Their presence is almost surreal in the much bombed and fought over land of Israel. But the gum trees are friendly, especially to an Australian visitor. It's as if a single ghost gum represents every Australian soldier who ever fell in the Middle East, through all the many decades that Australian soldiers have been fighting and dying there.
The Middle East is an indelible part of Australia's past and of its future. Our strategic engagement there is in the direct defence of our national interests, for the Middle East is the pivot of global conflict.
Three weeks in Israel recently presented a compelling series of images. Often enough it's images that are fought about in the Middle East. Yet in the context of Israel, it is seldom images of Israel that attract attention. It is images instead of the Palestinian territories. These are indeed compelling and they are among the most reported, seen and discussed images in the world. They deserve attention. But here's something else.
Alongside the territories is a much under-reported but fascinating and unique country. It's called Israel.
The world media makes a mistake by using the same reporters to cover the Palestinian territories as well as Israel. They can't do both, and most don't try to.
They cover the territories and they only cover Israel as a brooding and malign presence in the territories.
Naturally the reporting is one-sided. But it is worse than that. It omits from the equation Israel and the Israelis, and all the countless enthralling and diverse aspects of Israeli politics and society.
It is ever the fate of stable, democratic countries, even those involved in a conflict, to be under-reported. Israel was more reported a few years ago, when terrorists were murdering 1500 of its citizens a year. Now, with the security barrier, wrongly labelled a wall when it is mostly a fence, terrorist infiltration is much more difficult and perhaps a dozen or so Israelis are killed a year by terrorists.
Although Israel is a physically small country - it's one-third the size of Tasmania - most of its seven million people distribute themselves over incredibly diverse cities.
Jerusalem is an eternal city: the centre of Judaism, the fountainhead of Christianity and an important site for Islam. Visually it is stunning, its character maintained by the most enlightened civic ordinance on record: that all new buildings must be constructed of white Jerusalem stone. Like most Israeli cities it has several diverse communities: ultra-orthodox religious Jews who don't serve in the army and often don't work, Arab Muslims, Arab Christians (a small and diminishing minority), secular Jews, and national religious Jews who serve in the army and participate in the modern economy.
Tel Aviv, Israel's biggest city, is entirely different. It is a sensuous Mediterranean city that offers every decent amenity of any cosmopolitan European city. Its hedonism and its sensuousness are tempered by the strategic gravity of Israel's situation, by everyone doing their military service and by the cultural depth of Judaism, the traditions of the book. Tel Aviv is predominantly secular Jewish, with very few Arabs and ultra-orthodox Jews.
Haifa, the port city to the north of Tel Aviv, is different again. It has the largest Arab minority of a big Israeli city and is where Arabs and Jews most easily and fully mix together, although such mixing occurs all across Israel. Haifa is also the world headquarters of the Bahai faith, which was founded in Iran and has suffered terrible persecution there and so has fled to two countries where religious minorities are not persecuted: Israel and India.
Israel is full of such anomalies. The Druze are a small, separate, Arab religious group found in Lebanon, Syria and Israel. Within Israel, they are fiercely loyal to the state of Israel (the Druze in Syria are loyal Syrians and in Lebanon loyal Lebanese) and serve in the Israeli army with great distinction, so that many have been represented in its most elite fighting units.
I caught a glimpse of another Muslim minority, the Bedouin, from the air when I flew in a small plane over the Negev Desert, south and east of Tel Aviv. There I spied dozens of small makeshift settlements, more or less completely outside legal regulation. But these were not the illegal Jewish settlements of media legend. They were Bedouin encampments, often of a few caravans or houses, seemingly impossibly isolated, scattered through the desert. The problem they cause is for those trying to get education and social services to their children.
To the east of the Negev, on the edge of the Dead Sea, I got an aerial glimpse of Masada, the astounding mountain-top fortress where a group of Jews made their last stand against the Roman Empire. On another day, visiting a northern part of the Dead Sea, I came upon a group of tourists cavorting joyfully in the strange, viscous, mineral-filled water. Their accents were unmistakable. They were a group of Malaysian tourists; yet Malaysian passports bear the absurd restriction that says Malaysian citizens may not visit Israel.
One night I dined at the home of a local Israeli Arab leader in the almost entirely Israeli Arab town of Abu Ghosh, just west of Jerusalem. It has always been identified with the Israeli state. My host had his complaints about the Israeli Government but he was also a proud Israeli. And every night his town, which has many restaurants, is full of Israeli Jews at the countless eateries because, and here I'll make a clear statement of cultural preference, Arab food is generally a little more interesting than Jewish food.
I spent days in the north of Israel and visited the town of Metulla, on the tiny tip of a finger of Israeli territory that juts into southern Lebanon. Until the 2006 war with Hezbollah, its people were repeatedly attacked by rockets from southern Lebanon. The municipality organised field trips away from the town for the children, but mostly the residents stayed. I visited the town's Canada Centre to try the odd practice of pistol shooting on the gun range. Here's another paradox of Israeli society. Many people have guns but it is not remotely a macho society. Its murder rate is low. Binge drinking is not part of the culture. Nobody fires a gun into the air at a wedding. Although the shortest time in Israel is between the light turning green in front of you and the car behind you honking, people don't settle traffic disputes with gunplay. Israelis argue - loudly, abrasively, obsessively - at endless length, but they seldom resort to fisticuffs.
I saw Gadot, the now disused network of bunkers and tunnels constructed by the Syrian soldiers in the Golan Heights. Before Israel seized the Golan Heights, Syrian soldiers would fire from the bunkers at workers on the kibbutz below.
But I also sought out the controversial images of Israel, in particular those of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank. A word on definitions. After the 1967 war, when Israel was attacked by a coalition of its Arab neighbours, Israel took territory in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. Some of this, Israelis argue, is necessary for security.
It has since left Gaza. Israel is constantly urged to go back to its 1967 borders, but the two places where it has done that, in southern Lebanon and Gaza, the result has been disastrous. It was subject to thousands of rocket attacks from southern Lebanon until it went to war with Hezbollah and now every day Qassam rockets are fired from Gaza at nearby Israeli civilian towns, especially Sderot.
The final borders between Israel and a putative Palestinian state have yet to be worked out. Every inch of territory with a Jewish inhabitant beyond the 1967 borders is commonly referred to as a Jewish settlement. I spent days driving up and down the West Bank and visited as many Jewish settlements as I could. These included suburbs of Jerusalem such as Gilot and Har Homa, big settlements just outside Jerusalem such as Gush Etzion and Ma'ale Adumin, and the biggest, distant settlement, the town of Ariel.
Although I think Israel will be prepared to give up numerous settlements in the West Bank, I don't think any of those named above will be given up under any circumstances. The stereotype of the Jewish settler, as columnist and author Hillel Halkin has written, is of "a belligerently bearded Jew with a knit skullcap on his head, a Bible in one hand and a rifle in the other". It's a stereotype I didn't meet at all in any of these settlements, and not for want of trying, although of course I met only a fraction of the nearly 400,000 Jews who live beyond the 1967 lines.
There are certainly ideologically militant and intolerant settlers, but they are a minority. While committed to Israel like virtually all its citizens, the settlers I met lived where they did for a variety of reasons, mainly the lower cost of housing, the communal lifestyle and educational opportunities, and sometimes because of a desire to be connected to biblical lands.
The status of the different communities routinely lumped into the single category of settlements varies enormously. Israel officially annexed some parts of East Jerusalem straight after 1967. Although there may one day be a compromise on Jerusalem, no Israeli government will give up central suburbs such as Har Homa and Gilot.
For an Australian it is almost impossible to imagine the smallness of the distances involved. Gilot was routinely fired on by snipers in Bethlehem several years ago, and so, well before the security fence was put up, Gilot had its own system of walls and shields, especially for children's playgrounds. For Gilot to be fired on from Bethlehem is like Sydney's Surry Hills being fired on from Redfern, or Richmond being fired on from the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Jerusalem, in the view of many Israelis, becomes indefensible without its Jewish suburbs developed since 1967.
The status of Gush Etzion, a little distance to the southwest of Jerusalem, is also intriguing. It was a Jewish area before 1948, when the UN divided the land of Israel into Jewish and Palestinian states, which the Palestinians and their surrounding Arab neighbours declined to accept, so that several Arab nations launched a war on Israel. The Jordanian army took control of Gush Etzion at that time.
After 1967 it was re-established as a Jewish settlement. Gush Etzion as a Jewish settlement has a 20th-century history long pre-dating 1967. Before the intifada, to get to Gush Etzion you would drive through Bethlehem. Israelis in those days commonly went to dentists in Ramallah, because it was cheaper. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians earned a good living working in Israel.
The need to prevent terrorism has compromised everyone's quality of life. Now, to get to Gush Etzion from Jerusalem, you drive through a tunnel road. When you emerge from the tunnel, a good deal of the subsequent road is behind walls. The road is Israeli, the land on either side is Palestinian territory, and of course there are checkpoints to get back into Jerusalem as well as armed guards at the entrance to Gush Etzion.
And yet life in Gush Etzion is normal. Behind the gates people hitchhike routinely (as they do in much of Israel) because they all trust each other. On the day I visit, a group of American Jewish teenagers are there as part of a program to acquaint diaspora Jewish youth with their cultural heritage. They are the normal loud-mouthed, good natured, overbearing American kids.
The only odd thing about them is that they are accompanied by two security guards, in this case Israeli girls who look barely older than the teenagers they are guarding and carry rifles as tall as themselves.
The mayor of Gush Etzion, Shaul Goldstein, tells me that many people live there because of the availability of quality housing. They can buy a good apartment for $US200,000 ($228,000) and for a little more, a house with a garden. That's impossible in Jerusalem proper. And the settlement has renowned schools. Says Goldstein: "We thought during the intifada that people would leave. But people didn't leave. Instead they kept coming, even from Australia, even from Bondi Beach.
"One reason is the community lifestyle. People's children can walk safely from house to house. People also feel they are part of history. I'm driving to work through the path of King David. It's important to me as a religious man."
The most emphatic settlement I visited was Ariel. It's a Jewish town of about 30,000 people, deep in the West Bank. Ariel University College has about 10,000 students, 3000 of them doing pre-undergraduate courses. The student population is racially diverse, as is Israel. The Ethiopian presence is noticeable. But Ariel officials tell me some local Palestinians attend as well, although of course they are under pressure not to.
Ariel is a small but substantial city. It is a beautiful place, full of public gardens and garden homes, and it has a distinctly European air and style. People don't like to use the back road to Jerusalem because even in these relatively calm days there is the danger of attacks. Just a few days before I visit, a Jewish settler, not from Ariel but from nearby, was killed on the road, as it turns out by two Palestinian Authority policemen who simply waited for a victim to come along.
I attend a seminar at Ariel on the international media's treatment of Israel. Leonard Asper, the Canadian part-owner of Network Ten in Australia, delivers an alternately witty and fiery denunciation of the media's bias and hostility against Israel. Later Asper, former Israeli defence minister Moshe Arens and I tour the university. It is doing remarkable, cutting-edge work on laser technology. It is able to do this because of the one million Russian Jewish immigrants who have come to Israel in the past 15 years.
Among them were many brilliant scientists and intellectuals. Some Israeli universities were cautious about hiring them, unsure whether their budgets could sustain rapid academic expansion. Ariel went ahead and hired the best Russians it could get, and the research funds have followed.
I comment to Arens that it is a good time, a calm time, in Israel. He replies: "It is calm only because of the efforts of the Israeli Defence Forces, not for any other reason."
Of course the settlements and their future are endlessly debated in Israel, as is everything else. I left Israel profoundly optimistic about the morale of the society and the resolve of the people, but profoundly pessimistic about the peace process. If there were peace, any compromise on borders might be possible. But too many Arab leaders, and too many Palestinian leaders, are playing for the very long term and still believe that in time they will wipe Israel off the map.
Apart from the overwhelming experience of visiting the Yad Vashem museum recalling the Holocaust, the most powerful image I saw in Israel was in a small office in the Knesset (parliament) building in Jerusalem. I had gone to see Ephraim Sneh, a white-haired veteran Labour Party politician and soldier, a former cabinet minister and a former general.
He points to a picture on the back wall of his office. It is of two Israeli F-15 fighters flying over Auschwitz. "When we didn't have F-15s, we had Auschwitz," he says.
His grandparents, he tells me, were killed by the Polish farmers they had paid to shelter them. You learn the lessons of trusting other people with your security.
Israel will certainly make compromises. But it will not commit suicide.