Sunday, January 29, 2006

Israel: Be'er Sheva

Ready for another road trip, I pointed the G3, the Green Gas Guzzler, south toward Be’er Sheva.

Accompanied only by my CDs, the drive of an hour and a half passed quickly.

My main interest in Be’er Sheva was the Israel Air Force Museum, so that is where I started.

I arrived just before noon on a January Saturday, and it looked like I had the whole place to myself.

Inside the exhibits hall, there were glass cases showing Air Force uniforms and gear from different periods. There were also several nice dioramas depicting famous Israeli air campaigns.

The hall was full of Israeli soldiers on a fieldtrip. Just like school kids on a fieldtrip, the soldiers seemed more interested in yakking with each other than looking at the exhibits. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I myself wasn’t much interested in the exhibits. I only looked around for a few minutes before I moved on to the main attraction, a parking lot full of aircraft.

The parking lot ‘o planes was cool. There were over 100 pieces on display, covering the full range of Israeli military air history.

Along with the planes, there was a lot of interesting information. For example:

-- Israel purchased five P-51 Mustangs from the U.S. in the 40s and smuggled them over as “agricultural equipment”. Once the planes were back in Israel, however, the reassembly took longer than expected. Only two were ready in time for the War of Independence.

-- Israel pieced its first two Spitfires together from junk planes that the British had left behind and from an Egyptian plane that had been shot down. During the War of Independence, the Israeli Spitfires (numbering around 90 at the time) took down 5 British planes, among others, and never suffered a loss.

-- On October 28, 1956, an Israeli Meteor N.F-13 shot down a plane carrying Egypt’s military leadership. The minister of defense, however, had changed his plans at the last minute and lived to see another day.

-- The first dogfight in the Middle East took place in August 1955 when an Israeli Meteor F-8 shot down an Egyptian Vampire.

-- In 1959, the Fouga Magister CM-170 became the first plane produced by Israeli Aircraft Industries. It was a training aircraft.

-- Israel captured two Syrian MiG-17s in 1968 when their pilots mistakenly landed on an Israeli airstrip. Doh!

-- In 1966, an Iraqi fighter pilot defected and flew his MiG-21 to Israel. The Israelis renamed the plane 007 as a nod to the Mossad and Air Force Intelligence agents who had orchestrated the defection.

-- A Syrian MiG-23 was gifted to Israel in 1989 by another defector.

-- The Israelis built two SA-341L Gazelle helicopters from Syrian units that had been shot down. To rub salt in the wound, Israel put them back into service with both Syrian and Israeli insignia.

-- In 1982 the Israelis decided to make their own fighter jet. Only four prototypes of the Lavi were built before the program was scrapped in 1987 for being too expensive.

-- In the 80s the U.S. Navy leased 25 Kfir F-21s from Israel for use in war games.

-- The Nesher was the first fighter jet made in Israel. Mossad spies provided the plans, and production began in 1969.

-- The Avenger, an anti-submarine plane, was only used as a crop duster in Israel.

-- Israel acquired some German Dornier DO-27s in 1964 as part of Germany’s reparations deal. Israeli lawmakers concealed this from the Israeli public until 1972 to avoid arousing anger.

-- The Douglas DC-3 served in every Israeli campaign from 1948 to 2001.

All told, I spent 2 hours among the planes, and I didn’t see anyone else until a family appeared right as I was leaving.

The Air Force Museum was on the outskirts of town, so when I finished there, I headed back toward the city center.

The name Be’er Sheva can mean either “well of seven” or “well of the oath”. Way back when, Abraham dug a well on the site of the current city. Water is a hot commodity in the desert, and soon enough some king laid claim to Abraham’s well. Before things got too far out-of-hand, Abraham offered the king seven ewes. The king accepted them and acknowledged Abraham as the owner of the well. So the name of the city can be interpreted as reflecting their oath of peace, the seven sheep, or both.

In any case, my next stop was Abraham’s Well which was downtown at the visitors’ center.

I paid the few shekels admission and had a look. The well was covered by a decorative wrought iron grate.

While I was there, I also had a screening of the town’s welcome video. It was quite a piece of work. The jazzy music and snappy cinematography really made Be’er Sheva look like a happening place. I was nearly ready to move there by the time the show finished.

Before I left, I perused some the pamphlets at the information desk. I also looked at the few items that were for sale. Alas, there was no “I ♥ B.S.” t-shirt.

From the visitors’ center, I went to the old city and wandered around. Nearly everything was closed, so there wasn’t that much to see. Be’er Sheva has much less of a European feel than does Tel Aviv, and the people I encountered were a more diverse lot.

Most of the townspeople didn’t pay me any attention, but some watched me like hawks as if they had never seen a tourist before.

While I was in the old city, I decided to rustle up some dinner.

Most of the restaurants were closed, but I eventually found one that was open. I had arrived between lunch and dinner, and the joint was deserted.

This particular place didn’t have menus, so the waiter tried to recite the options to me. Unfortunately, he didn’t speak English. Even with my sorry Hebrew, I can usually do OK in restaurants. On this occasion, though, I didn’t even have to try. As soon as he saw that I didn’t speak Hebrew, the waiter led me back to the kitchen and had me select my dinner from the fridge.

I picked out a chicken fillet, and the cook grilled it.

In a few minutes, I was enjoying the chicken along with fries and salad.

As I was eating, the owner of the place turned up. After checking on things in the kitchen, he came out to talk to me. He started in the usual way by inquiring as to how I liked the food.

Then he pulled up a chair and gave me an earful about all the trials and tribulations he had experienced in making aliyah (Jewish immigration to Israel). I do not recall from where he came, but he had had a rough time in Israel with culture shock, language, legal issues, employment, and all the rest. Six years in, though, he seemed to be doing pretty well for himself.

I could tell by his “if I can make it, so can you, kiddo!” tone, that he thought that I was a new immigrant. This was understandable, I guess, since all he knew about me was that I was from America; I was living in Tel Aviv; I had been in Israel for 5 months; and my Hebrew sucked. I didn’t bother to set the record straight.

After I finished my meal, he continued talking to me over tea. When I eventually left, he saw me to the door and told me to come back with my friends some Friday night to enjoy the live music at his restaurant. I told him that this sounded like a good idea, although in reality I didn’t foresee ever spending a Friday night in Be’er Sheva. It’s a bit too far out of the way from Tel Aviv.

Anyhow, my car was waiting for me where I had left it, and I drove home under the setting sun.

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