The Shrinking Outdoors

It is hiking season in Palestine and having missed the Spring season due to lockdown, we are currently maxing out on opportunities to get outdoors at the moment.

There are many beautiful walks to be done across Israel and Palestine. Anyone unsure where to start should check out the Walking Palestine guidebook which you can find at the Educational Bookshop. This offers a range of interesting walks to suit both experienced hikers and also families with younger kids.

I’m going to start with the highlights of walking in Palestine. Last weekend we stayed in Sebastiya, a small town north of Nablus and enjoyed a lovely hike. There are several circular trails setting off from the town. These lead into the surrounding hilltops and offer spectacular views for miles around.

The path we took followed the Haroon spring and within a few minutes of leaving the town we were in the middle of a green oasis. The trees were laden with the last of the season’s figs, large ripe pomegranates and lemons starting to turn yellow. The size of the trees alone told that they had been there for a very long time. The olive trees were gnarled and twisted, their branches bare, having been stripped off their harvest over the past month.

The view looking back to Sebastiya
The boys with their sheep – at sunset

As the path started to climb, we passed through a small village of several large houses. Two boys eyed us suspiciously as they led their huge sheep through the street. We were enthusiastic with our ‘Merhaba’s and this seemed to satisfy them that we weren’t posing a threat. We trailed after them, with the large sheep, all grinning white teeth, lumbering between us.   

The kids were distracted by rock-hopping on the steep ascent to the top of the hill. They bounded up, trying to avoid scratches from the sharp thorns and squashing the pretty pink wildflowers that poked out from between the rocks.

At the top stood the ruins of Maqam Sheikh Sha’leh. It is unclear what purpose this religious building served over the years but my six year old loved exploring the secret staircase and hidden rooms. From the rooftop of the maqam you could see out towards Haifa and the coast looking West and over towards Mount Gerizim and Nablus looking South. It was deserted and we enjoyed the peacefulness of the moment.

That feeling is getting harder to find in Palestine as it is literally shrinking before our eyes. Over the past eighteen months that we have been here we have witnessed little corners of Palestine being blocked off and demolished.     

Two weekends ago we visited Battir and did some rock climbing on the cliffs there. The limestone crags are ideal for beginners as there are many hand and footholds in the soft rocks. We were a mixed group of kids and adults, many of whom had never climbed on a rope before and we had a blast. I would even go as far to say that I have a new hobby.

Climbing at Battir

It was therefore devastating to hear that Israeli illegal settlers moved in last week and set up a small camp near the climbing rocks on the outskirts of Battir. They are armed and it’s safe to assume – volatile. We heard that when the landowner tried to challenge them, it was him, not the settlers, that ended up being arrested.  

Overnight a family has lost access to their own land and a piece of Palestine has become hostile and difficult to access. It remains to be seen what – if any – action will be taken to remove the settlers who have no legal right to be there.

This incident is only one in a series of losses that we have personally witnessed. Last summer we enjoyed a lovely lunch with friends at the Al-Makhrour restaurant near Beit Jala. A few weeks later the site had been demolished and another family had lost their livelihood.

One another occasion last Autumn, we did a group activity with a guide which involved a walk, some olive picking and a beautifully cooked lunch near Battir. A small shelter had been created to provide refuge from the sun and a place to prepare the food. It was rustic and picturesque. On returning to Battir months later, we heard that bulldozers had barged through the site demolishing the simple structure and flattening many of the ancient olive trees in the process. The landowner was made to pay for the expensive demolition himself.

Then there was the time when my husband did a hike from the Walking Palestine book around Wadi Auja and was confronted by armed and slightly aggressive settlers. He was able to diffuse the situation but the friend he was with from the UK was genuinely shaken by the experience and so that hike has been crossed off our list now.

The valley by Battir

It is madness to live somewhere where people can claim a stake over land and just take it without consequences. The softly spoken remonstrations from the international community will not change a thing unless they are backed by a tougher stance from the US. Only they hold the necessary cards to make Israel sit up and listen. With new players at the table some hold hope that Biden will signal change. The rules of the game have been rigged for a long time though and others are doubtful that will change.

Now is the time to walk, hike, climb and explore Palestine before it shrinks and changes beyond recognition. Where is your favourite spot for walking in Palestine? I am always looking for new ideas of places to see.

3 thoughts on “The Shrinking Outdoors

  1. A thoughtful post Kirsty. I can sense that despair and frustration about what is happening to the Palestinians. They have been abandoned and a number of Arab countries are now making overtures to Israel including the Saudis. This is not going to end well. What an experience you are having! – Mr J

    Liked by 1 person

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