Palestinian populations are: Jordan 3,240,000. Israel 1,650,000.
  • There are now 600,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank eating into Palestinian land. There were only 40,000 in 1989
  • 20,000 to 30.000 Palestinians pass through border posts each day to work in Israel.
  • The World Bank 2013 estimates of the annual cost to the Palestinian economy of the Occupation to be $3.4billion
  • The Israelis recognize 124 Palestinian villages in Israel while 80 unrecognised villages get no water or electricity. 1 in 10 Palestinians in Israel live in unrecognized villages.
  • Bedouin villages 4/5miles outside recognized villages get no water or roads.
  • The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) can raid a refugee camp in the West Bank, such as the one near Bethlehem that I will talk about in another blog, up to twice a week.

The Palestinians we spoke to were articulate and knowledgeable about their history. Not far underneath one could sense their frustration at the unfairness of their treatment. It seemed agreed by the few we discussed it with, that any hopes of a Two State Solution had been irreparably damaged by the Israeli settlement strategy and the blockading of Gaza.

They saw the best option now to be equal rights in the One State. Since the Israelis will never grant the Palestinians a Right of Return and are fearful anyway of their demographic vulnerability, even the Palestinians do not know how this could be achieved.










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‘Taking the waters’ in northern NSW..2017

July, mid winter, my son took me for a birthday present roller-coaster trip to four artesian spas in the far north of New South Wales. It may not have had the historical resonances or elegance of “taking the waters” at Wiesbaden or Taormina, but the hot ancient artesian water from the depths of the far Australian outback had an ambience all its own.

We flew to Moree (pop. around 10,000)  626 ks from Sydney; collected a car and headed  to Lightening Ridge via great old fashioned hamburgers at the roadside Bullarah Café.


We were in cotton growing country here and the café lady told us tells us that although the artesian bores are all being capped now there are a few private ones which are often the hub of social gatherings. She also tells us that the biggest local cotton dam covers 45,000 acres – imagine! This is truly Big Farming country.

We started noticing 2 things; first the roadsides were littered with cotton droppings, a sight that didn’t go away for the whole 600ks of our trip; and road kill roos were constant, often sometimes only 20 metres apart.


Cotton droppings along almost the 600k of driving

IMG_5041 (1)

So many roadkill roos on the road, some almost devoured by birds of prey

Next short stop – Collarenebri on the Barwon River. Some claim this is the best inland fishing location in Australia and perhaps because of this, Colli was a major aboriginal place and continues to be a centre for the first Australians.



Along the road we find a comfort stop that is probably uniquely Australian, the drop toilet and the idiosyncratic spelling,

Lightning Ridge


The gateway emu sculpture

The traditional owners of the land around Lightning Ridge are the Yuwaalaraay people. Although colonial pastoral development displaced these people, in recent years, the local Indigenous population has increased because Indigenous people from other regions have come seeking work in opal mining or agriculture.

 Lightning Ridge produces over 95% of Australian opals opal town on and is the world’s main source of the black opals,

While the official population is fewer than 5,000, this is a fairly elastic figure since transient miners come and go over time. The simple white crosses in the local cemetery stand testimony to those who came here to “be lost” and unknown.


So many simple white crosses in memory of the unknown who have died at Lightning Ridge

 My son makes the point the Lightning Ridge is probably the only place in the world where the economy relies on older men, many of whom are Europeans, scrabbling through the clay in search of their fortunes. Some say 40-50 nationalities are represented in this small town. Indeed the Pakistani gentleman who ran the servo and NRMA depot seems to herald the latest wave of immigrants. He has been here 5 years and came to get away from Sydney’s traffic.


There are jobs for those looking for something different in Lightning Ridge

 There are many attractions, like the cactus garden, the house built from bottles and the faux castle, that we did not visit. We did though do 2 of the “car door tours” where you stay in your car and follow old car door signposted tours; we followed the red and then the blue doors.

 Tours on dirt roads go through the diggings. While some lucky miners have found opals worth millions, others continue to chase their fortune year after year; some are now too old to mine but still live on their lease with no mains electricity or water supply.

 Claims of as small as two hectares have homes on them often made of tin (and remember the summer heat can reach 50 degrees). Other dwellings might be old caravans or fibro sheds, whatever handy cheap material could be found to create shelter from the ramshackle to the more established.




But our main business here was the mineral baths. A little out of town, artesian bore baths on McDonald’s Six Mile Opal Field have been placed on the Register of the National Estate. They are free and open 24×7 although at 40+ degrees I cannot think anyone would patronise them in the hot hot summers.

The water found in the Baths comes from the Great Artesian Basin and is approximately two million years old! (In this town on the edge of the outback fossils have been found that date back 110 million years.)

iLR mages

The only picture I didn’t take. This old stock pic is the Lightning Ridge pools before the Council put in change sheds, helped by federal tourist funding.

 That night we joined others in ‘taking the waters’ under a big sky or stars.

 Next morning we visited the monthly market outside the Information Centre – itself one of the tourist attractions in town.


The market had some great blood oranges for sale, proceeds to the flying Doctor Service; some small amount of pickles, jams and other craft but the main attraction was the jars of un cut stones,

 Like a lucky dip you could pay up to $1000 on the chance that in that jar was something very special.


There were many tables selling these lucky dip jars of opals

The local servo/NRMA was out of maps and the large Mr Cheap shop over the road held no attractions so we headed back to Moree doing the loop road through Wee Waa and Narrabri.

 It’s a Sunday so it’s hard to tell what these country town are like on a business day but the first small town, Walgett , is firmly shuttered up, Near the junction of the Barwon and Namoi rivers. it had (2011) a population of 2,267 including 1,004 Indigenous people and 1,073 non-Indigenous Australian-born.

There have been problems in this small town of wide streets;  the governments has responded by building a huge, architectural police station, bigger than almost any I have seen in Sydney.


The police compound at Walgett


Sunday, the Information centre is shuttered but seems new

We continue along the highway where cotton gins and wheat silos vie for built dominance.


Big sky, big farming and big lines of cotton bales

 Between Walgett and Wee Waa is Burren Junction. This was once significant transport junction and site for wheat silos but now it’s  more desolate.



The old and the new – the rusted water tank and the new solar panels

The Bore Baths and Camp Ground are located in a rural setting, 100 metres off the Kamilaroi Highway on a sealed road. These baths are also free and open 24×7. Signs tell us they have been upgraded as a tourist expenditure with Federal funds.


Almost deserted, mossy, pretty remote.


The sign attached to the pool fence at Burren Junction

My son said that when he was here a year ago, there was not a soul in sight; now some 100 caravans and campers form 2 circles nearby.



 Wee Waa (pop.7,500), although in Sunday somnolence, seems to be a charming town with a 20% aboriginal population. The Aboriginal meaning of Wee Waa is “Fire for Roasting” from the language of the Kamilaroi people. Huge tractors and other agricultural hardware are prominently for sale.

Near the Namoi River, this is a service centre for the Pilliga and surrounding towns. Cotton gins, silos and research stations dominate the rural landscape. Everything’s big out here from the sky to the two Narrabri supermarkets.

Cotton, grain and cattle are the primary industries.

I see one Stop Coal Seam Gas sign and am reminded the farmers here are fighting coal seam gas applications in the Pilliga National Park.

In country town, luckily some of the old architecture survives often in the remaining pubs.


Also along the roadside are mobs of wild emu, a reminder that we are in bush as well as in farming country.


 Back to Moree

James has chosen a cabin at the caravan park because there are baths in the park. Before dinner at the local club we have a dip. The baths are busy, hot and OK but they seem to lack the big night sky of Lightning Ridge and the mossy eccentricity of Burren Junction.

The next morning we explore the town’s few passable art deco buildings; find a passable coffee shop and visit the Art Gallery with a new exhibition by local indigenous artists including a fabulous and funny video by Richard Bell.


The ladies loo at the art gallery could have been an exhibition in itself!


Moree street art is a reminder of how important rugby league is in these country towns

Moree became famous in the 60s for the student Freedom Ride which took a bus of Sydney Uni students to draw attention to the apartheid rules of the town particularly  as manifest at the segregated local pool.

 Now there is a $7 million state of the art modern pool complex with 2 artesian pools as well as a monster slide and cold water traditional pool. The hot pools were fine and well patronised but at 2 o’clock it was time for the new form of discrimination-  this time purely economic, not race based.

For $20 a head we enjoyed the private spa where numbers are strictly limited and the comfortable incidentals, absent from the public pool, are provided.


 Thank you J for three great days and 4 artesian baths!


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Iceland – a re-cap..2016

How to start when talking about Iceland. The people? the history? the landscape? the towns? So after my 2016 trip I have already posted 4 blogs in chronological order which can be found earlier on this site. But so much remained to be said.

I was, and am still – after 8 months – totally captivated by Iceland…so familiar yet so exotic. At times I felt I had journeyed to Middle Earth; at other times I thought I was observing a very modern society. New suburbs about 10 years old brought a note of the familiar, as did the heavy 5pm traffic flows. We passed satellite towns of smart new developments and ate at restaurants the peer of some of the best in large international cities.

The population is so small and the challenges of nationhood so large, that the country is fascinating. It punches far above its weight on the world stage and just this week voted for compulsory equal pay for men and women.

Since this week Is International women’s day, it is worth mentioning that Iceland was the first country in the world to have a political party formed and led entirely by women Founded in 1983, the Women’s List helped increase the proportion of female parliamentarians by 15%] It disbanded in 1999, merging with the Social Democratic Alliance and left a lasting influence on Iceland’s politics: every major party has a 40% quota for women, and in 2009 nearly a third of members of parliament were female, compared to the global average of 16% for women average of 16%. (from Wiki)

To jog my own memory now and in the future, I have simply cherry picked some facts that stick with me:


  • The country is awesome with volcanic ranges, long fjords, waterfalls, geysers, bog lands, lava fields – some of it beyond description.
  • The volcanic country is rich in geo-thermal activity. Managing this has lead to Icelandic energy experts being sought after around the world and this expertise responsible for a significant contribution to the national income.
  • Iceland has a third of the world’s lava flow with an eruption on the south coast around every 2 years.
  • 24 species of whale swim off the Iceland coast and a polar bear had swum there from Greenland the previous week – only to be shot for his trouble. (In the interests of research and of safety we were told.)







  • About 240,000 of Iceland’s 330,000 citizens live in the capital,Reykjavik.
  • More than 2 million tourists pass through Reykjavik annually, that is more than 6 tourists for every citizen.
  • Parliament Square is the home of the Allthing (the Parliament), a surprisingly small and unpretentious building with a smart extension – surprising until you remember that the population is only 330,000, less than many local authorities/cantons in the western world.
  • Here in 2008 the people gathered to demand action on the financial crisis when the State took over the banks’ debts. In November that year, what is now known as the “pots and pans” revolution happened. People used these cooking tools to generate noise in the square. The police kept the calm. People started dressing in orange to signify peaceful protest.
  • Harpa Hall the concert hall, was being built on the waterfront as a convention centre, hotel etc. by a bank which went bust in 2008. The government bailed them out and this huge cultural centrepiece was completed by the national and city governments. 1.7million visitors a year enjoy this standout building of geometric glass shaped panels. It is a beautiful, imposing building even if perhaps out of scale with the town.
  • Hallgrim’s Church was commissioned in 1937 and took 41 years to complete. It is said to be designed to resemble the basalt lava flows of Iceland’s landscape.
  • There is a settlement museum in town showing where the first houses lay under the foundations of the current town.
  • The National Museum has an artefact which is believed to be of the god Thor, one of the few remaining signs of the pre Christian culture.
  • The pedestrian area is lively as in many sophisticated tourist towns.
  • I enjoyed watching the crowd at one posh restaurant, the Grillmarket, where there was one entrée of 3 sliders filled respectively with puffin, minke whale and lobster. I sat at the bar watching dish after dish of minke whale leaving the kitchen. I enquired of the meat the girl next to me was eating. I was told it was the best horse in town.
  • Wine like most things in Iceland was expensive There were Australian wines: – a Wolf Blass President’s Selection at17,900 IK a bottle ($195) and the familiar old quaffer Jacob’s Creek cab sav for $359 (gulp).
  • Coffee was $5.90 in most places and glass of Spanish wine about $16.






Early history

  • Icelanders have been here for 10,000 years; while Vikings settled the country, Celtic DNA is also present.
  • The Icelandic sagas tell the story of the tribes who settled here as early as 874AD.
  • The first parliament in the world, the Allthing, is said to have begun with the 930AD and then annual, meeting of the 13 Icelandic chiefs in the impressive fields at Laws were read and codified at these gatherings.
  • Christianity arrived in 1000AD and in 1262 the tribal gathering then pledged to Norway’s king. The Allthing was not revived until 1843.

Modern history

Our guide Bjarne (more later) described the recent history of Iceland as the 4 revolutions:

  • Mechanisation. In1902 the first boat with a motor appeared, then the first taller, then the fishing industry was mechanised as were the farms
  • Population explosion. In18990, 13% of people lived in towns larger than 50 people. In 1923, it was 50% and by 2000 only 6% of people lived in rural areas.
  • Energy revolution. Hydro plants were established selling to aluminium companies and the growth of energy knowledge stimulated the export of the expertise.
  • Bank revolution. Around 2000 peopled started to believe Iceland could become an international monetary centre. Government sold the banks to private investors and banks underwrote overseas investments. Local development boomed (some say with the import of eastern european labour including new influences of drugs and criminal elements. By 2008 with the GFC people realised things were wrong and the demonstrations for reform began.



Thought to be the only found idol from the pre-Christian period.


Along the escapement at Thingvellir where the world’s first democratic parliament met


  • The economy relies mainly on tourism (30%), fishing (20%), aluminium smelting – enabled by cheap energy (30%) and export of alternate energy expertise.
  • Tourism is seeing a year on year increase of 20%
  • Fish has dropped from 60% of the export economy to 20%. The main fish export is cod but mackerel (which were never seen in Iceland until a few years ago) are now appearing in large numbers.
  • There was a building boom here between 2000 and 2008 preceding and in part generating the Icelandic fallout from the Global Financial Crisis.
  • Now after 9 years, the debts are paid and young people who went abroad are being encouraged to return. There now seems to be more new building happening although the few Icelanders I spoke to were wary, working harder than ever to set themselves up and hoping the cycle was not on repeat.

Geysers bring tourists and geothermal expertise


Puffins are a drawcard for the tourists


  • Settlement is in a number of towns scattered around the coast and many months of the year are spent in constant darkness so like most of Scandinavia and Greenland, inhabitants suffer from the “dark depression”.
  • Between a quarter and a third of Icelandic men are admitted to an alcohol addiction centre during their lifetime.
  • Iceland has more authors per capita than anywhere else in the world
  • the national sport is swimming and recently Iceland has punched far above its weight in soccer.
  • There is a gene in Icelanders that can be found in the Irish and Scottish Celts but the jury is out on whether this came from the women the Vikings stole as wives or whether it is that carried by the Norwegian Vikings it is not known. Suffice to say that there’s a bit of Irish in the Vikings and in the Icelanders.
  • While there are 5 political parties, the recent emergence of the Pirate Party seeking full transparency and open access to government accounted for 40% of the vote, a first in Europe.
  • Whatever the genetic material, I found the people direct and friendly, possibly with a dry humour and certainly they have shown a passion for their politics – all of which sits well with my own Irish background

Our guide Bjarne described the Icelandic character as:

  • Curious about the world because of the island home
  • Hard working , strong and courageous because of the harsh surroundings and the power of natural forces
  • Kind to each other because it is a small society and living is hard
  • Opportunistic, competitive and sometimes greedy (he cited bankers and fishermen
  • Stoic

Our guide personified for me the direct, reserved, dry humoured, knowledgeable, strong person that I began to think was the Icelandic character.

For much of this information I am grateful to Bjarne an impressive man, one time a sculptor then an arts administrator and now a wonderful guide. He had a wonderful face.


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