Traveling in Israel is such a rich experience. No matter what you think about the “recent unpleasantness,” this land, including occupied territories, is smaller than the US state of New Jersey, with a documented 4000-year-old history, so you can’t travel far without encountering something of historical, mythological, archaeological, or newsworthy significance.
Travel into Israel broke historic records in 2013, about 3.5 million, a 14% increase over 2012, probably because Israel was not in a hot war, as opposed to the seemingly endless cold war with its neighbors, and there weren’t frequent reports of terrorist attacks. The majority of tourists were Christian, 28 percent were Jewish and a small percentage were Muslim, mostly from the US, Turkey, Egypt or Jordan. A surprising number of Muslims take no position on the legality of the state of Israel and some, certainly a small minority, are Zionists.
Jordan’s Southern border crossing into Israel, at Rabin/Wadi Arabia, is about a 90-minute taxi ride from Petra or four hours from Jerusalem. Walking from Jordan into Israel was so uneventful and peaceful — the Jordanian officials were so laid back and the Israeli official so friendly and welcoming that I thought “what’s all the fuss about” in the media?
The border station was filled with pictures of Jordanian King Hussein, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and President Clinton, who signed the Oslo Accords establishing peace between the two countries in 1993. The border was opened in 1994. “Peace has EXISTED between two Arab countries — Jordan and Egypt — and Israel for more than two decades,” I observed, a bit naively.
Underneath the businesslike cooperation between Israel and Jordan, border tensions remain palpable. I thought I could perhaps see tension or at least doubt in the eyes of the scarved young women who served me at the Rabin crossing. In 1997, eighty Israeli schoolgirls were on a field trip to the Jordan Valley, the Golan Heights and the “Island of Peace” resort when Jordanian soldier Ahmed Daqamseh opened fire, killed seven, wounded five students, and a teacher. King Hussein was so upset he personally traveled to Israel to mourn with the families of the school children. Old wounds from the case were reopened in 2013, when members of the Jordanian parliament called for Dagamseh’s release, and again in 2014 when Israeli soldiers shot and killed a Jordanian Palestinian judge at the Allenby Bridge crossing. A crowd of 2,000 Jordanians rallied in March 2014 at the Israeli embassy in Amman to call for nullification of the 1994 peace treaty with Israel. Both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres have expressed regret over the incident and promised a full investigation.
Lucia and I were only vaguely familiar with this news story when we crossed the southern border from Aqaba to the Israeli city of Eilat,which was mentioned in the Hebrew Bible in the story of the Exodus. The Israelites fled slavery in Egypt to enter the Promised Land at Eilat. It was not far from Eilat that Moses parted the Red Sea, an event that some archaeologists say could actually have happened. Eilat is modern Israel’s southern most city, on the northern tip of the Red Sea, in the Gulf of Aqaba. It’s part of the Southern Negav desert, which has a rich history in and of itself.
We looked at a map and considered heading toward Mt. Sinai, across the Egyptian border, where according to the Bible, Moses received the Ten Commandments. We thought we might wind our way up to St. Catherine’s monastery, built in the sixth century and one of the oldest working Christian monasteries in the world. But a quick Google search brought news that the Sinai is generally considered lawless, neglected by Egyptian authorities. Just a couple of months earlier, in February 2014, a bomb exploded on a bus carrying Christian pilgrimages from Korea back from St. Catherine’s to the Israeli border, killing four and injuring 15.
We promised ourselves we wouldn’t utilize the Israeli bus system, given this reputation for terrorist bombings. But when the Israeli taxi driver at the border sought to charge the two of us $400 (1391 Israeli shekels) for the four-hour ride from Eilat to Jerusalem, including a sightseeing stop at Masada, we changed our minds. We weren’t on that kind of luxurious budget.
The same journey for the two of us by nice, modern, comfortable, wifi-enabled public bus cost about $60, including a three-hour stop-off in Masada, just enough time to tour that legendary mount. The cost of a taxi from the Eilat border to the main bus station in the city was about 10 Israeli shekels. That was more in our price range. But I didn’t have shekels, so we stopped at a shopping center in Eilat to get money from an ATM. The first two ATMs I visited either offered only the Hebrew language or limited my withdrawal to 400 shekels. These ATMS are privately operated, not associated with a bank, so I searched for an ATM that was in my network and finally found one.
We enjoyed a brief glimpse of Eilat, an attractive beach town of 50,000 residents. Eilat’s border with Egypt was opened in 1979 and with Jordan in 1994. There are plans to build a high-speed rail between Tel Aviv and Eilat, so that passengers and freight on their way from Europe can bypass Egypt’s Suez Canal on their way to Asia. If that happens, Eilat will grow rapidly to a projected 150,000 residents.
There continue to be frequent rocket attacks on Eilat and Aqaba, as recently as January 2014, but no physical injuries have been reported in years. The source of the attacks remains mysterious — either Al Qaeda militants in Sinai from the west, or Hamas militants from Gaza from the northwest. The Israeli military is erecting a sea barrier to better separate the Sinai from Eilat.
A bus from the Eilat main bus station to Masada cost about 40 shekels ($11.50) each. From the bus, we got a good look at some Dead Sea resorts as we made our way north.
(Photos by Jim Buie.)
We passed Mt. Sodom, where a salt pillar called “Lot’s wife” stands at attention.(Wikipedia photo.)
And a sign for Jericho, located near the Jordan River on the West Bank, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, for 11,000 years, going back to 9,000 BC. It is now mostly under Palestinian control. Tourism, particularly by Christian pilgrimages, is a major industry for Jericho.
The bus follows Rt. 90 North, which parallels the border with Jordan. It took about two hours to get from Eilat to Masada, and you can walk, even with bags, from the bus stop up a small hill to the Masada museum. Next: Masada.