Hiking Israel's Iconic Cross-country Trail Could Kill You

Over one-third of Israel’s territory is designated as army firing zones. What happens when the Israel National Trail passes through one?

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A fire zone in the Jordan Valley.
A fire zone in the Jordan Valley. Credit: Meged Gozany
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“Sorry, there’s shooting going on there.” The bored soldier from the Israel Defense Forces Southern Command who informed us that the hike we’d been contemplating for years was not going to happen, didn’t really care. And why should she? It’s not her problem. Besides that, she doesn’t know how hard it is to steal three days of vacation in the middle of the week, in the middle of life, to arrange time off at two places of work, to confirm that there won’t be any danger of flooding, and to shell out 500 shekels ($145) to be transported to the starting point and have water waiting for us at the overnight camp site. The dream my friend and I had was so lovely. Like a large soap bubble at a children’s birthday party, sent aloft in the soft breeze, flexible, shimmering, colorful. Until suddenly, in midair, it blows up. Poof.

Until that moment, everything had gone smoothly. We set out for the south on a Tuesday evening a few weeks ago. The train to Be’er Sheva left on time and arrived on time. The bus left on schedule and arrived ahead of schedule. The air in Mitzpeh Ramon was crisp, cold and refreshing. The pub where we ate in the evening was eerily cool, flush with local hipsters in thick sweaters. The tiny guest apartment we slept in, so we could set out early the next day, was warm and pleasant. My sleep was short and deep, dreamless. By 7:30, we were already on the trail, in ideal weather.

The plan was to do a two-day segment of the Israel National Trail, from the Be’erot campsite to Sapir. After a few kilometers, I glanced at the map and noticed there was pink shading covered the rest of the way. I realized that, Israel Trail or not, we were about to enter an Israel Defense Forces firing area.

We called the command post immediately, and our parade was rained on – heavily. “You should have thought of that,” one of the soldiers we spoke to scolded us. We called the rough-hewn jeep guy who’d cached water for us. He thought differently. “I’ve been wandering around here for many years,” he said. “You can always hike on the trail.”

Our confusion mounted when we saw hikers on the way to the same place we’d been heading for before everything went awry. “There’s shooting there,” I whispered to them faintly, “don’t go on.” But the tough hikers didn’t flinch. “Firing areas aren’t relevant when it comes to the Israel Trail,” they told me. “Everyone knows that.” And they proceeded on their way.

Shvilistim (trailsters) – the people of Israel are enamored of them. Just sling a large, soiled backpack over your shoulder and head for the wild, and cars will stop to give you a lift without your even sticking out a hand. Not to mention the “Trail Angels” who are spread all across the country and are prepared to put up hikers for free in their homes. Well, not just any hikers – we’re shvilistim doing the whole Israel Trail, the 1,000-kilometer route that runs the entire length of the country, from Eilat in the south to Dan in the far north. These are the best and brightest of our youth: the guys who, instead of smoking a joint in the Parvati Valley (India) after their military service, set out to crisscross the country on foot.

A hike on the Israel Trail is in many senses the continuation of army service by other means, and the collective heart bursts with pride. The problem arises when that value clashes with another, closely related, principle: of “letting the IDF win” – or at least train. How to resolve the conflict between our forces who want to shoot, and our forces who want to hike?

I spoke with a number of people who are involved with life the trail, including senior officials in the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, the organization that marked and maintains it. The picture that emerges is that the law demands that people obtain a permit for every hike they intend to undertake in a firing zone, including those along the Israel Trail. In practice, however, those hikers don’t do this – not the Israelis, still less tourists from around the world who haven’t heard about the training areas that take up 36 percent of the country, including most of the Negev. So far, the method is working. If there really was firing on the Israel Trail itself, there could be casualties every other day.

A fire zone in the Jordan Valley along the Israel National Trail. Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

After many years without disasters, a prevailing belief has developed, according to which, “with the Israel Trail, there’s no need to coordinate.” But a belief is not an insurance policy. If someone who hasn’t coordinated their hike with the IDF is shot tomorrow on the trail, the army will have a clean conscience. On the other hand, people who want to make the proper arrangements in advance have to be prepared to cope with the caprices of the IDF, which doesn’t like long-term planning. Requests for a permit can only be submitted a week before the hike – not before and not after.

No one disputes the need for training exercises. The question is whether every meter the army has seized was seized justly. According to all the indications, that is not the case. The head of the Ramat Negev Regional Council, Eran Doron, maintains that a large proportion of the firing zones the IDF squats on have not been in use for decades.

Geographer Dr. Amiram Oren urges a revision: “There should be a total separation between areas that are in civilian use and areas in military use, and the latter should be reduced to a minimum. The present situation is anarchy. It’s a sick situation, a joke.”

According to Yoash Limon, coordinator of field tourism in the Har Hanegev region and a veteran guide there, one simple step could help, and without reducing the firing areas by even an inch: parcellation into smaller plots. He explains that often requests for hiking permits are rejected at one end of the zone in question, even if the shooting is taking place at the other end. This definitely could be the case with the vast firing area No. 1390, through which cut the segment of the Israel Trail we were intending to walk on, on that cruel and bitter day. It’s very possible that if a line were drawn and the area in question divided into 1390A and 1390B, the IDF would have given its approval, and you would not be reading these lines.

In sum: Our boys, who take pride in their ability to send a missile through the window of a senior Islamic Jihadist’s bedroom, are in no hurry to commit themselves not to harm anyone walking along a meter-wide trail that passes along the margins of a firing zone covering thousands of acres. What’s funny is that in the past the Israel Trail was routed in the Negev along highways in order to reduce friction with the army. There are hikers, after all, walking along the entire length of the trail continuously. It’s not reasonable to expect them to sit around for a week until the training exercise is over.

Officials at the nature protection society relate that 15 years ago, some stretches of the trail were diverted, in coordination with the IDF, to a more scenic route, but one that passes through training areas. It’s very probable that the IDF gave its blessing for these particular areas because it is not especially active there. The officer who authorized this understood that there would be hikers there throughout the year, but did not go the extra mile to free up the best-known trail in Israel for full civilian use.

In my view, it should be possible to hike the Israel Trail without having to coordination things – in other words, the informal situation that exists today should be formalized. The way it works now is that whoever violates the law gets to celebrate, while those who behave responsibly get shafted.

My efforts to get the IDF to respond to the questions raised here were rebuffed with the same lordly, reprehensible, know-it-all tone that soldiers frequently use with civilians.

The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit made do with the following response: “In order to coordinate entry into firing areas, it is necessary to call a week in advance… From time to time examinations are made of the accuracy of the signs in the firing areas [the SPNI says that there is no sign at the point where the Israel Trail enters firing area 1390]… Every entrance to the firing and training areas needs to be done by prior coordination and in accordance with the IDF’s instructions.”

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