I'm so tired I can hardly type, so we'll see how far I get with this. Today was spent travelling through northern Israel in a huge American nine seater 4x4. We set off from Tel Aviv just after 8am. The traffic congestion heading out of the city was New York-esque in proportion. We ended up making a detour to avoid a huge traffic jam not far from Nazareth, as we made our way up to the Golan Heights. The further north you head, the more spectacular the scenery becomes. We headed for a Kibbutz just over the fence from the South Lebanon border village of Addaisseh. If you look on the map (click to enlarge) it's right at the northern tip of Israel. Looking over into Lebanon I felt in a timewarp, as I remembered the first time I had been to the East/West German border 31 years ago. As our guide told us all about the history of the area, we suddenly heard distant gunfire. We were told it could be cross border gunfire or it might be a wedding. A few minutes later there was a huge bang not that far away. Our guide told of a cross border attack by Hizbollah terrorists who, one night, attacked the Kibbutz and kidnapped several children. A three month baby was shot in the head. The baby's twin brother is now a friend of our guide. It was from Addaisseh that many of the rockets were launched in 2006, which did so much damage to Israel.
From there we travelled across to the Syrian border (pic). The Golan Heights were annexed by Israel in 1967 and have remained a bone of contention ever since. There are very few settlements in the area as there is great uncertainty over its future. Rabin was apparently ready to hand the Heights back to Syria as part of a wider middle eastern peace deal, but he didn't live to take it further. Looking down over the border, there are many villages and towns visible in the valley below. Again, memories of East Germany came back to me.
From there we travelled south to the Sea of Galilee. It was this part of the day that told me what the expression 'Holy Land' means. All of us were truly humbled by what we saw and experienced this afternoon. We visited three holy sites, which figure prominently in the Bible - all of which were within a stone's throw of each other on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. First on the agenda was the site of the feeding of the five thousand - then to the point where Jesus is said to have walked on water and finally - and most memorably for all of us, the Mount of Beatitudes, where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount. On the site of the feeding of the five thousand it almost appeared to us that there were five thousand German tourists there expecting a reprise.
We all know these stories from the bible, and I suppose I have always considered each of them a work of fiction. But when you actually stand on the very ground that Jesus was said to have stood on, it makes you reevaluate some very long held views. I have to say, though, that bearing in mind its historical significance, the Mount of Beatitudes is a rubbish dump. Literally. Look at the picture (right) of our guide, as he read from the Sermon on the Mount and you will see rubbish by his feet. It's astonishing that the Israeli government doesn't seem to worry about the upkeep of many of its historical gems.
This evening we went out for a meal on the beachfront in Tel Aviv. It was in a restaurant not far from Mike's Bar, which was the bar bombed by two Britons not long ago. Perhaps I should not have been hugely surprised to be security swept as I walked into the restaurant. But I was.
Tomorrow, the more political parts of our trip get underway. We're meeting the British Ambassador to Israel for breakfast, then going to Tel Aviv university for briefings on the peace process and counter terrorism policy. On Wednesday we are spending the day in Jerusalem, including a tour of the Holocaust museum and a meeting with the Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister who is a Druse member of the Knesset. Then on Thursday we're travelling to the West Bank to meet the Chief Negotiator for the Palestinian Authority Saeb Erekat.
It really is true to say that the only way of properly understanding the problems of the Middle East is to visit it and hear first hand from those at the sharp end. We're not just hearing the Israeli side, we're meeting with Druse and Palestinian representatives too. It's a real education and a privilege.