Switzerland-based Peter Martin is an international lawyer with strong New Zealand connections. We asked him to describe his just-concluded tour of the Middle East. Here are our five questions for this recent visitor to the Holy Land:-
1. You have been eyewitness to events in the Middle East. To what extent did you find daily life disrupted by the various emergencies?
In Israel we were principally in the Negev and Judaean deserts to look at Byzantine and other old Christian sites much written about by William Dalrymple in "From the Holy Mountain". We could not visit East Jerusalem or the Occupied Territories but were close. To the extent visible, local daily life not disturbed or disrupted by events in the Gaza area. We saw no armed troops or riot police in the areas we visited.
2. What was the opinion of the locals? Is the problem a generational one, eternal, or did you discover any optimism?
To the extent possible to discover from talking to Israeli friends and their families we detected no optimism at all, only a profound and resigned pessimism. The problem is not generational at all but goes back to the creation of the state of Israel, Balfour, Sykes-Picot, and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after WW1. Optimism is not an Israeli characteristic - they are too experienced to be misled by false prophets. The real anxieties are about Iran and the policies of Bibi Netanyahu who seems much mistrusted not to say reviled.
3. We are presented via the broadcast media with a picture in this region of unremitting poverty contrasted with displays of conspicuous wealth?
We can only speak for what we have seen recently in Israel. There is apparent prosperity BUT the visible signs of great poverty among Arab Israelis and Palestinians are obvious in housing. Still, the markets (pictured) are thriving, the shops full. But the cost of living is very high, higher than here in Switzerland. It is near impossible (as allegedly dangerous) for Israelis and their guests to visit Arab villages or the settlements that cause the tensions.
4. Were you conscious of the tensions between the various sectarian divides?
Yes, but it is more a matter of discussion than observation. However, in areas of Tel Aviv and its environs where Israelis and Palestinians live side by side, they very obviously cohabit peacefully. The overt tensions are in Gaza and East Jerusalem. Barbed wire, check points manned by Palestinians, and concrete walls are to be seen at the entrances to Israeli settlements. But for us these were matters mostly of report rather than frequent observation. The tensions we did observe were between "old" Israelis and the very numerous new Russian immigrants who have arrived in the last few years in great and visible numbers. In the longer term, Israel will become a Russian province.
5. As a long time legal practitioner, did you have the impression in your travels that religious imperatives, laws, transcend those that apply in for example, the Westminster sphere?
No. The great numerical majority of Israelis are secular and non-observant. Particularly the young. This phenomenon is much talked about. The religious Jewish far right exists but is not much visible. Sabbath and religious holiday observance continues throughout Israel but rather in the same way as we in the West take weekends off and enjoy Christmas and Easter holidays. Synagogue visits are becoming rarer as are church visits in the West. "Jewishness" is just not in your face at all.