Jaffa to Gaza - A Short Cycling Odyssey - Day 1

- by Fred Schlomka - 
Day 1 • 18th May, 2017
Tel Aviv - Zikkim Dunes (Israel)

2.30 am - I slip out of bed and prepare to depart from our urban homestead on the beach. My wife Sunita mumbles something about it being a crazy hour to depart, and goes back to sleep. I am ready in twenty minutes since the bike was loaded the night before. Some coffee in a small thermos and I’m off.

It is still dark but my lights are more than adequate, including the flashing red one above the flag atop the 2-meter (6 feet) pole at the rear of the bike. My front hub dynamo is hooked up to a powerful front beam that illuminates far ahead on the road. Safety first. I am a big believer in strong lights, flags, and very loud air-horns to ward off lazy, sleepy, vicious, or incompetent drivers.

I did no planning for this 2-day trip, vaguely intending to cycle south from Jaffa and hug the coast as much as possible, maybe arriving at the Egyptian border sometime tomorrow evening. We’ll see. My phone is off for at least half of today, so no GPS or paper maps. I am relying on my general knowledge of the area since it’s my home turf. It’s also pretty hard to get lost if you keep the Mediterranean Sea in sight, or at least know where it is.

I begin with a meandering ride from Jaffa through the adjacent towns of Bat Yam and Rishon Letzion. The streets are pretty quiet as I cruise along the Bat Yam waterfront promenade. Several bars, cafes and kiosks are open, and there is a scattering of people both on the streets and in the various establishments.

Bike on the side of the roadOnce in Rishon Letzion I continue down to the beach since there is a paved walkway at the edge of the sand. No people except for a lone cyclist. No dogs either which is a relief. I wasn’t sure whether the local strays are nocturnal or not. Apparently they sleep at night, unlike my last trip to Jordan where the dogs would spy me from afar and, yelping all the way, they would careen across the fields towards my bike hoping for a tasty piece of flesh. In Rishon I hear only the twittering of birds. Still dark.

It was quite a serene ride along the beach, but it ended abruptly at the fencing of an army base. Yes, we have our military on the beach, at the edge of a heavily populated area. And they complain about Hamas embedding their military assets within civilian populations. All armies suck. So I head inland a bit, into Rishon Letzion, trying to find a way back to the beach. I fail. The IDF base is huge. I stumble across their main gate and wave at the sleepy guard whose eyes open wide at the wheeled apparition that appears out of nowhere.

I hit another dead end before circling back to find a way out of town. At this rate I might get to the Egyptian border sometime next week. Finally I find a road leading to route 4, the main north/south highway I’ve been trying to avoid. Oh well there seems to be no choice. It’s a limited access highway and there’s a sign indicating that bicycles and pedestrians are prohibited.

I flag down a passing taxi and ask if there’s an alternate route south. He says not. I point to the no cyclists sign and the taxi driver shrugs in that uniquely Israeli fashion, as if to say, “ Yes well technically it’s prohibited, but no-one really enforces the rule, and anyway who cares”. So I continue onto the highway. It’s still dark yet traffic is increasing, especially the trucks, trying to get ahead of rush hour.

Routs 4 has a decent shoulder, up to 3 meters wide in some spots, so with my lights and flag, I’m reasonable safe. However it’s noisy and dirty, and there’s always a certain tension when a heavily laden truck rumbles past just a meter or two to my left. I look for exits, and finally see a sign for the Ashdod Industrial Zone. Many of the trucks are turning there and so do I. The road leads to the port, but there’s a left turn onto a dilapidated boulevard that looks like it might have once been the main road into the city.

bike on the side of the road - with sunset in the back in south israelDawn is breaking and I take my customary photo of the sun appearing out of the haze.
I pause for breakfast and a bathroom break at a gas station, meticulously locking the bike with two locks, covering it with a nylon cover, and taking with me the pannier bag containing my laptop and other valuables. One can never be too persnickety about personal security on the road, especially in a country like Israel where stealing bicycles seems to have become a national sport.

Back on the boulevard, there’s now a rundown brick sidewalk so I cycle there instead of the road, passing block after block of dreary-looking 1950s and 60s industrial-looking apartment buildings, remnants of the era of mass immigration from other Middle Eastern countries.

Finally these give way to a redeveloped neighbourhood of newer buildings, parks, and even a new cycling path for a while. I pass other cyclists and pedestrians on their way to work. No-one is smiling. Some scowl at me. Who knows why. I wish everyone a good morning and get no response except from one fellow on an electric folder. Tired of this, I start to look for a way out of Ashdod, thinking that I need to head south a bit faster, rather than fulfil my original mission of hugging the coast.

I find a way back to route 4 and continue south, passing Nitzan, which hosts a museum commemorating Gaza settlements which were evacuated. Many former residents of the Gush Katif settlement bloc in Gaza moved to Nitzan after their evacuation by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Their trauma over the destruction of their lifes’ work is now being inherited by the next generation.

This gets me thinking about the string of Palestinian Arab villages that used to dot the countryside along the route I was travelling. In 1948 a huge number of people were herded south across the Egyptian lines to become refugees. Villages such as Al-Nabi Rubin, Yibna, Isdud, Hamama, and dozens more - no longer exist. Perhaps like Combatants for Peace which brings fighters from both sides together, one day the Jewish refugees from Gaza might make common cause with the Arab refugees from former Palestinian villages. Yes, yes. I know. But I can still dream. If we lose the ability to dream what now seems impossible, then we lose a part of what makes us human.

I continue cycling, lost in thought. Lost in my dreams. Damn them all. Israelis and Palestinians. Where are the dreamers? Where are the leaders of vision that we can all follow, Jew and Arab alike. Instead we have returned to combining the ugliness of narrow nationalism with archaic and oppressive religious practice. The leaders in power today only espouse ideologies that are dragging us all into the pits of disaster. May the Gods help us.

OK. Enough ranting. Ashkelon approaches. This is another Israeli port city, an important one. A huge amount of the country’s imports enter here. It’s also a favourite port for cruise ships - the closest port to Jerusalem.

I pull into a shopping mall. My bum is starting to feel the unaccustomed activity. It’s been a while since I did any long distance cycling. My phone has been turned off but it feels like about 10am. Not. It’s only 8.45. Not bad. With my zig zagging through various towns, I’ve covered about 50 kilometers (about 30 miles) since 3am. Time for a nice break. I find an ‘Aroma Cafe’, the Israeli version of Starbucks, and settle in for a mint tea and a writing session. I also charge my phone and laptop. It seems so weird not to automatically check my email, WhatsApp, and FaceBook - which I usually do at least once an hour during my 14 or 16-hour work day. I am determined to get past noon before checking my digital life. It’s a busy period with work, but my phone is forwarded to Sunita who is more than capable of taking care of any work-related crisis or emergency. Anything else can wait until I emerge from my digital silence.

I’ve been sitting for 90 minutes. Time to get back on the road. I tire of route 4 pretty quick. Luckily there’s an exit for Ashkelon in a few kilometers so I take the turn and immediately spy as sign with an arrow that looks good “to the Beach”. The exit off the highway quickly becomes a broad modern boulevard with a nice bike lane along one side. However it’s a bit of a distance to the sea and my energy is starting to flag. I’ve been more than 6 hours on the road. Finally I see the sea, and the boulevard turns downhill with playful fountains in the center strip. My anticipation was thwarted though, because the road dead ended at a private beach that I believe required is restricted to local residents. However the nice guard gave me some directions through the city, and informed me that it was not necessary to go back to the highway in order to arrive at Kibbutz Zikkim. On my way off the beach area I notice a sign instructing people what to do in the event of a tsunami. That’s a new thought for me. I guess the occasional earthquake in the Mediterranean can trigger a giant wave. Watch out!!

So I bike back up the hill and take a right at the second roundabout as instructed. The road ended at a national park that required 28 shekels to enter. I pass. Then I go back and take the third roundabout and meander through Ashkelon in the general direction of south. I’m getting hungry but decide to press on. None of the local restaurants look like a good place for a vegan. I pause at a little park where a dozen elderly gentlemen were playing several games of cards. Three of them give three different answers to my request for directions.

It’s after 12 so I turn on the phone and the GPS shows me the way - only 6.4 kilometers. Yipee. I press on and find myself on a neglected back road leading out of the city that looks like it may have been the original north/south highway a few decade ago. The landscape is an odd mix of sand dunes, industrial estates and what I thought was an army base turns out to be the outer security fence of the Ashkelon power station which supplies a good chunk of the electricity to this part of the country. I believe it still burns coal.

Then over a final rise I see the water again. The kibbutz is on my left, but the sea beckons ahead. What to do. I decide to follow the signs to ‘Zikkim Dunes’ and it proved the correct choice. No kibbutz for me tonight. The beach is relatively pristine, albeit within the power station just a kilometer to the north, and the Gaza Wall about 500 meters to the south. Since it’s mid-week, there’s just a couple of dozen people scattered around. Unfortunately a small group of young men are playing Mizrachi pop on an enormous speaker, so I head over to the bamboo kiosk-cafe and order a lunch of hummus, small salad, and chips, which together with a large bottle of water, cost 75 shekels. A minor ripoff but the food takes the edge off my hunger. It’s now 1pm. I’ve been on the roads for 10 hours and with all the exploration of the various towns and cities, I guestimate my biking distance at about 80 kilometers.

The wind is high and the fine sand gets into everything. I decide not to use the laptop since the sand will no doubt find its way into the innards of the machine.

Fred with avi & his daughter selfieI meet Avi. He makes a beeline for my bike and was in awe of the machine and me. He and his daughter are camping on the beach and I am invited to join them. Good plan. Aviv seems like a stand up guy, and some of the young men around look like ne’er-do-wells. Safety in numbers. We carry my panniers over to their camp site, then carry the bike. Bicycles don’t do well in sand. After I put up the tent, I am offered refreshment, and we chat about family, politics and the state of the world. Then we stroll together down the beach to the barbed wire border and get yelled at by soldiers for getting too close.

beach as seen from the tent in AshkelonAfter impressing my new friends by cooking a fine dinner over my woodburning camp stove, I crawl into the tent at about 9pm for a well earned sleep - or so I thought. The group of young men near the tent swells in number and the music gets louder, and louder. Someone brings a generator and an even bigger sound system is hooked up. The beer flows. The music and voices get even louder. It’s a party. Not much sleep on this night.

For the 2nd Day >>>


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Jaffa to Gaza - A Short Cycling Odyssey - Day 2

- by Fred Schlomka - DAY 2 • 19th May, 2017
Zikkim Dunes - Gaza Border area - Sderot - Tel Aviv (Israel)

About 2am, after fitfully dozing off and on for a few hours, I finally have had enough of the nearby beach party. The Mizrachi pop music is blasting away with no end in sight. Avi is also up and we agree it’s time to go. Twenty minutes later we are packed and say our goodbyes, resolving to stay in touch. The ride back up the hill is pleasant with a quarter moon lighting the way. However I add my extra camping light to the front of the bike since people are driving to and fro from the beach party and some of them have likely had too much to drink. After circling around the perimeter of Kibbutz Zikkim, I take route 4 south to Erez Crossing, the only checkpoint where people with special permits may go in or out of Gaza.

Not many permits are issued these days. No tourists of course, but journalists or foreigners with accreditation to NGOs, or government agencies may apply for a permit to enter. A handful of Palestinians get permits for medical reasons but often the Israeli security services will pressure them to become an informant in order to approve a permit. Just another aspect of our intractable problems.

It’s a bit eerie as I cycle slowly into the security zone approaching the checkpoint. On both sides are concrete walls, coils of barbed wire, bunkers and guard towers. It’s like a fortress. The border is closed of course since it’s just 4am. I can feel the eyes on me from the towers, and the snipers taking a bead. With both hands visible, I don’t stop or make sudden moves but just cycle slowly into the car park next to the main gate, circle around it and start to exit. Then I hear a disembodied voice from a nearby concrete bunker. “Ma Coray?” (“what’s up?”) says the voice? I peer through the dark opening and make out three silhouettes inside, likely with guns at the ready. “Just taking a look around” I say cheerily in English. “OK” comes back at me with a dubious tone. Since I was not ordered to stop, I keep cycling slowly out of the checkpoint zone. After a few hundred meters I hear a vehicle coming up behind me. Oops, I guess they want a chat, so I stop. But no, it’s not a military vehicle and just keeps going. I go back to route 4 heading south.

yummy fresh granolaSince I did not make coffee before breaking camp I pause at a closed gas station and avail myself of their picnic table and fire up the stove. Dawn is breaking. The birds are twittering and the coffee tastes good. It’s still a bit early but I decide breakfast is in order, so I cut up some fruit and have it with granola and fresh OJ, yummy.

I get back on the road and after about 15 kilometers I take the turn off to Kibbutz Nir Am and go west in the general direction of Gaza. I have already decided to set aside my original goal of going far south, and focus instead on exploring the many secondary roads to the west and south of Sderot, between Route 4 and the Gaza border. I arrive at the kibbutz gate and see another road veering off and following the outside of their perimeter fence. It looks promising since it continues west towards Gaza. The hilly countryside is a bit scrubby, except inside the kibbutz fence where intensive cultivation and irrigation has coaxed the sandy soil to life.

Shortly I arrive at the Nir Am reservoir with the Gaza fence just beyond. In the distance is the medium-rise buildings of Gaza City, and the sea beyond. I hear gunshots, small arms from the sound of it. However from the cadence of the shots, it sounds like someone is having target practice. I mount up and go in the general direction, ready to take to the ground should the gunshots prove to be hostile. I am less than one kilometer from the Gaza border. As I get closer to the sound, I see a compound with a cluster of small buildings and groups of people standing around. They are not soldiers or policemen but everyone is wearing a pistol. There are no signs. I enter a gate and ask someone what the place is - A shooting range. Makes sense. The group assembled is taking the required course before being issued with their pistol permit. I act like a foreign tourist and am asked if I was to shoot. I decline.

Further up the hill is a tall tower with soldiers. There is a large sign. NO ENTRY. The Gaza border fence is just a few hundred meters further on, but I turn around and take another small road snaking around the hills, paralleling the border. Off to the right I spy what seems like a monument with a managed wooded area next to it, picnic tables and all. I investigate. It’s the ‘Black Arrow’ memorial site. Wow! This site commemorates one of the most famous and, to some, notorious, commando units of the Israeli military, the IDF. For many Israelis, the Legendary Warriors of Unit 101, founded and led by Ariel Sharon in the 1950s, are true national heroes. To others they were state sponsored terrorists of the murdered women and children of Qibya and other Palestinian villages.

Unit 101 & Paratroop Battalion 890 memorialIn 1953, ‘Operation Shoshana’ in the Palestinian village of Qibya resulted in over 69 dead people, two-thirds of them women and children. The action was a combined operation of Unit 101 and Paratroop Battalion 890, and was one of the few times that the USA suspended economic aid to Israel.
The memorial I am standing in front of commemorates the deaths of men from these units during their many ‘reprisal’ raids in retaliation for not only incursions and terror attacks by Palestinians, but also to ‘discourage’ refugees from 1948 from ‘sneaking’ back into Israel to farm their confiscated land.
In my view this memorial, while perhaps appropriately acknowledging the human tragedy of the deaths, is no different than similar Palestinian memorials to their fighters that Israel regards as terrorists. All of them senseless deaths. Senseless violence. Senseless nationalism. It all makes me sick.

I move on.

It’s now late morning and the day is proceeding slower than yesterday due to just a couple of hours sleep in 20-minute snippets. My energy, not surprisingly, is not there. I start to circle back around to the main road, and head off to Sderot, the town that has been at the forefront of small rocket attacks from extreme elements in Gaza. Few have been hurt by these home made arms, but they serve to keep the population on edge.

fred's bike on the israel railway trainOn the way into Sderot I visit the railway station and discover that i am indeed able to take my bike on the train. I buy a ticket (24 shekels, about $7) and plan to take the
2.50pm train. Then I head to a coffee shop for a work session. Green Olive has a large number of ongoing tours this week, and cycling or not, I still have a business to run. That’s why I set it up over the past few years as a digital company. No paper. No office. Everything in the ‘cloud’. With 9 Working Partners and 4 employees spread over three countries, my phones and laptop are enough to keep things humming along no matter where I am - so long as I have mobile data service or an internet connection, which is almost everywhere these days. Over the past year I’ve managed to run the business while on cycling trips in Ethiopia, Jordan, Shetland, and of course Palestine and Israel. This summer i’ll be cruising in the USA to visit my grandson and cycle some remote areas of Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Colorado. Let me know if you want to connect.

After a nice vegan lunch at the coffee shop, I head back to the station for the train to Jaffa. There’s actually a train station at Holon/Wolfson, which is a 10-minute ride from my house. Security at the station is a bit cumbersome, since they have an airport-style scanner so I have to unload all the panniers off the bike, then reload the bike after security. There’s some debate about my rather large Swiss army knife, and it is only returned to me after the security guard gets approval by phone from a superior. It’s obvious that I have been camping and am not a ‘bad guy’. Then down one elevator and up the other side to the platform.

The train arrives and a railway attendant helps me make quick work of hoisting the bike aboard, bags and all. There’a a ramp to a lower deck, and after some discussion with people regarding the appropriate location for the bike, I settle in for the 90-minute ride.

The only serious mishap happened while getting off the train. I asked a fellow to hold the rear end of the bike while I navigated it down the two steps to the platform. Instead of holding the weight, he pushed the heavy bike and it collapsed on the platform half on top of me, skinning one knee and bashing the other one. Then my helper stepped around me with out a word, and strode off down the platform. What amazing is that not one person out of the dozen or so getting off the train, offered to help. All of them just stepped around me and disappeared. So I picked myself up, and the bike - a bit less sure of any compassion in Israeli society. I would have expected such behavior in a large US city, but traditionally in Israel people help out strangers in distress. Not any more it seems. Sad.

So I cycle home, happy to see my family, veggie garden, and animals. Today was only about 35 kilometers of cycling, about 125 km over the two days, but I am satisfied with the much needed 2-day break.


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The Walled Off Hotel - Bethlehem

the walled off hotel

- by Mutasem -

Banksy has been involved in Palestine for more than 11 years now. He was one of the first artists to bring street art to the region. Banksy's works of political and social commentary have been featured on different places including streets, walls, and bridges of cities throughout the world.

Banksy’s Dark humor with Graffiti work reached its top when his latest artwork made a huge fuss in the media presenting the opening of The Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem, adding a huge step to the amount of Banksy's involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and taking it to another level. The Hotel’s name is a play on the Waldorf hotel chain.  

Not being limited only to street art, this time Banksy took this art and put it in a unique hotel promising it’s residents - as Banksy described it - the worst view ever from a hotel room. The hotel is only is four metres from the wall, from the rooms you could see Banksy art on the 708 km long wall, with 62 percent of it already built, isolating and annexing great parts of the West Bank, including Bethlehem.

Sofa inside the hotel
The 10 room hotel, built in the style of a colonial club, completed with high end leather sofas from china, range from US$30 for a bunk bed in one room to US$965 a night for the presidential suite. All rooms look out onto the wall and its upper floor stands eye-to-eye with an Israeli watchtower that overlooks parts of Bethlehem.  Many people were surprised when The hotel opened it’s doors, including Palestinian officials since it was built in complete secrecy over a 14-month period.

Elton John played the piano on the opening day of the hotel, saying “it's an honor for me to play in Palestine”.

So whether you are planning to tour Bethlehem, visit the church of the nativity or see Banksy’s art on the separation wall, a visit isn’t complete without being at The Walled Off Hotel.

Green Olive Tours conducts a daily special tour from the hotel which is offered to everyone who books a room. The Bansky 'East/West Jerusalem Tour is modeled on Green Olive's famous 'Greater Jerusalem Tour'. Contact the hotel for details.

Green Olive also conducts a Banksy Tour from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem that visits the hotel and Wall.


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