Hiking in the West Bank – A settler’s journey

Trekking from Rimonim to Jericho accompanied by grazing sheep. (photo credit: AVITAL SWISA)
Trekking from Rimonim to Jericho accompanied by grazing sheep.
(photo credit: AVITAL SWISA)
Editor’s note: This is a first-person account that describes the story of a young woman who grew up on a settlement in the West Bank, and her desire to test her boundaries and explore her surroundings. The Jerusalem Post does not endorse travel to areas restricted by the State or by the rules of other governing bodies, or anyone putting themselves in potentially dangerous or compromising situations. However, as a personal account, the author’s story raises questions of perception, identity and what to do with an insatiable curiosity.
Every fear contains a certain grain of truth, a real reason to be scared of going to a country or meeting its people. There are rumors, propaganda, images of violence and danger that appear on the news, and it’s easy for one’s imagination to take over – filling in the blanks and making a place more fearsome than it actually is.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve given myself a personal mission: To discover places considered hostile to Israelis, or just plain risky.
In this way, I’ve traveled to Afghanistan, Somaliland, Chechnya, Dagestan, Oman, Iraqi Kurdistan, the Central African Republic, Chad, Egypt, the Palestinian territories and more.
Some of these places were so tranquil, I had no problem hitchhiking or finding a place to camp. The images meant to instill fear and caution were just remnants of past wars. Yet other places brought with them tense experiences.
In a series of articles, I will describe my adventures traveling in these “risky” areas, and the surprising things I found along the way.
MY JOURNEY starts in my hometown, a small settlement on the West Bank – with 700 families, four synagogues and a small shopping center with five stores. The shopping center was also the local social center, and the closest thing to nightlife.
Outsiders found no reason to stop there, except for one man with a specific aim. One day during the first intifada, he entered the commercial center, approached the pizza stand and detonated himself, killing three teenagers.
The town was stricken with grief, followed by a flurry of ceremonies, memorials and hard questions. How did a terrorist enter a fenced settlement? How did he smuggle a bomb into the middle of our shopping center? The only answer, it seemed, was to build another fence.
Yet terror attacks continued for years after this incident. More precautions were taken: another fence around the settlement, an outer “security road” for patrol jeeps, an even more extensive alert system, additional concrete barricades, another bypass road, a bypass of the bypass road, and a fence around the bypass of the bypass.
By the end of the process, our village looked like a fortress on a hilltop.
When the intifada ended, people continued to barricade themselves into the settlement. Once in a while, someone would walk down to the creek, a kilometer or two below the settlement, but making sure to carry a weapon.
Old laws and military ordinances were renewed, or more strictly enforced. Israeli citizens were not allowed to enter zones where the Palestinian Authority had full control (Area A) or partial control (Area B). Later, they were not allowed to roam on foot outside the settlements, in areas that remained under Israeli control (Area C) without notifying the IDF. After being notified, the army had the right to forbid individuals from hiking there.
Some people were stopped by the IDF or police for visiting the spring near our hometown. The reason for this was simple: The government and army did not want trouble. The best way to avoid trouble was to put everyone in a box.
EVEN BEFORE the intifada, we had limited freedom of movement.
Before the fences were built, my street was bordered by wild brush, and that was the limit of our compound. As a child, when I rode my bike, I would reach the bushes, observe the incredible view and do a U-turn back to the house. A few times, I tried to leave the village and go down the hill, but there was always a concerned neighbor who stopped me: “Don’t go down there! There are wild boars and Arab nomads roaming in the valley; it’s dangerous for you!” In sixth grade I tried, along with four friends, to reach the spring below the hill.
We were caught. My friend’s father spotted us from the top of the hill and yelled: “Come up here right now!” He told our parents, our teachers and the school principal about our little trip.
The principal gathered the students and lectured: “A group of girls went to the wadi, and this is very dangerous! You children should keep safe; don’t walk outside the settlement.” This was followed by the rabbi’s speech: “God tells us to preserve our lives and keep out of danger – keep your lives out of danger!” It grew exhausting living in a box.
About a decade after the terror attack in the shopping center, my friends and I decided to escape the fence and embark on a journey around the West Bank. For four years we hiked in the canyons, visited old ruins and entered Palestinian towns.
Accessing these areas proved to be a difficult task. Every Thursday we phoned each other while holding a topographic map that marked areas A, B, C and army zones in different colors. We would choose a starting point – usually the Jewish settlement that was closest to our desired starting point. We would hitchhike to that settlement, then go on foot for a few hours until we reached the Palestinian area, avoiding roadblocks by walking in fields and orchards. Once we reached the Palestinian town, it was easy to enter – they had no fences.
Sometimes we would call friends who were recently out of the IDF, checking for information about the location of checkpoints and new security barriers not marked on the map.
We drank tea with the Beduin, fellahin (farmers) and Israeli settlers. We learned Arabic. Sometimes we wore crosses and pretended to be Christian tourists to avoid trouble. I can honestly say this was the first time in 20 years we actually experienced life in the West Bank.
Here are some of the more memorable experiences.
Guns and cholent
One of my first treks took place in the area of Mount Hebron. We parked in a settlement and walked down a ridge, taking a shortcut and entering a farm. A gunshot scared us out of our minds.
We thought we are being attacked by Palestinians, but a Jewish settler with a kippa and a gun approached us, screaming hysterically.
“What are you doing here?!” “Hiking,” we said.
“Oh, sorry. I thought you were anarchists.
There are a lot of anarchists and peace activists walking around here, disturbing the peace. One of them, I think he’s gay; yes, I’m sure he’s gay. They help the Beduin; the Beduin bring their sheep here, the sheep eat the grass.
“I’m protecting the grass. Ever since I’ve settled here the grass is flourishing, and I’ve discovered three species of grass! “I would have invited you to eat cholent, but we ran out of it. Is there anything else you’d like to eat?” “No, thanks,” we replied.
“Okay. Just take care of yourselves, and next time don’t come here without asking in advance. You scared me!”
Good people by the side of the road
Since that incident, we’ve trekked the Hebron Hills many times. In the heart of the region on a hilltop, there’s an old Jordanian police station that was deserted after the Six Day War; the Beduin call it Hashem al-Daraj. It overlooks a beautiful landscape, with the Judean Desert in the east and the Hebron Hills in the west.
In the past, it was used to protect and collect tolls from people and merchandise moving from north to south, from the desert to the hills. Nowadays, the building lacks a roof, walls, pillars and tiles; the Beduin long ago stripped it of anything of practical use, and the historic building is crumbling. Despite that, the station serves both the Beduin and hikers as a shady spot for coffee and cigarette breaks.
We too were attracted to this semi-stable building, so we spread our sleeping bags on the station’s floor.
A Beduin named Jamal found us lying on the pallets.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“Where are you sleeping?” “Here.”
“Not good. There are animals here, hyenas. Come sleep in my house.”
We entered his car, a mongrel vehicle descended from a Subaru that had clearly undergone many reincarnations and lost a license plate throughout its existence.
“Come to my house, see how the Beduin live,” Jamal welcomed us.
The Subaru promptly broke down when it tried to ascend a hill.
“That’s how the Beduin live,” he said wryly.
Jamal and his friends jumped out of the car, pushed it up the hill and jumped back in. The car drove to a Beduin settlement – a cluster of tin shacks, concrete houses, old Subarus and Subaru corpses.
Jamal moved his two wives and seven children to the adjacent room, slept in the yard, and gave us the big living room to sleep in by ourselves.
Since then, we have returned many times to Hashem al-Daraj. We have met Jamal’s friends at the station and sent him our regards, but have yet to see him again.
WE DID meet other great people.
The first time I visited the Palestinian village that neighbors my settlement, it was by accident. A narrow, dry creek separates the hill – where the Palestinian village sits – from the hill on which our settlement was built. Walking down to the creek, we took a wrong turn and climbed up the hill to the Arab village.
My friends wanted to go back down to avoid entering the village, but I was too tired, and we fought about what to do next. We decided to enter the village to hitch a ride back home.
Feeling tense, we entered. Walking the streets, we ended up meeting a nice family who invited us into their home, feeding us spinach soup and sweets. They were very friendly, and any tension we had previously felt evaporated.
“We are neighbors,” they said, “we live so close. You can feel free to come here again!” In the suburbs of Hebron, we met an old Palestinian couple who lived in an ancient flour mill. They made sure to gift us with a full bag of grapes. Another man named Ahmed insisted on finding us a ride home.
“You are Jewish, I can tell,” he said plainly. “There’s no point in hiding it.
If you stay here there will be trouble.
We are a good village but there could be some crazy people here, who knows. My cousin will drive you to the nearest Jewish settlement.”
His cousin arrived with a garbage truck. Before we entered the vehicle, Ahmed said: “I used to work in Tel Aviv, but they canceled my work permit when the intifada started. So if in Tel Aviv you meet a Palestinian who needs help, please help him. I helped you.”
The truck drove through his village, entered the highway and dropped us at the gate of a Jewish settlement. When we walked up to the gate and met the local head of security, he invited us to join him for lunch at his house.
His phone rang continuously throughout the meal.
“Sorry for the disturbance,” he said.
“Some hikers from our settlement entered the neighboring Palestinian village and caused a commotion. All security forces are tense.”
We looked at each other, wondering if we were the commotion-causing hikers.
But an hour later, three hikers showed up at the gate of the settlement. They had entered the same village that our garbage truck had passed through; some locals had thrown rocks at them, while others secretly called the Israeli security forces.
The Palestinians knew that if something were to happen, work permits for jobs outside the West Bank might be canceled, and there could be a curfew until the IDF found the assailants.
In this conflict zone, people in both the village and the nearby settlement wanted one thing: peace and quiet.
I ended up getting a ride home with one of the commotion-causing hikers.
He was a very generous and friendly guy, but was full of anger and carried himself in an aggressive and macho way.
“You should change the way you walk when you enter a Palestinian village,” I told him during the ride. “It will only cause you trouble. You notice that I hike in the same areas as you, without getting into trouble.”
“I will walk however I want and if they don’t like it, f--k them!” he fired back. “I hate them so much. They shot me once while I was hiking around the Hebron Hills; a few times, they threw rocks at me during hikes. I did nothing to them, I was just hiking! They killed my friend during his trek, he did no harm either.
“We had 10 terror attacks in this settlement, you can’t expect me to like our neighboring village!” Most settlers in the area preferred to stay entrenched in the settlement and avoid trouble; they stayed as far as possible from their Palestinian neighbors. The fences and movement restrictions were meant for this, and they were willing to pay the price. But this man kept searching for a life without fences, while also looking for trouble – and at the same time, keeping the local security chief busy.
The security chief knew the impassioned hiker from childhood. When he met him at the gate, he said: “I had a feeling it was you. Can you please stay out of trouble?”
Jews, sex!
We trekked in the beautiful canyons winding between the Binyamin hills, ending in the city of Jericho. We visited Jericho’s water park, Banana Land.
Before the second intifada, it was a popular recreation spot for Palestinians and Israelis alike; after the intifada Israelis were prohibited from entering, and Banana Land lost clients.
We sat in the empty restaurant between a small canal and a children’s pool. From there we cut to the main road, accompanied by a local kid who had just reached puberty. He yelled out: “Jews! Jews! Sex! Sex!” and his persistence was admirable.
The problem was that we were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the last thing we wanted was to be discovered.
Stolen cellphones and broken windows
One time, a number of French and Israeli friends that I introduced to West Bank hiking trekked Wadi Kelt, stopping at a Palestinian village at the end to buy some shwarma. When they went back to their car, parked not far from the shwarma stand, the windows were broken and their cellphones stolen. A group of local men gathered around them.
“What the hell is this?!” my friends demanded in English.
“Oh, you are tourists?” said the men.
“They thought you were Israeli so they broke into your car. How embarrassing.
We are so sorry.”
Eventually, the village elders mediated the return of the cellphones for a small gratuity.
Hiking groups in the West Bank
Once, we organized a coexistence hike for Palestinians and settlers; it was the first activity of its kind. Before that, there was a settlement that arranged sing-along parties for its residents and Palestinians.
Rumors claimed the Palestinians were warned by their brothers against participating, but we decided to give it a try.
Since Israelis are not allowed to enter Palestinian villages, and Palestinians are not allowed to enter Israeli settlements, we spent a long time searching for a Jewish settlement close enough to a Palestinian village that would enable us to park and meet in the same place. We found only one place that matched these criteria.
We were 30 settlers and five Palestinians.
The participants were happy to meet each other, and we communicated in four languages – Hebrew, English, Arabic and sign language. The hikes died out because we couldn’t find enough Palestinians that were really interested in trekking.
There were other hiking groups in the area, mainly comprised of settlers who also were tired of living in a box. One guy named his group after two of his friends who were shot by Palestinians while hiking in the West Bank; another arranged biking tours. Some of these groups were huge, with 100 to 200 hikers following the leader in the wadis.
There were many groups of all kinds: families, young adults, religious, secular and more. Participation was free, and the leaders had one aim: To turn the West Bank hikes from a bizarre and risky activity to a normal hobby. Some hikes ended with arrests, some resulted in attacks from local Palestinian villagers.
Eventually the army became more flexible with its regulations, and permits were granted more often.
Nowadays, it’s more common to see teenagers exiting their settlements to bathe in the nearby creek.
OVER FOUR years of hiking, my friends and I watched the landscape change rapidly.
New things were being built all the time: fences, roads, villages, settlements, security roads, bike trails, memorial parks and promenades. They were added by both Israelis and Palestinians for economic, nationalist and security reasons.
As the nature slowly started disappearing, I found myself traveling to neighboring Jordan to trek new territory.
It was then I decided to declare a mission for myself: to visit countries that have tense relations with Israel, or no relations at all. I’ve visited incredible places in the Middle East and Africa; sadly, I was refused entry to Sudan, South Sudan, Libya, Algeria, Yemen and Pakistan. Yet I met amazing people everywhere. I have tried to create my own reality of a safer and friendlier world; I find this a better reality to live in, even if it’s a false one, and it continues to motivate me to explore.
I look at my country and wonder: Can I expect them to live as I do? Can the settlements, and Israel past the Green Line, give up their fences, making their homes more vulnerable and putting their children at risk? Probably not. Can we find a solution that is beneficial for both sides? Hard to say.
And finally: Can there be peace in the Middle East, or is it just a cliché for pop songs and hippie festivals? I’m still looking for the answer.
The next installment of the writer’s journey around the world will be published on March 6.