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Hikers find the unexpected in Palestine

March 20, 2012

ZEBABDE (Palestine): Mohammed Atari heaved the rock into position, its painted red and white sign marking a seven-mile trail across wheat fields, olive groves and gentle stony hills in the north of the West Bank. “When we started marking walking trails, people were suspicious,” he said. They feared the markers signified a new Israeli settlement or military zone.”

Walking for pleasure is a concept unfamiliar to most Palestinians. But over the past five years, hikers — mainly foreign diplomats, aid workers and journalists, but also locals — have become a more common sight in the West Bank. Their hikes range from the rolling lush hills and valleys of the north to the dramatic arid desert landscape of the south.

This week sees the publication of Walking Palestine, a guide to 25 walks, the fruits of a four-year project by a Dutch diplomat, Stefan Szepesi. It details tracks, paths and dirt roads; supplies maps and information on historical sites, wildlife and natural attractions; and provides practical details on local guides, parking, public transport, restaurants and places to stay.

Szepesi began walking in the West Bank soon after arriving to work for the EU; he later moved over to the Middle East Quartet.

The outings were born of a need to escape the intensity of Jerusalem, but also a desire to get to know Palestinians and their land in a more intimate way than he could from the confines of a diplomatic mission headquarters.

He started exploring the wadis and hills with four friends; the group has now grown to 235 members and organises hikes almost every weekend. “Part of the reason for walking is to meet people,” he said last week while hiking part of the trail from Haddad to Jalqamus in the north. Offers of hospitality often slow down a walk considerably, but “I have never regretted accepting the offer of tea or coffee. These unexpected encounters are just wonderful.”

The walks in the book avoid Israeli settlements, mainly because the fences that encircle them are also barriers to walking but also because of occasional tensions. In a foreword to the book, Palestinian writer and walker Raja Shehade says: “Many areas of outstanding beauty have been destroyed by the hastily built settlements that stand out as artificial impositions on the delicate features and contours of this ancient land.”

The trail from Haddad begins near an unusual landmark: a ferris wheel at a Palestinian tourism resort near Jenin built by businessman Ibrahim Haddad. As well as an amusement park, the centre contains a swimming pool, amphitheatre, hotel and restaurant, much of it incorporating hand-crafted ironwork from the foundry he owns. Against all odds, the resort is a success.

The walk passes through olive, almond and mulberry trees, and fields of rippling wheat. In spring, the ground is covered with wild flowers: anemones, cyclamen, iris, mustard. Much of the vegetation is used in Palestinian cooking and as natural remedies, said Atari, reeling off evocative local names for plants: tail of the fox, eye of the hyena.

By arrangement with the Guardian