THINKING OF PALESTINE, the first thing that comes to most people’s mind is the conflict with Israel: a never-ending tale of occupation, rockets, settlements and protests. So, Not exactly what you would call an ideal holiday destination. Israel is (in quieter times) a popular holiday destination. Parties in Tel Aviv, religious and cultural monuments in Jerusalem, the Red Sea beaches in Eilat and an organized trip to the Dead Sea can form a very relaxing holiday.
It’s time to change that perspective. Because from time to time, I feel homesick to my favorite club/restaurant/swimming pool (all at the same place) in Ramallah, the knafeh in Nablus and the scenic route from Ramallah to Jericho. Since the Lonely Planet offers very little information on tourist sites in Palestine, here’s my top 5.
(Please note that since visas to enter Gaza are very difficult to obtain, this top 5 consists solely of locations on the West Bank. I would also say this article should not be interpreted as an argument against visiting Israel or supporting any side of Israeli-Palestinian conflict: just that, it is important even in a war zone, to understand the beauty and culture which lie beneath. The importance of culturally significant or geographically beautiful areas becomes – if anything – more marked as the conflict continues.)
Contrary to what one might think while taking the highway from Jerusalem, the Dead Sea is not bordering Israel, but Palestine. The ancient city of Jericho is closest to this salty sea with its cleansing mud — even though most of the access points to the sea are Israeli. After floating in the Dead Sea, take a quick bite in downtown Jericho and then head to the lowest cable car ride in the world. The cable car takes you to the Mount of Temptation, where Jesus Christ is said to have resisted two of the Devil’s temptations during his forty days long fast. One of these entailed turning a stone into bread – this stone can be found inside the monastery and provokes strong emotions in many religious visitors. Underneath the cable car is another interesting stop: the archeological site of the oldest city in the world, as Jericho proudly proclaims itself. The remains of this ancient town date back around 20.000 years.
4. Eat knafeh in romantic Nablus
Cultural heritage has become subject to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The village of Susiya in the South Hebron Hills is one such example, the ruins of the Herodion just outside Bethlehem is another. When BuzzFeed published an article on the ‘17 most incredible desserts of the world’, its labeling of knafeh as an Israeli pastry, the delicious dessert became center of another cultural controversy. The Palestinian city of Nablus is famous across the Middle East for its knafeh – many argue it is the best there is. To label such a dessert as Israeli, is as close to treason as one can get in the eyes of a Palestinian. The heated debate over who made it first, does not make the cheesy pastry soaked in a sugar-based syrup, with its typical orange top layer, taste any less delicious. When wandering through the city’s narrow streets, several bakeries give you the chance to witness the baking of the pastry, and taste it when it’s still warm. The romantic vibes of Nablus are best enjoyed from the top of one of the surrounding hills. They provide you with an amazing view of the city and its surroundings. These include several Israeli outposts, which slightly damper the romance. Nonetheless, the view is almost as good as a fresh bite of warm knafeh. 3. Taste the revolution in Taybeh
When you visit Jericho from Ramallah, consider a stop at the small village of Taybeh. This small, quiet Christian village has amazing views of the hills of Palestine, but is also home to the only brewery in Palestine. The brewers, who named their beer after the village, are happy to give tourists a tour of their small brewery. They will proudly tell you the story of their company, which exports to several places around the world, including Germany. Struggles with importing ingredients and exporting the beer have not stopped this company from brewing several types of beer. The struggles of the brewers, as well as the Palestinian people as a whole, have inspired the beer’s slogan ‘taste the revolution’.
If you visit Palestine in October, don’t miss Taybeh’s very own Oktoberfest, and if you like to work up a sweat, try hiking in the hills around the village. Many other locations on the West Bank are perfect for a hike as well – and in some cases, organized hikes are arranged.
2. Feel the revolution in Hebron
Perhaps the most contested city in the West Bank is Hebron. The second largest city on the West Bank (only East Jerusalem has more inhabitants) is built around the Tombs of the Patriarchs, or the Cave of Machpelah, making it a holy city for Jews, Muslims and Christians alike. In the heart of the city, a community of orthodox Jews causes a lot of tension with the Palestinian inhabitants. The darkest page in a history full of violent clashes between Jews and Muslims is the massacre that took place in 1994. As a result, the Jewish and Islamic side of the Cave of the Patriarchs are nowadays strictly divided and security is very tight.
Parts of Hebron’s old city center, including the main street (Shuhuda Street), are closed for the Palestinians. Any citizen of Hebron will have a personal story related to the conflict, one they’ll gladly share, in the spirit of what is often referred to as the Palestinian Cause (spreading the word of Palestinians suffering because of Israel). The stories will be intense, but their determination to survive and make their best of the situation is thick in the vibrant, narrow streets of Hebron.
1. Party in Ramallah
After a trip to Hebron, one might feel the need for a nice, cold beer. The best place to enjoy a cold Taybeh, especially when you’re into dancing as well, is Ramallah’s al-Snobar. Named after the pine trees planted on the site, al-Snobar is a great place for swimming, food and dance. Although popular among the ‘internationals’ living in Ramallah for a few months, upper-class Palestinians also regularly find their way to the restaurant. The pine trees create the illusion that you’re far from the busy streets of Ramallah — even though the bar is located very close to the centre. When the music stops and the lights switch off, enjoy a final beer with the owner and his dog by the cosy fire plate.
Another great place for a beer, a bite to eat and a dance, is Beit Aneesa. When its owner, Aneesa, died, she supposedly left her house (‘beit’ in Arabic) to the municipality, along with the request to turn it into a place for Ramallah’s youth. Since both these sites are (partially) outdoors, they are only open during the summer season. Most of Palestine is Islamic. Restaurants owned by Muslims are more likely not serve alcohol, but in places like Taybeh and in the Christian part of Ramallah, beer and other alcoholic drinks are readily available. If you prefer your drinks a bit stronger than beer, try arak: a strong, distilled drink that turns into a milky substance when water is added. The aniseed-flavored drink is called the ‘drink of lions’ and its strength falls somewhere between 30 and 60 per cent.
Getting there: Palestine does not have an airport – the one near Jerusalem was closed by Israel years ago. Accessing the West Bank, one can choose to fly to Tel Aviv, take a bus to Jerusalem and a group taxi to Ramallah. Another option is to fly to Amman and enter through the Allenby Bridge, or one of the other border crossings between Jordan and the West Bank. All of these are controlled by Israel, whose border patrol can be rather strict.
Getting around: The cheapest way to travel around the West Bank is by service: a yellow group taxi that leaves when it’s full. On Fridays and late in the evening, this could take some time – sometimes, passengers chip in for the empty seats if they’re in a hurry.
Currency: NewIsraeli Shekel (ILS). 1 euro equals 4.6 ILS.
Text and pictures by Lisanne Oldekamp