One of the things that I stunned me on my trip to Israel was just how small and close everything is in the Levant. I think it’s particularly hard to vision for Canadians – we’re so used to having huge, empty spaces.
The whole of Israel and Palestine put together is only half the area of Nova Scotia, one of Canada’s smallest provinces. At it’s narrowest, Israel is only 10km wide. From north to south, the country is just 400km long, not much more than the drive from Ottawa to Toronto – a drive I’ve done just to go shopping.
And yet, Israel has 9 million people, plus another 4 mil in Palestine. And about half of all this territory in uninhabitable desert. You can see it in the crammed housing in the Old City of Jerusalem, in the sky-high property prices in Tel Aviv, and from Israelis who don’t support the settlements into East Jerusalem and the West Bank but live there anyways, since it’s the only affordable housing around Jerusalem.
It’s also why the conflicts are so difficult and intractable, including with neighbouring countries. There is very little room to maneuver. One evening, we went ATVing out into the desert in the West Bank (which was very fun and also very dusty).
We stopped at one point to take in the view. From where we stood, we could simultaneously see the individual towers of Jerusalem, the Palestinian city of Jericho, Jordan’s capital Amman, and the north end of the Dead Sea.
Our trip also brought us up to the Golan Heights. We stayed overnight at a nice little winery kibbutz that happened to be only 3km from the Syrian border. In the morning we went up to a lookout that gave a view into Syria.
We weren’t alone, as two UN officers were also using the lookout. They have a camp right on the Israeli side of the border – likely originally to monitor the ceasefire between Israel and Syria (the vineyards below were the site of tank battles in the Yom Kippur War) but now used to track the horrors of the Syrian Civil War.
We heard from several people that from the start of Syria’s civil war in 2011 to about 2018, you could hear the explosions and fighting in Syria from the kibbutz, and even see puffs of smoke from the lookout down in the valley. It seemed like a shocking contrast between the peaceful mountain resort feel on the Israeli side.
Interestingly, this is also why Israel has been much more restrained in condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine than other western countries. Russia has been supporting the Assad government in Syria and has little desire to see the Syrian Civil War spill over into Israel, which could turn into a much larger war and destabilize the whole region. Right now, Russia also (usually) turns a blind eye to Israeli strikes on Iranian / Hezbollah-linked targets in Syria. So, while Israel is no supporter of the invasion of Ukraine, the home front is taking priority.
A few kilometres away is another lookout, this time into Lebanon, and a different flashpoint. This border is just as heavily armed, and was the site of a much more recent war in 2006 – one between Israel and Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran, but deeply entrenched in Lebanon. While there is a ceasefire, it is no peace, and Lebanon is currently facing serious internal instability that could see things spiral out of control again.
Even with more stable neighbours like Egypt and Jordan, who recognize Israel and have diplomatic relations (unlike Lebanon and Syria), the proximity and conflicts in the region create from very weird international situations.
On the vacation part of my trip, I took a day trip to Petra, in Jordan. Our tour bus picked us up in Tel Aviv at an absolutely unholy hour (2am) so we could be at the Jordanian border by morning. But then, if the country is so small, why was it such a long drive?
We stopped for gas near the Allenby Bridge, a border crossing about 30km from Jerusalem and about an hour’s drive from Tel Aviv. If we crossed there, it likely could have shaved many hours off our drive (and let us sleep in!). But Allenby is meant to be the main crossing for Palestinians into Jordan and until recently, the only way for both Palestinians and Israeli Muslims to go on the Hajj. Non-Muslim Israelis cannot cross at Allenby, and there are limits on visas and entry for foreign tourists.
So, as we were on an Israeli tour bus, we instead drove 250 km south, all the way down to the Red Sea, where there is a border crossing that Israelis and foreign tourists can cross into Jordan normally. We then backtracked back north, just on the Jordanian side, to get to Petra.
It was one more interesting real-life experience of the complexities of the geopolitics here. And as for the long drive, it was totally worth it. Petra is stunning.