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Travel the Palestinian West Bank

Many visitors to the Middle East go to Israel, but few tourists venture into the Palestinian National Authority on the West Bank. The Savvy Traveler's Judie Fein tells us how she tracked down some hard-to-find guides and became a two-timer in the Palestinian Territories.

Travel the Palestinian West Bank
by Judie Fein

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People in Israel are incredibly hospitable and they'll take you anywhere, but if you say you want to go to the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank, you may as well be asking if someone wants one of the ten plagues. I decided not to be discouraged by the media images of Middle Eastern politics. After about a dozen fruitless phone calls and some undignified begging, I was directed to Ronen Bitan, an Israeli desert guide with a jeep. When he arrived at my Jerusalem hotel at 7 am, I asked him if he thought venturing into the West Bank would be dangerous for an American tourist.

Ronen: "If you know where to go in the West Bank and how to treat the people and if you're with someone who knows the area, there's no problem."

Travel the Palestinian West Bank

Fearless Ronen seemed like the right guy for me. As we headed out of town toward the West Bank, he joked with the machine-gun toting guards at the checkpoints and spoke both Hebrew and Arabic with them. We drove for about an hour and a half through dusty towns and barren landscapes and arrived at holy Mount Gerizim. Readers of the Old and New Testament know about the ancient Samaritans, but most would be surprised to discover that they still live and worship here today. Ronen explains more about who the Samaritans are.

Ronen: "They say they are the original Northern Kingdom of Israel and they are the only remains of the Northern Kingdom and the l0 lost tribes."

The Samaritans are still practicing customs that are more than 3,000 years old, and they speak the language they spoke when they split off from Judaism several millennia ago in the misty past. It is very moving for me to walk through their cemetery, see the site where they perform their Passover animal sacrifice, visit their tiny museum and then meet living members of the lost tribes of Israel. One man, Yefet Cohen, recites one of the traditional prayers, first in modern Hebrew and then in the Samaritan language. It is very rare to hear the sounds of this ancient tongue. The name of the prayer is the Shema.

Ronen asks me if I want more Bible history, and I do everything but jump up and down. We leave Mt. Gerizim and head for the Old Testament site of Shiloh.

Ronen: "Shiloh is famous because this is where the tabernacle used to stand until it was taken by the Philistines."

Travel the Palestinian West Bank

For those of you who aren't familiar with the tabernacle, Ronen explains what it was in terms any fan of Raiders of the Lost Ark will immediately recognize.

Ronen: "The Holy Ark... with the trumpets and other tools."

Coming from a land of MacDonald's, theme parks and multiplexes, I'll admit to a healthy dose of awe as I look at the site where the Ark of the Covenant was supposed to have stood. I ask Ronen to take me deeper into the West Bank to see more Biblical sites. But, to my surprise, he refuses. He feels unsafe with Israeli license plates and says I'd be better off with a Palestinian guide. He returns me safely to Jerusalem and a few days later I become a two-timer. It's mid-afternoon as I head back to the West Bank with Dimitri Diliani, who works in the Palestinian media.

He drives us to Yassir Arafat's headquarters and we try to score an interview, but Yassir is tied up in a meeting. We head north to one of the oldest sites in the Holy Land, where we are greeted by a Greek Orthodox priest named Father Justinos. Dimitri explains why Jacob's Well is so important.

Dimitri: "This is the only site in the Holy Land that is l00 percent original. Nothing was done to it. No improvements, that's the way it was 4,000 years ago and that's how it is today."

Inside a small building is the well he is talking about. It was dug by the Old Testament patriarch Jacob and his l2 sons. To readers of the New Testament, it was where Jesus gave water to the Samaritan woman:

Travel the Palestinian West Bank

Dimitri: "The woman said to Jesus, 'The well is deep'. Just listen to how deep it is. 120 feet deep."

Father Justinos cranks a wooden bucket down, down, down into the well and then he draws the bucket up again. He pours water from the bucket into an old tin cup and offers it to me

Judie: "This is amazing. I'm drinking water that Jesus drank from and Jacob dug with his l2 sons. Tastes pretty fresh."

From Jacob's well we drive to Sebastiya with its ancient Roman and Greek ruins. Then we stop at the heavily guarded site that is the tomb of the patriarch Joseph. By now night is falling and a pale yellow moon rises over the dusty expanse of the West Bank. It's definitely time to eat, and Dimitri heads for his favorite nightspot, the town of Ramallah. The streets are crowded with people, the tony nightclubs are full and we take an elevator to the 6th floor of a downtown building. When we get out, we are in the Taboun, a very unusual Palestinian restaurant with a colorful and entertaining owner named Nadie.

Dimitri: "This restaurant is run by women only. There are no men here, except to wash dishes."

Nadie got her women friends out of their home kitchens and set them up in the kitchen of the restaurant, as professional chefs. The food they prepare is all home-cooked in clay ovens or tabouns.

Dimitri: "These women, when they're at home they cook. This is the food they cook for their family."

After a delicious dinner of stuffed lamb's neck, Middle Eastern salads and humus, Dimitri drives me back to Jerusalem. As I fall asleep, I think that the West Bank is a source of wonderful ancient and modern treasures. For now, if it takes an Israeli and a Palestinian guide to get there, so be it.

Okay, fellow travelers. Before I leave you, I want to tell you an Arab proverb I practiced on the West Bank. This will be the worst Arabic accent you have ever heard. "El kerd b'eyn emo razel." A monkey is like a gazelle in the eyes of his mother.

This is Judie Fein, for The Savvy Traveler.


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