West Bank Travels
While the West Bank probably isn’t most people’s idea of a pleasant autumn break, I spent much of a recent November there, travelling independently, not as part of a tourist group, religious group or an NGO. I didn’t know what to expect – can you just go ahead and visit? What about checkpoints? Would my movements be restricted? Is it possible to travel freely around the West Bank, and then return through Ben Gurion airport without too much kerfuffle?
In the end, it was perfectly feasible, despite an increase in tensions just as we were heading out. The plan was to spend the first days in Jerusalem before moving on to Bethlehem, from where we would continue to travel in the West Bank. We had two guide books – Footprint Israel for airport security consumption, and the Bradt Palestine guide, smuggled in the bottom of my travel bag, for our own.
Is It Safe?
You need to be lucky with your timing and not to run into trouble, but here’s an interesting point to bear in mind – as an outsider, you are not the problem. No-one has any grievances with you. The Palestinians are warm and welcoming, and they want you to tell people back home how they live and what they have to put up with. And ironically, with the Middle East in the mess it’s in right now, Israel/Palestine has possibly become one of the safest destinations in the region.
I will admit that most guide books advise against anyone who 'looks very Jewish' travelling to the West Bank. I have no idea if they might run into trouble – my experience was very much that if you treat Palestinians with warmth and respect, you get that right back. But that's what the guide books advise, and I'm in no position to disagree.
Where To Go
Our trip took us from East Jerusalem to the heart of the Old City, where we stayed for several days, really soaking up the incredible atmosphere. I was so struck by our time there it became the inspiration for my novel, Hotel Jerusalem, about a woman who's visiting the city, and who feels completely out of her depth. Much more on that to come.
After a week, we moved on to the West Bank towns of Bethlehem, Hebron, Ramallah and Nablus. I will write more on each of these, but it was terrible to see how Israel's so-called 'security barrier' has ripped the life out of the largely Christian city of Bethlehem, destroying much of its economy, and Hebron in particular was a shattering experience. Leaving the West Bank, we stayed in the two Palestinian cities in Israel, Nazareth and Acre.
In all, we had a month so didn’t rush it, but this is a small place and you could visit it in half the time – we actually met someone who hired a taxi and visited pretty much all of the West Bank in one day. Obviously he wouldn't have met anyone or notched up anything like the experiences we had.
But much of visiting Palestine is about the places you can’t visit. Many heritage sites have been claimed by the Israeli National Parks Authority which prohibits access to Palestinians. We did not visit the Dead Sea, or Herod’s fortress Herodion outside Bethlehem, or either of the two Byzantine churches just outside Jericho for that reason.
In each town we did visit, however, we did our best to boost the local economy, enjoying freshly-squeezed pomegranate and orange juice, the ubiquitous falafel, salad and pickle-stuffed pitta, fruit and sticky sweets. We also bought souvenirs and gifts – embroidered bags, jewellery, scarves, and a keffiyeh, as well as za’ater, the delicious herb dip, and dibbis, a rich date syrup you mix with tahini for breakfast.
Was It Ever Frightening?
I never felt frightened, but there were times, particularly in Hebron, where I felt intimidated by Israeli soldiers. As far as the Palestinians were concerned, we were greeted with nothing but warmth, kindness and hospitality.
It’s not only possible to travel to Palestine, it’s easy, and a pleasure.
‘Tell people,’ our hotel manager in Nablus implored. ‘Tell people the truth about Palestine. The more who come, the more who see, the better for us.’
In writing these pages, I am trying to keep my word.