How To: Travel Safely in the West Bank, Palestinian Territories
YOU’LL PROBABLY START from one of two open-air bus stations, both of which lie outside Bab al-Amud, better known as Damascus Gate, the most imposing exit from the Old City of Jerusalem. If you’re planning independent travel, start by heading up Salah ed-Din Street to the Educational Bookshop for a copy of ATG‘s Palestine & the Palestinians.
The nascent West Bank tourist sector means even short-stayers can get a taste of Palestinian life and culture. Several operators, including the Alternative Tourism Group (ATG) and Tours In English, run daytrips to Bethlehem and Hebron.
These combine visits to the 60-year-old refugee camps, which are still home to thousands of Palestinians, with ancient sites like the Church of the Nativity (actually several churches stuck together, where various Christian denominations run turf wars over the birthplace of Jesus) and the Ibrahimi Mosque/Synagogue (where Old Testament figures such as Abraham, Isaac, and Sarah are buried).
Day tours are a good way to explore the West Bank. They guarantee you an English-speaking guide, information on what cultural niceties to observe, and an interpreter for the checkpoints you may have to pass through.
To get a deeper view of Palestinian life and culture, however, it’s worth hopping one of the green or blue buses heading out from the twin stations of East Jerusalem.
Most of the blue buses from Sultan Suleiman Street (across the road and to your right as you walk out of Bab al-Amud) go to the south of the West Bank. This includes Bethlehem and its neighbouring city of Beit Sahour — the “Place of the Watchers,” those shepherds who “watched by night” in the Christmas carol.
Bethlehem and beyond
As well as Bible sites, Bethlehem is home to archaeological remains like Herodion, a hilltop palace built by King Herod, and cultural venues like Dar Annadwa, which hosts craft exhibitions and music ranging from traditional oud to DAM, a big name in Palestinian hiphop.
Bethlehem has plenty of mid-range hotels aimed at pilgrims, such as the Paradise (refurbished after a fire in 2001), but is thin at the budget end, although the Star (022743249) is reasonable and has wifi.
Beit Sahour has cheaper options at the Arab Women’s Union, homestays arranged through ATG, or the guesthouse at the Bustan Qaraqaa (“Tortoise Garden”) permaculture project. Bustan Qaraqaa and the Arab Women’s Union also offer volunteering opportunities.
Beyond Bethlehem is Hebron, a fascinating but deeply troubled city which is best visited with an organised tour, unless you’re planning to stick around as a human rights observer or medical or media volunteer.
Farther east, in the desert leading to the Dead Sea, is Jericho. Getting here is a two-leg journey; by bus from East Jerusalem to the Palestinian town of Azariya, and a second shared taxi from here to Jericho.
A day tour from Jerusalem or Bethlehem is a good enough option, unless you really want to take your time exploring the ancient sites in the oldest city on Earth. For overnighters, Hisham’s Palace (022322414) is the cheapest hotel.
Back at Bab al-Amud, green buses leave from the second bus station, on Nablus Road (head out of Damascus Gate, across the road, and a hundred yards up the hill). These go to the administrative capital of the West Bank, Ramallah, and from there to Nablus.
Ramallah, with its NGO and diplomatic community, is the West Bank’s most cosmopolitan city. Like Bethlehem, substantial Christian and international populations mean you’ll see plenty of women without headscarves.
In both cities some hotels and restaurants serve alcohol — expensive imported spirits, jet-fuel raki, and Taybeh, the excellent German-style brew from a village outside Ramallah.
The family of dedicated beer-lovers who make it even hold Oktoberfests every autumn.
Ramallah is the place for Palestinian high culture, with theatre, exhibitions, cinema, and music at the Sakakini Centre.
President Arafat’s tomb is also worth visiting — as much to hear wistful stories of home from the ferocious-looking guards as for the sleek mausoleum and flags snapping in the hilltop wind.
Unless you’re volunteering or taking classes at Bir Zeit University, there’s not much reason to stick around, but if you do the Wehdeh is probably the cheapest and most amiable place to stay.
Just off Manara Square in central Ramallah is the dismal bus station. Here, bored drivers compete to see how many teabags they can stick to the ceiling. Occasionally they also allow a shuffling, frustrated crowd to load up with shopping and suitcases for the journey to Nablus.
Nablus is something special, but it’s a tough city to visit. Years of military incursions have made some people suspicious of strangers, and the iron ring of checkpoints which close the city at intervals has crushed the economy.
But here you can experience the world’s best kanafe (a hot sweet made of stretchy cheese covered with crispy vermicelli and doused in syrup) at the Al Aqsa bakery.
Visit a sixteenth-century factory to watch soap being made from local olive oil, as men from the same families have done for half a millennium.
Deep in the souk — a real souk which sells blankets, cheap shoes, vegetables, and spices, not souvenirs and postcards — is the herbalist’s shop, full of strange concoctions brewed by a lonely expert who studied in Southampton, England.
In the al-Shifa Hammam, you can be scrubbed and massaged in the last working Turkish bath in Palestine (just check which days are for men and women — no mixed bathing here!).
And with your privileged international passport, cross the checkpoint onto Mount Gerizim and meet some of the few hundred remaining members of the Samaritan community.
The only hotel in central Nablus is the Yasmeen, which has a restaurant serving local families in the early evening and menfolk smoking nargilas and drinking coffee late into the night. It also has wifi and staff fluent in various languages, but the rooms can be bitter in winter.
Nablus is more conservative than Bethlehem or Ramallah; you won’t find alcohol and most women wear hijab. But observe some basic etiquette — dressing modestly (men and women) and wielding some survival Arabic — and people are supremely warm and welcoming. Palestinians take hospitality seriously, and in a traditional city like Nablus the shopkeeper offering you tea and a chair isn’t just trying to sell souvenirs.
In a place where people feel completely misunderstood and rejected by the international community, many Palestinians want nothing more than to tell you their stories.
For a related discussion, click over to How To Travel To Dangerous Places at Matador Abroad.