Bahai News - Escape: Israel: Galilee's sea of calm in Israel's...

Escape: Israel: Galilee's sea of calm in Israel's troubles: Jerusalem is tense but there is a safer alternative, writes Jonathan Cook

The Foreign Office has been blowing hot and cold in its advice on Israel. A few weeks ago it finally relaxed its warnings on visiting Jerusalem just as a spate of bombs shook the city. It still advises against travel in the West Bank and Gaza, even though tour firms are safely using roads through the West Bank to reach the Dead Sea. The truth is that most of the fighting in Israel and the Palestinian territories is localised and the Foreign Office's general advice isn't a great help.

This won't be of much comfort to holidaymakers tempted to visit Israel by the bargains to be had: a return flight costs from as little as pounds 160. One of the safest places to visit is the Red Sea resort of Eilat. The great expanse of the Negev Desert separates the town from the trouble in Gaza and the West Bank.

But for anyone interested in more than sea and sun but unsure about taking a chance on visiting Jerusalem, choosing another destination in Israel has been difficult. The Galilee has been off the tourist trail since the intifada (uprising) started last October. Israeli tour operators removed it from their itineraries following protests by the local inhabitants in support of the Palestinians.

The region is now calm and, when I was there recently, the welcome was warmer than ever. As a mainly Arab area, it is extremely unlikely to be the target of Palestinian terrorism.

For the past six months the only way to tour the area was to hire a car and do it yourself. But a new local Arab agency, Galilee Today, is now arranging trips, tailor-making them for groups and individuals.

There are plenty of highlights in the region. Nazareth, which before the intifada was a popular site of Christian pilgrimage, is now almost empty - which means no queues for its famous sites, such as the Basilica of the Annunciation and Mary's Well. Other attractions include the beautiful old Arab port of Akko (also known as Acre), the Druze villages in the Carmel national park, the Bahai gardens in Haifa and the Golan Heights on the Syrian border. There are also an endless array of archaeological sites from Roman, Islamic, Crusader and Ottoman periods, including Megiddo, the Biblical site of Armageddon.

But in addition, Galilee Today is offering organised trips with a more educational, and political, purpose - and ones unlikely ever to be provided by an Israeli tour operator. Included are visits to the ruins of Arab villages destroyed in the 1948 war that founded Israel, and a meeting with Bedouins whose villages have been unrecognised by the state for many decades and so live without any public services.

Most Galilee hotels have been forced to shut because of the lack of visitors, but Galilee Today will arrange accommodation, including with local families. There are also a few places to stay in Nazareth, including St Gabriel's monastery and St Margaret's pilgrim hostel, both of which have spectacular views over the city.

©Copyright 2001, The Observer - London

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