A fighter jet booms past as I gaze out over the Dead Sea resort we are staying in at the end of an epic social, political and religious tour of Israel/Palestine. We have had an access all areas pass to ambassadors, settlers, humanitarians, monuments, archeological digs, freedom fighters, disputed/occupied territories and border controls, led by a guide who once took Liam Fox to the border when his car missed a mortar attack by a mere 5 seconds. The itinerary has been comprehensive and demanding, with trips often leaving hotels at 6:30am and the programme before lunch each day including what many tours do over 4 days…
As a group we are beginning to ask how to make sense of the tour, owning, but not hiding behind, the clear truth that the situation here is more complex than can be easily fathomed. You can stand near a mountain top where Abraham was promised that all his eyes could see would be his and his descendants forever, and note that it is a) the site of an Israeli Airforce defence outpost, and b) in the Judean/Samarian territory known to the world as the West Bank, much of which is under the control of the Palestinian Authority and large regions of which Jews are not permitted to go in.
You can see Banksy graffiti on walls at the entry points to the West Bank, (including notably Bethlehem) and rubbish strewn around underneath them, but journey less than a kilometre into the Palestian Authority you can find new build apartments, and, at one site, an entire eco-city under construction, built to the highest specifications.
You can see the desert cultivated, due to water de-salinisation technology on this development trajectory could transform not just Israel but many of the planet’s most needy nations as well, and yet you can see the ecological disaster of the Dead Sea, which has lost 40% of its water since 1930, a loss accelerated by Israel diverting huge volumes of water to Jordan as part of the peace settlement of the 1960s.
You can see what looks like youth groups carrying automatic weapons even when in mufti, but also hear fresh statements from Iran demanding the full annihilation of Israel, pushing back the nation from the Jordan to the Sea.
You can see religious sites built on religious sites. You can hear Orthodox Israeli’s stating that the LORD God – YHWH – has allowed the construction of the Islamic Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount, where the holy of holies once stood, to save it from being desecrated as a tourist site.
You can receive incredible hospitality from Christian, Muslim and Jewish groups. You can hear how the Aramaic church once dominated in the region and even now has preserved the language of Jesus, and hear the Lord’s prayer prayed in the tongue he would have first spoken it in. You can have Shabbat with a Jewish family and see the deep benefits of a rhythm of life, and family liturgy, for wholeness and peace of mind.
You can sail on the Galilee and walk around the hills and olive groves where Jesus spent most of his time. You can see why Capernaum was such a centre of trade and commerce, and imagine the Nazarite keeping a carpentry workshop in that town, and helping fishermen repair their boats.
You can eat the fruit of ancient and modern fishing and farming techniques. You can see state of the art eco-farming and marvel at how the old ways are preserved down the centuries.
You can enter into Jerusalem and not know when you have crossed from Israel into Palestinian territory and vice versa. You can see miles and miles of barbed wire fencing in the countryside. You can hear of the rapid reduction of terror attacks this has led to whilst wondering how much terror it may be laying up for the grandchildren of current policy makers.
You can marvel at the extraordinary resilience of the Jewish people down the ages, while visiting the holocaust museum, and imagine what it must have been like to be turned away from Israel by the shipload by British Mandate forces, straight after somehow surviving the war – only to make your way back again when no-one else wanted to take you in after the State of Israel was recognised by the UN.
You can sympathise deeply with Palestinians in the Palestinian Authority area who want to get out, and yet hear from Palestinians living in the State of Israel who would hate to lose their Israeli identity and become a Palestinian in a ‘two-state’ solution.
You can travel down to Gaza and realise that Palestine is split in two in more ways that geography, with Gaza dominated by the extremist organistation Hamas despised by the leaders in the West Bank. You can imagine how 1.5 million people living in a tiny strip of land will lead to further radicalisation. You can hear how the biggest call for reform in Gaza within the Israeli government comes from members of the armed forces, aware that they are sitting on a powder keg.
You can meet secular and religious jews with agendas as different as Corbyn/Rees Mogg back home. Palestinians who want their own homeland, or a one state solution. On the ground you can hear a distrust of politicians of all backgrounds and nationalities.
You can walk through Jerusalem late on a weekend night and feel safer than in any city in the UK. You can find the most ancient of pilgrim sites and the most modern of technologies.
You can get ‘Jerusalem Fever’ and have to be rescued by your national embassy from your own excessive fervency. You can meet the risen Christ in a garden tomb, or a hill side church. You can find rest for your soul.
You can see how geography has shaped history, and with imagination realise that it is demography that has had even more impact in recent years. This is a tiny nation with a population 20x greater than it was 100 years ago, and birthrates in the poorest of areas showing little sign of slowing.
And yet, 70 years after WWII, the Jewish population levels worldwide have still not recovered to pre-1939 levels. This was a nation born out of consciousness that 1.5 million of her children (under 18s) had been annihilated, and that there were plenty of people who would ideologically want to kill them again.
In 2019 Israel is preparing to fight a war on 3 fronts (not all against nations, but – less equally and possibly problematically – with state sponsored terror groups) – Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iranians through Syria. At the same time Israelis are developing technology that could transform the world – even refilling the Dead Sea.
Will it be Armageddon or progress and peace? Will the truth lie at the extremes or somewhere in the middle? Will it be the story of the grandparents that dominates the future, or the longings of the grandchildren? And if it is a Promised Land do you trust God to outwork his promise, or try to do his work for him?