Report From Israel, 1957 – Part Two

Jerry F, Going Postal
Map of Israel.
Unknown artist, reproduced with permission

In 1957 my uncle, John Alldridge visited Israel for the Birmingham Mail. This is the second of his reports. – Jerry F

Gunfire over Galilee

We were sitting on the veranda under that golden guinea of a moon sipping tea – the milkless; lemon-flavoured, after-dinner tea the Israelis love – when I heard it.

A coughing bark, not unlike a car back-firing, carried clear across the lake.

And I caught myself sitting straight up in my chair, every nerve on guard. For I have heard it too often in the past 15 years or so to mistake the sound of a .303 Service rifle.

It came again. A volley, this time: aimed, it seemed to me, from a patch of moonlit water, far out on the lake, where a dozen fishing boats rode at anchor, their stern lights twinkling.

I looked round that crowded hotel veranda, where the endless games of Russian whist had been going on for hours. An elderly Israeli, in braces and black skull cap, looked up and commented briefly: “Shuv pa’am” (“They’re at it again!”) and cut for trumps.

The talati, or comb-fish, is a curious fish, about six inches long, with an enormous head and a comb-like spine that stands up along its back. The male talati has the odd habit of carrying its young in its mouth, a sort of floating nursery.

And it is sometimes called St. Peter’s fish because, according to the legend, it was from the mouth of this fish that Peter took the tribute money that morning at Capernaum, a few miles down the lake from here.

Grilled, with mashed potatoes and a glass of white Carmel wine to help it along, it makes very good eating.

Since the time of St. Peter the fishermen of Galilee have gone out after the artful talati. It was probably a pair of talati with which Jesus fed the five thousand. For though, today, there may be Christian Arabs and Moslems, among them the habits, the methods of work, and the tools of the trade are much the same as in the days of Peter.

You will remember that the disciples, when first called by Jesus, were “casting” their nets.

Well, they still “cast” their nets into Galilee: with a swift, over-arm motion that drops the weighted net bellying into the waters like a ballet dancer’s skirt.

But since 1949 casting nets on the Sea of Galilee has become a dangerous business. I wish the men who drew up that crazy frontier line could sit with me here on the lakeside and see how absurd a thing it is in practice.

For though the waters of this harp-shaped lake are officially In Israel, there is a stretch of about seven miles along its eastern shore which, from ten metres above the high water mark, is officially part of Syria.

Right in the middle of this strip is the Syrian fishing village of Nukeib. Now the men of Nukeib, on the Syrian side, have fished the lake for as long and as often as the fishermen over here in Tiberias.

But since 1949 the Nukeib men have not fished the lake. Legally, that is. For the lake is part of Israel and to fish it Syrian fishermen must hold a licence issued by the State of Israel.

And as the Government of Syria refuses to admit that the State of Israel exists it is impossible for a Syrian fisherman to apply for a licence.

So the wretched fishermen of Nukeib are in a hopeless position. They stand beside their useless nets looking down into waters teeming just now with sleek, fat talati (For ironically, the fish’s favourite gathering ground is right outside this disputed seven-mile strip).

They are caught between the devil and the deep. Behind them, up there by that lone solitary pine tree, is a Syrian police post to prevent them putting out. Out on the lake cruises an Israeli patrol boat to confiscate their catch if they do.

And so they are forced to turn poacher. For a man must live. They sneak out after dark, drop their nets, then hang about until just before dawn, to snatch them up and bolt for home.

But the Israeli patrol boat is usually waiting for them, anyway. And when that happens they lose both their fish and their nets.

Sometimes, of course, it works the other way round. Israeli fishermen return to their grounds to find their nets cut. Sometimes raiders and raided meet at the net, and there follows one of those short, sharp, bitter little battles such as I heard last night.

Now this sort of thing is trivial enough in itself. But you must see it as part of a pattern. Part of a deliberate pattern whereby a ring of implacable allies are seeking to wear down the morale and injure the economy of their smaller but stronger enemy.

So it goes on at a hundred points along Israel’s 2,000 miles of disputed frontier. A fishing net cut, a tractor fired on, a sheep stolen, a cyclist waylaid on a lonely road.

All part of the pattern.

But to come across it here in Galilee, on the very site of that Sermon on the Mount, seems blasphemy.

“Blessed are the peacemakers”… There is no peace here on these placid, grey-green waters. Only an uneasy truce that may be broken today, tomorrow, any day…

Reproduced with permission
© 2023

Jerry F 2023