Cycling the West Bank: Uphill rides and uphill battles

An eight day cycling trip through the West Bank turned out to have a lot more surprises than Louise Rafkin ever expected

By Louise Rafkin

I was sharing my itinerary with the young Israeli next to me on the plane – Tel Aviv, bicycling the West Bank, Jerusalem – a month in all.  Yes, I said, it was my first visit to Israel.

“You’re Jewish, right?” he asked.  Then, as if he knew already, “Palestinians will kill you – they’re animals, they’re not human.”

My California sensibilities were shocked by his blunt racism.  He poked in his ear buds.  It was a long flight.

My four grandparents are buried in temple grounds, yet despite my father having been raised Orthodox, my parents ditched Judaism along with snow shovels in a post-WWII move from Connecticut to California where in the 60s religious affiliations seemed as changeable as clouds. Free to find my own faith, I drifted from one to another never landing for long.  My very religious aunt once questioned me harshly: “Do you consider yourself Jewish?”

“I don’t know how you could,” I remember her saying, “but then, how couldn’t you?”

This confusion combined with my anti-Zionist politics kept the question of a visit to Israel at bay for decades.  But last fall, a random email about the trip arrived via Jewish Voice for Peace.  Sponsored by the Siraj Center, a Palestinian non-profit, it promised local interaction and suggested those of average fitness could handle the hills and heat. As a traveler, I have always sought out adventure: central Java by foot, rural Fiji by bus.  The West Bank by bicycle?  I registered for the eight-day April trip well before the surprise of the Arab Spring.  As it turned out, that was only one of many surprises to come.

Getting in shape for the ride

I’m a middle-aged fitness buff but in the last decade I’ve straddled a bike only a handful of times.  Before the trip I cycled a (flat) 10-mile path near my home in San Francisco’s East Bay three times.  Or maybe it was twice. In Tel Aviv I acclimatized to the heat, the bike seat, and what seemed like a polarized political zeitgeist.  Israeli peace activists met through American contacts ferried me to checkpoints and protests where I saw firsthand what I’d only seen in film documentaries.

On patrol with MachsomWatch, a group that monitors checkpoint activity, I saw an elderly Palestinian man taken by the IDF to be searched, his donkey confusedly trying to follow through the tangle of barbed fence.  At Sha’ar Efraim, an enormous privatized checkpoint less than an hour’s drive from Tel Aviv, laborers returning from work shared their daily problems: random closings, long waits, revoked work permits.  At Bi’lin to protest the illegally built separation wall (recently removed), I felt the sting of tear-gas and witnessed a man shot with a live bullet.  Once the ambulance departed, I drank sweet tea at a nearby farmhouse with a jovial group of both Palestinians and Israelis for whom a shooting was nothing extraordinary. Returning to Tel Aviv after these adventures, I’d dip into the sea before meeting new friends for drinks and amazing food – a jarring juxtaposition that became more comfortable as the days passed.

While most Israeli activists expressed envy about my upcoming adventure – being as it’s illegal for them – the reactions of more random Tel Avivians met at cafes, bus stops and the beach, were more akin to that of my plane-mate – at best confusion and at worst, horror. “Why would you go there?” blurted the otherwise polite clerk of my trendy hotel.

A motley crew

I met my fellow bikers in Jerusalem.  After a taxi ride to Beit Sahour, we climbed into a minivan for the drive northwards to Jenin and our new Chinese mountain bikes. We were a motley crew of five: Olivia, a French journalist of American-Chinese background with her delightful teenaged half-Lebanese son, Lucas. Davey, a 23-year-old filmmaker from Salt Lake City was living in Palestine working at an NGO and studying Arabic, an invaluable skill with swarms of curious children along our route. George, a middle-aged Englishman hipster-wannabe had helped Siraj promote the trip online.

It came to light that the photos of smiling bikers on the “Bike Palestine” website had been staged: ours was the first trip of its kind.

I sat in the front next to Nidal, our guide for the drive north through green valleys and rocky hillsides.  Yet despite the tranquil countryside, I felt nervous. Just the week before there had been several newsworthy assassinations, including that of Juliano Mer-Khamis, a respected Jewish-Palestinian activist and actor, and in Gaza, a beloved Italian peace activist. Though horrified by the fear mongering by the many who pronounced this trip dangerous, poised at the start line, I experienced my own unsettling fear.  Had I ingested fear by osmosis? Or did my unease spring from true intuition? Or was it my uncomfortable status as American and Jewish?

Over dinner, George suggested a visit to “a refugee camp, or a bar.” Nidal nixed his idea – after all, Juliano’s murder was recent and nearby.  I was relieved.

PA posse joins the ride

At breakfast, four armed security guards from the Palestinian Authority announced they’d be shadowing our ride.  I asked Nidal if they know something we didn’t?  He shrugged – it was clear they wouldn’t answer questions – and urged us to get moving.  The sun was ablaze and we had 35K of road ahead. I set off with my heart pounding, with fear at first, and then with exertion.

Soon enough my fear and the P.A. posse disappeared.  We cycled to Roman ruins in the hilltop town of Sebastia where John the Baptist was reportedly beheaded, and through villages where children swarmed as we gulped gallons of water.  We rode rocky paths and nicely paved roads, and passed checkpoints both open and shut. The West Bank, I realized, dismounting to push my bike up another enormous hill, fronts a river.  Rivers cut through valleys, valleys are valleys because of hills.  In short: both I (and Siraj) had greatly underestimated the physical challenge of the ride.

Cycling the West Bank: Uphill rides and uphill battles
A stop for lunch (photo: Olivia Snaije)

By mid-afternoon I’d whined my way into the mini van.  We reached the large city of Nablus just in time for women’s hour at the Turkish baths.  In the steamy catacombed “hammom” Olivia and I melted under a coat of olive oil and the hands of a skilled masseuse.  Later, a local guide provided history of the city – bombings, nearby settlement expansions – and again I started to feel afraid.  Nablus has been the site of much violence with settlers and I felt conspicuously Jewish. The guide’s face with his strong nose and dark hair echoed my father’s, and I mentioned this to Olivia.  We both began to wonder if anyone could tell who anyone was without the signifiers such as checkered kaffiyah or crocheted kippah.

After an exhausted sleep, the following day we climbed aboard again and biked passed hilltop settlements serviced by Israeli-only roads.  With their red tile roofs, settlements looked like suburban subdivisions you’d find in Florida or Southern California – in stark contrast to the organic scatter of concrete homes in the Palestinian villages.  We passed Itamar, where a Jewish family had recently been murdered, and Awarta, where, in search of the killers, the men had been DNA tested and dozens arrested by the IDF.  There’d allegedly been beatings and homes destroyed.

A new friendship

While the others pushed through pain under the 80-plus degree sun, Nidal and I talked on the side of the road.  He bragged about his son and two-year-old daughter.  He had two other jobs.  I knew he was being paid, but I felt guilty for keeping him from what scant time he had with his family. We developed the kind of relationship I remember from grade school: affectionate, jokey.  That morning he’d killed a small snake in my path and I swooned like a movie actress: “You saved my life.”

Nidal was a proud Christian; I told him about my ambivalence towards Judaism.  “I’m as much a Jew as I am a cyclist,” I confessed and he laughed.

We were waiting for the rest of the group when a black car came to a screeching stop.  The animated driver exchanged loudly with Nidal.  The only Arabic word I understood was “Yahoudy”  – Jew. “Laa,” Nidal said, with an unfamiliar steely look.  No. The man had me figured for a Jewish settler.  Against Nidal’s fierce response, the car sped off. Thanking him, I told him what the guy on the plane had said.  Then we shared an awkward silence.

The next afternoon we reached Jericho and the Dead Sea after a long and welcome downhill run.  There was a definite IDF presence, and Israelis on vacation.  (Though supposedly occupied for security reasons, the Dead Sea also sources the popular Ahava beauty products, produced in the illegal settlement of Mitzpe Shalem.)

I found the water harsh, but Nidal lauded its healing powers, floating and slathering himself in the thick black sludge.  Covered in mud, he crept up behind me where I was reading on the shore, reaching as if to strangle.  “I’m a terrorist and I’m going to kill you!” he whispered, his accent telegraphing his roots.  The heads of a nearby Israeli father and his teenaged daughter both swiveled. Immediately protective I laughed, too loudly.  Nidal shifted in the mud, aware of his audience.

The following day we cycled into the desert.  After loading our bikes into a taxi, we followed Nidal on a three-hour hike through stark landscape as foreign as the moon, emerging at a stunning Greek monastery perched on a gaping canyon.  The initial plan has been to cycle this trek, but thankfully we had balked at the idea.  By then mid-Passover, I joked about getting lost and called Nidal my “Moses.”

We spotted a lone wild camel and were fed fresh bread by a Bedouin shepherd before catching up with our bikes at the Arab Women’s Union guesthouse in Beit Sahour, a Christian town readying for Easter. That night, Davey and Lucas ducked into the local pool hall and were challenged to a game of foosball by a gang of shabab – young men.  Olivia and I watched as our boys lost big to the locals.  Surrounded by whoops and the smell of fresh falafel, I thought about those who had questioned this trip: here I was with 30 or more young men of “suicide bomber” age, all of us laughing.

Cycling the West Bank: Uphill rides and uphill battles
Losing the foosball match (Photo: Olivia Snaije)

Exhausted, we ditched plans to cycle to Hebron, and the next day piled into the van with Nidal’s nine-year-old son.  At the edge of the old city we were met by IDF soldiers toting super-sized machine guns shouldered and at the ready.  With 500 Jewish settlers protected by 2,000 IDF soldiers in the midst of several hundred thousand Palestinians, it was the most charged day of the journey. While touring the old city, Nidal rested one hand on his son’s shoulder.  I asked him to take my picture. “I can’t here,” he shorthanded, nodding at a threesome of soldiers eyeing him.

Above our heads, trash and bags of sewage had been thrown from the settlers living on top of the market.  In the Arab information center, human excrement leaked from the skylights.  Schoolgirls with pink backpacks skipped past soldiers in bulletproof vests pointing rifles longer than their bodies.  I felt as much fear as I had the first day of the trip, but by this time, it was not about what I imagined, but what I saw.

Leaving the old city, Olivia stopped to talk with IDF soldiers all too happy to discuss the make of their rifles with a couple of non-Arab Internationals.  Nidal and his son waited safely in the car, while members of an international human rights group monitored the aggressive searching of a young Palestinian man just yards away.

On the way back to Beit Sahour from Hebron; the group was quiet.  George, who had pulled out headphones half way through the week, was again in his own world.  Lucas slept against his mother’s shoulder. Nidal was leaving us that night before our last ride – as a Palestinian he wasn’t allowed to escort us into Jerusalem. “An accident of birth,” he replied when I selfishly complained about wanting him with me to the end.

“How do you feel having a Jewish friend?” I asked as we said our goodbyes at the guesthouse. “Lovely friend,” he said, with a half-smile.  I smiled for a photo, but back in my room it was a long time before I stopped crying.

That last day, with no Nidal to scoop me up, I cycled the long hill to Bethlehem and the strange approach to the checkpoint that divided he and I.  We’d concocted a story of where we’d been in case we were questioned, but I passed through the final checkpoint without a hitch, flashing my American passport.  At that moment, with the guard smiling, I felt both the privilege and the responsibility, of my heritage.

The Bike Palestine website now includes the caveat that “long uphill stretches will tire even the most experienced cyclist” but what it doesn’t say is that not being able to make the hills has its own reward.
Bay Area journalist Louise Rafkin writes for the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle