Travel in the Palestinian West Bank rarely makes any tourist's itinerary, and it's not hard to see why. With all the talk of roadblocks, soldiers, suicide bombers and militant regimes, it's unlikely to vie with Jerusalem's Old City or Tel Aviv's nightlife as a major Middle Eastern drawcard. But, by keeping a close eye on the security situation, there's no reason why a political hotspot can't also be a tourist hotspot. Despite the media hype, the West Bank is very much open for holiday business.
While travelling the length of the West Bank, I faced what locals consider the usual sorts of travel obstacles. Ominous, looming checkpoints; first-hand accounts of terrible hardships and cruelty; a violent incident that left two Israeli policemen dead, presumed killed by Palestinian gunmen. On roads linking the South Hebron Hills to Ramallah and beyond, I saw illegal Jewish settlements and Palestinian villages deadlocked under Israeli military curfew. But travellers are adaptable creatures, and I pressed on to meet the people behind the conflict.
It was worth it. In the deeply troubled city of Hebron, I found humility, hospitality and an overwhelming sense of humanity. Palestinians emerged from their homes to murmur 'Welcome to Hebron.' Lunch at a local restaurant in Bethlehem was comfort food served with a smile. Locals in Jericho helpfully eased me onto the correct bus to Ramallah.
But Palestinians weren't the only West Bank inhabitants who greeted me with warmth. Cave-dwelling Bedouin, routed from their homeland by Israeli development, brewed thyme tea and offered a soft divan. Israeli settlers celebrating the Jewish festival of Purim invited me into their synagogue and their homes, to share the feast where, they explained, 'everything normal is turned on its head.'
'Up is down on Purim,' smiled a man dressed as a buxom blonde, 'Wrong is right.' And this is the essence of travelling in the West Bank. Arrive expecting terror and you'll find friendliness. Think things are getting better, and they're inevitably worse. Be convinced someone's views are nonsensical, and they'll provide a rational explanation. But as upside-down destinations go, you won't find a more confounding, confusing or compelling road less travelled.
Suggested West Bank itinerary:
Begin your travels in Hebron, then head south – with a good guide – to visit the Bedouins and cave dwellers of the southern West Bank hills. After this, go north to fascinating, lively Bethlehem, then on to ancient Jericho to wander tourist spots in utter solitude. Take a taxi to cultural hub Ramallah for a strong coffee or two (don’t miss Stars and Bucks), and on to Qalqilya to have a peek at its zoo, before heading further to Nablus. To return to Israel, exit via the Qalqilya checkpoint.
Amelia Thomas travelled to Israel and the West Bank on assignment for Lonely Planet. You can follow her adventures on Lonely Planet: Roads Less Travelled, screening internationally on National Geographic.