Disconnecting from the issues of the day not so simple in Israel

By Robert Sarner, Canadian Jewish News, April 2, 1998

JERUSALEM - Getting away for a weekend in Israel can be a lot harder than in most countries. To really escape from reality here, you must plan carefully or else you'll have your nose rubbed in it.

Recently, my wife and I took our three children up north for a two-day break as it had been months since we last spent a weekend out of the city. As part of our family escape plan, we decided to keep the car radio off to avoid spoiling the three-hour drive with newscasts every 30 minutes. We were on holiday after all and wanted to take our minds off the state of the nation. Fat chance.

In Canada, a drive through the country usually resembles a trip through a nature reserve. Inevitably, once out of the city, the postcard-perfect vistas of countless lakes, fields and forests leave you blissfully divorced from the issues of the day. As one should be when on vacation.

No such luck here. Talk about reality bites! During our recent trip, I couldn't avoid reality. It seemed to be waiting for me everywhere I looked, hitting me with another somber reminder of Israel's geo-political reality.

Leaving our home in Jerusalem, we were excited about spending time again in our favorite part of the country - the Golan Heights. Soon after we departed the capital, we drove past an army checkpoint. Just 24 hours earlier next to this very spot, Arab residents had clashed with Israeli troops during riots triggered by the fatal shooting of three Arab workers by IDF soldiers a few days before.

Minutes later, we passed Ma'ale Adumim, the largest so-called "settlement" in the West Bank. With close to 25,000 residents, this fast-growing community is a full-fledged city by Israeli standards but in Arab eyes, and to much of the world, it symbolizes Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's controversial "expansionist" policies.

Next we passed a peaceful, folkloric scene - the tent camps of Bedouin families. But wait. This is part of the Jahalin tribe, many of whose members have been forcibly evicted in recent months after losing a Supreme Court battle against being relocated to make way for the growth of Ma'ale Adumim. The Court ruled they were living illegally on state land.

We then arrived at the proverbial fork in the road. In this case, it entailed the existential decision of whether to save about 20 minutes by driving through the Palestinian autonomous area of Jericho or to take the longer way via a bypass road. I couldn't recall facing such quandaries last summer when, during a visit to Canada, I drove from Toronto to Muskoka.

The next leg of our trip took us through the Jordan Valley. It would have been more easy-going had we not had to share the highway with psychotic Israeli motorists whose dare-devil driving creates headlines and casualties every day.

Lest we forgot which country we were in, the plethora of bumper stickers plastered on the back of every second car removed any doubt. Stickers espousing every political cause and struggle of the day, from "Peace Now" to "Jewish Hebron Forever," provided yet another glimpse at the unresolved national agenda.

Next, on our right side, a big sign announced "Naharayim - Island of Peace," a small piece of land Israel returned to Jordan as part of the l994 peace treaty. We happened to be driving by one year to the day after a Jordanian soldier opened fire on a group of Israeli schoolgirls visiting the site, killing seven and wounding dozens of others.

By now, our kids were asking impatiently how much longer until we reached Metulla. We had promised them a side-trip there so they could go skating at the Canada Centre, the country's only decent ice rink. Metulla is situated next to the border with Lebanon in an area often the target of Hezbollah Katyusha rocket attacks.

After a good skate, we headed to our destination in the Golan Heights. For me, this is the most tranquil, majestic part of Israel and is where we spent a terrific weekend at Kibbutz Afiq. But wouldn't you know it? One of the main topics of discussion with our friends there was on the future of the Golan Heights, especially in light of current efforts to withdraw Israeli troops from South Lebanon and resume peace negotiations with Syria.

Keeping reality at bay in Israel, even while on holiday, is no simple proposition.

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