Tag Archives: Israel

Dawsons Field: Part 1

EL ALThe Pilot suddenly plunged the airliner into a steep nosedive throwing the two hijackers off their feet. Back in the passenger cabin, Flight Attendants grappled with the female on the floor. Also thrown, the male in desperation hurled his hand grenade down the aisle. By some miracle it failed to explode. As he pulled his gun and shot and wounded a Cabin Steward, he was hit over the head with a whisky bottle by a passenger. The last thing he heard was the bullet from the gun of the Sky Marshall that brought the heist to and end. With all passengers shaken but safe, the airliner made an emergency landing at London Heathrow and the hijack was over.

No, not snippet from a thriller novel or my first attempt at a short story but what really happened on EL AL Israel Airlines flight 219 from Tel Aviv to New York via Amsterdam with 148 on board in September 1970. If you have forgotten or are too young to know, 9/11 was not the world’s first spectacular multiple hijacking. Why September seems to be the optimum month for such events I do not know and how much a part the events of 1970 had to play on the timing and style of 9/11 can only be guessed at. As events unfolded, they threw the world at the time into chaos causing acrimony between the UK and the USA, leading an Arab state to implore Israel to strike other Arab states on its behalf, almost bringing the entire Middle East to war, superpowers to loggerheads and shaping the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict as it stands today.

imageEL AL 219 was one of three international flights originally targeted for hijack along with TWA 741 from Frankfurt to New York with 155 on and Swissair 100 also with 155 on heading from Zürich to New York. What is it about New York and hijacks? The Israeli plane was seized shortly after leaving Amsterdam and due the swift actions of the Flight and Cabin crews the male hijacker was killed in the air and the female, a Leila Khaled, was overcome and handed to the UK authorities where she was interned. What no-one knew, and again in a chilling similarity with 9/11, was that not all the hijackers had made it on board. Two were left at the gate in Amsterdam. Not to be thwarted, these two bought tickets to board Pan American 93 heading from Amsterdam to New York with 162 on board. Seems like hijacking planes was as easy as stealing cars in those days.

Dawsons field

Dawsons Field

With the EL AL jet safe on the ground in London, the TWA and Swissair flights headed to a little known former Royal Air Force Base in Jordan known then as Dawsons Field (Zarka today). The Pan American flight, a Boeing 747 and the largest of the 3 airliners captured, needed a longer runway to land on than Dawsons Field offered. The flight touched down in Beirut to pick up additional hijackers and explosives, and then headed for Cairo. All in a 1970′s hijackerman’s normal working day really.

The last and unexpected piece of the puzzle was the taking of British flight BOAC 775 heading to London from Bahrain with 114 on board. 775 joined the party with the Swiss and American flights at Dawsons Field while Pan Am 93 sat on its lonesome in Cairo.

And so the eyes of the world focused on the remote and little known former RAF base in the deserts of Jordan known as Dawsons Field from where ripples would spiral bringing superpowers and global allies to logger heads and the armies of the Middle East mobilising for war.

(to be continued…)

Cost of flying to Israel set to tumble

imageOne of my less shouted about interests is civil aviation. No, I’m no plane spotter (though I can tell my Boeings from my Fokkers, so to speak). More specifically I keep an eye on the airline industry, which has always held a fascination for me. I get regular bulletins via email and Twitter as to what is going on across the global industry, which airlines are joining which aviation alliance and why, what the latest on-board technologies and passenger experiences are and what latest cons Ryanair are inflicting on their gullible ‘customers’.

This week I spotted a couple of interesting stories that should make good news for frequent flyers to Israel, a place I have been to many times, and those who have always wanted to go but find it too expensive.

imageFlights to Israel are ridiculously expensive and the national carrier, EL AL with Lion’s share of available seating capacity, has had it far too good for far too long. Things are about to change and so concerned have all 3 of Israel’s main airlines been about the impending changes they all went on a 2 day strike just recently. When you think that Tel Aviv is only four and a half hours away, just a little beyond Cyprus, yet peak season return fares can exceed £500 in economy. Just this morning as I was researching for this blog I stumbled across flights to California with British Airways for just a little more. Mind you, prices to Israel with BA are just as bad as with EL AL and that is partly down to limits on landing slot availability but this is also about to change.

The main driver of the change is that Israel has signed an ‘Open Skies’ agreement with the European Union. This means that more airlines from Europe can operate more flights to and from Tel Aviv than before and increased competition, seating capacity and landing slots means ticket prices will tumble, something EL AL knows and is anticipating with dread.

imageTo be fair to EL AL though, Israeli airlines face two severe disadvantages in competing with other airlines. Well, three actually. Firstly they have by necessity had to implement the most rigorous security measures of any airlines in the world. EL AL already had security measures in place that would have thwarted the 9/11 hijackers years before those tragic events. The added security costs are not only in added personnel and technologies but not a lot of people know that Israeli airliners are more expensive to fly because their metal skins are thicker than those for most other aircraft as they are built to withstand an internal explosion and so keep the craft airborne when in most other cases they would be downed. The heavier the airliner, the more fuel it uses. Israeli airlines also carry anti-missile decoy systems – decoy rockets fired from the airliner to attract away a hostile surface to air missile aimed to destroy. Think that is a security measure too far? Not when as recently as in 2002 when a Boeing 757 of Arkia Airlines bound from Mombasa, Kenya to Tel Aviv came under just such an attack. Apart from the added security measures, the fact that all of the major airline alliances have declined El Al’s request to join also puts the carrier at a major disadvantage with its only significant code share partner being American Airlines. Finally due to Israel’s strict observance of the Sabbath, local airlines are not permitted to fly anywhere in the world from sundown on Fridays to sundown on Saturdays.

imageWhile the Open Skies agreement will gradually take hold until its full implementation by 2018, there is another factor that may start to squeeze prices down sooner. Ryanair recently announced that they may be about to start low-cost flights to Tel Aviv following after Easyjet and Polish low-cost carrier, Wizz. Now I’m on record for stating that you will never get me to fly Ryanair not even in a coffin. This may be – MAY be – the one thing that might tempt me. I’ve flown to Israel 14 times now using 3 different carriers – EL AL, BA and Monarch. EL AL is my preferred carrier purely for the security aspect though my best flight ever was with BA when for some unknown reason I was upgraded to Business and very nice that was too.

All in all, though for EL AL and the other Israeli carriers there is going to be some pain ahead, for the ordinary traveller and for Israel’s tourist industry as a whole which contributes a huge amount to the economy, the Open Skies agreement should be good news…so long as the relative stability of a country in the midst of a Middle East maelstrom holds. That said, I have been out there during both Palestinian uprisings and the civil war in neighbouring Lebanon and was hardly impacted at all and I’d still feel quite safe if I were to jump on a plane in the next hour.

Provided it didn’t belong to Ryanair, that is.

Rivers from nowhere

imageHave you ever been to the lowest place on the surface of the planet?  It’s down at the Dead Sea along the Israeli/Jordanian border, 1,388ft (423m) below Sea Level. I have taken the journey many times from Jerusalem by bus or car winding down and down along magnificently maintained highways, ear-poppingly fast until you reach that lonesome old junction with the one cafe and mangy old camel where you hit the desert floor and can go no lower. Turn left here and you head toward the ancient city of Jericho.  Turn right and you will soon start to skirt the northern shores of the Dead Sea.

imageThe southward drive along the western shore of the Dead Sea, sandwiched on thin strips,of land between the barren azure waters of the lake and towering, sheer cliffs of the desert mountains, is one of the most awesomely beautiful I’ve experienced.  There is a feeling there of the enormous power of nature as well as an ancient landscape that until very modern times has barely changed.   There is also the overbearing sense of searing heat and arid dryness.  With mid-day temperatures touching 40 degrees Celsius in the Summer months, any journey into this terrain needs a fully air-conditioned vehicle as a pre-requisite.  The other essential you need is water and plenty of it.

As you take the drive south the scenery before and around you is a choice between either the calm, sticky rainbow of blues of the lake to the left or the towering, sheer-sided terracotta coloured mountains to the right.  My eyes have always been drawn to the mountains on this journey.  Not just their sheer size and colour that accentuates the experience of knowing you are at the lowest point on the surface of the Earth, but it is the way these magnificent hills have been gouged and carved through with deep gullies and valleys that fascinate me.  Everywhere boulders of solid rock bigger than the car i’m riding in lying many meters away from the mountains they presumably fell from as if casually tossed there like some pebble on a beach.  What awesome force has been at work to carve out this place?

imageMost tourists, myself included, only see this region in the dry Summer months. We never get to see or experience – as Winter hiking Israelis do – the powerful hand that has been at work shaping the land: water.  No, not water from the Dead Sea but from the water that flows into it.  In this dry, arid place the lake is replenished not by the very rare direct rainfall that manages to make its way down there.  It is topped up by fresh water flowing down from the Sea of Galilee in the north via the River Jordan. Its only other water source is the Winter rains falling not directly onto the lake but arriving in torrents from storms passing miles away.    The Dead Sea is like a big kitchen sink with mountains on almost all sides.  When rain falls on the mountains all around and far from the shore, you may never know it when hiking on a clear blue-skied day in the bowel of the sink.   Yet, all that rain produces ‘fall-off’ from the mountains, which as it gathers in volume is hurtled ever downward between the cracks of the sheer cliffs until it forms boiling rivers with such power and energy to slice through and sweep all in its path – even boulders the size of cars and man-made roads.   It has not been unknown for unsuspecting hikers to also fall victim on an otherwise sunny day to a sudden flash flood bursting out of the mountains with fatal consequences.

Iimage got thinking about my many visits to the Dead Sea and these rivers from nowhere that I have never seen while in church last week. Someone read out these words from Psalm 63: “Oh Lord you are my God. Earnestly I seek you. My soul thirsts for you. My body longs for you in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” This prayer was written eons ago in a desert in Israel not unlike the Dead Sea region.  What spoke to me was that I don’t have to physically be in a desert to relate to the soul-crushing dryness and weariness or concerns in life even here amid my seemingly comfortable existence here in London.  Any of us can relate to a driving need such as whatever it was that caused the writer of that prayer to cry out in his anguish.   What struck me is that in that place where the Psalmist was, calling out for refreshing, restoration, release from his burdens or just an answer to prayer…unbeknown to him, the rains may already have started to fall in the mountains miles away that will soon start rushing toward his barren place in torrents.

I guess we never know sometimes that answers to prayer if you believe in such things as I do, may even have already started on their way before one word is on our lips…





Israel may be behind chemical weapons use in Syria?

knessetI saw this bizarre headline on my Twitter feed a couple of hours before I went to bed last night.  I would normally have just shrugged it off as another hysterical ‘blame the Jews for all the world’s evils’ rhetoric that is worryingly becoming more prevalent today.  Yet remembering the recent sickening media photos of Syrian civilians, allegedly victims of a chemical weapons attack by Syria’s brutal President Bashar Assad, I stopped and took notice – not least because the story was shared by two of Israel’s own popular newspapers – The Jerusalem Post and Ha’aretz.  These reports were fresh as I wrote last night and not yet reflected in other media by the time I turned out the light and hit the sack.

It seems that ‘former Bush Administration official’, retired Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson has claimed publicly that the alleged use of chemical weapons that made global headlines recently may be a ‘false flag operation’ by Israel to implicate the Syrian President (i.e. that it was Israel that actually used the weapons on Syrian civilians) – something I find preposterous.  Col Wilkerson also went on to say that considering the ‘flaky’ evidence, the use of chemical weapons could just have easily been the work of the Syrian opposition as well as the obvious culprit, Assad.

The introduction of weapons of mass destruction into the conflict has raised the stakes all round in the unfolding events in Syria and there is much scrutiny both in Jerusalem and in Washington of the ‘red line’, which US President Obama said should not be crossed for risk of drawing American intervention by which he is reported to have been referring to the use of chemical weapons as a trigger for a robust US response.

As I have written about before, the turmoil of the ‘Arab Spring’ has backed Israel into a precarious position with destabilisation on virtually all its borders. Egypt to the south has a new radical Islamist and anti-Israeli government in place and civil unrest between secularists and Islamists is heated and bloody. To the north, Iranian-backed Hezbollah – Israel’s arch enemy – is highly active in Lebanon, which is also beginning to suffer the effects of the Syrian civil war to the east as refugees flee across the border taking with them the Sunni-Shi’ite inter-Islamic feuding that is at the root of so much of the conflict across the Islamic world we are witnessing. Only Jordan among Israel’s direct neighbours remains relatively calm at present, but not for long I forecast.

What interests me even more about the reporting in both Israeli papers is an implied insight into the  on-going deep rift that remains between the present American and Israeli administrations as was accidentally leaked to the world’s media in what they thought was a private conversation between former French President Sarkozy and President Obama.  While Col Wilkerson is not an official spokesman for the Obama Administration, it is clear from the reporting in the Israeli media that they view his comments as indicative of the gulf that now exists between Israel and its biggest- some would say only – global sponsor.

The US and Israel are already at odds over how to handle the potentially vastly greater theat to world peace posed by Iranian nuclear ambitions.  Israeli Premier, Benjamin Netanyahu has already made it clear that his Government is prepared to make a preemptive strike on Iran before Iran has the capabilities to strike Israel, an event that would by default drag America into the conflict as Israel’s chief ally.  I believe that what we are seeing taking place in Syria now, including this strange issue of chemical weapons will have far reaching effects on the looming Iranian stand-off.    Israel is being drawn ever into the Syrian conflict.   There have already been reports a few months back of Israeli airstrikes into Lebanon on military convoys from Syria allegedly supplying Hezbollah with weaponry.  Within the last day or so Israel has openly admitted that it has now made similar airstrikes into Syria itself from Lebanon to target Hezbollah-bound military convoys. As such, this is not an earth-shattering event in the Syrian saga. Turkey has done similar along Syria’s northern border when it too felt threatened.   Key to the current episode is how President Obama handles the situation.    His words that he will commit America to (long-overdue some would say) intervention should chemical weapons be used are increasingly viewed as shallow and even lacking substance in Jerusalem.   Israel has remained as patient as it has to be in the always critical glare of world opinion but ever vigilant of events on its very borders and has now seen fit to intervene more than once.  The danger is that Israel will get dragged in further, which President Assad would no doubt welcome so that an Arab world, hitherto critical of him, would forget their differences in temporarily uniting against the Jewish state.

President Obama is challenged with having to make clear to the world (as it is not just the Israeli press that is asking but even our own British media too), whether he is a man who will stand by his word and what exactly his word means. There is much speculation and criticism in his own media that his Administration is now attempting to blur what that red line he spoke about actually meant.  If he fails to act decisively now, when it comes to dealing with Iran the Israelis will be even less inclined to wait upon faltering and flaky US resolve but to take the initiative whatever the consequences.

I awoke this morning to the news (still breaking as I write) that overnight Israel’s Air Force has attacked targets they say were military research centers in the Syrian capital, Damascus and so in a trice the stakes in this war are raised even higher.  We await the fall-out but I am reminded again of things I’ve researched on concerning the city of Damascus itself, which has a very dark, ancient and still unfulfilled Biblical prophecy over it that I’ve been pondering about blogging on for some time…


Why are Muslims blowing each other up in Iraq?

Building the last empire

Never again Masada


I’m getting restless again.

israelscenicIt happens every now and then, usually a couple of years apart and so I guess it’s due round about now. My thoughts are turning to the eastern Mediterranean and I’m poised on planning another solo trip to Israel.

You will see from the cloud tag on the right of this page what subjects I tend to write about most in this blog and so you will see how much Israel features in my thinking.  I have been out there many times since my virgin visit in back in the 80′s.  I think I have actually lost count now of the number of trips in total but certainly into double figures.  I’ve had many reasons for going.   A number of them have been work-related where I have been responsible for the radio broadcaster I work for taking a number of our shows and presenters out there to broadcast live back to the UK.   Some of my visits have been with friends and family where I have acted as their unofficial tour guide (and loved every minute of it).  Other trips I have made alone neither to work or research but just to be.  I guess that’s where I’m at right now.

One word I have never used and will never use of my visits is ‘pilgrimage’, yet that the number one reason Christians do visit the country.  They go to experience the place they read about in the Bible.  Depending on what expression of Christianity they practice, they go to pay homage to saints and people of the past or they just want to see the places they have read about and imagined in walls2their church services or private devotions.  I never have. When I visit, for me I’m less concerned about Israel’s ancient past than about its present and future.   Even from my very first visit staying with Jewish friends and so not part of a tour party (for me the very est way to experience the country for the first time), I remember saying to them as they toured me round this church site or that, that I didn’t want to ‘do the churches’ but would rather meet ordinary Israelis, something I think perplexed them a little – I had after all made my conversion to Christianity while sharing a house with one of my hosts at University and so what’s not to like about churches in the Holy Land?  I guess my thoughts concerning the place and my experience of it the first time were rooted in the fact that I was first inexplicably drawn to the Jewish people and their brand new country when I was around 10 years old.  I had never heard of the Holocaust or Jewish people and never really understood that baby Jesus meek and mild, who I did know about, was one of them.    From that time on I read any book I could on the country, whether fact or fiction, and in me grew a burning desire to be there.  At high school I even stayed after History class one day to talk to my teacher, Mr Chisholm, and I persuaded him to change the class syllabus we were due to study for our ‘O’ Level exams to include the Arab/Israeli Conflict as part of our course components and to drop some dull study of US socio-economic politics.  I’ve never fessed that up to any of my class mates (in case any of them struggled as a result).   The school teachers I think were also puzzled by my interest and I guess I must have been talked about among them, but one other thing from High School I do remember was my Art Teacher, a Jewish Lady called Mrs Rubin, who had recently returned from Israel and brought back for me a full set of Israeli currency coins.   Little did she ever know about how much I treasured them and would hold on to them at night in bed wishing myself away.


Yes, of course I was young and naive back then and still for many years, even to this day to a degree, I still haven’t fathomed out why I am drawn to that place.  Yes, my perceptions are more complex now and in many ways conflicting, but one thing I have always known is that when you have a calling to something or somewhere – you can’t argue with it or even reason it out and you certainly can’t sanitize it so that it is comfortable and respectable enough for you and others to accept.   Just mention the name ‘Israel’ and it will divide people either pro or against quite vehemently.  I am not deaf or blind to the political, moral and religious arguments on many sides, nor to those that uncomfortably co-exist in my own heart.  Yet none of any of this has managed to smother the watchman in me that is always following events in the Middle East as a whole and the desire in me that rises from time to time that makes me restless and longing to be in Jerusalem again. I’m feeling that restlessness again now.

Jerusalem-Sunset-viewWhen I visit Israel on my own, I usually stay in the Old City in one of the Christian guest houses, not because I want Christian company or activity, but the Church is one of the biggest land-owners in the country and there are many guest houses and hospices they own within the walls of the Old City that are cheap, well looked after and right in the throng of the ancient citadel.   I’m not a recluse there – it’s nice to exchange pleasantries with other visitors over morning and evening meals and especially to listen to what first timers make of their visit.   But Jerusalem is the only place I have visited on Earth that makes me just want to go hushed and quiet in my soul when I get near as the bus upland from Tel Aviv turns the final winding curve in the road and the city is laid out on the hills before you.  When I visit the city, I’m there usually just a few short days just to be and to think but never to reason.  In times like that it is very hard not to find yourself wanting to pray for all that has been there, all that still is and all that yet will be.  One thing I always make a point of doing when in Jerusalem is to go down to the Western Wall of the Temple Mount and pray.  There is something about praying there that is like no other. I don’t believe God hears you any better there or that your prayers are more likely to be answered there.  Ancient History beyond my understanding oozes from the very stone walls as if it were their life blood. At the risk of sounding a tad squiffy at this point, on my last visit to the sanctuary to pray, I had the most unusual encounter. As I stretched out my hand to the wall to pray, I just felt a presence around me, Western-Wall-in-Jerusalem-006something I can’t describe, and from the Wall I felt a strange energy or force like electricity whenever I took my hand away from the wall, the feeling subsided only to return when my hand was raised again. Not only my hand and my arm, but my whole body was trembling.  Make of that what you wish. I’ve prayed there on all of my 10+ visits but never encountered anything like that before.  More strange too that I’m not the only one in my family to have encountered something like this.  My Mum has also visited Israel on 2 or 3 occasions, only once with me, and on her last (without me) she too encountered something strange while praying at the wall. Neither of us shared our experiences with each other until fairly recently, but she also felt a strange power that she also described as ‘like electricity’ when she was drawn – compelled as she describes – to touch the wall with her forehead and pray and in that prayer, she was given a vision for the city and its people that she still holds in her heart today.  Well, either a couple of strange encounters or else the Jerusalem Electricity Company needs to urgently check its wiring.  I can only speak for what happened to me.    No. I’m not going back to seek the same experience again.  Each time I go is a whole new experience.   Just being there makes me very hushed and still inside.

I guess  anyone reading this or even just a casual observer of world events must surely puzzle over why this tiny strip of a country, only 12 miles wide at its narrowest, commands such a disproportionate measure of the world’s media and political focus.  This is set only to increase in the coming times.

This year, Israel turns 65 years old since the modern state was founded in 1948.  The country marks the day of its rebirth by celebrations both home and abroad and I was among the group of guests invited to a celebration Reception by Israel’s Ambassador to the UK at London’s prestigious Guildhall.  I can’t put my finger on just why, but I came away from the event knowing that I need to be in Jerusalem again.