DEIR GHASSANEH, occupied West Bank (IPS) - A reddish-brown dome sits atop an ancient stone house, used hundreds of years ago for prayer. It peeks out from the surrounding trees as the rolling green valleys and hills of the central West Bank stretch out into the distance.
This shrine, known as the al-Khawass shrine, sits 540 meters above sea level in the Palestinian village of Deir Ghassaneh. It is one of several stops along the Sufi trail, which begins in the valley below and takes visitors and locals alike back in time to when Sufism, a mystical form of Islam, was widespread in the area.
“I want foreigners to know Palestinian culture, our culture. And I want Palestinians to take [steadfastness] from it. This is your home. Be proud of the land, of the homeland,” explained Rafat Jamil, director of tours and a guide at the Rozana Association.
Based in the West Bank town of Birzeit, near Ramallah, Rozana works to restore and refurbish historical Palestinian buildings and strengthen Palestinian cultural heritage. The organization also established three Sufi trails in the central and northern West Bank.
“Struggle over history”
Participants on the one-day hikes along these trails see half a dozen shrines along the way and take in the distinct landscape of the area. Markers painted every 30 to 40 meters in the colors of the Palestinian flag — red, green, white — tell hikers they are on the right path.
The West Bank has approximately 600 Sufi shrines, including some that date back more than 800 years, according to Jamil. Many were built during periods of Mamluk and Ottoman rule over historic Palestine.
“There is a struggle over history. For the Israelis, nothing is Palestinian, just Jewish and Israeli. The idea is to get people to talk about the history of Palestine, and want to see shrines or old homes from the Roman and Byzantine and Ottoman periods,” Jamil said.
“Israelis say that all the culture here is theirs. But when people come, they see something else.”
Alternative tourism in Palestine is not a new phenomenon. Dozens of organizations lead tours in the West Bank and Jerusalem, including political day trips, homestays with Palestinian families, olive harvesting and arts and cultural heritage festivals.
But the gradual expansion and development of walking paths in the West Bank is something that Palestinians hope will draw both tourism and international support.
“We want to bring tourism to areas that never had tourism and bring a good economic impact to the community,” explained Michel Awad, executive director and co-founder of the Siraj Center, a non-profit tour operator based in Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem.
If people spend more time in the West Bank, “they will leave with a real understanding of the Palestinian cause and become advocates for justice in their countries,” Awad added.
The Siraj Center organizes walking, biking and political tours for international visitors throughout the West Bank. These include the Nativity Trail — a path winding from Nazareth to Bethlehem thought to follow in the footsteps of Jesus’ parents, Joseph and Mary — or the Abraham Paths, spanning approximately 170 kilometers from Nablus to Hebron.
Awad said that Israeli tour operators handle most religious pilgrimage tours — a booming business in historic Palestine — even if these tours go to sites in the occupied West Bank. Tourists often visit holy sites in Bethlehem, only to return at night to Israeli-run hotels in Jerusalem, for example.
As a result, community-based tourism is an alternative to these religious tours and plays to Palestinians’ strengths. Israelis can’t compete because these hikes encompass much more than just a walking tour, Awad said. “It’s meeting the community and meeting families. It’s totally different.”
Palestinian village and town councils provide input and direction for the Siraj Center’s walking tours, and families regularly host participants for lunch or overnight stays. Families that cook lunch for participants during weekly walking excursions, for instance, receive 40 Israeli shekels ($11) per person they host.
“Our aim is to create a new experiential tourism in Palestine that allows travelers to experience Palestinian hospitality and encounter the many landscapes. We want to create a new type of tourism that is in touch with local communities and brings benefits to the rural areas directly,” Awad said.
From January to June 2012, approximately 3.5 million visits were made to tourist sites in the West Bank (excluding Jerusalem), according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, and most visits took place in the Bethlehem governorate (“Around 3.5 million visits to tourist sites in Palestinian territory in January-August 2012,” 27 September 2012 [PDF]).
“Breath of fresh air”
But hiking in Palestine does more than just generate tourism.
“We love the landscape: the stones, the trees, everything. It is a breath of fresh air, literally,” said Bassam al-Mohor, a photographer and member of Shat-ha hiking collective, based in Ramallah.
Each Friday, Shat-ha organizes hikes in different areas of the West Bank, and occasionally to places inside present-day Israel, Jordan, or abroad. The hikes are not difficult, free of charge and generally last from the early morning to early afternoon.
The group tends to target local Palestinians, although international visitors are welcome, as it aims to connect Palestinian city-dwellers with their counterparts in rural villages and towns, strengthening the bonds between people and their homeland.
“The landscape in the West Bank is shrinking, vanishing, dying slowly. It’s mainly because of the occupation. If we come close to settlements, we risk being attacked. It’s really sad to see tracks that we’ve been walking nicely suddenly off limits for us,” al-Mohor explained.
“But when you walk and see old stone houses or terraces or old towns, as a traveler, what first attracts you is that heritage. We never knew that nature could be like this. You can lose yourself in this.”
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