In recent years, the West Bank has seen a big growth in “alternative” or “solidarity” tourism. The shift in Israel’s strategy from the blatant military invasions of a decade ago to the more insidious occupation of the present day mean that Palestine is seen as a viable destination for travelers interested in learning more about the situation, meeting Palestinian people and experiencing Palestinian culture.
And while the glitzy new hotels and restaurants of Ramallah may get more attention from mainstream travel journalists, a significant number of small community tourism projects have sprung up, ranging from a guesthouse and information center in Sebastia to homestays in Hebron or a women-run cooking school in the Old City of Nablus.
As can be seen from The Electronic Intifada’s reporting of these developments, opinions about their merit are sometimes mixed. Some see promoting the idea of “sustainable tourism” as dangerously close to denying the ongoing impacts of Israel’s occupation.
On the other hand, Palestinian outfits such the Alternative Tourism Group and the Siraj Center see tourism — led by Palestinians and oriented to give visitors a real understanding of what they are seeing, not just a whistle-stop tour of Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity and Hisham’s Palace near Jericho — not only as a source of income for Palestinian communities, but also a means to international education and, ultimately, change.
It is on the cusp of these various arguments that Stefan Szepesi’s book, Walking Palestine: 25 journeys into the West Bank, teeters. It is a lavishly-illustrated walking guide to the West Bank, covering routes from small villages around Jenin in the north, to equally little-known hamlets in the southern desert and the fertile hills between Bethlehem and Hebron. A proper hiker’s guide, the information given for each route includes distance, difficulty, likely duration, coordinates, elevation change and the types of surface to be tackled. Detailed maps are included, as are precise descriptions of landmarks ranging from shops to ancient shrines.
Off the beaten track
Importantly, the majority of the destinations covered are completely off the beaten track. Some of the villages mentioned are rarely visited by foreigners, and although Szepesi is a responsible writer who admonishes walkers to take necessary water and food, he’s also keen to tell visitors where they can buy supplies locally, whether it’s from a resort restaurant or a tiny local grocery shop. Voices of local people — businesswomen, archaeologists, ornithologists, social entrepreneurs — accompany information on the history, culture and nature to be seen en route. The maps offer detail unavailable anywhere else in English (and possibly not in any other languages either), and contact details for local guides are included with many of the routes, encouraging visitors to put money right into some of the most marginalized rural economies of the West Bank.
This is important stuff. For visitors based in Jerusalem or one of the West Bank’s cities and wishing to understand more of the rural environment, Szepesi’s book opens up ways to do this that maximize engagement — social and economic — with ordinary Palestinian communities.
For travelers unfamiliar with the West Bank, it’s not a replacement for a general guide, but a supplement for those wanting to get out of the cities, to places which it would be very difficult for most visitors to otherwise find and safely explore. The book may state that it “deliberately avoid[s] areas that have served as flashpoints for tensions in the past” (24), yet it’s impossible to travel around the West Bank and talk to rural Palestinians without grasping some of the impacts of Jewish-only settlements, land confiscations, Israeli road-building programs, military measures and Israel’s wall.
Blair endorsement difficult to swallow
However, there are aspects of this book that many Palestine solidarity campaigners are going to find difficult to swallow. The first clue is the endorsement on the back cover from “the Right Honorable Tony Blair,” a war criminal masquerading as a peace envoy, who has failed to stand up to Israeli settlement-building and other abuses of human rights and international law. (Szepesi has worked in Jerusalem as an economic advisor to Blair.)
This is followed on the inside by descriptions such as one of the city Jenin as having experienced “years of isolation due to access difficulties,” but where apparently “developments in recent years have put Jenin back on the map for local and foreign visitors. In 2008, it was the first Palestinian city where Palestinian security forces were redeployed after years of absence” (57).
Walking Palestine makes no claims to being a political book, and it is perhaps not the duty of a walking guide to enter into discussions about the rights and wrongs of the Palestinian Authority. Perhaps one could hope that this book might appeal to a readership which would be put off by more overtly political language. Many Palestinians, after all, say that they want their country to be known for its beauty and heritage, not just for being the victim of occupation and invasion.
But there is a point at which diplomatic language starts to actively hide the truth, and to describe the many years over which Jenin was cut off by Israeli military roadblocks and checkpoints as “access difficulties” amounts effectively to a cover-up. There is no disputing Stefan Szepesi’s passion for the Palestinian people and the stunning scenery of the West Bank. For the increasing number of people wanting to experience the area on foot this guide will be indispensable. But in a land where politics and power are inescapable issues, to try and evade them results in some jarring notes.
Sarah Irving is a freelance writer. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She is the author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-author, with Sharyn Lock, of Gaza: Beneath the Bombs.