Israel 2009: the awesome and the awful

2009 is drawing to an end and that means a quick look back at quite a year for Israel. It all started so badly, entrenched in a bloody battle in Gaza, with tourism grinding to a halt. But things soon turned around, the tourists started visiting again and even big name performers flocked to the Holy land over a long, hot summer.

So, just in case you needed a reminder, here are some of the awesome and, well, irksome, moments from 2009:

January – War in Gaza brought the world’s press to Israel for all the wrong reasons. Not the best way to kick off a year, but welcome to the Middle East…a Middle East caught in a different light by the amazing movie Waltz with Bashir, which picked up a Golden Globe but missed out on an Oscar.

February – Election time in the Holy Land. Yes, once again. And once again, sitting in the Prime Minister’s chair was “Bibi”, Benyamin Netanyahu. A little more pleasing on the eye was Israel’s super-super-supermodel Bar Refeali, who was featured in a Valentines Day campaign for UK retailer Marks and Spencer.

March – Costumes galore for Purim, Israel’s finest fancy dress party. And in preparation for a summer boost in tourism, especially following the dismal start to the year thanks to the conflict in Gaza, BMI announced it was doubling the number of flights to Israel. The honeymoon didn’t last: in November BMI announced they would be cutting all flights to Tel Aviv, to take effect from January 2010.

April – Tel Aviv kicked off its 100th birthday celebrations, while the mother country Israel partied like only Israel knows how on its 61st birthday. Of course, these celebrations could only happen once beer and pita bread were back on the menu, post-Passover. The end of April saw the moment 99% of all Israelis eagerly anticipate – the official opening of the swimming season on Israel’s beaches.

May Pope Benedict XVI visited Israel and the West Bank amid much fanfare and anticipation of a deluge of Christian pilgrims, which didn’t quite happen. Depeche Mode launched a summer of international performing acts with a great, if not spectacular show at Ramat Gan stadium. The cheapest ever flights to Tel Aviv (from the UK) were also launched by

June – Meant Gay Pride month in Tel Aviv, complete with all kinds of promotional activities, including campaigns by Israel carrier El Al. And by God, the confirmation that Leonard Cohen was finally coming to perform in Israel meant a nation could finally sleep at night.

July – Meant the Maccabiah Games – one of the world’s biggest sporting events, but you’ve probably only heard of it if you’re Jewish or live in Israel. Did absolutely nothing for me, but it’s all about the taking part, innit. The Pet Shop Boys outdid themselves in Tel Aviv, and even appeared live on Israeli TV. The long hot summer continued with Israeli men growing huge cucumbers and Israeli resort Netanya declaring its intention to become the new Ibiza. The Dead Sea was also nominated as one of the candidates for the Seven Wonders of the World. And then EasyJet confirmed their new London-Tel Aviv flights, starting at £72 ($116), the first low-cost carrier to make it to Israel! Phew, what a summer!

August – Back to earth with a bump: a masked gunman attacked a youth center for the gay community in Tel Aviv and killed two youngsters. Lady Gaga wowed in Tel Aviv. Maccabi Haifa qualified for the European Champions League, and brought some respect back to Israeli football, but then we should probably stop right there…

September Madonna came and conquered the Holy Land with two sellout gigs. And then a nation sat in its seats as Leonard Cohen wooed. Both will surely be back after witnessing some spectacular September sunsets.

October – Another war with Lebanon loomed, but this time it was all about the hummus. Tel Aviv had its final centenary celebrations, while the High Holy Days drew to a close (and the country reopened).

November – Tel Aviv paid its own flash mob tribute to the deceased King of Pop Michael Jackson, while legendary Rock God Paul Anka gave it his best shot at two gigs in Tel Aviv. The whole country was on tenterhooks waiting for the first winter rains to fall.

December – A nation went crazy for the iPhone, or at least so the media led us to believe. Donuts were everywhere (thanks to Hanukkah). Not everybody wanted to sit on Santa’s knee, but the Pixies gave many a music fan in Israel a great little Christmas gift with news of their first ever gig here next summer. Possibly the crowning moment of the month: President Shimon Peres launched his own YouTube channel.

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