Learning from a distance about areas experiencing conflict provides only a partial understanding of the actual conditions. The rest comes from visiting these places; it is an old-fashioned way of going out there, seeing the land and interacting with people. In so doing, professionals and laymen alike acquire a form of knowledge that satellite imagery, textbooks, and scholarly articles cannot deliver: a personal experience based on our sensory perceptions. In the case of Israel this is unavoidable.

Together with contested territories of the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights, Israel serves as a classic example of a region that is in a continuous state of a violent conflict. Although widely popularized and frequently reported, this, however, is far from being Israel’s only conflict. In fact, many cultural conflicts are currently ongoing there and, as the country evolves, are bound to continue drawing required attention. Some of them are presented here.

[Landscape, rather than being defined as the visual portion of the environment (as “a picture representing a view of natural scenery”), should be defined as the totality of the sensed environment:   Landscape is the totality of one’s seen, smelled, heard, touched, or tasted environment. By CFG]

An Island Country

For all practical purposes Israel is an island country. Crossing the border by land into Lebanon and Syria is out of question and to Egypt and Jordan it is very complicated and not encouraged. Like Icelanders, almost all Israelis travel to and from their country via the national airport. Being in a country surrounded on three sides by land, yet feeling extreme insularity, is a strange feeling to experience and under which to live. Considering the existing conditions in Israel’s relationships with its neighbors, this feeling will remain commonplace for a long time. For residents of the West Bank, freedom of movement is further limited resulting in an island within an island (although they could technically travel to Jordan and from there elsewhere).

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Figure 1. Reference map of Israel with a note about its internationally recognized boundaries and status of the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights, which are individually under different levels of Israel’s administrative influence. (Map created by Oscar Villa)

Communities at the Outside Border

As location and landscape change, so does the perception of conflict. In the north, distances between Israeli and Lebanese villages are short, settlements often being contiguous. Other than for not knowing what may happen next, and the presence of security forces, the sense of Mediterranean tranquility is difficult to disguise on Israel’s side of the border.

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Figure 2. Northernmost Jewish settlement within Israel’s original boundaries, Metula, in Upper Galilee, is a frontier village. The barren hill, green agricultural fields, and the village in the background belong to Lebanon. In the distant background is Mt. Hermon. (Photograph by the author)

Across the border in Lebanon, life continues much as it does on the Israeli side. One can hear traffic noise, farming machinery, and children playing. The fence and now-closed border crossing, however, ensure that nothing other than noise crosses the border in either direction.

From Metula eastward on a winding road—a route used by travelers and armies since biblical times—is the Golan Heights. Geographic significance of this area can be fully comprehended only by visiting it and, unsurprisingly, the first question that crossed my mind was “What did the French and British cartographers expect would happen after they drew the political boundaries in Syria and Palestine?” knowing very well why they did it that way.

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Figure 3. View across the border into a seemingly-abandoned Syrian villages and towns, controlled by rebel groups. A complete absence of any movement and noise in Syria that day, along the entire boundary with Israel, was almost surreal and in great contrast to the more vibrant pace evident in Metula. (Photograph by the author)

Russia’s Air Force presence in Syria has greatly contributed to the reduction of movement in rebel-controlled settlements, but the day the photograph in Figure 3 was taken, Russian jets were occupied supporting the offensive in the country’s north. Despite the wind blowing from the direction of Syria, it was equally quiet at every place we stopped to observe the cross-border landscape. It was an uncomfortable feeling, as if the Syrian borderlands were completely devoid of human life.

The Golan Heights is located on Israel’s far northeastern periphery. Its rural character is unmistakably evident in the landscape (I doubt that the conditions would be different if it remained under Syrian control, too). On the other hand, the border area with Gaza is anything but silent. Sights and sounds from the Gaza strip, featuring a series of cities with an overall population of more than a million residents, can be easily heard across the tightly controlled and monitored separation zone into Israel. This, in itself, is another surreal experience and one that differs greatly from what one feels when on the borders with Lebanon and Syria.

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Figure 4. View toward Gaza City and the fields cultivated by Palestinian farmers. Despite the ongoing truce between Israel and Hamas, it was not advisable to get too close to the border fence and stop in open field areas, even if geographers (much to the annoyance of the Israel’s military’s surveillance team), and analyze the cultural landscape and take photographs. (Photograph by the author)

The Mediterranean rural tranquility of Metula and the eerie silence coming from Syria were replaced with urban sounds of Thursday afternoon in Gaza. Sounds of separation are different here. Some sort of political-type rally was occurring on the Palestinian side, with loudspeakers strong enough to pierce through the city noise and pass the message across the border. On the Israeli side the military was practicing at the nearby range, perhaps making sure that their own message was noticed by those attending the rally. Or, maybe, it was that their regular schedules collided.

End of part 1…

Sense of Place in a Space of Conflict: Israel (Part 1)
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