Arabs and Israelis tell clashing tales of the land

Arabs and Israelis tell

Israeli and Palestinian hikers are taking to the hills in the footsteps of their ancestors - deploying maps, holy texts and walking boots in the long-running battle for control of the Holy Land. In Israel and the West Bank, bands of enthusiasts trek over the same paths mentioned in antiquity and past villages abandoned to wars. But Israeli and Palestinian hikers mostly emphasize their attachment to the land and ignore each other's historical footprints. In northern Israel's Ramot Menashe Park, guide Innon Kahalany recently led a group past pungent fig trees, bringing to life characters of the Old Testament, which he calls Israel's first guide book. He vividly described how on nearby Mount Carmel, the Jewish prophet Elijah challenged the priests of the heathen god Baal. But his entranced hikers were not told that they were standing near the ruins of seven Arab villages destroyed during the 1948 Mideast war when Israel became a state and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were driven out or fled. Kahalany said he speaks of those events carefully, if at all. "People don't like a history lesson, I try to make it easy," he said. Some 72 kilometers (45 miles) south, in the West Bank, Palestinian guide Saleh Jawad led a dozen hikers up a grass knoll to the ruins of the ancient village of Khirbet Kfar Ana, now used as grazing lands. His route was dictated not by the distant past, but by the reality of the modern conflict: He avoided sealed-off Israeli military zones and checkpoints, and stayed away from the Jewish settlements that dot the area. Settlers are free to roam the West Bank, which is mostly ruled by Israel and which Palestinians hope will be part of their future state. On the other hand, Jawad and other Palestinians would have a hard time getting a permit to enter Israel. At Khirbet Kfar Ana, Jawad described how the village was most likely destroyed a century ago by the Turks who then ruled Palestine and were upset at the villagers for harboring bandits. The conversation quickly fell to tracing a Palestinian connection to the land from biblical times. "This is exactly what this struggle is about," said Jawad. "It's the feeling that I'm walking on the land of my ancestors." Many Palestinians assert they are the descendants of the biblical Canaanites, who inhabited the Holy Land before the Hebrews conquered it. "We never left the land and they can see that," said George Rishmawi, a hiker who leads a walking group of Palestinian eco-tourists. Hiking - from school trips to weekend getaways - is far more ingrained in Israelis than in Palestinians. Pioneering Zionists established a hiking culture to strengthen the connection between ancient Israel and new Jewish immigrants, said Yael Guter, professor of Israel Studies at Bar Ilan University. The same impulse drives the Palestinians, but their recreational hiking is a nascent pastime, hampered by the Israeli restrictions on movement and their own cultural taboo that regards walking as something only poor people do. Jawad's three-year-old group was established by environmentalists, including Raja Shehadeh, who wrote a book about the diminishing trails of the West Bank. Rishmawi has created the Palestine Trail - part of a larger regional project called the Abraham Path, a planned 1,200-kilometer (750-mile) route that would follow the route of the patriarch revered by both Jews and Muslims from Turkey, where he reputedly first heard the call to God, to his burial place in the West Bank city of Hebron. Some believe hiking could hold a key to reconciliation, acknowledging the history of the other. Eitan Bronstein is the Israeli head of an organization that tries to educate his countrymen about how Palestinians see the 1948 war, including a campaign to signpost Palestinian villages destroyed in 1948, such as those in the Ramot Menashe Park. "It's important to know," he said, "because not to know is to continue the conflict without knowing why there is a conflict."