Ok, so I will admit that a visit to the West Bank or what much of the world calls Palestine (inclusive of Gaza) is likely not on the top of most leisure travelers' lists. However, the West Bank is indeed safe and it's a worthwhile, enlightening place to tour, especially for those interested in the region's complex political challenges. During a recent trip to the region, I had the unique opportunity to spend a day in Jericho and Ramallah.
I asked several people if I could enter from Jordan (as I was staying in Amman in the first part of my trip). Asking three people drew three different answers. One said it would be easy to cross over the Allenby Bridge from Jordan into the West Bank, and since I was to be on the Dead Sea (Jordan side) in the morning, Jericho is theoretically just 20 minutes away. But one must cross the Jordanian and then Israeli borders. Another person said, no way, there would be at least a two-hour process going through the Israeli border and then we'd face problems returning to Jordan from the West Bank – not least of which was the border closing by 8pm. Finally, a third said it was doable but complicated from Jordan; better to arrange it from Tel Aviv. That's what my friend and I chose to do.
So I researched and got the name of a fantastic tour guide, Adress (Beit Lehem Tourism, 011-972-1700-707-704, firstname.lastname@example.org). Adress picked us up at our Tel Aviv hotel (The Carlton) at 11am. The drive to Jericho is just one hour and because Adress is Arab Israeli, he has permission to pass easily from Israel to the "occupied territories." I highly recommend a driver who can pass through like this.
What you call this land is tricky. Many in the Arab world call it Palestine. Many in the West call it the West Bank and Gaza Strip, because it's not a state (yet). And others may call it the "Occupied Territories." I alternated between calling it Palestine and the West Bank.
Our guide, who was not just Arab but Palestinian Arab, was excellent at discussing in a balanced way the political situation. Certainly seeing it all is most memorable and brought to me a level of understanding well beyond what I might glean from reading newspapers.
One passes through several Israeli checkpoints in these lands – both when leaving Israel proper and at points inside the West Bank. The checkpoints were quick (surprisingly). People seem to know who is allowed on the roads. Dotting a number of hills are large, walled-off Israeli settlement blocks. Note that non-Arab Israelis are not allowed in the West Bank.
The arid and rocky landscape is hardly what I would call prime real estate. It's not rich in oil or minerals. I'm sure it's not easy to farm. But clearly the people are passionate about it – all of it. And there are Biblical stories galore, with Biblical events behind almost every town, hill, and stone.
The road to Jericho was fairly quiet. The small town is one of the oldest cities in the world and is the lowest permanently inhabited site on earth. In Judeo-Christian tradition, it's the place where the Israelites returned from bondage in Egypt.
In Ramallah (30 minutes from Jericho), we stopped for lunch at Al Syoure on Rookab Street in the town center. We also visited Yasir Arafat's tomb (a very nicely built complex), and did a walkabout town for an hour or so, passing by numerous clothing shops, barbers, restaurants, etc. I don't recommend walking without a guide. While Americans are very welcome in Palestine, it's still wise to have a guide. There were absolutely no other foreigners around and so we did stand out like a sore thumb. People were incredibly nice with warm smiles, and many wanted to talk with us. I never felt any danger whatsoever.
Stay tuned for my next post where I'll further explore the political obstacles facing the West Bank.