Off–the–beaten–track travel guides don’t list it, but there is a stunning mountain hike just north of Nablus in the West Bank. As early as January, winter rains sprinkle the slope with soft wildflowers peeping out from the grass. Olive orchards terrace bends in the mountain, and every turn affords a view of the surrounding peaks and villages. While the muddy climb may prove a challenge to some, the proximity to nature and the idylls of village life are well worth the trek.
If only this scenic trail were truly a weekend get-away! To the chagrin of many, the hour’s climb is now the sole route from Nablus to the village of Naqura, which has become the gateway to all destinations north. Israeli military orders have banned Palestinian travel on local paved roads, forcing them to forge new paths.
“The Naqura path is the worst road to Nablus,” swears Nael Al Eidi, a resident of Al Fara’ Refugee Camp who commutes to his office in Nablus. He views the long distance to be covered on foot and the strong army presence as the trail’s two main disadvantages, “not to mention the humiliation, degradation, swearing and shooting.”
Despite the relative isolation of this mountain pass, a permanent military “checkpoint” is located at an unmarked point along the dirt route. Young Israeli soldiers, some sporting American accents, stand here to check identification cards and search people’s belongings. They turn some around, and often detain groups for indefinite periods.
“It’s an exercise in humiliation, nothing more,” says Al Eidi, who has been detained by these young soldiers for hours at a time, forced to stand or sit on the ground until they release him. “It’s not to protect the Israelis or the settlers or anything else, it’s just pure degradation. The army is only there to humiliate Palestinians in an attempt to bring us to our knees.”
The five-kilometer hike and military obstacles along the way add considerable time to Palestinians’ errands around the area. Once arriving at Naqura from Nablus, travelers share stretch taxis that navigate roadblocks, trenches, unpaved roads and Israeli tanks until reaching their final destination. Before Palestinians were forced to take these circuitous routes, it took 15 minutes and cost less than $1 to travel from Al Fara’ to Nablus, Al Eidi remembers. Now it averages four hours and costs $7.
Men leading donkeys traverse the mountain path and transport walkers’ bags for a small fee. Familiar with the area and the Israeli soldiers’ actions, they also assist travelers in navigating their way to and from Nablus.
Tariq, one such guide, has often hosted Al Najah university students in his home after they have been turned back by the soldiers on duty. “They were forbidden from continuing on, but it was already night and so how could they go home?” he reasons. “The students slept at my house so that they could go to the university the following day to study. What a shame, where else could they have gone?”
But it’s not only groceries and schoolbooks that Tariq loads onto his donkey’s back. He sometimes gives rides to people who just can’t make the steep walk, and refuses to take anything in return. “I’ve seen some cases I couldn’t bear to look at. It’s a real tragedy,” he says.
Here, just outside of the area’s largest city, one sees villagers making their way to and from health clinics and hospitals. Patients wrapped in warm blankets are carried up the path on donkey back, relatives pushing the patients’ empty wheelchairs over the bumps and bends.
“You can see absolutely unbelievable sights here,” says Huzai’ Ziyab, a resident of Kafr Ra’i who commutes to his office in Nablus two to three times a week, trekking the Naqura-Nablus trail each time.
He remembers seeing an old woman one day on her way home from an operation in Nablus’ Rafidiya hospital. The Israeli soldiers stationed on the Zawata road, near Nablus, detained the grandmother along with other Palestinian travelers. “For three hours we negotiated with the soldiers, asking them to just let the girls go through with her, and to let her ride a donkey. After five hours they let her through to take the mountain pass. But they wouldn’t even let a donkey carry her. She had to walk nearly two kilometers,” he remembers.
Indeed, Palestinians’ intentions to visit a relative, pick up a paycheck or visit the dentist sometimes fail, by no fault of their own. Israeli troops determine whether Palestinians will make their appointments on time, or whether they will arrive at all. “Traversing the path depends on the soldier’s mood – whether he wants to let people pass or not and if he wants to give people a hard time or not. The Israeli army works by mood, not by law,” says Al Eidi.
Since the Al Aqsa Intifada began in September of 2000, the flows of movement throughout the West Bank have been continually rearranged. The ever-shifting demarcations of roadblocks, checkpoints and trenches have added hours to Palestinians’ travel time and led to serious life changes for many.
“Look at how everything changes. I used to be a blacksmith in Israel and earned a good living, and now I work with a donkey. I have a family, and we need to live,” says Tariq. Just recently, the Nablus-Naqura path was declared a closed military zone, he says. Now he will have to find another way to support his children.
“I’ll take my donkey and go to another place, to the path from Zawata to Naqura. It’s difficult, but I’ll cope – I have no other choice. It used to be a path of about six kilometers, and now it is about ten kilometers. It’s always a turn for the worse.”