Repositioning Samaria

Despite obstacles, the region is trying to boost tourism with boutique wineries, cafés, biblical history and rolling hills.

Samaria is composed of 2,800 square kilometers of landscape, with 130,000 Jewish residents spread over it (photo credit: SOPHIE ASHKINAZE-COLLENDER)
Samaria is composed of 2,800 square kilometers of landscape, with 130,000 Jewish residents spread over it
There is something charming about the hills of Samaria. The landscape is open, but the valleys are intimate.
On the way up to Tapuah Junction, you pass the exit to Ma’aleh Levona and the ruins of an Ottoman-era travelers’ inn called Khan Lubban. A little farther north is the large ruined wall of Khurbet Kammuneh, an ancient building that no one has bothered to excavate.
This valley, like that of Nahal Kana farther north, is a bit of a world unto itself. This gives the hills of Samaria a sense of privacy, different from other parts of the West Bank.
Residents here want to remind visitors that when people speak of “Shomron” in Hebrew, or the northern part of the West Bank, that it is 2,800 square kilometers of landscape, a massive swath of land with 130,000 Jewish residents. When Israelis talk about Samaria they mostly mean the Jewish areas, not those cities such as Nablus and Jenin that are under Palestinian Authority control.
The Jewish community is young, with 54 percent of its members under the age of 18, with a high birthrate and population growth averaging 4-10%.
For decades that was the story of Samaria, an area known to its Jewish residents, Palestinians and the army. From time to time it would be remembered due to terrorist attacks, such as the massacre of five members of the Fogel family while sleeping in their home in 2011. It was also conceived as a strategic, hilly area from a security standpoint; Ariel, its largest town, is only 38 km. from Tel Aviv.
This proximity to the Center, with its many job opportunities, is something residents also emphasize, with the ability to commute there while maintaining a lower-cost lifestyle in Samaria.
In the last half decade, the face of this area has changed. One of those involved in that change is David Ha’ivri, a veteran public speaker and local activist who aids the local regional council in its desire to encourage tourism.
“I host groups on behalf of the local council and advise its chairman on international relations,” says Ha’ivri. He’s been living here for 28 years with his wife and now eight children.
When we met last week, it was a dreadfully hot day and a bit of haze hung in the air. Ha’ivri, who prides himself on pointing out landscapes far in the distance, was a bit dismayed. We couldn’t see the outskirts of greater Tel Aviv from Kfar Tapuah, a community founded in 1978.
Later in the day, standing atop a hill named 777 by the army due to its elevation, we couldn’t see Jordan, Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) or the Mediterranean. But surely they were out there somewhere.
Ha’ivri says that communities here want to open up and expose their reality to the world. “We develop tourism and private initiatives, families are opening businesses and the local government is interested,” he says.
Moreover, he points out, there is the draw of wines in Samaria. The Israel Wine Experience website claims this is a “perfect topography” for “perfect wine.”, which has a handy map of wineries, shows five kosher wineries in this area, some of them award-winning: Gvaot, Tura, Har Bracha, Gat Shomron and Bustan.
According to Ha’ivri, the wine revolution in this region began 17 years ago. It follows in the footsteps of the Jewish history that inspires so many who live here. Jeremiah (31:5) said, “Again you will plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria, the farmers will plant them and enjoy their fruit.” Ha’ivri, who has given many tours to visitors from the US and elsewhere who are eager to hear about Jews redeeming this land, notes that “scripture, archeology and terrain tell us there was more earth here in the past, but due to desolation the topsoil eroded.”
Not so long ago, as with the replanting of the vineyards, people had to carve this community out of nothing. Now there are four kindergartens, a playground and three synagogues in Kfar Tapuah, which Ha’ivri says is a community mostly populated by Jews with origins in Yemen.
We walk past a line of homes to a small coffee shop, its brown sign proclaiming “Good Coffe.” Like many of the signs here, misspellings are rife. Someone is putting money into tourism, but not into teaching English.
The little shop is pretty and homey. On one wall is secondhand clothing; for four years they have been selling coffee along with the clothing. It’s one of the new types of tourism ventures, says Ha’ivri.
After a quick coffee we get into Ha’ivri’s car for a drive out to the Givat Arnon vineyard, a small hobby winery near Itamar. There is a new road through Huwara, a large Arab town that straddles the road on the way to Nablus. We won’t be going to Nablus though, and instead take a right towards Itamar. Past a synagogue that commemorates the Fogel family and other terrorist victims, the road snakes over some hills, farther to the east.
THE VARIOUS initiatives to bring tourism to the West Bank are part of a larger attempt to bring tourism to regions throughout Israel, including the Galilee, Golan and Negev. In 2010, then-tourism minister Stas Meseznikov announced a NIS 40 million plan to support tourism in the periphery, where most of the country’s tourist sites are located. But getting tourists over the Green Line is a another hump.
A decision in the same year to encourage more tourism to “national heritage” sites sought also to bring Jews to Hebron and Gush Etzion. In the Samaria region, council head Yossi Dagan and other promoters such as Boaz Ha’etzni have sought to change the image of the regional council.
“We don’t see this area as peripheral to Tel Aviv,” stresses Ha’ivri. “This is the core and Jewish faith begins here, in the connection to Abraham, in that he heard God and arrived in Shechem [Nablus].”
All the towns along Route 60 have historic Jewish significance, such as Hebron, Ofra, Shiloh. Up here in Samaria, there is also the site of Mount Gerizim and the Samaritan village atop it. It has an overlook of Joseph’s Tomb, which is under PA jurisdiction, with Jewish groups visiting on a monthly basis amid intermittent Palestinian attempts to vandalize the site.
Another site of interest here is Sebastia. It was called Shomron 2,000 years ago, and is the source of the region’s name. Unfortunately, Sebastia, which was once an Israeli national park site, has been closed to the public for years, with access only via PA-controlled area.
We drive past Avri Ran’s Givat Olam, an organic dairy farm. From there the road passes Hill 777, and there is a sign for Givat Arnon. Shmuel Barak, who owns the winery, is a stocky man with an ample mustache. He doesn’t sport a kippa – a rarity in this area.
Barak came here 17 years ago, when it was a “blank slate.” Of Romanian background, he hailed from Nahariya. “We aren’t settlers here, we are resettlers,” he declares, addressing the image that these hilltops are festooned with Jewish communities. He planted a vineyard and began to make wine.
Barak is proud that near his winery is an old winepress. He shows how the ancient people used to crush the grapes and the juice ran down into a stone crevice, which was then covered for fermentation. According to him, this was one of the northern biblical areas mentioned from where wine was brought to the Temple. “It’s a one-day walk,” he says.
Perhaps people in the Bible were in quite good shape, because I couldn’t walk it in a day.
Inside his winery, which consists of a shipping container that has been added onto over the years, he shows off a 2013 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Sangovese. It’s quite good. He keeps it at 15º in a walk-in room, but he only sells to those who make their way here. He produces about 2,000 bottles a year.
As we pack back into the car for a drive over the hills towards Barkan, an industrial park near Ariel, Ha’ivri explains that people may see this area as one of conflict or “illegal settlements,” a term he rejects. “There is an image that it is ‘dangerous,’” he says, telling of tourists asking if they need to come on a bulletproof bus.
But he insists we should look at the terrorism that affects Tel Aviv and other areas. He also argues that despite the international community rejecting the legality of communities here, in order to encourage tourism the idea is to keep building and developing. As in the Kevin Costner movie Field of Dreams, “If you build it they will come.”
The Barkan industrial area employs 7,000 people, around 60% of them Palestinians from the area. Nearby is a community called Barkan that is secular, in contrast to the mostly religious Samaria.
Danit Samama and her husband Erez, a chef, run a small coffee shop and catering company here named Café Emma. With a lush front yard overlooking the rolling hills and a pretty kitchen, it looks like an ideal setting. She brings us fish fried in tempura, shakshuka, quiche and salads. It’s a nice end to a long day of touring.
Unfortunately, her restaurant is open to the public only on Fridays, otherwise providing catering to groups of 10 or more. It’s definitely worth it, the food is wonderful and apparently her husband also does excellent meats.
Driving back to pick up my car in Kfar Tapuah, I agree that there are definitely opportunities here for tourism. Some of the area, however, is experiencing growing pains. Residents have put up the signs and they want tourism, but they need more infrastructure. For example, they need more small places to stay, which the area seems to totally lack.
Either way, one thing they have succeeded in doing is removing the image of the West Bank as only a place of conflict.