March 27th, 2017
On the third day of the seminar, the reality of the region caught up with the study group. The original helicopter flight to the Golan Heights, where participants were supposed to hear about Israel’s security challenges at the Northern border, had to be cancelled due to these very security challenges. A missile from Syria had been shot down by Israel’s anti-missile Arrow system just the day before. Instead, the group took the chopper to an observation point very close to the Gaza border, where Hamas poses its own security threats to border communities and beyond. Hamas, the terror group ruling Gaza, has acquired missiles that can reach even Tel Aviv. Ambassadors were shocked to learn that residents near Gaza had only a few seconds after a missile alarm to find shelter.
From there, the group took the helicopter to Jerusalem, giving the Ambassadors a spectacular birds’ eye-view of the Holy Basin. Along the Via Dolorosa, passing several of the Stations of the Cross, the diplomats, many visibly emotional to see these sites for the every first time, then entered the Western Wall Plaza.
From there, they headed up to the Temple Mount, where they admired the magnificent Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque, albeit from the outside only, as non-Muslims are not allowed to enter these sites.
The next religious and emotional highlight was the visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Having earlier only seen the Western Wall from a distance, the diplomats could not wait to return to say their own personal prayers at the Wall.
Having thus visited the holiest sites in Judaism and Christianity and one of the holiest sites in Islam, the stage was set for a geopolitical tour of the Old City. Here, Ambassadors heard about the careful equilibrium Israeli authorities balance to guarantee religious freedom and access to religious sites and maintaining the intricate system of religious oversight the various communities enjoy.
A visit to the Jerusalem Archaeological Park rounded up the day. Here, Israeli archaeologists strive to present the entire history of the city: from the recently excavated palace from the early Arab conquest of the city which is centrally displayed near the entrance of the park (with signs in the official languages of Israel - Hebrew and Arabic), to the exciting findings from the Second Temple period, with Hebrew carvings in stones that are more than 2,000 years old.
“Everybody should come to Israel and see for themselves,” one diplomat summed it up. “Everybody has an opinion about Israel, but they need to come here and see for themselves how these opinions are often wrong,” he added.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Project Interchange.