An Occupation Vacation

A B&B in Elon Moreh, a climbing wall in Kedumim, an escape room in Shiloh – as COVID-19 prevents air travel, Israeli holidaymakers are heading to West Bank settlements

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A B&B at Havat Gilad.
A B&B at Havat Gilad. Credit: Daniel Tchetchik
Meirav Moran
Meirav Moran

Orit Rabin’s summer vacation had been planned long in advance. Her eldest child, who was about to enter the army, had bought a ticket to a rock concert in Europe, and the family was going to join her for a festive trip marking her high-school graduation. When the coronavirus pandemic struck, in March, they still hoped things would work out by the summer. However, the onset of the second wave made it obvious that Europe was not on the cards, and most of the vacation spots in Israel were already booked.

“So we broadened the search a little and found a B&B in Adei Ad,” Rabin says. “When the proprietor warned me on the phone, ‘Bring a sweater, it’s chilly at night,’ I knew we would go for it. As someone born in Tel Aviv, there’s nothing more alluring to me than a sweater in August,” she laughs.

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The Rabins, who both work in high-tech, packed up their three adolescent daughters, and the family from the upscale neighborhood of Ramat Aviv set out for a few days of vacationing in the settler outpost of Adei Ad on a hilltop in the heart of the West Bank.

The “Land of the Bible,” as local entrepreneurs market it, traditionally attracts Christian pilgrims from Europe, evangelicals from the United States, history buffs from East Asia and Jews from all corners of the globe. But organized, group tourism of this sort to the West Bank settlements, which has been popular for some years, disappeared this year because of the pandemic, dealing a severe financial blow to the proprietors of the big attractions like well-known archaeological sites, restaurants that cater to busloads of tourists, etc.

However, the private B&Bs in the area report almost full occupancy. For example, the owner of a B&B in Yitzhar, a settlement near Nablus that has been in the news in the past because of its militant activities, has no vacancies through Sukkot (the first week of October) – just from advertising on Facebook. The same success is reported by Hezki Bezalel, a tour guide from the Talmon settlement, who takes families on nature hikes. He’s never before had such a busy summer.

Paintball in the West Bank settlement of Kedumim.
Paintball in the West Bank settlement of Kedumim.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

“Usually I had two or three hikes a month,” Bezalel says, “but now I’m doing two hikes a week at least. This year the clients consist of Israelis who live between Hod Hasharon and Rishon Letzion [in the Tel Aviv region]. In the past they would travel to Europe, but now they have no choice, so they’re looking for pampering here. They want hikes by moonlight, outings to springs and visits to wineries. Sometimes they sleep over in B&Bs, or they return home in the evening. I’m close – within a drive of half an hour to an hour from Metropolitan Tel Aviv. They’re among green mountains, crystal-clear springs and cool, dry air, without having to spend hours in traffic jams on the roads to the Golan Heights and Galilee.”

The shoulders of the roads in Area C (under full Israeli control) of the West Bank tell the story of this burgeoning tourism. A pirate sign at one junction directs visitors to “Mud on the Hill,” a ceramics studio and gallery on a hilltop near the Itamar settlement, southeast of Nablus. Another sign shows the way to Shirat Ha’asavim, a home-based bakery that also serves family-style meals with advance reservations. And there are also Café Ahoti, Hametukim Shel Halaila (a bakery shop), Village Hummus (the village being Kfar Tapuah) and Tapuah Burgers at the Tapuah Junction, east of Petah Tikva, in the West Bank.

A tourism sign in the traffic circle there reads “Islands in the Heart of Samaria,” including a red heart sculpture. There’s even a commercial olive press for those who want to bring olives and extract oil – a hut with equipment and operating instructions – near Itamar.

The Kedumim settlement in the northern West Bank has opened an action-sports center with kart racing, climbing walls, paintball and horseback riding lessons. The settlement of Shiloh operates escape rooms where visitors have to solve riddles on topics of local interest: archaeological theft, wine production, a malicious attempt to disrupt the incense offerings in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem.

“Welcome to the settlement enterprise, version 2020,” says Dror Etkes sarcastically. Etkes founded the Kerem Navot organization, which monitors and analyzes Israeli land policy in the West Bank.


Horseback riding near the West Bank settlement of Kedumim.
Horseback riding near the West Bank settlement of Kedumim. Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

“The airport is closed and Israelis are looking for recreational sites in areas controlled by Israel,” Etkes says, “so is it any wonder they’re also going to the territories? There are enough right-wing Israelis, there is a religious bourgeoisie that’s willing to plunk down 120 shekels [$35] for a bottle of wine at the Gva’ot Winery and 200 shekels for cheese at Giv’ot Olam [referring to businesses based at two settler outposts] and there are also regular Israelis who are unaware” of the political situation there.

Indeed, tourism in the settlements is a very profitable project, one that’s “very pampering” in the language of the tourism promoters.

The far end of the view

A case in point is Havot Yair, a settler outpost east of Tel Aviv consisting of a cluster of homes on a hill, close to the Nofim settlement (both communities are illegal). The B&Bs are spacious wooden cabins with large verandahs that overlook a green valley covered with indigenous oak and terebinth trees. The air is clear, the quiet is absolute, the privacy is complete. Some of the B&Bs have their own swimming pools with a view to the same valley. Nearby are the gurgling waters of Gidi’s Pools – four artificial springs that are treated with chlorine. Surrounding the springs is a natural forest, and next to them is equipment for picnics and barbecue sites.

Nir Baraban and Nehama Schechter-Baraban, and their toddler daughter, from Haifa, are staying here. They’re both graduates of the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology; he’s a construction engineer, she’s a landscape architect.

Hagvura Spring near the West Bank settlement of Eli.
Hagvura Spring near the West Bank settlement of Eli.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

“My girlfriends laughed at me when I told them where I was going for my vacation,” Shechter-Baraban says. “Some of them freaked out. ‘Take a passport with you,’ they said. Or, ‘You’re supporting the occupation.’ And so on. Happily, the experience is even more pleasant than I expected. I’ll be delighted to return to a B&B like this and also to recommend it to friends. The thoughts about the occupation arise when you’re sitting on the verandah and looking at the breathtaking view, and at the far end of the view there’s a Palestinian village. The thing is that you get the ideology everywhere.

“One evening during the vacation, we went on a romantic date to the Tura winery at the Rehelim settlement. As soon as we arrive, the hostess shows us the wines, explains the production process – terrific. But then she goes on about her grandmother who was in the Holocaust and how the vineyards they planted are settling the land. Leave me alone, just let me drink wine! I am right-wing in my views, but such talk is wearying. Let it go.”

At Nofim there are less scenic but better equipped B&Bs, with space for group sports. The three Jerusalem sisters who are here with their teenage children – without husbands – say they have everything they need to hang out together: “A big kitchen, a jacuzzi, a pool, a place to let loose a little and do sports, and plenty of quiet.” For the high-schoolers with them, “There’s no difference between this place and Jerusalem,” as one of them puts it.

Like them, Iyar, who’s 13, sees no difference between Mazkeret Batya, the town near Rehovot where she lives, and Kfar Adumim, the Judean Desert settlement from which she and her family set off on a jeep tour. She has never heard of the Green Line, and if she does manage to think of a difference of some sort, it’s that “in Kfar Adumim they fought over the land, and they live in an area with more Arabs.”

Similarly, Orit Rabin’s daughters also don’t see anything complicated about the family’s vacation choice. “It’s not an issue for them,” Rabin says. “It was more complicated to explain to them that there are two sinks in the kitchen and why there are separate dishes for dairy and meat [for those who keep kosher] in the B&B’s kitchenette.”

Yoyo and Neta Cohen's pool at Havat Gilad.
Yoyo and Neta Cohen's pool at Havat Gilad.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

Hani Friedman’s five children first heard the terms “Area A, B and C” when they were on the way from Bnei Brak to their vacation. Now they’re splashing about in the pool of a B&B in Elon Moreh, one of the oldest West Bank settlements, northeast of Nablus, after having gone horseback riding at Itamar. Friedman, who is ultra-Orthodox and employed in the education system in Petah Tikva, explains, “The adherents of the religious Zionist movement are terribly idealistic. They are deep into the dialogue about the territories. For us in the Haredi community, the subject doesn’t even arise.”

Another vacationer in Samaria, the central part of the West Bank, who explained some things to his children before they set out to visit the springs there is Omri Even, from Kibbutz Be’eri, adjacent to the Gaza Strip.

“I told them we would be going through a checkpoint and that we would see cars with license plates of a different color,” he says. “As a nature-loving family, we are always looking for spots that the ‘people with the boxes’ [a disparaging term for hikers with noisy sound systems] haven’t yet discovered, and in Samaria there are still a few lovely sites like that. I am not very left-wing, but certainly not right-wing. In any event, as I see it, the political conflict and the question of leisure time in open spaces are two things that shouldn’t be mixed together. Nature doesn’t belong to anyone, nature is everybody’s.”

Follow the money

The tourism momentum is discernible in all of the West Bank’s regional councils. All of them have tourism departments that promote the businesses that are popping up like mushrooms after rain, and marketing them to the Israeli public at large. The pioneer in this is the Gush Etzion Council, which has a less controversial image among the general public. The Mateh Binyamin Council, the next in line in terms of tourism activity, had more than 900,000 visitors last year, only half of them from abroad.

This growing activity, spurred by the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis, is also inducing individual settlements to establish their own independent tourism units. For example, the veteran Beit El settlement, north of Jerusalem, recently appointed a halftime tourism coordinator.

“I can splash all sorts of touristy slogans about primeval heritage landscapes and the land of the patriarchs,” says Yossi Dagan, chairman of the Samaria Regional Council. “But in order to identify a trend, you need to follow the money. If local people are ready to gamble their private capital and invest in the tourism business, it’s a sign that there is a reason, that something is happening here” in terms of demand. Dagan estimates that some 15 percent of residents in his regional council are currently making a living indirectly or directly from tourism, a very promising part of the local economy; in a decade, he predicts, that proportion will more than double.

Tapuah Junction, east of Petah Tikva, in the West Bank. The shoulders of the roads in Area C of the West Bank tell the story of burgeoning tourism.
Tapuah Junction, east of Petah Tikva, in the West Bank. The shoulders of the roads in Area C of the West Bank tell the story of burgeoning tourism. Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

The division of the industry into geographical regions, which was mandated by technical considerations, turned out to be a strategic move that improved the local brand. “From ‘Judea and Samaria’ we became ‘Mateh Binyamin,’” says Moshe Ronetzky, head of the tourism branch in Mateh Binyamin. “That made things easier for the tourism audience for whom politics is a barrier, and it helped with the marketing.” His council – which by itself has more than 80 B&Bs and 70 registered tourist guides – saw a leap of dozens of percentage points in family outings this year as compared to the previous year. One initiative involved collective outings in private cars, in which hundreds of people take part every week. Ronetzky relates that there are more than 200 businesses that subsist from tourism within the boundaries of his council – alternative treatment clinics, artists who run creative workshops, bicycle and all-terrain vehicle rental shops, and of course wineries, B&Bs and restaurants.

“Businesses that were already geared to family and couples tourism did really well this year, because of the change in the makeup of the visitors,” Ronetzky says. “Businesses that relied exclusively on bus tourism need to reinvent themselves.”

That was the case with the restaurant that was built above the winery in Elon Moreh – a glass aquarium that overlooks vineyards where an Israeli flag flies. Until now, the restaurant’s clientele consisted largely of tourist groups that arrived by bus on their way to an archaeology site on Mount Gerizim. The proprietor intended to take advantage of the COVID-19-induced shortfall in tourism to carry out renovations, but then discovered a new target audience: families on hiking trips and groups of motorcyclists aged 40-plus who arrived in the area and wanted something to eat, especially on weekends. As a result, he’s continuing operations during the crisis, too. “I offer a service to residents of Ra’anana who can’t get to Tuscany this year.” (His restaurant is open up until Shabbat starts and after it ends.)

The new tourism potential was also a magnet for Yoyo and Neta Cohen, in their 20s, who live with their three children in Havat Gilad, an outpost near Kedumim. After working in the cluster of B&Bs at Havot Yair, Yoyo developed an appetite for the hospitality business. The couple decided to invest close to 1 million shekels ($295,000) to establish two B&Bs of their own on the slope of the mountain below their home. The pandemic accelerated their plans, as they anticipate increased demand. A structure surrounding a large pool is currently in the final stages of construction. The Cohens, who expect to make a living from the hospitality business, are planning to add a bar next to the pool, as well as ping-pong and pool tables, and in the future also a sauna, with a view to winter vacationers. The poolside area will be used for parties.

Another spur to the growth of the tourism business is the blurred boundary between agriculture and tourism. A goat pen and a cheese dairy can also be a visitors center and a store with a restaurant. A stable and a barn morph easily into a center for riding outings, and with a minor adjustment, a greenhouse becomes a banquet hall and from there a site for a B&B. It’s a process similar to what’s been happening in recent decades in kibbutzim and moshavim inside the Green Line. In the West Bank, where Israeli planning law does not apply to construction, extraordinary flexibility exists in transitioning from agriculture to tourism.

For example, Ira Rappaport (a former member of the Jewish Underground terror group), who for the past 25 years has grown olives and grapes for wine, decided this year to adjust his crops to take advantage of more profitable trends. In place of the aging vineyard, he planted sweet corn, which grows fast and can even be devoured in the field without being cooked, and also blueberries and raspberries. He invites visitors to pick fruit and pay by weight – a business model he picked up from colleagues on the Golan Heights.

Rappaport is now preparing the ground to build a visitors center, wading pools and picnic areas. He’s doing his marketing via WhatsApp alone, and in the blueberry season, which ended in June, there were more pickers than there was fruit. According to his daughter, Moriah, who is helping to promote the family business, most of those who come to pick berries are from the former Soviet Union and live in the West Bank city of Ariel, or in Ashdod and Modi’in. “They enjoy revisiting the childhood experiences of picking wild fruit in the forests of Europe,” she says.

It’s just minutes from Rappaport’s developing tourism facilities to the site of ancient Shiloh. Up the road is a landscape sculpture by the renowned Israeli artist Igael Tumarkin, “Dovecote.” The work was brought to Shiloh about 40 years ago by Peace Now demonstrators, to express opposition to Israeli construction in the territories. The sculpture was recently refurbished – by residents of Shiloh. The local council added a sign that has a photograph of the historic dedication ceremony and tells the story of the sculpture. Next to it are shade-casting lean-tos and stylish benches that offer a fine view – yet another tourist attraction.

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