Category Archives: Tourism

Jerusalem Cable Car Project Passes Over Objections from Many Quarters

East Jerusalem has received new impetus from the rise of the Israeli far right and Washington’s decision to move its embassy to the city. But if completed, critics say, the long-running proposal would contribute to erasing the visibility of Palestinians in the city they hope to make their capital.

Planning for the $55 million tourism project continues despite unifying archaeologists, architects, Palestinians, and a tiny community of Jews against it – in a sign of Israel’s ever-growing confidence in making unilateral moves in occupied parts of Jerusalem.

Critics say the cable car will help hide the local Palestinian population from the roughly 3 million tourists who visit Jerusalem each year, turning the city into a “Disneyland” focused on promoting Israeli interests.

“The advantage for Israel is that visitors can be prevented from having any dealings with Palestinians,” said Aviv Tartasky, a researcher with Ir Amim, an Israeli organisation that campaigns for equal rights in Jerusalem.

“The local population will be largely erased from the experience of visiting Jerusalem. Tourists will pass over Palestinian residents, via the cable car, and then pass under them via tunnels.”

Israel’s Ministry of Tourism dismissed the criticism. In a statement to The National, the ministry said the cable car project was “a significant milestone in the promotion of Jerusalem and the strengthening of its status as a world tourism capital”.

Settler-run tours

The cable car, the largest project of its type undertaken by Israel, could be completed as early as in two years, its destination the slopes in occupied East Jerusalem just below the Old City, next to Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Some 72 cabins have the capacity to ferry up to 3,000 visitors an hour above mainly Palestinian homes.

Tourists will be channelled from the cable car into a visitor centre run by Jewish settlers in the heart of the crowded Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan. They will be led by settler-approved guides underground, through tunnels under Palestinian homes to the foot of the Western Wall.

Blueprints show that visitors will be able to shop in the tunnels, bypassing local Palestinian traders in the Old City market who have long depended on tourism. Israeli officials accelerated the project by bypassing routine planning procedures, even though urban planning specialists warn that it will damage the Jerusalem skyline and archaeological sites revealing the origins of modern civilisation.

Equally important, critics say, the Benjamin Netanyahu government and settler groups view the cable car as helping block any possibility of a Palestinian state emerging with East Jerusalem as its capital. They have been emboldened by President Donald Trump’s 2017 decision to transfer the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“It should set off alarm bells that a huge state project like this is being intertwined with a private settler organisation, physically forcing visitors to go through its visitor centre, channelling them into its attractions and activities,” Mr Tartasky said.

He said the cable car was one of the ways Israel was connecting disparate settler compounds in the Palestinian neighbourhoods of occupied Jerusalem.

“It will physically strengthen these settler areas, and mean their organisations have an even greater influence on Israeli authorities.”

Encircling Al-Aqsa

The project has been forcefully promoted by the Israeli tourism ministry, headed by Yariv Levin, an ally of Mr Netanyahu, and Jerusalem’s mayor, Moshe Lion. Tenders will be issued as soon as the National Planning Council approves the project, which is expected to be a formality.

In violation of international law, Israel has treated East Jerusalem as annexed territory since it occupied the city in 1967. More than 200,000 Jewish settlers have moved there over subsequent decades

Hanna Swaid, a Palestinian planning specialist and former member of the Israeli parliament, said the cable car was illegal because international law allows major changes in occupied territory only out of military necessity or for the benefit of the population under occupation.

“Even in its own planning justifications, the Israeli authorities are clear the cable car is designed only for the benefit of tourists, Israeli developers and the settler groups overseeing it, not the local Palestinian population. In fact, it will serve to actively harm Palestinians in Jerusalem,” Mr Swaid said.

“It will parachute tourists to Jewish sites like the Western Wall, and marginalise Muslim and Christian sites,” he added.

Palestinians are concerned that the cable car will serve to tighten Israel’s control over access to the Al Aqsa mosque compound, the highly sensitive holy site in the Old City. For decades Israeli authorities have moved to weaken the control of Islamic religious authorities, the Waqf, on Al Aqsa, contributing to repeated clashes at the site.

Jews believe the mosque is built over the ruins of a major Jewish temple. The Western Wall, which supports the mosque compound, was originally a retaining wall of the long-lost temple.

“The cable car looks suspiciously like another means for encircling Al Aqsa, for laying siege to it,” Mr Swaid said.

Tunnels under Palestinians

According to official plans, dozens of cabins will run hourly along a 1.5-kilometre route from West Jerusalem, inside Israel’s recognised borders, to the occupied Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan, just outside the Old City walls and in the shadow of Al Aqsa.

Tourists will disembark in Silwan into a large visitor centre, the Kedem compound, to be run by a settler organisation called Elad that has close ties with the Israeli government.

The Kedem centre is the latest venture in the City of David complex, an archaeological site that the settlers of Elad have been using for more than two decades as a base to seize control of the Palestinian neighbourhood.

Visitors will be taken on tours to explore Jerusalem, moving through ancient sewage tunnels that run under Palestinian homes and reach to walls of Al Aqsa.

Additional plans will eventually see the cable car alight at other sites in East Jerusalem. Among them are the Mount of Olives, which includes an ancient Jewish cemetery; the Church of Gethsemane, at the reputed site where Judas betrayed Jesus; and the Pool of Siloam, a bathing area referred to in the Old and New Testaments.

Yonatan Mizrahi, the director of Emek Shaveh, a group of Israeli archaeologists opposed to the misuse of archaeology and tourism by Israel, said: “The purpose is to offer tourists a one-dimensional narrative about Jerusalem and its history. They should see all layers of the city’s rich history. Instead they will hear only the parts that relate to Jewish history.”

Mr Mizrahi has been among those leading the criticism of the project. “No other historic city in the world has built a cable car – and for very good reason,” he said.

Jerusalem ‘not Disneyland’

In March about 30 international architects – some of whom have worked on projects in Jerusalem – wrote to Mr Netanyahu urging him not to pursue what they called short-term interests.

“The project is being promoted by powerful interest groups who put tourism and political agendas above responsibility for safeguarding Jerusalem’s cultural treasures,” the letter said.

The letter followed a statement by 70 Israeli archaeologists, architects and public figures against the cable car in November, when the project was speeded up. They said: “Jerusalem is not Disneyland, and its landscape and heritage are not for sale.”

A French firm, Safege, which worked on the initial feasibility study, pulled out in 2015, reportedly under pressure from the French government over concerns that the project violated international law.

In an apparent bid to ensure the project would go through, the previous Netanyahu government changed planning laws to remove the cable car from local and regional oversight. It also ensured the public could not submit objections.

Instead the scheme is being treated as a “national infrastructure” project, similar to a new railway line or gas pipeline. The National Planning Council offered a curtailed period for organisations to lodge reservations that ended on March 31.

Mr Swaid, who is the director of the Arab Centre for Alternative Planning, drew up a list of reservations on behalf of the Supreme Religious Council of Muslims in Israel.

Other critical comments were submitted by lawyers for the Silwan neighbourhood, the archaeologists of Emek Shaveh, the planning group Bimkom, a Palestinian merchant association in the Old City, and a tour guides group.

The Karaites, a small Jewish sect whose ancient cemetery lies in the path of the cable car, in the Biblical Hinnom Valley, said the project showed “contemptuous disregard for the dignity of the deceased and the Karaite community in general”.

Benjamin Kedar, a former chairman of the Israel Antiquities Authority, lodged a protest too.

Loss of all privacy

One of the Silwan homes in the path of the cable car belongs to the Karameh family. The cabins may pass only four metres above the flat roof where toddlers play and the family of 20 hang their washing. Support columns for the cable car may end up being driven into the family’s garden, one of the few green spots in Silwan.

“Nowhere in Israel do cable cars travel over houses, let alone a few metres above,” said Mr Mizrahi. “It seems clear why in this case. Because the houses belong to Palestinians.”

Samer Karameh, a 24-year-old lorry driver, said everyone in Silwan was opposed to the cable car, as it would be helping settler groups like Elad trying to take over their neighbourhood. But he was shocked to learn that it would pass so close to his house.

“We’ll lose all privacy. We won’t be able to open the windows without being seen by thousands of strangers. And it can’t be safe to have these cars travelling just over the heads of our children,” Mr Karameh said.

“We know we won’t be the beneficiaries,” he added. “The authorities won’t give us a permit to build anything here, so all the business will go to the settlers.”

• A version of this article first appeared in The National

Let it burn

I admit to feeling a slight sense of sadness watching the images of flames soaring from the roof of Notre Dame Cathedral, but once it was reported that no one had been seriously hurt, my slight sense of sadness quickly gave way to a feeling of pleasure. My slight sadness was because part of me appreciates the considerable amount of quality craftsmanship that went into constructing the thing, and it saddens me to see some of that beautiful work destroyed. But when weighed against the symbolism of a major institution of oppression engulfed in fire, it’s hard not to feel happy.

One of the most well-known critiques of religion – any religion – is Karl Marx’s famous quote that “It [religion] is the opium of the people”. It’s arguably one of the most important things Marx said, because religion controls the lives of billions of people around the world. Even in supposedly secular western countries religion still exerts considerable influence. The most obvious proofs of this fact are fairly numerous. Take, for example, the fact that large numbers of supposedly enlightened westerners still feel the need for religious ceremonies at the most important events in their lives – births, marriages and deaths. So for Marx to point out that this important necessity to the lives of so many people is no more than an artificial relaxant is every bit as revolutionary as anything else he said – and every bit as true.

Of course Marx, was not the only great thinker to realise the illusion of religion. About sixty years before Marx penned his famous quote, the great Tom Paine, for example, observed that,

Al national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.1

Paine’s great book Age of Reason totally destroys the credibility of religion generally, and the Christian bible in particular. With his usual perfect clarity of vision and expression he strikes at the very heart of the phenomenon of religion, and explains why such an utterly irrational and largely deceitful belief system has been allowed to thrive for so long – a human invention “to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit”.

Adam Smith, the supposed “father of capitalism”, noted the deep cynicism of religion being used in pursuit of profit even earlier than Paine. Writing in the middle of the eighteenth century about the looting by the Spanish of the Americas, he observed:

… the council of Castile determined to take possession of countries of which the inhabitants were plainly incapable of defending themselves. The pious purpose of converting them to Christianity sanctified the injustice of the project.2

The most successful revolutions against religion occurred in communist countries, such as Russia and China where religion was strongly discouraged. But many other revolutions, such as the French Revolution and Spanish Civil War, also recognised the essential role played by the clergy in maintaining the grotesque oppressions against which they were rebelling. The logic of revolutionary reasoning is convincing, and is basically the same point that Smith and Paine both made: the rich and powerful use religion to justify the massive crimes they carry out in order to stay rich and powerful.

For example, in a recent TV documentary about the legendary songwriter Woody Guthrie, an old newsreel showed a scene from the 1930s where some of the desperate people made homeless from the drought-stricken American prairies were attending a church service. The camera panned slowly over the haggard, care-worn, emaciated faces of the congregation whilst the voice of the preacher could be heard saying how their troubles were “because of how we live”. Their fault in other words, not the fault of a pitiless government that had not long since largely completed its genocide of their own native populations, or of a ruthless banking system where people’s lives were irrelevant compared with profit.

About a century earlier, when thousands of Scottish Highlanders were being savagely evicted from lands they had worked for centuries, the preachers were there colluding with the super-rich as they always have to ensure the grotesque Highland Clearances, cynically known at the time as “Improvement”, would not be resisted by the people:

With a few noble exceptions, the ministers chose the side of the landlords, who built them new manses, made carriage roads to their doors, and invited them to share in the new prosperity now and then with the grant of a few acres of sheep pasturage. In return the churchmen gave God’s authority to Improvement, and threatened the more truculent of the evicted with damnation.3

It’s no coincidence that even today the biggest church congregations invariably comprise poor oppressed people seeking answers for their suffering. Once again they’re told that their misery is all part of some mysterious cosmic plan, controlled by some invisible, all-powerful super-natural being. No doubt many are still being told their suffering is their own fault, and the best they can do is go to church more often, and donate even more of the little they have to church funds.

But the hard inescapable fact about all of the main religions is that none of them can prove the very existence of the god or gods in whom they compel their followers to believe. It’s widely believed by Jews and Christians alike, for example, that their god created man in the image of their god (Genesis 1:27) and that believers were therefore the most supreme of beings with a right to complete dominion over the Earth and everything and everyone on it (Gen 1:28). This teaching has been used to morally justify the vast destruction of our planet and countless billions of other people and other living species. Yet there is no evidence to support the existence of this god that supposedly approves of all this. So it’s far more accurate to believe that god did not create man in his image, but that man created god in his image instead.

So when I watched pictures of flames licking hungrily from the roof of Notre Dame I felt more pleasure than sadness, and I make no apology for that. Let it, and all the others like it burn – unless they be permanently closed down, their priests made redundant, and the space used instead for useful, purely secular, community centres, quiet places where anarchists and communists, for example, could meet up and teach to others the myth of religion, and teach reason instead to the poor and oppressed, that no supernatural being has ordained their suffering, and will certainly not be coming to relieve them of it. They are on their own, and the sooner they realise that the sooner they might decide to combine to do something about it.

  1. Age of Reason, Tom Paine, p. 22.
  2. Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith, p. 711.
  3. The Highland Clearances, John Prebble, p. 63.

How Israel is Working to Remove Palestinians from Jerusalem

The 350,000 Palestinian inhabitants of occupied East Jerusalem are caught between a rock and hard place, as Israel works ever harder to remove them from the holy city in which they were born, analysts and residents warn.

That process, they say, has only accelerated in the wake of US President Donald Trump’s decision a year ago to relocate the American embassy to Jerusalem, effectively endorsing the city as Israel’s exclusive capital.

“Israel wants Palestinians in Jerusalem to understand that they are trapped, that they are being strangled, in the hope they will conclude that life is better outside the city,” said Amneh Badran, a politics professor at Jerusalem’s Al Quds university.

Since Israel seized the eastern part of Jerusalem in 1967 and then illegally annexed it in 1981, it has intentionally left the status of its Palestinian population unresolved.

Israeli officials have made Palestinians there “permanent residents,” though, in practice, their residency is easily revoked. According to Israel’s own figures, more than 14,500 Palestinians have been expelled from the city of their birth since 1967, often compelling their families to join them in exile.

Further, Israel finished its concrete wall slicing through East Jerusalem three years ago, cutting some 140,000 Palestinian residents off from the rest of the city.

A raft of well-documented policies – including house demolitions, a chronic shortage of classrooms, lack of public services, municipal underfunding, land seizures, home evictions by Jewish settlers, denial of family unification, and police and settler violence – have intensified over the years.

At the same time, Israel has denied the Palestinian Authority, a supposed government-in-waiting in the West Bank, any role in East Jerusalem, leaving the city’s Palestinians even more isolated and weak.

All of these factors are designed to pressure Palestinians to leave, usually to areas outside the wall or to nearby West Bank cities like Ramallah or Bethlehem.

“In Jerusalem, Israel’s overriding aim is at its most transparent: to take control of the land but without its Palestinian inhabitants,” said Daoud Alg’ol, a researcher on Jerusalem.

Like others, Mr Alg’ol noted that Israel had stepped up its ‘Judaisation’ policies in Jerusalem since the US relocated its embassy. “Israel is working more quickly, more confidently and more intensively because it believes Trump has given his blessing,” he said.

Demographic concerns dominated Israel’s thinking from the moment it occupied East Jerusalem in 1967, and subordinated it to the control of Jewish officials in West Jerusalem – in what Israel termed its newly “united capital”.

City boundaries were expanded eastwards to attach additional Palestinian lands to Jerusalem and then fill in the empty spaces with a ring of large Jewish settlements, said Aviv Tartasky, a researcher with Ir Amim, an organisation that campaigns for equal rights in Jerusalem.

The goal, he added, was to shore up a permanent three-quarters Jewish majority – to ensure Palestinians could not stake a claim to the city and to allay Israeli fears that one day the Palestinians might gain control of the municipality through elections.

Israel has nonetheless faced a shrinking Jewish majority because of higher Palestinian birth rates. Today, Palestinians comprise about 40 per cent of the total population of this artificially enlarged Jerusalem.

Israel has therefore been aggressively pursuing a twin-pronged approach, according to analysts.

On one side, wide-ranging discriminatory policies – that harm Palestinians and favour Jewish settlers – have been designed to erode Palestinians’ connection to Jerusalem, encouraging them to leave. And, on the other, revocation of residency rights and the gradual redrawing of municipal boundaries have forcibly placed Palestinians outside the city – in what some experts term a “silent transfer” or administrative ethnic cleansing.

Israel’s efforts to disconnect Palestinians from Jerusalem are most visibly expressed in the change of Arabic script on road signs. The city’s Arabic name, Al Quds (the Holy), has been gradually replaced by the Israeli name, Urshalim, transliterated into Arabic.

The lack of services and municipal funding and high unemployment mean that three-quarters of Palestinians in East Jerusalem live below the poverty line. That compares to only 15 per cent for Israeli Jews nationally.

Despite these abysmal figures, the municipality has provided four social services offices in the city for Palestinians, compared to 19 for Israeli Jews.

Only half of Palestinian residents are provided with access to the water grid. There are similar deficiencies in postal services, road infrastructure, pavements and cultural centres.

Meanwhile, human rights groups have noted that East Jerusalem lacks at least 2,000 classrooms for Palestinian children, and that the condition of 43 per cent of existing rooms is inadequate. A third of pupils fail to complete basic schooling.

But the biggest pressure on Palestinian residents has been inflicted through grossly discriminatory planning rules, said Mr Tartasky.

In the areas outside the wall, Palestinians have been abandoned by the municipality – and receive no services or policing at all.

Israel’s long-term aim, said Mr Tartasky, had been exposed in a leak of private comments made by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2015. He had proposed revoking the residency of the 140,000 Palestinians outside the wall.

“At the moment, the government is discussing putting these residents under the responsibility of the army,” Mr Tartasky said.

That would make them equivalent to Palestinians living in Israeli-controlled areas of the West Bank and sever their last connections to Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, on the inner side of the wall, Palestinian neighbourhoods have been tightly constrained, with much of the land declared either “scenic areas” or national parks, in which construction is illegal, or reserved for Jewish settlements. The inevitable result has been extreme overcrowding.

In addition, Israel has denied most Palestinian neighbourhoods’ masterplans, making it all but impossible to get building permits.

“The advantage for Israel is that planning regulations don’t look brutal – in fact, they can be presented as simple law enforcement,” said Mr Tartasky. “But if you have no place to live in Jerusalem, in the end you’ll have to move out of the city.”

An estimated 20,000 houses – about 40 per cent of the city’s Palestinian housing stock – are illegal and under threat of demolition. More than 800 homes, some housing several families, have been razed since 2004.

As well as the large purpose-built Jewish settlements located on Palestinian land in East Jerusalem, several thousand extremist settlers have taken over properties inside Palestinian neighbourhoods, often with the backing of the Israeli courts.

Mr Tartasky noted that Israel has been accelerating legal efforts to evict Palestinians from their homes over the past year, with close to 200 families in and around the Old City currently facing court battles.

When settlers move in following such evictions, Ms Badran said, the character of the Palestinian neighbourhoods rapidly changes.

“The settlers arrive, and then so do the police, the army, private security guards and municipal inspectors. The settlers have a machine behind them whose role is to make life as uncomfortable as possible for Palestinians. The message is: ‘You either accept your subjugation or leave’.”

In Silwan, where settler groups have established a touristic archaeological park in the midst of a densely populated Palestinian community just outside the Old City walls, life has been especially tough.

Mr Alg’ol, who lives in Silwan, noted that fortified settler compounds had been established throughout the area, many dozens more Palestinian families were facing evictions, excavations were taking place under Palestinian homes, closed-circuit TV watched residents 24 hours a day, and the security services were a constant presence. Many hundreds of children had been arrested in recent years, usually accused of stone throwing.

Israel’s newest move is the announcement of a cable car to bring tourists from West Jerusalem through Palestinian neighbourhoods like Silwan to the holy sites of the Old City.

Mr Tartasky said touristic initiatives had become another planning weapon against Palestinians. “These projects, from the cable car to a series of promenades, are ways to connect one settlement to the next, bisecting Palestinian space. They strengthen the settlements and break apart Palestinian neighbourhoods.”

Mr Alg’ol’s family was one of many in Silwan that had been told their lands were being confiscated for the cable car and a new police station.

“They want to turn our community into an archaeological Disneyland,” he said. “And we are in the way. They plan to keep going until we are all removed.”

First published in The National

Salisbury Continues to Suffer While Theresa May Plays Novichok Game

Salisbury is still suffering from the crazy Skripal/nerve agent event that took place on Sunday 4th March.  Four weeks on the picture is still grim despite local efforts to encourage people to come to the city.  It is after all a shopping and tourist magnet.

On 23rd March Environment Minister Michael Gove visited the city and promised government support.  He said, “I know that local businesses have taken a bit of a hit understandably as a result of the events…”  A ‘bit of a hit’?

Across the city, businesses have taken a 20% fall and are still far from back to normal.  There has been a 90% drop in visitors to the city, with a corresponding drop in trade, particularly for those shops near the Maltings where the unconscious Skripals were found, and it is not much better now.  It could take weeks for things to return to anything like it should be.

The government is providing £1 million to help faltering business, although they haven’t said when.  And promises are often empty where this government is concerned.  It may sound a lot but it isn’t, and Salisbury will be lobbying for more.  It really should be seen as compensation for the damage done by the government in pushing its anti-Russia agenda.  In a more constructive fashion, Wiltshire County Council took the decision to make all parking free within the city, even though it would lose them a lot of revenue.  Did that work?

On Easter Saturday I revisited Salisbury to see for myself.  This was, after all, a holiday weekend, and Salisbury should be packed with people.  Yes, car parks were full but…

Sainsbury’s supermarket, between a big car park and the Maltings, was not exactly humming.  Although the check-out tills were busy, there were no queues.  Walking along the ends of the aisles, I saw only one or two people in each, searching the shelves.  I spoke to a Sainsbury’s floor manager, who told me that, “Yes, free parking has made a difference, but…,” and he looked around, “this is not as it would be, normally.”

I later went to another supermarket, out on the edge of the city centre, and accessible by one of the busy through-roads.  That was very active.  I wondered whether it may have picked up some of the customers lost by other stores, but truly, no one is a winner here.

Whichever way you approach the Maltings, there are large official signs saying ‘Shops Open’.  But there is also a very visible police presence, both cars and officers, and areas cordoned-off with police tape.

Because it was a holiday weekend, work on the decontamination of various sites had been postponed and everywhere cleared of people in protective suits, which might have ‘unsettled’ Easter weekend visitors.  But there were still too many police on display, some of which have been drafted in from other counties.  And the shops along the area where the Skripals were found are still shut, even though the bench they sat on has been removed.  Why not remove the litter bin right beside it?

I returned to a shop I had been in before and spoke to the manager.  Free parking had not made much difference to shops around the Maltings.  People see the police, she explained, and walk another way into the city centre.  Yes, some did come into the shop and say they were ‘there to support Salisbury’.  Then, she said, they walk out again.  Well, sorry folks, but don’t pat yourselves on the back for that.  Next time, get your wallets out and buy something.  That’s how to support Salisbury.

All such small shops, so dependent on tourists, are wondering if they can survive much more because, despite cars coming in and parking for free, the coaches full of tourists are not coming.  I found one coach park that, apart from two little local buses and a big coach from Kent, was empty.  I was told that one coach tour company has simply cancelled all its Salisbury tours for this year.

And what of Guildhall Square that was so empty when I last saw it?  It was filled with the Saturday market; huge stalls laid out with rails of clothes, tiers of fresh vegetables and all the other things you expect in an open-air market.  Just not quite enough customers to fill the spaces between the stalls.  Bustle it didn’t, and the cafes and restaurants were still not full enough.

Salisbury may have to face months of decontamination work, with all that involves.  What is worse is that, each time the Novichok story goes a bit dead in the media, out pops something else to hit the headlines.  And none of it, when you sit back and really look at it, makes sense.

Almost 3 weeks after the incident, Public Health England issued further advice on dealing with the clothes worn by perhaps 500 people which may have been ‘infected’, offering compensation for those clothes that should be dry-cleaned.  Is this for real?  Or has everything been infected by May?

At the end of March Prime Minister May was still claiming that up to 130 people ‘may have been exposed to Novichok’.  A Salisbury Hospital doctor disagreed.  In a letter to The Times, regarding their article Salisbury poisoning exposure leaves almost 40 needing treatment, Stephen Davies, a consultant in emergency medicine, wrote that:

‘No patients have experienced symptoms of nerve-agent poisoning in Salisbury and there have only ever been three patients with significant poisoning’.  And note, not nerve agent poisoning, just poisoning.

Three patients – Sergei Skripal, his daughter Yulia, and Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey, who was reported to have been ‘among the first to help Col. Skripal and his daughter as they lay stricken… and was rushed to hospital after the incident.’

Now, hang on a minute.  What was a plain clothes policeman doing on a Sunday afternoon to be so handily on the scene?  And none of the first responders, the paramedics, were affected by this deadly nerve agent.  In fact, when May met them she was told that they thought they were attending a drug overdose, and goodness knows, paramedics have seen enough of those to know what they’re looking at.

Bailey apparently took himself to hospital later to report some symptoms but was discharged.  He was also one of the first police officers to go to Skripal’s house the following morning, and was in hospital by the evening, with reports of the police believing he was ‘contaminated’ in Skripal’s house.

He was discharged from hospital on March 22nd, unlike the Skripals, who are invisible and, despite pressure, unvisited by the Russian Ambassador.  “At least Bailey’s gone home,” I commented to one shop owner, a long-time Salisbury trader.  “Oh no,” she replied.  “He can’t go there, his house is cordoned off!”

“Well,” I said, “perhaps he’s in hiding elsewhere in Salisbury.”

No again.  “We all know Nick.  He’d be recognised, wherever he was.”

“Then perhaps he’s gone somewhere else.  Perhaps he’ll transfer to another police force,” I suggested.

“I doubt he’ll want to carry on policing, not after this,” was the confident reply.  Indeed, Salisbury does know, and has great affection for its Nick Bailey.  When I said he seemed to be quite a poster boy for the city, she agreed.  And I cynically wondered if that was why he had been chosen for the role in May’s Novichok drama.

Then on March 28th something else hit the headlines: Specialists have found that the greatest concentration of the nerve agent was on Skripal’s front door, and that this must be how they were poisoned.

Now hang on another minute.  Police and aliens in Hazmat suits have been going in and out of this house since whenever.  One investigator was photographed in the garden with a checklist taped to the back of his/her suit. Are these really specialists in their work?  And why react to the ‘front door’ news by rushing to cordon off the children’s play area just down the road?  A ‘precautionary’ measure or scare tactics?

If the contamination by such a deadly ‘nerve agent’ on the front door was so high, and is now first in the long list of how the Skripals got poisoned, why did it take so long to have an effect?  Drive into the city centre, park your car, walk to the Mill pub for a drink, walk back to the Zizzi restaurant to have a leisurely meal, walk from Zizzi’s through Market Walk to the bench in the Maltings (a mere 100 yards or so) and all the while showing no signs of physical distress – all this, then boom, and you’re unconscious?

Here’s another question: why, when a few days earlier, investigators from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) were collecting their own samples from ‘contaminated sites’, was the deadly front door only discovered after they had left?

One can only hope that OPCW gets brave and really sinks Theresa May’s nerve agent ship.  And if it does, Salisbury is due much, much more than £1 million.

Human Sacrifice in the Yucatán

One of the world’s great civilizations, the Maya, flourished in southern Mexico and parts of Central America for more than three thousand years. From about 2000 BC until the Spanish Conquest in the 16th century AD, various Mayan centers rose in their far-flung territories in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Maya peoples developed a hieroglyphic writing system, as well as ornate arts and sculpture designs, architectural innovations, complex mathematics and a detailed calendar based on their highly sophisticated astronomical calculations. Over the centuries the Maya withstood conquest by other indigenous peoples, sometimes for prolonged periods, and the systematic destruction of their culture by the Europeans.

The Spanish demolished Mayan temples, spreading Catholicism and disease wherever they went. The island of Cozumel, off the eastern Yucatan coast, now a destination for cruise ships and scuba divers, was once a sacred site of pilgrimage for the Maya, home of their Moon Goddess, where women came to seek fertility. At least ten thousand Maya were living on Cozumel when the Spanish arrived in 1520. But the smallpox they brought soon reduced the native population to a few hundred, who were later forcibly relocated to the mainland. As Wikipedia succinctly notes: “The Spanish conquest stripped away most of the defining features of Maya civilization.”

Despite the best efforts of the soldiers and the priests, Mayan culture and language persisted in part because some of its population centers were remote, and because some Maya peoples stubbornly and secretly persisted in their beliefs and customs away from the official gaze. When the Spaniards had taken everything they considered of value, they left the population of subsistence farmers largely to its own devices.

In the nineteenth century the Maya were “discovered” by adventurers, ethnographers and archeologists, who romanticized and plundered Mayan sites, including the “cenotes,” (pronounced “sen-OH-tays”) the underground rivers where Maya buried their dead, often laden with gold and jewelry. Mayan treasures – pottery, stone carvings, paintings, codices – ended up in museums and private collections around the world. Not until the mid-twentieth century did Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History organize against this systematic looting and demand the return of their national patrimony.

In 1964 Mexico’s National Museum of Anthropology opened in Mexico City. Full of archaeological riches, the museum features artifacts from many indigenous peoples of Mexico’s pre-Columbian past, including a generous selection of Mayan art and architecture, a fair portion of it returned from abroad. A visit here is a must for anyone who hopes to grasp the cultural and historical diversity of Mexico’s complex identity.

Though many Mayan pieces had been ripped from their original contexts – from tombs and temple walls in various sites in the Yucatán and elsewhere – at least some had now been repatriated to Mexico. But the most grievous threat to the legacy of Mayan culture was yet to come, in the form of apparent adulation that morphed into a full-blown assault that continues today.

One does not sell the earth upon which the people walk.
— Crazy Horse

In 1967 the Central Bank of Mexico commissioned a two-million-dollar study about how to attract foreign currency through tourism. The Mexican economy was in trouble, despite the country’s huge petroleum reserves. Mexico had nationalized all foreign oil interests in the 1930s to create PEMEX, the government oil monopoly. PEMEX constantly increased oil production but was unable to meet the even greater demand, as Mexico industrialized during and after World War Two. Combined with mismanagement and corruption, that demand forced Mexico to become an oil importer instead of an exporter.

The only tourist area attracting significant foreign currency to Mexico was Acapulco, a resort that came together in the 1940s when war eliminated Europe as a holiday destination. Through private investment and government assistance, Acapulco built infrastructure and luxury hotels that turned it into a jet set “playground of the stars” by the 1950s.

Mexico’s Central Bank – Banxico – had a different touristic plan in mind. Their study identified five areas of Mexican coastline – four on the Pacific and one on the Caribbean – ripe for massive investments in infrastructure and luxury hotels. Banxico formed an investment agency to create Ixtapa, Huatulco, Loreto, Los Cabos and – as their first project – Cancún. The plan was designed not only to attract foreign tourists and their currency but to provide jobs outside Mexico’s major industrial cities, where desperate unemployed people by the millions were crowding in from rural areas seeking work.

In some ways it seemed an unlikely, even quixotic, idea. The area now known as Cancún had a population of only about five hundred people in 1970. (By 2014 the population had boomed to 722,000 people and counting.) Roads on the Yucatán were rudimentary, as were the coastal ports. The few air strips could only accommodate small planes. Where only forested limestone plains and low hills existed, inland from a mostly empty coast, Banxico proposed to devise and construct a massive mega-resort zone. A number of extraordinary Mayan temples, pyramids and cenotes were also in this area, many of them protected and preserved only because they were largely inaccessible.

For the first couple of decades, things seemed to be progressing well in Mexico’s concocted Caribbean tourist Mecca. Tens of thousands of Mexicans found work constructing and staffing the huge luxury hotels, restaurants and other tourist services. The tax base expanded. Public services increased. Living standards improved. Foreign currency came rolling in. “From one of the most marginalized regions in the 1960s, the Mexican Caribbean became one of the wealthiest in terms of GDP per capita in 2000.”* Cancún’s new international airport became the second-busiest in the country, after Mexico City, with the most international traffic. Forty percent of all foreign currency generated by tourism is from Cancún.

But by the late 1990s the social and environmental costs of this rapid development and apparent prosperity had become acute and undeniable. Despite liberal federal government subsidies and tourism promotion, income inequality in the region was well above the national average. Insecurity was increasing. School attendance was down. Suicides and teenage pregnancies were on the rise. The reefs were degrading, partly as a result of pollution, partly from excessive dive tourism and partly from growing cruise ship traffic, which continues to increase. “Cozumel edged out Nassau to become the world’s most popular cruise destination in 2016,” according to the Oxford Business Group.

As the once-clear air suffers from increased motor traffic on the clogged roads, the paths to Mayan ruins suffer from increased foot traffic. Unless you arrive to visit ruins as soon as they open in the morning you will have to struggle through crowds of visitors at the once-pristine settlements. The streets of Tulum, a rapidly expanding city as well as a picturesque Mayan ceremonial site, are ankle-deep and in some places, knee-deep in littered garbage. Can it be redeemed? There is no sense that anyone is making any effort.

In 1984 a Hollywood movie, Against All Odds, was filmed using locations on Cozumel and Isla Mujeres, and Mayan sites at Tulum and Chichen Itza. According to the Internet Movie Data Base, that “was the first time permission had ever been granted by the Mexican Government to use these sacred ruins for a theatrical motion picture.” Visitors to those areas who see that movie now will be shocked at the changes that have occurred there in the past thirty-five years. Movie viewers can behold a natural and architectural beauty that no longer exists in reality, if they can take their eyes off Rachel Ward, or Jeff Bridges, depending on their predilection.

During the Christmas holiday, the peak of peak tourist season, many of the expensive guided tours to Mayan sites or natural wonders are abbreviated, without any advance warning or reduction in price, simply so that tour operators can entertain the highest possible volume of tourist traffic. Visitors only find out about the foreshortened experience in the middle of it, after they have paid. Human interaction has become commercialized and degraded. Tourists are dehumanized, as are the vendors and service providers. It’s all about money. Faces and identities of locals and visitors disappear in the mercenary blur.

In their rush to cash in on the tourist dollar, local merchants have rendered once-unique and charming landscapes into tacky pizza-t-shirt-tiki-bars and generic luxury hotels. And they’re not slowing down. Of course, this is a problem in many places, not only the so-called “Riviera Maya,” the bogus term boosters use to describe the ongoing metastasizing development down the Yucatán peninsula.

It represents a modern travel calculation: the value of a unique destination decreases in direct proportion to the number of visitors it attracts. Machu Picchu is struggling with this problem, as are Iguazu Falls and many U.S. national parks, prisoners of their own popularity. At this point, Cancún has exceeded its acceptable limit. There is less and less to see: reefs with no fish, jammed and littered beaches, coasts with diminishing beach access, and Mayan sites too crowded to really see, let alone contemplate. And just too damn many people.

The Mayan calendar, a detailed and highly accurate record, spanning centuries, ended at 11:11 a.m. on December 21, 2012. Some excitable New Agers thought the Maya were prophesying the end of the world. Perhaps they just knew it was the end of their world. Or maybe they just ran out of rock to carve. Centuries ago, when what is now a sprawling resort was a raw, barely inhabited wilderness, it was the Maya people who named it Kankun, meaning “nest of snakes.” In some ways – considering the hustling and price-gouging going on there now, not to mention the declining quality of life for the locals – that term seems prescient.

World travelers these days must struggle with what might be called The Galapagos Conundrum. Situated off the coast of Ecuador, the Galapagos Island group spans both sides of the Equator. The northern islands get the warm Panama current, while the southern islands get the cold Humboldt current. This variation in water temperature causes variations in habitat and among the species of animals who live in these islands. As Charles Darwin discovered, the same species of birds and reptiles differ markedly on different islands, though they live not far from one another in miles.

The Galapagos are a unique world unto themselves, with creatures that exist nowhere else, and great variety among (and within) different species. It is a protected national park, but also Ecuador’s touristic cash cow. The country is trying – as Peru is struggling at Machu Picchu – to limit the number of visitors to this sensitive environment, in order to preserve it, while making the maximum possible profit from its popularity. Peru has limited visiting hours and drastically increased entrance prices to the Incan remains at Machu Picchu, but still they come, without cease, visitors from around the world, to feel the magic firsthand.

So the Galapagos Conundrum is simply this: do you go there as soon as possible to experience this unique ecology for yourself before it disappears forever? Or do you refrain, in order not to contribute to the degradation of this sensitive place that it may continue to exist?

Sadly, that is a riddle too late to wrestle with on the Yucatán Peninsula. Those were not questions the Central Bank of Mexico ever asked. But Kankun may have more to worry about than pollution and the school drop-out rate. There are signs that the Mexican drug cartels are starting to muscle in on Cancún’s tourism industry as they did in Acapulco, demanding protection money and turning it into a ghost town, with lots of murderous violence. That would make its Mayan name a genuine prophetic curse.

Check out this shocking video:

• Author’s Note: Linda M. Ambrosie, Sun and Sea Tourism: Fantasy and Finance of the All-Inclusive Industry, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015, p. 111. Most statistical data in this article are from Ambrosie’s book.

Journeying to the DMZ

Seoul — Atrocity tourism and what might be termed the tourism of divisive obstacles (fences, barbed wire, mine fields) can be great money earners.  Former concentration and extermination camps in Europe bring in currency even as visitors shake with stunned grief and moral disturbance – tears and foreboding as valuable currency.

In South Korea, the money earner is the Demilitarised Zone, shortened to the seemingly innocuous DMZ.  Euphemised in such a manner, and one can forget the tens of thousands of helmeted men who gaze at each other at border points, or the thousands of artillery pieces in concealed spaces waiting to be deployed in a moment of annihilating fury.

Gazing across a territory with millions of unexploded mines, a territory that, ironically enough, is meant to be demilitarised, chills the blood.  Here, along the 38th parallel, another legacy of great power cruelty and avarice, two Koreas face each other on one of the most heavily armed borders on the planet.  This may be the site of the next regional, or world war, one that promises to be over with apocalyptic brevity.

Time and history are suspended here, a form of cryogenic storage.  There are monuments to the signing of the armistice that never formally concluded the war of 1950-1953.  There are scrap items such as shot up trains gloomily present in rusty solemnity.  A crisp, biting air adds to the atmosphere as the field glasses are deployed across from the Dora observatory. Birds of prey hover over an area teaming with ornithological variety, and seem indifferent, or certainly acclimatised to the megaphone music blaring across the border.  Two enormous flagpoles gaze at each other, accompanying flags limp.

Kaesong City can be seen from Mount Dora.  To the left, is something that could hardly count as a village.  “If you look to the left, it is a fake city,” points the guide Han.  That purports to be “Propaganda Village” or Kijong-dong, supposedly an incentive to lure those in the South who have had enough, and wish for the offerings of the north.

The guide is intent on educating his guests. In the manner of an overly enthusiastic master, he wishes to dictate things early.  “You will all be known as Han’s guests.”  He insists, with a weak stab at humour, on being called Han, or, should you wish, Han Solo.  If all things fail, he will settle with Rob.

As we make our way to the DMZ, Han feels obligated to regale us with stories punctuated by trivia.  In time, he starts to ramble, even prattle.  His points of discussion are suitably packaged for morsel-sized consumption, directed at social media junkies rather than bookish types.  These are not visitors who are too aware of their history, offering easy pickings.

He describes the situation for defectors, most of who come through China rather than brave the murderous parallel.  They are offered assistance and programs to integrate into South Korean society, though these are, in the scheme of things, modest.  The arms might be open in welcome, but these are only ever at half-stretch.  The citizens of the DPRK remain, at best, second in the political and social lottery.

To the border, moments of absurd optimism are presented. What promises to be an international station at Dorasan, a potential future meeting point on the way to Pyongyang, is heralded as another hopeful sign.  We do not know when, but the sense here is that the train service to the DPRK will commence, a state of affairs that will link the Koreas to lucrative trans-continental train lines, including the Trans-Siberian.  “Not the last station from the South,” comes the advertisement, “But the first station toward the North.”

Even across the unpromising barbed wire, the frosty gazes, the lethal defences, Han is confident: “Eventually, we are all going to be re-unified.”  At the station entrance is yet another installation to press home the point: a piano for reunification with its strings replaced by barbed wire.

The absurdity does not stop there.  Infiltration tunnels provide visitors a glimpse into the efforts of North Korean burrowers to find means of penetrating South Korean territory, though suggestions that these might be used in the event of an invasion are simply not convincing. For one thing, they are squat, narrow constructions that would only be suitable for an army of malnourished midgets on a suicide mission. An Indonesian lady, burnished with a hard hat, barely grazes the top. Taller visitors are not so lucky, and helmets crash and graze the tunnel as the claustrophobia sets in.

A few beat a hasty retreat on initially seeing the 263 metres before them.  To get to that tunnel requires traversing another dug entrance.  “Too crazy, too hot,” comes the surrendering lament of a thick set Indian man.  The walls, covered in coal glazing to give the impression of a legitimate mining venture, seem to be moving in; the back begins to ache, the muscles to tighten.

The tourist spectacle resolves itself in being stark, though, in anticipation of US tourists, take away coffee options are plentiful at meeting points through the DMZ tour. The knickknacks are poor in variety.  Ginseng brandy from North Korea is available for purchase, as are a range of trashy trinkets reflecting the parlous state of border relations.

On the return to Itaewon, the guide makes a modest effort to rein in his enthusiasm. He decides the visitors to go to the amethyst factory, promoting the magic of Korea’s national stone.  The employees at the factory pounce with unremitting fury, hoping to make a killing. Some succeed. Han Solo-Rob looks pleased.  Even in the shade of potential, existentially harmful conflict, business will go on as the Koreas continue, to a large extent, remain ghosts at the feast of power politics.