Short Trips Around Small Countries: Israel

I first visited Israel in 1963, lived here as a student in 1964-6 and again on sabbatical in 1976-7.  I visited many times over the years, since my in-laws were living here since 1985 and my daughter and family since 1991.  My wife and I moved here in 1996 after I retired in the US. I could write reams about Israel. Let me say that Jerusalem is a unique experience and that everyone should visit Jerusalem at least once in their lifetime. As far as I am concerned it is the most amazing city, even more so than Rome or Athens. But, I will try to completely avoid the major cities of Israel, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa, and write about some of the less well-visited places.

Starting in the far north, there is the settlement and nature reserve of Dan, that is the main source of the Jordan river.  The Hula Valley south of Dan is a lush swampy area that was once drained to fight the mosquitoes, but since their eradication (Palestine was the first place in the world to be sprayed in the 1920’s) it was subsequently re-flooded and is the stopping off point for millions of birds making the annual migration from the far north to Africa. This is a premier bird-watching location.

On both sides of the Hula Valley there are mountains, to the east the Golan Heights, and to the west the hills of upper Galilee.  By the way, the name Galilee comes from the Hebrew word for wave, gal, evoking the rolling hills of Galilee.  On the Golan Heights is the impressive Nimrod’s Castle, thought for many years to be a Crusader fortress, but now known to be of Arabic construction.  Also further south in the Golan are the ruins of the biblical city of Gamla, that was mentioned by Josephus in his “Jewish Wars,” describing the capture of Judea by the Romans, in which Gamla was the first Jewish city besieged and put to the sword.  It was constructed of black basalt rock that is found locally on the Golan.

To the west of the Hula is a winding road that leads to the heights above, where there is the fortress of Metzudat Koach (Strong Fortress).  This was one of the many Taggart Fortresses (about 70), named after the architect Charles Tegert, built by the British Occupation force around Palestine during the Mandate (1922-1948), with which they expected to control the country.  This fort was considered impregnable, but was captured by the Jewish forces in 1948 during the War of Independence with the loss of 28 lives.  It is a memorial and historical museum now.

Picturesque route 899 meanders along the Lebanese border thru Sasa to the Mediterranean coast.  On the coast adjacent to the border are the famous sea caves of Rosh Hanikra, that can be reached by a cable car.  Just south is the pleasant seaside resort of Nahariya, where German can still be heard spoken by the founders and their descendants.

Further south along the coast is the major port city of Akko (Acre). This has the huge impressive Crusader fortress that was used by the British as a major prison for the Jewish and Arab rebels.  The famous break-out in 1947 through the adjacent old Turkish bathhouse (Hamam) was shown in the film “Exodus.”  Nearby is the entrance to the underground Crusader city.  The story goes that when Saladin recaptured Acre from the Crusaders, instead of destroying the city they had built, he buried it in sand, thus inadvertently preserving it.  This underground city is definitely worth visiting, including the huge Hall of the Knights and the escape tunnel they built to the port.

South of Haifa is the small town of Atlit.  There is a Roman ruin there, but it can’t be visited because it is the site of the Israeli submarine base.  At the entrance of Atlit is the detention camp that was used by the British to imprison Jews who entered Palestine illegally.  It was so similar to the German concentration camps that it was detested by the Jews, although Jews were not deliberately murdered there. There was a major break-out in 1945 and the camp was abandoned by the British.  It is now a Museum and has a visitor’s center.  Inside there is also one of the ships that was used by the Jewish underground to transport illegal immigrants into Palestine.   One of the best fish restaurants in Israel is the Ben Ezra that is tucked away inside the secluded town.

Further south along the coast is the main seaside resort of Israel, Netanya.  It has magnificent beaches and cliff walks, but no historic remains, being a new city founded in 1929.  But, it has plenty of hotels and restaurants.  One notable incident that occurred there was the kidnapping of two British sergeants in 1947, when the British were pursuing a strongly anti-Jewish policy and had been flogging and executing captured members of the Jewish underground.  Under the orders of Menachem Begin, leader of the Irgun Zvai Leumi (National Armed Organization) the two sergeants were hung in a forest in the eastern side of Netanya and the forest has been preserved and is known as the Horshat Ha’Sargentim (Grove of the Sergeants).

Further south on the coast is the resort of Ashkelon, where there is a national park containing the ruins of the ancient biblical city of Ashkelon, that was a capital of the Philistines.  In the center of the Negev desert is the city of Be’er Sheva, famous in the Bible as the place where Abraham finally settled and dug a well (be’er).  It was the site of the famous 1917 battle, that proved to be the turning point in WWI between the British and Turkish forces (with German officers).  The famous charge of the ANZAC light horsemen is considered to be the last horse charge in history.  They captured Beer Sheva and this opened the way to the capture of Jerusalem by Gen. Allenby’s British Army, the first Allied Victory of WWI.  There is a bust of Allenby in a small park in the Old City, and in 2017 on the centenary of the battle, a museum was opened by the PM’s of Israel and Australia that is a gem to visit, adjacent to the British war cemetery.

I’ll finish this short synopsis of sites to visit in Israel outside the three major tourist cities by describing one of the main geological sites in Israel, the Ramon Crater.  South of Beer Sheva is the town of Mitzpe Ramon (View of Ramon) that sits on the northern edge of this amazing huge crater.  At the edge is a modern luxury hotel called Bereshit (Beginning) and in the town is the Ramon Inn.  The Exhibition Center on the crater edge is a must visit, and there is a movie about the Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon who died in the Columbia space disaster.  The view from the top of the crater is magnificent.