Dangerous trips
Photo: Shalom Bar Tal

Fearless in the West Bank

Special: Jewish hikers ignore security warnings, go on trips throughout Judea and Samaria

It happened early Friday morning, one week ago; a large group of hikers descended down the dry river bed from the Kfar Etzion settlement, westbound. The plan was to reach the Tel Dor archeological site, and dip in the clear springs there. In addition to the maps and the water flasks, they also packed a few M16 rifles – in case trouble strikes.


And trouble did strike. After three hours on the trail, they arrived at the site, which is located about 200 meters (roughly 220 yards) away from the Palestinian village of Beit Ommar. As the hikers sat down to eat, they attracted the attention of Palestinian youths on their way to Friday prayer who quickly gathered at the edge of the village with slingshots.


"When we descended to the wadi, a barrage of stones began," one of the hikers said. "We started running and they followed us."


After a few tense moments, the hikers opened fire, which evidently killed a 17-year-old boy. Intending to have a quiet hike, the travelers instead ended up arrested and questioned by the Shin Bet. Four of the armed men were released only six days later.


No spot out of bounds

The incident did not surprise many residents of Judea and Samaria. Friday trips around territories under Palestinian rule have grown into a trend recently, drawing hikers from around the country. These excursions have turned into yet another territorial battle between Israelis and Palestinians in the area, keeping security forces busy.


At the frontline of the hike trend stands David and Ahikam Tours, a company named after two young men who were killed in the region and whose death has served as a type of inspiration for the trips. A statement on the company's website warns potential clients. "Dear travelers, the trip organizers relinquish all responsibility for your safety and security," it reads. "We make every effort to obtain permits, but we cannot promise them."

Angry mob (Photo: Samaria and Binyamin Settler Committee)


In fact, the hikers often find themselves facing an angry Arab mob, or angry police officers. But these kinds of difficulties do not deter the travelers – on the contrary, they are part of the reason to hike.


For the wonderers, almost no spot is out of bounds. In one case, five IDF soldiers on leave found themselves in a shootout with Palestinian hunters adjacent to the Palestinian village of Ein Yabrud. One of the hunters died in the shooting, and the soldiers were sentenced to 10 days in military jail. In another incident, two IDF officers serving in the Nahal Infantry Brigade were incarcerated after facing a violent Palestinian crowd close to the Tapuah Junction, injuring a boy.


An order forbidding soldiers on leave to travel in the area without permission was issued following these events, but failed to reduce the number of visitors.


Protest trips

Naturally, there are those looking to cause trouble. The activist group Garin Jericho and its Nablus and Hebron equivalents hold protest trips to the cities that had Israeli presence prior to the signing of the Oslo Accords.


"The goal is to return to these cities, and through that return to the rest of Judea and Samaria," says Meir Bretler, one senior activist.


Each tour begins with five or six trekkers who are generally familiar with the region and are armed with a gun or an IDF rifle that belongs to their unit. More travelers, mostly religious ones, join the tour through Facebook. A member of the Observation Unit, a group of volunteer photographers, accompanies most of the tours. The photographers aim to document violence perpetrated by the police or by Palestinians, and collect evidence for court – in case one of the hikers ends up on trial after the trip.


The routes are chosen especially for the landscapes and their historic significance. Many of the heritage sites are found next to or in hostile Palestinian villages, which is where the problem begins; the law does not prohibit trips in the region as long as they avoid official Palestinian territories, and the IDF order to coordinate each such trip is not enforced.

Headache for army ((Photo: Samaria and Binyamin Settler Committee)


Lieutenant Colonel Ze'ev Gottesman, an officer in the Judea and Samaria division, often finds himself powerless. He approves most of the permit requests, but organizers normally do not even request a permit. According to Gottesman, the biggest fear is that IDF soldiers will mistake the travelers for terrorists and open fire. In addition, the presence of the hikers makes it easier for terrorist organizations to attack or kidnap someone.


"If one of them is kidnapped and they haven't coordinated with us, we don't even have a lead to follow," he said.


'We just want to travel'

Meir Kahane, a 57-year-old tour guide from the Ofra settlement, says that trips in the territories are not a new phenomenon.


"We have been traveling in the area for more than 30 years," he said. "Before the Oslo Accords, schools from around the country would come here and walk inside in the villages. We didn't even have to be armed; we were received very well almost always."


Following the Intifada, the routes shrunk considerably. Only now, after years of relative quiet, visitors are coming back to the hills and creeks of Judea and Samaria.


"As opposed to the youth groups, we are still accepted very well at most places, and we often drink tea with the local Palestinians," Kahane said. "We are not interested in showing our presence, we just want to travel. We even helped the farmers during the olive harvest."


But the lack of coordination worries security officials within the settlements as well; Avigdor Shatz, a security officer of the Binyamin Regional Council, characterizes this conduct as negligent.


"We have told hikers more than once, come tell us where you want to go, and we will do in an orderly manner," he said. "Once they asked to reach a well near El Jib. We took the challenge, coordinated with the (Palestinian) Authority and hundreds of people entered and traveled unharmed. But it hasn't been done since, and they hike without permission."


Recently a group wanted to make a pilgrimage from the Shilo settlement to Jerusalem - a three-day trip that passes through hostile villages like Sinjil, Ein Yabrud and Jaba. The hike, which was secured by the IDF, featured confrontations with Palestinians, during which one soldier was injured.


"I am all for the trips and they have an immense Zionist value," Shatz said. "But the IDF is the entity that is supposed to fight terrorists, not citizens."


On the other hand, there is the trip organizers' approach: The attackers are the ones that should be punished, not the victims.


"The government must deal with the rioters, not the travelers," said Ester Amichai, whose son, Ahikam, was shot to death by terrorists along with his friend David Rubin in December 2007, while hiking in the Hebron area. Their friends decided to turn such hikes from the undertaking of the brave to a project that drew crowds.


According to Amichai, her son's last wish comes true every Friday morning.


"If you ask me, this is exactly the way to immortalize him," she said. "What makes me the happiest is that people come from all over the country, not just religious people or settlers. I think that the travelers have no interest in causing friction with the local population, and this will only help to calm the situation."


This past Wednesday, the Beit Ommar travelers collected their water flasks, caps and maps, and hiked to the Magistrate's Court in Jerusalem. Though the judges released the four suspects in the shooting incident, they used the opportunity to protest.


"Anyone who thinks that they will stop us from traveling by using stones and bullets should understand that it's exactly the opposite," said Mordechai Sayed, the father of one of the suspects.



פרסום ראשון: 02.06.11, 21:00
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