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Exploring the Pleasures and Perils of Hiking in the West Bank: A Palestinian Perspective


[Five years ago, Majdi Abu Zaid was invited by a comrade to join a recreational hiking group in the West Bank, an opportunity for Palestinians to rediscover their ancestral landscapes. From the first outing, he was captivated. Now, Abu Zaid is questioning whether the terraced fields, babbling creeks, and deep desert valleys less than an hour’s drive from his home are too perilous to explore. Last week, there were extended firefights in the West Bank city of Jenin, strikes by Apache combat helicopters and Israeli fighter drones, and a lethal Hamas shooting near an Israeli settlement, evoking memories of the second intifada. Israeli settlers rampage through Palestinian village following Hamas shooting Armed Israeli settlers, empowered by their far-right government, embarked on days-long rampages across occupied land, setting Palestinian properties ablaze and firing live rounds at civilians. They are on the hunt for Palestinians in their villages or on surrounding trails, aiming to intimidate them into leaving. “I’m not a coward, but I stand helpless in the face of the settlers’ pathological madness,” stated Abu Zaid, who works as an anti-corruption adviser with the United Nations Development Program in Ramallah. For the past five years, he has been hiking with Sarha, which means “roaming” or “wandering” in Arabic, one of several similar groups that have gained popularity in the region during the COVID-19 travel bans, providing urban West Bank residents with an opportunity to connect with the land, even as it is increasingly closed off by expanding Israeli settlements. Hiking offers Palestinians physical fitness, social connections, and direct contact with the diverse and stunning topography of the West Bank. However, living under Israeli military rule, this seemingly simple activity is also fueled by national defiance. “We are starting to discover the beauty of hiking, as something distinct from normal life—work, occupation,” explained Abu Zaid. “But we also know that wherever we go, there will be settlers.” This month, he and his friends set out with Sarha to explore a rugged seven-mile stretch of land surrounding Beitillu, a quiet Palestinian village dotted with archaeological ruins, sheep farms, olive groves, natural springs, and, as of last month, a new Israeli outpost. Hanan Ramahi, the director of the American School of Palestine in Ramallah, has also been a regular participant over the past six years, since returning from a PhD program at Cambridge University. The activity provides her with a rare break from the stresses of the city and the movement restrictions imposed by Israel. Hiking is “psychologically therapeutic, literally,” she said. “On another level, it has also enabled me to get to know Palestine and make my connection to the land stronger.” On recent hikes, she has developed a vision for her Palestinian homeland—not necessarily in the form of statehood, but in the form of institutions that would make it more “livable” for young Palestinians, such as fellow hiker Mahmoud Jallad. Jallad, aged 18, hopes to attend business school in Barcelona in the fall. He is spending his final summer here hiking in the mornings and spending time with friends until late at night. Gathering wild sage, mulberries, and citrus fruits, he expressed concern for his fellow Palestinians, who “are forgetting that they should all belong to one thing, and that’s Palestine.” “These days, everyone’s following a different national faction rather than a national goal,” he remarked, referring to the aging, deeply unpopular leadership of the Palestinian Authority and an increasingly decentralized armed resistance movement. If he could, he added, he would join the young people who regularly clash with Israeli soldiers, but his parents do not allow it, having “invested a lot in my education.” Simon Jaser, Sarha’s guide, worries about the “high possibility” that hikers could be killed or injured on West Bank trails. Security concerns following last week’s escalation prompted him to change the route of Friday’s hike. Two days earlier, 400 armed settlers rampaged through the Palestinian village of Turmus Ayya, north of Ramallah, torching cars and homes, including some with children inside, and shooting at civilians in retaliation for a terrorist shooting the previous day in which two Hamas gunmen killed four Israelis and wounded four others near the settlement of Eli. Smaller settler attacks followed. On Saturday, a mob of settlers, some masked and accompanied by at least one furloughed Israeli soldier, according to an Israeli military statement, descended on the Palestinian village of Umm Safa, shooting at civilians and setting fire to an electricity generator, cutting off power to homes in the area. Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights group monitoring the West Bank, reported that at least eight outposts, which are considered illegal under Israeli and international law, were established on the windswept hills nearby. Hiking groups have long had to navigate settler violence. In October, a settler on a hillside rained stones down on Sarha members as they walked through the deep valleys of Muarajat, exposed. They were forced to sprint nearly two miles out of the line of fire before finding cover on another trail. Since then, they have made the painful decision to stay away from the area, knowing that their absence will be seen as a victory by settlers. In January, the same Israeli settler who attacked the Sarha group in Muarajat was caught on video assaulting a group called “Let’s Hike”—composed of Palestinian students and activists from Italy, France, and the United States—with clubs, batons, and pepper spray. Several hikers, including an Italian national who had a fractured arm, ended up in the hospital. “The assault constitutes a practical translation of the threats made by extremists who rose to power in Israel,” said Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh at the time. Israel’s government is the most far-right, pro-settler administration in the country’s history, composed of ultranationalists, religious conservatives, and strong advocates for the annexation of the West Bank, which is home to over 3 million Palestinians. Before last week’s surge in violence, Israel had announced plans to expedite the construction of over 4,000 additional settlement units. The new streamlined process, changed for the first time since the 1990s, will be partially overseen by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a radical settler who has called for a Palestinian village to be “wiped out” by the Israeli army. The U.S. State Department denounced the move, stating that the newly announced settlements “make a two-state solution more difficult to achieve and are an obstacle to peace.” In response to the American condemnation, the Israeli government doubled down. “Run to the hilltops and settle yourselves there; we support you!” exclaimed National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir during a visit to the West Bank outpost of Evyatar. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boasted during a cabinet meeting on Sunday that he had “doubled settlement” in the West Bank “despite great and unprecedented international pressure.” On Monday, Israel’s Higher Planning Council approved the construction of approximately 5,600 settler housing units in the West Bank, including 1,000 near the West Bank settlement of Eli, which was announced last week following the Hamas shooting. A State Department official expressed deep concern. Palestinian hikers are closely monitoring the news, but they remain committed to continuing their treks, even if it means bypassing newly built outposts or other hotspots. Jaser, the guide, emphasized that most members value the workout as much as the social gathering. Recently, after the hike, they indulged in musakhan, a beloved Palestinian dish of sumac-spiced chicken and onions on flatbread, sharing jokes and singing folk songs beneath the shade of an olive tree. “Walking connects us to the land and to each other,” stated Jaser. “We’re not going anywhere.”


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