Shalom! Salam-aleyko! Greetings from the Holy Land. Israel is not the place shown on American TV reports. It's good to be here in person to sift through the media spin. There is A LOT of misinformation out there.
Travelling here is safe. With few exceptions, young Israelis are drafted into mandatory military service (for up to three years) and their armed presence can be felt constantly. And there is some really cool stuff to see, notably the Biblical sites around Old Jerusalem. Swimming in the Dead Sea is interesting, too; the water is so salty that one floats effortlessly! But there is tension in the air. People seem decidedly nervous. There's a statistically high percentage of stressed out and rude people.
An Internet cafe owner demanded more money than the posted amount. We argued, but I didn't let him intimidate me; I put the correct amount of cash on his desk and walked away. The asshole ran up and hit me from behind! I filed a police report. This seems shocking, I know, but such a belligerent attitude is unfortunately not uncommon in the Holy Land.
What are the root causes of this tension? The Israeli army illegally occupies Palestinian land and civilians suffer. Some say there's a collective sense of Israeli guilt from this. Or is it fear of suicide bombers? Perhaps it's the memory of the Holocaust, followed by decades of war? Or is it the religious extremists demanding a disproportional voice in politics? Who wouldn't be a little edgy?
The general attitude towards tourists in Palestine in more laid-back and friendly; typical Arab hospitality is the rule. We went to Bethlehem, the Dead Sea, Ramallah and Jericho; we enjoyed seeing the sites. Every Palestinian I talked to said the same thing: we are not against Jews, we are against occupation. I have heard that Palestinian hospitality does not generally extend to Israeli Zionists or war-mongering Americans (most tourists here are American Jews). We traveled as Brazilians, just to be on the safe side. This also enabled us to get lower prices when shopping, and perhaps, more open and honest political commentary.
Israel is the only Western country in Asia, in many ways a child of the USA, but culturally closer to North Africa, a unique mix. Tel Aviv is downright secular, much like a US city. Around this tiny country, there are super-highways and strip malls with American stores. Israel receives billions of dollars in financial and military support from the USA every year.
Some Arabs are VERY anti-Semitic. In fact, Palestinian leaders were aligned with Hitler during World War Two. Many Arab leaders have been fighting harder to abolish Israel altogether than to make a peace deal. And on several occasions, Arabs have initiated war against Israel. Against this threat, Israel has been defending itself.
Israel has a right to exist. Do not believe the anti-Semitic / anti-Israel misinformation and propaganda that counters the mainstream media's pro-Israeli bias.
But has the state gone from defending itself against Arab aggressors to becoming the aggressor itself? Certainly, many would say YES (especially under Sharon). Israel targets Palestinian neighborhoods for illegal demolition while building Jewish-only settlements on Palestinian land.
I met Israeli Jews and Muslims who pray for peace, and who oppose Sharon. An Israeli soldier admitted that the brutality against innocent Palestinians is far worse than most people realize. He said, "The media never shows the worst abuses. Innocent people are killed all the time." This makes it easy for Hamas and Hezbollah to recruit suicide bombers.
The Western media generally blames Yasser Arafat for turning down the peace deal offered by Ehud Barak in 2000 (with Bill Clinton mediating). Arafat did not make a counter offer, but instead supported the still-ongoing intifada. Yes, well, it was a crappy offer. The media generally ignores the fact that the USA vetoed UN resolutions against Israel 32 times between 1972 and 1997. UN resolution 242 however did pass, and states that Israel's acquisition of territory by war is illegal. I have heard CNN benignly refer to these illegal settlements as "Jewish neighborhoods."
Mostly it is a political fight, but there are religious bones of contention. One is that Israel wants to be a religious (Jewish) state and a democracy too; this is problematic in a land crowded with Muslims and Christians and Secular Humanists. There are the fanatics who believe this land is the Promised Land given to the Jewish people by God. These people are very well organized and determined, they have a loud collective voice, and they aren't much interested in political compromise. The Temple Mount is sacred to both Jews and Muslims. Jesus Christ was also crucified nearby, or so they say. King Solomon built the world's first temple to God on this spot. The temple was destroyed, rebuilt and destroyed again. The Koran tells of the Prophet Mohammad travelling to visit the furthest mosque (Al-Aqsa), thus making the place sacred for Muslims too. When Muslim armies conquered Jerusalem in the 7th century, they built the Dome of the Rock (the golden-domed temple). Of the original Jewish temple, all that remains is part of the retaining wall; this so-called Wailing Wall is the most sacred place for Jews.
There's another wall, the Israel-Palestine border wall, also known as the Apartheid Wall. It is not along the internationally recognized border. Innocent Palestinian civilians have little freedom of movement, even within Palestine. It is terrible.
In my humble opinion, here is what is required for peace:
1) Palestine needs to be an independent and VIABLE state. (A unified democratic state would be possible, except that Israeli Jews will never allow a Muslim majority. I think it would make sense if Palestine were to merge with Jordan as another option, because millions of Palestinian refugees reside there already, and they have strong cultural ties; indeed in Portuguese, the word for Palestine is CisJordania).
3) Complex issues regarding (scarce) water rights need to be sorted out.
4) Israel needs to give up the Jewish settlements on Palestinian territory. Many Jews will lose their homes. And they won't go along quietly.
5) A new border must be drawn (re-routing the Apartheid Wall).
6) The Old City must be international and open to people of all religious faiths and nationalities.
7) All those Palestinian refugees need a place to live.
8) All parties must recognize Israel's right to exist. It would help if this included non-governmental groups including Al-Qaeda (but don't hold your breath).
9) It would help if Israel becomes a secular, democratic state. Separation of church and state is the way to go. End the religious apartheid.
10) Finally, there's the Golan Heights, land that Israel took from Syria in the 1967 war. Israel and Syria are still enemies because of this. Israel will eventually have to give this land back. But Israel did give the Sinai Peninsula back to Egypt in a peace deal facilitated by Jimmy Carter, so there is hope.
11) Update. One year later. Israel bombed Lebanon with help from the USA, of course. This brutal attack destroyed much of Lebanon's infrastructure and killed at least a thousand innocent people, a war crime that solved nothing, but did increase the degree to which Arabs view Israel and the USA as evil. Are we not supposed to be encouraging Arab democracies like Lebanon to flourish? Hey, America! Do you want to prevent another 9/11? Here's some advice: for starters, don't be evil. Next, leave Saudi Arabia (get the UN to create a Muslim army to protect the oil). Next, force Israel to make peace. You can do it. One easy tactic is to cut off all military aid if they don't!
A political solution IS POSSIBLE, but only when Israel makes some difficult concessions. Bombing Lebanon back to the stone age certainly does not help. But is Syria willing to trade land for peace? What might the Palestinian leaders concede? Will the Zioinsts support the deal? Might Jordan be persuaded to offer a different solution? Extremists on all sides will never be satisfied.