After a hiatus of many years, I decided recently to revisit some tourist hot spots in the West Bank. I tried viewing them with new eyes, blanking out memories from my military service and not thinking too much about the conflict and Israeli settlements.
I wanted to understand the type of tourism there is in areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority. What do tourists who come to the West Bank see?
My tour included some of the top Palestinian tourist attractions. There were seven of us in a group that convened in Jerusalem, and we all talked in English. First, we headed south toward Bethlehem, in two taxis.
We crossed a checkpoint manned by very young Israeli soldiers who were trying to protect themselves from the cold, totally ignoring us. We later stopped by the roadside and transferred to a new, black minibus.
The transfer was accompanied by a convoluted explanation of how taxi drivers can’t go to Bethlehem, whereas the driver and guide – who live in Bethlehem – cannot enter Jerusalem. From there, making a wide easterly sweep on a very windy road, we passed by the Monastery of St. Theodosius overlooking Jerusalem, on our way to Jericho.I had visited there with my father almost 50 years ago.
There was heavy traffic as we drove through Jericho’s city center. Fruit stands were selling the famed Jericho oranges, as well as gigantic bunches of bananas. We continued north for about 2 kilometers (1.25 miles) and reached Hisham’s Palace.
Schoolchildren from Jericho were visiting the site with their teachers at the same time as us, but we didn’t see any other tourists.
The guide explained at length about the complex structure of the eighth-century C.E. palace, and led us to a small museum containing some archaeological findings. I had visited the place with my father almost 50 years ago.
We stood in front of the 1,200-year-old mosaic floor, said by some to be the largest in the world, gazing at it in awe. Much of the floor was covered in gray woolen blankets, giving the place a soft, homey vibe. In several areas the blankets were folded over so we could see the complex geometric patterns on the floor.
The guide said it would soon be covered in earth,to protect it until a roof could be built over the palace ruins; the Japanese government has already promised money for this.
We then returned to the minibus and traveled toward ancient Jericho, and a viewpoint near the Greek Orthodox Qarantal Monastery, on the Mount of Temptation.
We visited Tell es-Sultan (Sultan’s Hill), the UNESCO-listed archaeological site with an old spring and remnants of the walls of the city, which has been called the oldest city in the world. Signs declared that 23 archaeological layers were found there – the oldest one dating back to more than 10,000 years ago.
Our guide mentioned a scientific controversy (stressing that it was not a political one): Was there a walled city here during Joshua’s time? But there wasn’t a single tourist bus in ancient Jericho’s parking lot. How come there are no tourists in the world’s oldest city?
A man wearing a traditional djellaba and what looked liked a fake Uniqlo jacket was leading a camel by a piece of rope. He set it down beside us, in case we wanted our photos taken with it.
The following is not a recommendation to visit. The sites that appear here are in Areas A, B and C.
The nearby restaurant still bears a faded blue sign in Arabic, English and Hebrew, indicating that this is the Qarantal restaurant.
We found a small group of tourists (I couldn’t figure out where they were from) a few minutes’ drive from there, admiring the Mount of Temptation. According to Christian tradition, Jesus withstood the Devil’s temptations for 40 days there. It’s an important stop for pilgrims visiting the Holy Land.
An Austrian company built a cable car here in 1998, with three red cars ascending to the top – where a restaurant and visitor center can be found. From there, pilgrims continue on foot to the monastery, which is precariously perched on a cliffside.
When the cable car was built, there were expectations that masses of tourists would flood the area by the year 2000. Now, though, a grand total of 10 tourists were looking at the mount, while the children working at the souvenir stand were trying to convince us to buy rosaries or an olive wood cross. My father bought me some colored pencils that they no longer sell. I reminded myself that I'm a tourist, just a tourist.
Sleeping in a Palestinian winery
I had never traveled on Route 449 before, which rises from Jericho through Taybeh to Ramallah. The guide said it was one of the oldest roads in the West Bank, although the recently upgraded road was in good condition.
It makes dozens of sharp turns on its way up the hills, and the scenery is breathtaking. This is a part of the Judean Desert I don’t know at all.
Recent rains had given the hills a green coat, and the wide open spaces are amazingly pretty. There is one settlement 4 kilometers north of Jericho, but for the next 30 there are no settlements or villages.
From time to time, we pass some Bedouin shacks and flocks of sheep and goats. Very few highways between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea can compare with this stretch of road for outstanding beauty.
After the steep ascent, still on Route 449, we parted with regret from the open spaces.
On our left was the village of Rammun; on the right the settlement of Rimonim. From here on, there were pairs of Palestinian villages and Jewish settlements: Taybeh and Kochav Hashahar; Ein Yabrud and Ofra; Ramallah and Beit El.
We passed through about a dozen military checkpoints throughout the day, but weren’t stopped at any of them. No one checked us or asked who we were. We were traveling in a minibus with Palestinian license plates, but everywhere we went I spotted quite a few cars with Israeli plates. A gigantic, bubbling hodgepodge.
The guide said we were really lucky. The traffic was congested and seemed busy most of the day, but he thought things were going really smoothly. He did note on several occasions that there were more soldiers than usual, perhaps hinting at something we didn’t know about, or didn’t want to talk about.
But here we were in Taybeh, drinking unfiltered wheat beer, enjoying life. Nothing beats being a tourist.
The village of Taybeh is home to 1,500 Christian Arabs. The Khoury family, one of the richest in the West Bank, has been operating the Taybeh brewery for over 20 years, producing some 600,000 liters (about 132,000 gallons) of beer a year. Nadim Khoury and his daughter Madees hosted us during our visit to the brewery.
We tasted several types of beer – getting explanations on the production process, as well as hearing about the difficulties facing businessmen importing raw ingredients from Germany and the Czech Republic, and exporting to 10 countries worldwide.
It’s not easy anywhere, but it’s particularly difficult in Taybeh, which may lie just dozens of kilometers from the ports of Haifa and Ashdod, but might as well be on the other side of the moon in terms of regulation, bureaucracy and ease of transit.
It took about 30 minutes, but my initial feelings of discomfort slowly eased.
“Most visitors to the brewery are pilgrims or students,” said Madees, the first Palestinian female brewer.
“We have a marketing gimmick and a great story to tell tourists. We are Christians selling alcohol in the heart of the West Bank. We believe that developing tourism, which includes meeting people from around the world, is the right thing for us as West Bank residents. But things are getting increasingly difficult.
“Over the past year, we’ve been stopped more frequently at checkpoints, and we’re being harassed much more. Very young soldiers at one of the checkpoints asked me lots of questions this week, late at night – such as whether I’d go out with an Israeli soldier. It’s inappropriate and unpleasant,” she said.
“From Taybeh, it seems that Israelis live in a closed bubble without knowing what we’re going through – but we have hopes for a brighter future. We really believe that, which is why the family continues to develop its business here. We’ve opened a winery and large hotel in the village.”
Madees and her brother Canaan studied in the United States for a few years. They decided to return and join the family business, and both smile when asked if they regret the decision.
Canaan, who manages the winery from the new hotel – called the Taybeh Golden Hotel – says, “Our family has been living here for 600 years. Tourism is our asset, since there is no more gold to be found in the West Bank.
Since we started operating the brewery, we’ve learned that people continue coming here despite all the trouble. Whatever happens, visitors keep arriving. I believe we’ll be free one day and that we’ll have a state with borders, easy to enter and exit. Ben-Gurion Airport is only 45 minutes away, so what’s the problem?”
The winery produces 35,000 bottles a year. The four-star hotel has 80 rooms, costing 300 shekels ($79) a night. This is its first year, and occupancy rates are low, standing at 17 percent. But Nadim Khoury and his family seem relaxed and optimistic.
They’ve seen everything. “It will take some more time,” explains Nadim, “but everything will work out. Maybe we should do more marketing online. That’s what works now.”
Arafat’s grave in Ramallah
We hit terrible traffic jams on our way to Ramallah. The traffic moved slowly even when we passed by the new administrative building of the Palestinian Authority. Finally, we arrived at the city’s most prominent tourist attraction: Yasser Arafat’s grave.
Arafat, whom our guide called “the greatest Palestinian leader ever,” was interred 12 years ago in a magnificent compound – a white, gleaming mausoleum that was built beside the government center.
No other place we visited that day was as clean, tidy and well maintained. A few dozen people visited the site while we were there.
A new museum opened there last month, with the history and legacy of Arafat displayed on two floors, along with documentation of several key moments in the history of the Palestinian people.
Items on display include Arafat’s rifle, one of his kaffiyehs, the sunglasses he wore when delivering his speech at the UN General Assembly in 1974, and his Nobel Peace Prize medal, which he received in 1994 along with Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.
The tour I was on is operated by Abraham Tours. It leaves Jerusalem and Tel Aviv three times a week. It is called “The Best of the West Bank.”
Like other tours of the West Bank, it’s not meant for Israelis but tourists. Many parts of the tour pass through Palestinian Authority territory, which Israelis are not allowed to enter.
For independent tourists
Like other tours of its kind, such as ones operated by Green Olive Tours – which also depart from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv a few times a week – its uniqueness lies in the fact that it allows independent tourists who are not part of a group to visit the West Bank.
There are also trips to Hebron, Nablus and Jenin.
Gal Mor, tourism manager at Abraham Tours, estimates that some 3,000 tourists took one of the company’s excursions last year. He says the “Best of the West Bank” tour is the most popular.
Mor explains that his company aims to provide tourists with “a window into Palestinian culture and life. Our approach is pragmatic, and the goal is to develop tourists’ curiosity and to form their own opinion on the region and the conflict. This is not a political issue,” he noted.
There are also a few Palestinian agencies that operate tours. A notable one is Mejdi Tours, established by a young Palestinian, Aziz Abu Sarah, and American Jew Scott Cooper.
On this company’s trips, adopted by National Geographic’s touring company, tourists visit Palestinian and Jewish sites in the West Bank and Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, Lake Kinneret and Tel Aviv. They are accompanied by two guides – one Israeli, the other Palestinian – and tourists learn the two different narratives.