430 meters below Sea Level – Visiting the Dead Sea

Everybody knows that the mountain Everest is the highest point on the face of the Earth, and it is definitely on my to do list. But before I save $30K for the group climbing excursion, I decided first to pay a visit to the lowest point on Earth – the Dead Sea.

It is located right in middle of the Middle East and is officially is shared by Palestine, Israel and Jordan. However after taking the Highway 90 from Tel Aviv down to this area and passing by what (according to the map) should be the Palestinian part of this lake, it seemed like it is completely under Israel’s  control. Well, but we’ve already known that Israel is not particularly good in sticking with the border lines

So, we rented a car in Tel Aviv and after less than 2 hours we were crossing by the dessert mountains and palm trees forests. It was midday of Saturday, so the road was empty with only few cars passing by.

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One thing that impressed me about this wonder is the perfect, mirror-like reflection of the Dead Sea. Here is the closer look to it:

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If you look deep enough, you can see the Jordan mountains thought the clouds

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No, he is not lying on the bottom of the sea here. He is floating!

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A piece of salt from the beach

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We spent a night in Ein Bokek, not a town, rather a hotel strip. Do I recommend it? No, not really, hotels here are very expensive and quite old. Also, almost no eating out/going out options available. But again it was the beginning of January.

In the morning, we gave a lift to a couple of hitchhikers, who spent a night on the beach and woke with mosquito bites on their faces (not sure if they slept at all). So, don’t do it either!

Around the Dead Sea

So, the Dead Sea can be fun for some time, but as it is not recommended spending more than 15 minutes in its salty waters, you might get bored quite quickly. But there are a few other things you can do around here.

Masada

A very special site for many Israelis and Jews. Masada is remainings of an ancient town, situated  on the top of the rock. A heroic legend of Siege of Masada attacks locals to visit this place,  for others it is a chance to look over the Dead Sea and the Judean desert from 400 meters up:

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You can hike up or take a cable car

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Ein Gedi hikes:

Ein Gedi is described as an oasis in the dessert and offers a number of hiking routes situated across the shore of the Dead Sea. We stopped at Wadi David and did an hour long hike to the David’s waterfall and back.

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One of the smaller waterfalls on this hike
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David’s falls

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We made friends with these little guys…
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and stayed way from him

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Ein Gedi kibbutz & Botanical garden

The local kibbutz (commune) is situated on the hill overlooking the Dead Sea and mountains. The community here runs a hotel and a famous Botanical garden (in the middle of the dessert!) with plans from all over the world.

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Looks like a house on a tropical island…

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and then and here it was a time leave back to Tel Aviv.

At the end of this blog I would like to share a few tips, should you be interested in visiting Palestine. This trip was too short for us to do so, but here is what I learned from my research:

Jericho (the city of Palms) – if you are in the Dead Sea area do not miss out on this town in West Bank. Believed to be one of the oldest villages in the world offers plenty of archaeological and Biblical attractions.

The Dead Sea area is quite badly reachable by the public transport, so to travel around here you will need to rent a car (or hitchhike). But with a car rented in Israel you will not be able to visit West Bank. Here is one of the alternatives for you to rent in Jerusalem.

Note to myself: next time I am around the Dead Sea I want to stay here.

A day in Hebron, West Bank

A trip to this Palestinian city was not in our initial itinerary but the description of the Hebron Dual Narrative Tour sounded too good to be missed! The tour offered a day trip to Hebron, the biggest city in the West Bank and Palestine’s largest commercial hub. However, it is not the shoe industry that is making this city a hot topic in world news, but rather the stabbing incidents and expanding Jewish settlements (which are internationally viewed as illegally based.) The tour offered an opportunity to spend half a day with a Palestinian guide to hear more about what is like to live in this Palestinian city heavily controlled by Israeli military forces. Then, the other half of the day is spent with a Jewish guide listening to the other side of the story, meeting the spokeswoman of the settlers community and seeing first hand the life from the settlers’ point of view.

You see, Hebron is split into two sectors: H1 is controlled by the Palestinian Authority and H2 is controlled by Israel. Around 120,000 Palestinians live in H1, while around 30,000 Palestinians along with around 700 Israelis remain under Israeli military control in H2 (numbers according to Wikipedia). The Palestinian population in H2 has been gradually declining.

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The story of the occupied Hebron

Shortly after arriving to Hebron (which is rather easy by using public transportation and without any passport control), our Palestinian guide Mohammed met us on the steps of the most important city monument: Sanctuary of Abraham or the Ibrahimi Mosque (known as Cave of the Patriarchs to the Jewish counterparts). It is a place where (citing fellow blogger Rick Steve) Muslims and Jews are sharing Abraham. Mohammed took us inside to tell us more about the site’s historical and religious importance to both parties. He spoke about the Ibrahimi Mosque massacre of 1994 and how these events changed Hebron affecting the lives of all Palestinians living there.

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Sanctuary of Abraham or the Ibrahimi Mosque
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The entrance to the Mosque

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Abraham’s tomb shared by Muslims and Jews, but Muslims and Jews have a bulletproof glass to separate them.

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After the visit, we sat down with Mohammed for an open conversation about the future of Palestine and what it is like for Palestinians to live in Hebron. The main message Mohammed wanted to convey was a call to end the discriminatory restrictions posed on Palestinians living in Hebron. He spoke about the political aspects of the conflict over Palestine and how both the Israeli government and Palestinian National Authority are failing the Palestinians. The solution he saw for the conflict was a one, secular state with equality for all – Israelis and Palestinians.

Also, Mohammed walked us through what is left from Hebron’s Old Market, once a cultural city center, now it is a single street of vendors with hardly any customers. Walking through it, it really felt like our group of 15 were the only people passing by. As far as the rest of the area previously part of the Old Market is now called ‘the Ghost Town’. It is completely inaccessible to Palestinians, we were able to visit it together with the Israeli tour guide.

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One of the many checkpoints dividing the city’s heart
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End of the market – First glimpse to the settlements
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Net separating the market from the settlers or from anything that can be thrown down

After the tour of the market and quick shopping from the locals, we were invited to taste the local cuisine prepared by Mohammed’s family.

Here we said our goodbyes to Mohammed and joined Eliyahu McLean for a tour of …

Liberated Judea and Samaria

Now Eliyahu had his chance to tell the story of Jews living in Hebron for his plea in what he called ‘to show who is the bigger victim’ in this conflict. We visited the Jewish side of the Cave of the Patriarchs. He told us about the local settlers interpretation of the Ibrahimi Mosque massacre.

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He took us deep into the ghost town, the area only opened to Israelis, tourists, international Observers from TIPH – basically everyone, except Arabs. He spoke about the everyday challenges that local Jews face while living in Hebron – the land, as they believe, that has been promised to them by God. Then, he took us to the Jewish Heritage Museum in Hebron and explained the history of Jews and Muslims living in this city peacefully together, the sad consequences of  the 1929 Hebron massacre, and the story as to how the first settlement started in Hebron (again, settlements are illegal according to international law.)

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It does feel very empty in here…

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As we sat down with the spokeswoman of the Hebron’s Jewish community, she spoke about what is like to live in Hebron and how her family was affected by the local violence. She shared her vision for Hebron as the city where everybody lives peacefully together while obeying to Israeli law. After experiencing a lot of personal pain, she was not ready to look for compromises with the Arabs. She had her trust in God to find the solution…

Next, Eliyahu took us for a walking tour around H2 giving us more details on the life of the settlers. He made sure to mention all incidents (stabbings) that happened in the area justifying the huge presence of IDF in the area.

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This visit has no conclusions. There are no winners in the city of Hebron. Religion is a curious thing and very dangerous when it’s fundamental.

One thing I suggest – visit Palestine! It is easy and very accessible, people are friendly and they want their story to be heard.