Settler Field School Seeks State Funding for West Bank Hiking À La the National Trail

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Hikers traversing the Negev desert on the Israel National Trail.
Hikers traversing the Negev desert on the Israel National Trail. Credit: Haim Taragan

The Kfar Etzion Field School in the West Bank has launched an initiative to map out a hiking trail in the occupied territories to supplement Israel’s National Trail, which runs inside the country’s internationally recognized frontiers.

Dubbed the “Eastern Israel Trail” on social media sites, project and school director Yaron Rosenthal says the path will run through the West Bank portion of the Jordan Valley, eastern Samaria, or the northern part of the West Bank and the Hebron Hills, located in the southern part of the territory.

“For various reasons, the Israel Trail does not pass through the Golan and Judea and Samaria at all. Because we as a field school are trying to return the people of Israel to the regions where they [became people], we thought we must establish a trail parallel to the Israel Trail that will pass through the eastern part of the land [of Israel],” Rosenthal wrote.

After the Jewish holiday period, a group of hikers from the school will try out the new trail, which connects in the south with the Israel Trail near Arad in the northern Negev desert.

The official national trail is more than 1,000 kilometers long, running from the banks of the Dan River at the Lebanese border, to Eilat, on the Red Sea’s shores. The trail is managed by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, (SPNI), which has government support.

Rosenthal hopes to persuade the government to kick in for the “Eastern” trail as well, by seeking the SPNI’s professional approval. As he sees it the West Bank trail ought to be presented without a political context.

“The goal of the trail is for the people of Israel to get to know the eastern parts of the land of Israel too, and not to make them more right wing,” Rosenthal asserted.

But then he added:

“It is clear that in addition to the scenic experience of hiking along the trail, it will allow people to get to know the reality on the ground. It could very well sharpen viewpoints and it is possible there are those for whom the awareness that this is the cradle of the [Jewish] people will grow clearer during the hike.”

“At the same time, there are those who will become more aware of the situation of the Palestinians, of the demographic implications of the situation on the ground, and they will reach the conclusion that we must separate in peace. Marking the route of the trail will be done in a way that does not enter privately-owned land. Our way at the Kfar Etzion Field School is not to confront the local population, but to meet and get to know the culture and customs of our neighbors,” Rosenthal said.

Settlers have long sought to lay out trails and tourist sites, including on land owned by privately by Palestinians, as a tool by settlers to increase their foothold in the territories, and present the region as a pleasant vacation experience.

The SPNI suggested it was ready to look at the settler hiking plan.

It said that “the Israel Trail was inaugurated by the society in 1995 with the goal of creating a route for hiking throughout all of the State of Israel. It was planned to represent and emphasize all of Israel’s landscapes and cultures.” While initially intended to cross through the foothills of the northern West Bank, the path was eventually rerouted due to construction of the Trans-Israel Highway and a barrier, and to “avoid endangering hikers,” the SPNI said.

Separately, the SPNI has marked off trails in the West Bank which are not a part of the national Israel Trail, the agency said.

“We heard of the new plan only in the past few days. If the initiative will have solid and organized information, and if it is provided to us, we will examine the proposal, its implications and significance,” it added.

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