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Photo by Shareef Sarhan.
Photo by Palestine Image Bank.
Photo by Palestine Image Bank.
Photo by Palestine Image Bank.
Photo by Palestine Image Bank.
Photo by Palestine Image Bank.
Photo by Palestine Image Bank.
PACE photo archive.

Touring Palestine
By Adel H. Yahya
     Despite their very complex political situation and limited area, the Palestinian territories (West Bank and Gaza) have a lot to offer to both local and international tourists all year round. The total land area of the Palestinian territories is little over 6000 km²: 5690 km² for the West Bank, and 365 km² for the Gaza Strip. The West Bank is about 150 km long and from 31 to 58 km wide. The Gaza Strip is a roughly rectangular coastal area, 45 km long and from 6 to 13 km wide at its southern end. These two small strips of land have an exceptional climate and topographical structure. Their location at a bio-geographic crossroads between the continents of Africa, Asia, and Europe, and the Mediterranean and Red seas has endowed them with unique and diverse flora and fauna. At least 274 species of migratory birds use this area as a resting point on their journeys between continents. Plant life in Palestine  is rich and varied, with many native species such as olives, vines, and oak trees, 

    Touring the Palestinian areas can be and is, in fact, a pleasant and unique experience. Several Palestinian organisations offer regular guided tours to the various Palestinian localities. The Ramallah-based Palestinian Association for Cultural Exchange (PACE) is one such organisation that offers regular weekly tours to all parts of the West Bank at modest prices to both local and international tourists. The organisation has been guiding local and international groups for over ten years to the most remote corners of the West Bank where visitors receive extraordinarily courteous treatment. Most Palestinians are keen on preserving what is left of their endangered cultural heritage and are thus eager to see tourists in their hometowns and villages. They are very welcoming, generous, and easy to deal with.

    The West Bank and Gaza can be divided into several smaller districts which differ significantly in altitude and climate. This causes radical differences in all aspects between each district, which makes them unique destinations for local and international tourists alike.

The Coastal Plain of Gaza
    In general, the Palestinian coastal plain is the richest region of the country and has been the most densely populated area throughout all periods of history. This plain broadens considerably as it extends south towards Gaza. The Gaza Strip itself is a fertile, densely populated plain not exceeding 40 m above sea level. Unfortunately, the current political situation and siege on Gaza has put a lot of stress on this fragile environment, and it is hard to predict how long this area will remain such a haven for wildlife and when Palestinians and foreign tourists will again be able to enjoy the beauties of the strip, including the lovely sandy beaches, delicious seafood, and the incredibly rich heritage.

The West Bank
    The West Bank is divided longitudinally into three distinct geographical strips that offer local and international tourists abundant and unique touring opportunities all year long, especially during the spring and summer.

1. The Central Highlands, or the central mountain range, bisect the West Bank longitudinally. They receive an appreciable rainfall (500-900 mm a year) during the winter months, December to March. These highlands make up the largest mountain range in Palestine (about 3,500 km²) and rise up to a height of more than 1,000 m above sea level. Most major historic Palestinian cities and villages are located within this mountain range, and the opportunities to tour this part of the country are endless. The following are some popular destinations, sites, and prospective tours for local and international tourists in the Palestinian hill country.

Jerusalem: The city of Jerusalem, with its many magnificent historical and religious sites, is an overwhelming experience for both Palestinian and foreign tourists. It inspires more passion than any other city in the country, if not the world, because it is the cradle of the three major monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It was and still is the unchallenged crown city of Palestine. Some of the highlights of the city include the Mount of Olives, the Via Dolorosa, the city walls and gates, the Haram al-Sharif, the Wailing Wall, the Holy Sepulchre, and many others. Regrettably Palestinians from the West Bank are banned by the Israeli military authorities from entering Jerusalem. The city and the people of the West Bank are devastated by this Israeli measure and cannot wait for the day when they will flood their city with love and passion.

Ramallah and vicinity: Ramallah has been justifiably described as the de facto capital of the Palestinian areas since 1996. It is a lively city that offers visitors great opportunities for sightseeing, dining, entertainment, and culture. While in the city tourists are advised not to miss the lively city centre (al-Manara), the Palestinian presidential compound, Arafat’s Mausoleum,  and the old city centres of the twin cities of al-Bireh and Ramallah. In downtown Ramallah, al-Kamandjati, the Archaeology Museum, the Ottoman Court, and the Orthodox church are all worth a visit. And in the old city centre of al-Bireh, Al-Ain Mosque, the Khan, the Church of the Holy Family, the Omari Mosque, and Inash al-Usra Folklore Museum should not be missed. 

    The city of Ramallah is full of all kinds of restaurants, hotels, bars, and public parks that are ideal for entertainment and dining. Here as elsewhere in the Palestinian areas the food is tasty, agreeable, and easy to digest. It is relatively cheap, nutritious, and, on the whole, fine for vegetarians. It consists mostly of vegetables, a variety of salads, bread, and rice. Lamb, beef, and chicken are also served. The cheapest options are the local fast foods available at the ubiquitous falafel and shawerma stands. Such light meals typically cost between four and twenty shekels. Bigger and fancier restaurants serve full meals starting with traditional salads followed by a main meat or vegetarian meal and cost between 35 and 70 shekels. In Ramallah as well as in the cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem it is also possible to find international cuisine, ranging from Mexican to Chinese.

    Around the city: There are many interesting historic villages in the Ramallah area that have always been major attractions to both local and international tourists. Visitors are strongly advised to visit some of these villages, including Beitin - just east of Ramallah - with its ancient tell, tower, water system, and Roma pool; close by are Biblical Ai (Deir Dibwan), Kufur Malik with its famous spring Ein Samia, and Taybeh with its interesting historic churches and brewery. Al-Jib (Gebion), south of Ramallah, also has an ancient tell, water system, and Byzantine church and is worth a visit. North and west of Ramallah one should not miss Jifna with its cosy historic centre and fantastic restaurants, Birzeit and its university, Aboud, and Shuqba (the cave and Wadi al-Natuf). Ein Qenia, just west of Ramallah, with its valley and springs is also a popular destination for local tourists. Visitors to the region are also encouraged to visit one or more refugee camps in the area to meet with people and visit institutions such as youth clubs, women’s organisations, and centres for children, people with disabilities, and the elderly.

    Like every area of the West Bank, the Ramallah area offers picnickers and hikers great opportunities for recreation and walking tours in and around the various valleys and springs, such as Wadi Sarida, Ein Qenia, Ein Samia, and Ein Harasha, just to name a few. Furthermore, Ramallah and the Palestinian areas in general have a lively tradition of music and dance, with dabke (the traditional Levantine folk dance) performances happening frequently throughout the year, especially during summer. Summer in Ramallah is made more interesting by the many heritage and musical festivals throughout the region, including the Birzeit Rozana Heritage Week in July, the Jifna Apricots Festival in June, the Taybeh Oktoberfest, and the Kasaba International Film Festival, which is held in November and showcases a range of international and Middle Eastern films.

Bethlehem and vicinity: The city of Bethlehem and the surrounding area offers local and international tourists unlimited opportunities for conventional and creative tours. The area, with its long-standing Christian tradition, is famous for its hospitality to tourists, and the people here are famous for their expertise in handicrafts, especially olive wood carvings and embroidery.

    Aside from the world famous tourist attractions such as the Church of the Nativity, the Milk Grotto, the old city market, the folklore museum, and the Peace Centre, the city and area of Bethlehem offer tourists world class touring opportunities, including the Shepherds’ Fields in Beit Sahour, Mar Saba and Ibn Ubaid monasteries near Ubaidieh, St. George’s Church in al-Khader, Solomon’s Pools, Murad’s fortress in Artas, and the Herodion Mountain, “Jabal al-Fraidees,” just east of the town. The area also offers tourists fantastic hiking tours on marked paths, such as the two-hour walk from Solomon’s Pools to Artas or the four-hour tour to Herodion, Bethlehem, and the smaller towns around it; Beit Sahour and Beit Jala have exceptional restaurants, hotels, and public parks for entertainment and dining at affordable prices.   

Hebron and vicinity: Hebron and its region offer local and international tourists boundless opportunities for sightseeing, shopping, dining, and culture. Aside from the world famous tourist attractions such as the Ibrahimi Mosque, the old city markets, Haram al-Rama (Mamre), the Russian Orthodox church (Oak of Abraham), Tell al-Rumaidah, and Ein Sara, visitors to the city are encouraged to visit the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee, the Christian Peacemaker Teams, and the TIPH (Temporary International Presence in Hebron) to gain firsthand knowledge of the complex political situation in the city and the country.

    Tourists are also encouraged to visit the many wonderful pottery, glass, and ceramic factories in the city and observe how the people of Hebron have been able to develop these industries into tourist attractions. Pottery and ceramics are ancient industries in Palestine, especially in Hebron. Hebron is also known worldwide for its famous glass blowers and designers.

Nablus and vicinity: A visit to Nablus and vicinity is a must for anybody visiting the Palestinian areas. Highlights of the city include Jacob’s Well, Tell Balata (Shekhem), the old city, including the Grand Mosque, Turkish Baths, Soq al-Khan, Al-Nimer Palace, Khan al-Wakala, the soap factories, al-Khadra Mosque, etc. Visiting Mount Gerizim and the Samaritan community is a unique experience for both local and international tourists as are visits to Wadi al-Bathan, Tel al-Far’ah, and Sabastiya (Samaria). Visitors are also advised to spend an evening in one of the two functional Turkish baths of Nablus: Hamam al-Shifa and Hamam al-Sumara. No visit is complete without tasting the most delicious Palestinian dessert, kanafa, which is the speciality of the city.

North of Nablus: Jenin, Qalqilia, and Tulkarem: The northern part of the West Bank, even though less explored by local and international tourists, is probably more charming than the central and southern parts of the country. The ancient city of Sabastiya (Samaria), just north of Nablus on the Jenin road, is a unique experience and a must for anyone travelling north of Nablus. Here one may explore the interesting Hellenistic and Roman remains as well as significant remains from the earlier history of this region. The village itself is no less charming than the Tell above, and visitors nowadays may enjoy dining and lodging for a night in this charming historic village.  

    Before reaching Jenin, tourists are strongly advised to stop at the Memorial of the Iraqi soldiers at the Martyrs Triangle and the historic village of Qabatia. And at the entrance to Jenin they should stop at the newly rehabilitated Bal’amah Tunnel. They are also encouraged to visit the village of Zababdeh, home of the Arab American University, and the village of Burqin and its historic church of the Ten Lepers. While in the city visitors should not miss Tell Jenin,  the Jenin cinema project, and the refugee camp of Jenin. Before leaving Jenin visitors are advised to visit the Haddad Tourism Village just east of town where they can enjoy an amusement park, a hotel, and reasonably priced restaurants.          

    Visitors to the northern part of the West Bank should not miss the opportunity to visit the beautiful agricultural towns of Qalqilia and Tulkarem, if only for the beauty of the land and a better understanding of the present political situation in the region and the country.

2. The Eastern Slopes. In contrast to the central highlands, this area is an arid, rocky, semi-desert locally known as Barriyat al-Quds, the Wilderness of Jerusalem. Its slopes cover about 1500 km² and represent about one-third of the West Bank. It borders the central mountain range to the east, extending as far as Jerusalem and falling steeply down to the Dead Sea on the west. This area provides some very dramatic scenery and excellent walking paths, with the possibility of seeing some of the desert wildlife such as ibex, gazelles, camels, porcupines, snakes, and lizards. Very few plants can be found in this area, however; the wadis, or river beds, provide water for lush plant growth and associated wildlife, particularly during the rainy season. The altitude of this zone ranges from 800 m above sea level to about 200 m below sea level.

    The road to the Jordan Valley, from Jerusalem and Ramallah to Jericho in particular, is one of the most interesting roads in the country. Tourists should not miss the Good Samaritan Inn, Wadi al-Qelt, the Monastery of Saint George, and Nabi Musa. It is imperative to make a brief stop at sea level and then to visit one of the Bedouin camps that line the road to meet and talk with Bedouin chiefs and people from the Kaa’bneh and Jahalin tribes. The Wilderness of Jerusalem (Judean Desert) offers tourists wonderful hiking opportunities, especially in the winter and spring, such as the two-hour walk from Ein al-Qelt through the monastery and down to Herod’s winter palace at the entrance to Jericho.

3. The Jordan Valley is a fertile plain, approximately 400 km², at an altitude of 200m to more than 400m below sea level. Traditionally used for agriculture, a lot of this area has now become inaccessible to Palestinians as it has been declared a closed military zone by Israel. The main city here is Jericho, which is a popular winter destination for local and foreign tourists alike. The touring opportunities in and around the city are unlimited. In an area of 15 km2 there are literally hundreds of the most interesting archaeological and historical sites as well as many public parks and all kinds of good restaurants and hotels.  

    In the city one should not miss the cosy, small city centre, the sycamore tree of Zacchaeus, the Spanish Garden, the Tell and spring of al-Sultan (Elisha’s Well), the Jericho Cable Car, the Mount of Temptation, the sugar mills, the Jewish synagogues, Hisham’s Palace, and Ein al-Ojah.

Adel H. Yahya is director of the Palestinian Association for Cultural Exchange (PACE).








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