donderdag 10 mei 2012

Swimming trunks or flak jacket?

Hello again,

Probably THE most asked question when you tell people you`re going to Israel, has to be: “Isn`t it dangerous to go to Israel? Are you not afraid to go there!?!” There is a general assumption that you shouldn`t go to Israel (or at least, not for very long) if you value your life and that anyone who does just might be a crazy person. Good thing then that most people who participate in archaeology fit that qualification perfectly (more on the virtues of being crazy in this academic discipline will follow at a later date). Therefore, it may be a good idea to take a look at what risks there are in Israel, where they originate from and how big their impact really is on the dear people of Horvat Kur.

The main reason why people regard Israel as unsafe is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The origins of the current conflict lie in the early twentieth century, when Arabs living in Palestine saw the influx of Jewish immigrants under Ottomans and later the British Mandate as a threat to their identity. Skirmishes and riots became quite common, culminating in the 1936-1939 Arab riots. At the beginning and end of the Second World War, there were veritable waves of immigration that – not unsurprisingly – forced tensions to the breaking point again and moved the British to take certain measures. One of the less smart things the Brits did, was promise to meet all demands on both sides.
Israeli troops preparing to go to war with an old enemy: a German MG-34

In the end the newly formed UN was brought in. With a prevalent colonialist approach left over from the pre-war era, an initially well-intended two-state solution was brokered. The Jewish representatives agreed to the terms of this solution, but the Arab representatives refused to accept the terms laid out to them. War soon followed in 1948, when the Palestinians, backed by – among others – Egypt and Jordan went to war with the Israelis.
The results were several thousand killed and the displacement of  about one million Palestinians from former British Mandate territories as well as several hundred-thousand Jewish people from Arab nations. The State of Israel controlled most of the territories except for the West Bank and East Jerusalem region (supervised by Jordan) and the Gaza region to the South (supervised by Egypt). There have been tensions between the Israelis and Palestinians ever since. Nowadays, most countries accept the 1948 “Green line” as the legitimate borders of Israeli territory. All other areas are now considered territories of the Palestinian state.
Despite a rather violent history and an invasion by the IDF in 2008, the Palestinian Territories seem to have been positively affected by the Arab Spring. Recent reports seem to indicate an increasingly positive disposition towards peaceful protest. The areas are still a travel-at-your-own-risk environment as groups like Hamas and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade maintain a strong presence and still oppose the very existence of an Israeli state, but more and more people see it as warmongering and a serious disruption of their daily lives. The last few months have been relatively quiet and in any case, mortars and missiles don`t have the range to reach Galilee. Nevertheless, there are some security measures that one should anticipate when going to Tiberias. Larger stores such as supermarkets may have seniors in high-visibility jackets that can ask you to show the contents of your backpack and private security guards armed with old carbines and flip-flops saunter along the shopping streets at regular intervals. The atmosphere is generally relaxed and easy-going.

The second biggest “threat” in the region is Israel`s rather coarse relationship with its neighbours Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Iran. As noted before, some of these nations sided with the Palestinians during the 1948 war. Although they signed ceasefire agreements with the Israeli`s in 1949, they have for a long time refused to accept the legitimate existence with the state of Israel. Naturally, this is not a solid base for peace and it should have therefore come as no surprise that many wars have follow since. In 1956 the Egyptian president Nasser nationalized the Suez canal in response to abrasive reactions from Great-Britain and France on its pro-Soviet Union policy. An alliance between Great Britain, France and Israel was struck in order to remove Nasser from power and regain control of the Suez canal. For the British and French, eliminating Nasser and regaining control were vital in retaining dominance over their colonies, which were striving for independence. Israel saw an opportunity to weaken a former enemy and gain a more favourable border in the Sinai peninsula, allowing them use of the Strait of Tiran. The war ended a year later with Nasser still in power and the coalition suffering huge political blows. In the end Israel did gain control over the Strait of Tiran, scored a tactical victory and forced itself on the agenda as a nation whose security needs would become of great importance to regional politics.
The second major war was the Six-Day war. This short war was initiated by Israel in 1967 when it began to receive strong reports that Egypt, Jordan (with Iraqi support) and Syria were planning an invasion. These nations had recently signed defence agreements and made aggressive moves monitored by Israeli intelligence. As Israel more or less knew what was coming where, they decided to strike the first blow by bombing Arab air bases. Superior training and tactics allowed the Israelis to quickly beat back the following ground attacks and in five days and a bit, Israel controlled the Gaza, Sinai, East Jerusalem and the West bank as well as the Golan. The Egyptian president Nasser consequently attempted to retake the Sinai peninsula until his death in 1970. This “War of Attrition” consisted mainly of smaller and larger skirmishes and did little to move the Israeli positions and plenty to waste lives of both soldiers and civilians.
Seeing as they had been scorned in 1967, Israel`s neighbours were out for revenge. Syria wanted its Golan back and Egypt still did not have control of the Sinai. Therefore, they launched combined assaults into Israel in 1973, in what is best known as the Yom-Kippur war. The intelligence services were well aware of the preparations being made against them, but the politicians were either not convinced of the threat or wanted to prevent controversy over the usual `first strike` doctrine. Because of the Yom Kippur celebrations, many troops were at home and thus the Arab nations initially made progress against the Israeli defences. Once the Israelis managed to get their act together, they retaliated and drove both far into Syria and Egypt, coming as close as 40km from Damascus and 101km from Cairo. Again, the UN and larger superpowers stepped in to force a peace agreement. Both Israel and Egypt would hold on to their gained territory until the 2nd half of the decade, when various agreements were made culminating in a return of the Sinai peninsula to Egypt in 1979. In trade, the Israeli state got concessions to use the Strait of Tiran. Later, in 1999 a peace agreement was signed with Israel, permitting use of the Suez canal.
Destroyed Syrian T-55s and T-62s litter the Golan during the Yom-Kippur war

Iran is a bit of a different story. It was never in open conflict with Israel itself, but rather has used the plight of the Palestinian people as a leverage to sanction its existence as an Islamic nation. By showing support to fellow Islamic countries, it gains support from them, which it needs since the US was opposed to the Ayatollah governments revolt against the Shah in 1979 and has been ever since. It`s not a matter of personal pride or direct involvement in a war with the State of Israel, but merely a matter of political justification. Nevertheless, Iran has vowed that Israel has no right to exist and that it desires its destruction. This is almost always related to Iran`s nuclear programme. Israel fears that the Iranian nuclear energy programme will eventually be used to build nuclear weapons which can either be used by Iran itself or sold to militant groups who are less concerned with nuclear retaliation. Consequently, the program has been under scrutiny from the UN. So far, IAEA-inspectors have been given access to Iranian nuclear facilities and are optimistic that Iran could not produce weapons grade material in the near future. The flip side of this coin is that Iran does develop advanced military materiel like medium-range missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
Recent relations between Israel and its neighbours have not been heartily, but stable in general. Both Syria and Egypt have serious problems of their own since the start of the Arab spring so even if there were indications that they might want to start a war, they could not sustain enough forces because of the fear of another mass-revolt at home. The only serious threat would be Iran, but Israel is currently just flexing its muscles, showing that it`s not afraid of Iran. Although the international community would likely step in before things spin out of control, if Israel and Iran were to openly declare war onto each other, the digging season for 2012 would be suspended immediately. At any rate, the Kinneret Regional Project directors always keep a close eye on the security situation and will decide to call it off should the region become too dangerous.

Apart from all these “big” dangers, there are some smaller concerns that one should look out for when on excavation. You spend long periods of time in nature and it is a little less docile than what most people in Northern Europe are used to. Some of the things that can be hazardous to your health are vermin like snakes and scorpions, empty cisterns and bush fires.
The most direct problem are snakes and scorpions found on the site. Although they are not deadly to  healthy adults, the toxins of these critters can cause very nasty symptoms. Israel is home to eight species of the viper family and six scorpion species that don`t take kindly to being disturbed. The most notable among the scorpions are the Leiurus quinquestriatus (yellow scorpion) and the Hottentotta judaicus (black Judean scorpion). The former is the most dangerous of the two: its poison is considered lethal to older people, young children and those with health issues. The latter is somewhat less dangerous (although it will incapacitate you for several hours) but the most common one. Both were found on the site last year, but with careful handling and proper precautions, no one was stung. Any other species found in Israel fall in the area between these two in terms of venom potency.
Hottentotta judaicus: the most common hazard in Israel

Standard procedure is to move things like rocks and sandbags before picking them up. After the first days on the site, most of the grass and torn sandbags are cleared out and encountering scorpions becomes much more of a rarity. When a scorpion is encountered, standard procedure is to not touch it, but to shove it onto a dustpan and dump it on the side of the site. As a general rule: don`t piss them off and you won`t end up in a hospital with the feeling that your blood has been replaced with molten lava.
Another direct threat on-site are the various cisterns that dot the landscape. These ancient water collection pits have been mapped and lie off the trodden paths, but getting careless can result in a six meter drop to a rocky floor. Besides the broken bones that will result from such a fall, these old pits are a haven for scorpions and spiders. Watching your step when going to the site is just as important as doing so on-site.
There is another natural threat, but on a much larger physical scale than cisterns and scorpions. It is high summer in the Galilee: vegetation is dry and rain virtually non-existent. Farmers burning garbage, careless barbecuing and tossed cigarette butts can start bushfires that have a devastating effect on the landscape. Consequently, smoking is prohibited on the site and clear instructions are given on what to do when a bushfire is spotted.
Finally, although not very dangerous to humans, I`ll mention the presence of the Canis aureus, or golden jackal. Its presence is ironic, since it is used in the bible to signify desolation and loneliness, living in areas that are abandoned by, or somewhat out of the way of humans.

In conclusion, it is not the small arms and Molotov cocktails that you need to be wary of, but the small critters and embers. The chances of encountering angry men with AK-47s in the Galilee is very small indeed; much smaller than coming across a yellow scorpion. 
Don`t be afraid to encounter this Skorpion,  the others are much worse...

They`re both potentially very dangerous, unless you know how to handle yourself around them. Don`t go around being an idiot and going to Israel is about as safe as going to Amsterdam by train.

Signing off,

The Lost Dutchman

P.S. for those curious about the tumultuous history of the State of Israel, there are various books available: especially on the Six-Day war and the Yom-Kippur war. For more information on snakes and scorpions, check out this link:

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