IIt was a beautiful morning in mid-October when our bus left Ramallah, carrying some 50 young Palestinians eager to walk through the hills of the southern West Bank. What followed was truly an authentic Palestinian hiking experience.
The walk was organized by Right to movement, a group founded by Palestinian youth in 2012 that I am involved with, with a mission to create a culture of running and raise awareness about the restrictions placed on Palestinian life due to the Israeli occupation. The 14 km walk would begin in the village of Al-Jab’a, 17 km north of Hebron and 15 km southwest of Bethlehem, in an area surrounded by a group of Israeli settlements belonging to the Gush Etzion settlement block.
It was still only 7.30 in the morning when my friend Laurin, frustrated, exclaimed: “Look, this is our right to movement!” We had barely made it halfway to the starting point when our bus stopped at the infamous el-Container checkpoint (aka Qidron junction). This checkpoint, deep in the occupied territory and blocking the only road that Palestinians can take driving north-south through the West Bank, is highly unpredictable.
Our bus was stopped and the Israeli soldiers demanded to see the identification cards of all the passengers. Two soldiers noticed that I had taken a photo of the checkpoint through the bus window and asked me to get off. They took me to a concrete room at the rear of the checkpoint. The soldiers yelled orders at me: “Empty pockets! Hands on the wall! Spread your legs, more, more, more! “Before the soldiers let me go, a soldier shouted:” I am the boss here, this is my checkpoint, you are nothing. “By the time the bus with all its passengers was allowed through, we were already 45 minutes late for the start of the hike.
Upon reaching Al-Jab’a, we headed towards a valley north of the village. The first sight, not even a hundred meters into the valley, was an all too familiar scene during the Palestinian olive harvest season. There was an old man, maybe in his 50s, coughing and mangled next to a pile of cut olive trees. “They cut down all my trees,” he said. “I took care of the trees since I planted them in 2000, they are like my children.” He pointed in the direction of the Bat Ayin settlement, sitting on the top of the hill south of Al-Jab’a village, accusing the settlers of having cut down the trees.
I later found out that the settlers had really cut 300 of this man’s olive saplings. Over a two-week period in October, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that more than 1,000 Palestinian olive trees had been burned or damaged in the West Bank. That first scene on our hiking trail, heartbreaking as it was, was part of the authentic Palestinian outdoor experience.
We continue our walk. In the valley, we walk through small vineyards, olive groves and sheep pastures. The only constant backdrop during our walk was the illegal sprawl settlement from Beitar Illit On top of the hills in front of us It is one of the fastest growing settlements in the occupied West Bank. We continue on our way, walking through the valley below the settlement, to the Palestinian village of Wadi Fukin.
He had visited Wadi Fukin once before, with a delegation of foreign dignitaries who wanted to learn about the impact of Israel’s settlement expansion. The most striking feature of this town is its location in a deep valley. The view was stifling. A small town that resembles the nightmares of claustrophobia.
On the trails leading to it, I ran into a middle-aged Israeli man on a dirt bike. A short time later, he was joined by two other motorcyclists and happened to pass us by, towards Wadi Fukin. I thought they might be lost, to which the local guide replied, “No, this is all like their playground.” Of course, the right to move and roam freely in this land is defined in a way for Israelis and in a completely different way if you are Palestinian.
About a dozen kilometers into the hike, we reached Ein Al-Hawiyah, a natural spring in the hills between the villages of Battir and husband. As our group descended to the spring, a group of local Palestinian children at the top of the hill started yelling at us, thinking we were Israelis. That was to be expected. Recently, Palestinian access to our own natural springs in the West Bank had become much more limited due to the restrictions of the Israeli occupation. Here it is much more common to see Israeli settlers next to these springs, often armed.
We conclude our walk in the agricultural town of Battir, a UNESCO World Heritage site, famous for its old irrigated terraces and for the production of massive aubergines. Battir has a stunning green landscape and water is always flowing. When we organize hikes in the West Bank, most people consider Battir to be the most suitable starting or ending point for a hike due to its natural beauty.
While Battir may be one of our last havens of intact wilderness, it is seriously threatened by the expansion of Israeli settlements. On the same day that we concluded our walk in Battir, the higher planning council, an arm of the Israeli government, proposed to build about 1,000 settlement units in the lands of Battir and al-Walaja, thus expanding the nearby illegal settlement of Har Gilo, west of Bethlehem.
To the untrained eye, the West Bank is incredible, with all its rolling hills, unspoiled wilderness and stunning scenery. When we organize walks at the local level, we want to remind Palestinians who join us from the closed cities of the West Bank that this territory, our territory, has beauty, a lot of beauty. This is the beauty that Israel’s military occupation and settlement enterprise covets.
The Palestinian hiking experience is unique in its own way. We walk, enjoy the scenery and at the same time mourn the curse that is the occupation and its endless impact on our lives. Through the walk through our lands, we hope that all participants recognize that this beauty exists in our lands, that we have the right to be here and we must never stop fighting for its preservation.
• Jalal Abukhater is a writer from Jerusalem
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