Another bright and sunny day in Jerusalem. Three other walkers – Rani, Alexis, and Maggie – introduced themselves at the hotel reception, then it was off in Mohammed Barakat’s minibus for the drive to Nablus. Mohammed as usual was a mine of information as we went, with our first experience of the notorious Israeli security wall (or segregation wall), army checkpoints, and settlements on the hills.
A sightseeing stop by the side of the road gave us a chance encounter with an ageing Palestinian lady on the way to her olive groves. She told us how the villagers were constantly harassed by settlers, and how she had stones thrown at her by settlers recently on her way to the olive groves. She explained that every time they had troubles with the settlers, they had to call the Israeli military, who call the Israeli police, who would eventually turn out and escort them – but at the expense of most of the day’s work in the groves.
On then to Nablus, picking up our final walker, Peter, en route. Our first stop was the Greek Orthodox church at Balata, on the edge of Nablus, which houses Jacob’s well of biblical fame (if you don’t know the New Testament story, it’s worth a read). This is one of the more credible biblical sites – once established, wells don’t move, and there are no other likely candidates in the area. We can also certify the well is indeed deep! Photography of the well itself is not permitted. We were also shown the grave of the previous parish priest, who had been shot dead by the Israelis. The current incumbent had already got his own tomb prepared outside the church – the experience of his predecessor must have given him a heightened awareness of his own mortality…
Literally across the road from the Church is the Balata Refugee Camp – the largest refugee camp in the West Bank, with over 25,000 residents in a space of one square kilometre. We were told the history of the Camp by one of its project managers, from its origins as a field of tents set up by the UN to its current warren of apartments, schools, etc all still crammed in the same area. The Camp is currently peaceful, but we heard of its grim history during the intifada, with hundreds killed and the camp sealed off, put under curfew, and turned into a prison. We went for a walk round – it’s still incredibly cramped, but more clean and sanitary than the archetypical slum.
Following an enormous lunch of what I can only describe as Palestinian pizzas – delicious but very filling – it was back in the minibus to the centre of the bustling city of Nablus, for a walk around the Old Town. Our trip took us through a traditional soap factory (made from olive oil); a sweet factory; a spice merchants (with sacks of saffron on sale at unbelievably cheap prices to us); and a wonderful ancient hammam (public baths) where we were shown round and then treated to sweet tea (only Peter was brave enough to try the hookah). But we all tried the kunafeh – I thought it was delicious; others weren’t so sure…
Less happily, we also saw some of the results of the recent troubles in the city, where maze of old byzantine streets must have been a nightmare for the occupying Israeli army. One square had proved inaccessible due to the narrow roads, so the army had simply demolished a house to get a tank into the square. The memorial to the people who were living in the house and were crushed to death in the process is pretty hard to take.
From what we saw, there is considerable tourist potential for Nablus, which would provide a needed boost to the local economy. With some investment, the places we visited could be turned into ‘visitor experiences’ with explanatory boards, visitor shops, cafes, and prices to match. For now, we enjoyed it just as it is.
Our planned itinerary for the day should now have seen us starting our Abraham Path walk through open countryside from Nablus to Awarta – unfortunately time was getting on, so we were mini-bussed instead to Awarta for our first overnight homestay.
Our hosts and their extended family all turned out to make us welcome. They were wonderfully warm and hospitable, and the home cooked meal was delicious. They then offered to take us for a wander round the village as night fell. On hilltops around the village we could see the lights of Israeli settler villages – illegal under international law, but spreading rapidly along the hilltops none the less. We were shown the extensive exclusion zone around the settlers’ villages, taken from Palestinian families’ land. The settlers had also decided there was a religious site in Awarta, where they had the right to come and pray. They exercised this right twice a week, at midnight, with a heavy Israeli army presence to accompany them.
We returned to our host’s house to settle down for the night. The accommodation was a bit of a shock to the system – one large room with mattresses on the floor and a rather dodgy bathroom screened off only by a curtain. We realised that the six complete strangers who comprised this walking tour would know each other rather well by the end of the trip…