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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 September 2007, 10:40 GMT 11:40 UK
West Bank: A walkers' paradise?
By Martin Asser
BBC News, Jerusalem

Wadi Qelt (photo: Martin Asser)
Wadi Qelt - one of six walks described by author Raja Shehadeh
The Israeli-occupied West Bank is certainly one of the world's most politically tense environments, but it's less often credited for also being an environment of outstanding natural beauty.

There are rolling hills and fertile valleys, constantly changing through the seasons, as well as stark and dramatic desert landscapes.

It would be a hikers' paradise in fact, but for its recent history of two peoples engaged in a bitter, frequently deadly, struggle for the land.

However, a new book by the Ramallah-based lawyer and writer, Raja Shehadeh, encourages just such an approach.

In Palestinian Walks, Shehadeh describes six journeys in the West Bank hills and Jordan valley, reflecting his passion for walking and his life's work opposing Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank.

"The Palestinian landscape has much to offer," the author told the BBC. "The walker can wander from the parts of the Great Rift Valley in the Dead Sea - 450 meters below sea level - to the central hills of the West Bank.

"In spring they have a greater abundance and variety of wild plants and flowers than anywhere in the world."

Sample walk

In addition to the landscape, Shehadeh points out that the long history of human habitation in the West Bank means you are likely to encounter ancient ruins along your way.

The walk from Shehadeh's book which I sampled follows the route of a Roman aqueduct down Wadi Qelt on the east of Jerusalem to the ancient city of Jericho.

On the way, you pass the monastery of St George of Koziba, in an area loaded with biblical associations such as the story of the Prophet Elijah and the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Shehadeh describes it as one of his favourite winter walks in the West Bank, when the Qelt and Fawwar springs fill the dry river bed and wild flowers grow on the hillsides.

To start the walk (in my case in late-summer, against the author's advice) you get dropped off by car halfway along the highway which cuts through the hills from Jerusalem down to Jericho just before the turnoff for the Mizpe Yericho settlement.

Almost immediately you leave the modern world behind, as a spectacular canyon opens up ahead of you with pale undulating sides, characteristic of the area around the Dead Sea.

Flash flood

Far below, the Qelt watercourse is marked by a cluster of dark green trees, the only sign of life in this arid landscape.

Wadi Qelt - Jordan Valley

The afternoon heat and blinding reflected light make the first part of the walk quite tough down to the wadi or valley, but you have to do it when the sun is relatively high as the footing on parts of the walk could be hazardous after dark.

If you are feeling energetic once you have reached the bottom of the wadi, you can turn left to climb up to the Fawwar spring. Otherwise, go right and head down to the monastery and Jericho.

After about an hour the path splits in two; you can continue along the fast-flowing aqueduct that snakes along the northern side of the wadi or - in the dry summer months - follow the empty river bed.

Vertigo sufferers should take the latter route because the aqueduct soars high up along the cliffs - unless there is a risk of flash floods which could be lethal in the narrow ravine.

It took us about three hours to reach the monastery, a remarkable structure clinging to the cliff face. You can be met by car there, or continue to Jericho, which takes another hour or so.


You can tell from the subtitle of Palestinian Walks - Notes from a Vanishing Landscape (emphasis added) - that it is not quite a guidebook, though it offers enough information for intrepid and properly equipped hikers to follow in the author's footsteps.

Each walk is connected to a phase of Shehadeh's life seen against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I decided to give the settlers a voice, to allow them to state their point of view
Raja Shehadeh

In Wadi Qelt, Shehadeh recounts how he tackled depression brought on by what he calls the "loss of the political horizon" which followed the signing of the Oslo Accords.

Having devoted his life to representing Palestinians in Israeli courts fighting land confiscations for settlement building, he saw Oslo as a strategic error by the Palestinian leadership, in effect legitimising Israel 's settlement activity on occupied land.

"The visit to the ancient monastery whose monks managed to survive successive waves of conquerors helped me realise I should dedicate myself to a different project which no-one could take from me," he said.

The project he decided on was writing his series of acclaimed books, in addition to his legal work and running the Palestinian human rights organisation al-Haq of which he is the founder.

Unsettling encounters

Perhaps what sets Palestinian Walks apart from other hiking books are the author's accounts of occasional meetings with his principal foe, the Jewish settlers, along the way.

Roman aqueduct, Wadi Qelt (photo: Martin Asser)
The aqueduct on Wadi Qelt is a spectacular reminder of the past
"I did not want to be as guilty of omission as those 19th Century travellers [in Palestine] whom I had criticised in the book, who see the land only in their image, or indeed of the exclusiveness of the settlers themselves," Shehadeh said.

"So I decided to give them a voice, to allow them to state their point of view, express their love of the land and the way they saw the past and the future."

But when the paths of settlers and Palestinians do cross, the encounters are usually intimidating - for both sides - and sometimes spill over into rancour and violence.

"The two groups inhabit separate hostile worlds. I wanted to bring this out and express the anger and fear that the presence of the settler inspires in the Palestinians."

In the book's extraordinary denouement, however, Shehadeh meets a gun-carrying resident of Dolev settlement with whom he shares first a heated argument and then the settler's cannabis pipe.

"I was fully aware of the looming tragedy that lay ahead for us both," Shehadeh writes. "But for now he and I could sit together for a respite, joined temporarily by our mutual love of the land."

Palestinian Walks, Notes on a Vanishing Landscape by Raja Shehadeh is published in the UK by Profile Books Ltd.

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