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Practicalities and Insights for those considering Walking the Path of Abraham or Masar Ibrahim in Palestine

 by Tom Riddle, 2019

This 18-minute movie describes what it was like to walk, in eight days, from Burquin, where Jesus healed the ten lepers, to Jericho.

Practicalities

The website run by the people who manage the path is extremely useful. They are overworked and understaffed, so don’t expect rapid replies from email messages, but they are doing the best they can:

https://masaribrahim.ps/

You’ll find a wealth of information there. What is below was written for people like me—who might have more basic questions.

Are you safe?

Day 6c -   a woman goes alone to the fields outside of DumaYes, you are safe. It is very unlikely that anyone will hurt or rob you. Robbing or assaulting a tourist would bring shame to the village and family of the perpetrator.

I saw women walking in the fields alone, and children playing unattended. Remember too that every day for eight days my group of seven vagabonds was invited into people’s homes for tea or coffee and that twice those houses only had women in them. People don’t do that if they don’t feel safe.

Nevertheless, the situation in Palestine, as far as the overall security situation is concerned, is very complicated. I don’t claim to understand it, but I do know that everyone I met, from the Israeli soldiers who posed with me for a selfie, to the rabbi who invited me into his house for coffee and sweets, to every Palestinian I met, was, at least to me, very nice. Generally, though, I can say from everything I saw and heard in Palestine and Israel, the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestine is one huge unconscionable human rights abuse and a monstrous violation of international law.
posing with Israeli soldiers in Jerusalem
Everyone I met was nice to me, for example, these Israeli soldiers I met outside a coffee shop in Jerusalem happily posed for a selfie with me.

Anyway, friends, be you American, Israeli, or Palestinian, your biggest danger on the Masar Ibrahim or The Path of Abraham is yourself. If you don’t carry enough water or you get lost in the desert, may God, by whatever name you call him (or her), help you. Things could quickly get very serious for you.

MORE PRACTICALITIES

Day 1v -  our first homestay dinner like all of the meals was excellent
Home-stay dinners like this one were a highlight of the trip.

In Palestine, you can drink the water straight from the tap and all the food is as clean as you’ll find anywhere. The public transportation system works reasonably well, and there is 24-hour electricity. As a hiker your only problem is that on most of the walk there are no hotels and camping is not possible. Which leaves home-stays as your only option. Fortunately, the people who organized the trail have set-up home-stays for hikers to stay in.

The home-stays are wonderful; don’t miss them, but they can vary quite a bit. Sometimes we would arrive and only later learn, after dinner, when the mattresses were pulled out from the back room, where we would be sleeping. For the home-stays, it’s a good idea to carry your own towel and, if not a sleeping bag, at least a bed sheet. Kindly remember that the home-stays are in people’s homes and if you arrive in the middle of the day when the family is occupied with daily tasks they may not know what to do with you.

 

Day 7e - breakfast on the trail
Breakfast on the trail.

If you are a vegetarian the home-stay cooks don’t seem to mind cooking vegetarian food. If you want to get an early start, your hosts will probably be happy to pack breakfast for you.

Our experience generally was that the families in the home-stays would help us in any way they could.

I walked the entire path in low-cut light-weight walking shoes and never had a problem, but others were glad that they wore hiking boots. Also you should remember that you are traveling in a conservative society – shorts and tank-tops are usually not culturally appropriate. Plus, most people find that long sleeves and long pants protect them from the sun.

We carried our gear for about half of our walk. Then we discovered that the taxi drivers were very happy to deliver our gear to our destination for a reasonable price, so we did that.

DO YOU NEED A GUIDE?

Maybe.

Day 6f -   if you look in the far left you can see the red and white trail marker - finding those was not always easy

I traveled with six other people, all of whom were experienced hikers so we didn't bother with a guide. Without a guide, where there were roads, we relied on printed maps, but, in the hills, our guides were the off-line maps in our GPS phone apps. My experience is that using navigation apps on streets and in the wide open spaces where there is no cell phone signal are two very different experiences. So if you don’t have a guide, you really should master your GPS and have a backup.

Having a guide in the desert would probably be a good idea.

As everybody says, when you're walking in the wilderness, don't walk alone. I walked the entire 700 - kilometer Camino de Santiago alone but I would never walk the Path of Abraham alone. If you twist an ankle, wander off the path, or any other unimaginable calamity, you're going to have a very serious situation if you are alone.

Will speaking English or Hebrew help?

Day 3r -  the men heard about 200 sheep
This shepherd, who invited us to sit down for coffee, could speak some English.

English is taught in the schools in Palestine and many Palestinians have worked in English-speaking countries so English is widely understood, but usually not in small rural shops, or by shepherds. An Arab phrase book or Google translate will help.

Hebrew will help if you meet one of the many Palestinians who have worked or lived in Israel. Also many of the words (as is the culture) are similar. An Israeli woman who had walked the trail told me that she did not detect any animosity towards Israeli people from the Palestinians she met along the path.

Those are the practicalities. Let me finish with a few highlights and thoughts on human rights.

Someone told me that we received so much hospitality because the people were subtly interrogating us or because ours was a small group with women. For whatever reason, the hospitality we received was, to us, very touching.

My very basic understanding of hospitality in Palestinian is that in Arab culture if someone comes to your door, you really should offer them hospitality and, if you have food, it is rude not to share it.

 Such is Palestinian hospitality that even as we walked past construction sites where the workers were so far away that they could’t tell if we were Israeli soldiers on an off-duty walk or foreigners, they would shout out to us, “Welcome! Welcome!” which is a rough translation of the Muslim greeting -- “Salami Alumina.”

You really have to be there to understand it.

Day 5j -  a falafel shop
Only the larger villages had falafel shops.

Another highlight was the food. When I walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain, in 31 days I only had one good meal. In Palestine, every time I sat down to eat I knew that this was going to be absolutely delicious. One of the women I walked with told me, “When I go to India I lose weight, when I come to Palestine I gain weight.” It’s not that the Palestinian food is particularly fattening, it just tastes so good that it’s hard to stop eating.

Finally, another highlight was coming to a much greater understanding of how the Biblical prophets and holy men lived and traveled. Just after the hike, I found myself in one of the popular Christian “holy places.” People were touching relics, bowing their heads, saying prayers, and taking selfies like crazy. As I saw them, I wanted to shout out, “Hey guys, listen up! If you want to really experience the holy life, to walk in the footsteps of the prophets, just go outside and start walking. Don’t worry, have faith, everything is going to be just fine."

Day 8p - a few days later in Jerusalem's Church of Holy Sepulcher I wanted to tell everyone there to walk the Path of Abraham if they really wanted to be in a sacred place
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem is probably the most popular of the Christian places of pilgrimage.

 

Human rights

 Day 8g -  on that day the eagles were migratingI didn’t go to Palestine to investigate human rights abuses; I went there to go hiking. Here are simply my observations.

I decided to go to Palestine after a British woman, whom I will call Jane, told me that it was safe. She had visited Palestine five times to participate in the olive harvest and to volunteer in a cultural center. She was planning to go on the hike and to work on a cookbook of her favorite Palestinian dishes.

She and I arrived in Israel on different flights, but at about the same time of day – late afternoon. As soon as I had passed through immigration, I emailed her to ask her where we should meet. Jane said that she was still in immigration and that I should go ahead into town.

As I traveled on the train into central Tel Aviv I thought about what an Israeli friend had told me: her brother had purchased an abandoned barn and turned it into an artists’ studio. Later though, as Israel has opened up a bit about its recent history, he learned that the original owner had been forced out at gunpoint by Israeli soldiers decades earlier.

The next day I heard from my fellow hikers what had happened to Jane. Looking through her passport, the immigration official noticed that she had visited Israel five times in the last two years. He then searched her name on-line and found on social media that she had enjoyed going to Palestine. That was reason enough to tell her to her face that she couldn’t enter Israel because she was likely to overstay her visa and go underground. (Jane is fifty years old and has a house, family, and a job in England.) She was then hauled off to a detention center. It was about 6 in the evening.

As my fellow hikers told me the story, an Israeli friend of ours found Jane a lawyer who immediately demanded a hearing to stop the pending deportation. The hearing was granted a few hours later. During the brief hearing, the judge said that Jane had “contradicted herself” during questioning and should, therefore, be deported back to England because she could not be trusted. What he meant by that was that the skillful Israeli interrogators had played “good cop/bad cop” with Jane and tripped her up somewhere.

By three PM Jane was on a plane back to England. My Israeli friend was then forced to pay the court costs.

That was my introduction to human rights abuses in Israel and Palestine.

Examples . . .

Day 3m -  a shepherd
As we walked, Palestine felt tranquil, hospitable, and often stunningly beautiful.

The walls of the living room of one of the houses that I stayed in during the walk were filled with pictures of the family’s 16-year-old son who had been shot in the leg by Israeli soldiers, denied medical treatment, and left to bleed to death. There wasn't any "my son the martyr" feeling in the house, rather, simply "my son is gone." It was just pure sadness.

In another house I stayed in, the father of the house had worked in Israel for years, gotten along well with his Israeli boss, and liked his job. He told me that even though his permit to work in Israel was just for the day-time, his boss let him sleep in Israel during the week to avoid the hassle of the checkpoints. On the weekends, he continued, he returns to his village in Palestine and farms. One Saturday he was using his tractor on his land when Israeli settlers with guns approached him and told him to run away. He did. The next day he returned to his land and found that his tractor had been set ablaze by the Israelis.

At least half of the older men I met had spent time in Israeli prisons. One man told me that he had spent two years in an Israeli prison and had never known why he was there. He had simply been sleeping in his house when soldiers came and took him away. That man later became a hotel operator and told his story to a human rights lawyer who was passing through; the lawyer took the case to court where he presented evidence that proved the young man’s innocence. The Israeli judge, however, said that the man, being 20, male, and living in an area that Israel wanted to control was a "security risk." End of story.

Another man I met was studying hotel management when the Israeli soldiers released tear gas in front of his house which promptly killed his father who had breathing problems. Crazy with rage, the man rushed the nearby Israeli soldiers with his bare hands, was shot twice, and then spent the next seven years in prison.

After I decided to go to Palestine to hike, I agreed to make a movie for a small charity. To get footage for the movie I visited Nablus University to interview students. What impressed me about the students was how much they were like me when I was a student. They were full of enthusiasm about their lives, had an excess of boy/girl energy, and were looking forward to their future careers as teachers, doctors, or in one case, as an actor. The major difference between their student life and my own was that they were living under occupation which they said was awful.

Palestinian Students Talk to Spring Up Foundation about Education under Occupation from Spring Up Foundation on Vimeo. The movie ends with an a brief, but spectacular, a cappella performance from one of the students.

The students who commuted to class often had to endure time-consuming checkpoints. The Israelis call the checkpoints a way to, "make our presence known." The Palestinians call the checkpoints a humiliation.

I edited the movie in a village in Palestine. One day a friend took me to his neighbor’s house so we could watch a rough draft of the movie on their huge flat-screen TV. We knocked on the door and were told the customary, "Welcome, come in, sit down. Would you like coffee or tea? With or without sugar?"

It didn't seem to make any difference that we were totally unannounced and that on that day the house was filled with young men who were watching a soccer game on television while drinking tea. The young man who actually lived there was about thirty, wore straight leg tight jeans, a T-shirt emblazoned with pop art, and a long-sleeved denim jacket. I asked him what he did for a living. He said that he worked in Israel.

"Legally or illegally?" I asked.

Israel has too many people who want to be doctors and professionals and not enough people who want to pour coffee or do construction so the clever Israelis legally or illegally employ thousands of people from around the region to do what most Israelis don't want to do.

"Legally," he told me with some pride.

"How is it," I asked.

"The Israelis treat me like I am an animal."

"But the money is okay?"

"Better than I could make here."

"Good."

"Good, but I don't like being treated like an animal."

Day 6b -  the time of the call to prayer varies slightly day by day in PalestineThat young man was the only person I met who seemed to be a little bitter. Everyone else seemed to have come to some kind of inner peace with what had happened to them. Often I was told things like, "A man's religion isn't important. What is more important is that he treats the whole world like he treats his own family."

I should also note that some Israeli citizens do what they can to help the Palestinians and are ashamed at what their government has done. One of them told me, “After the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel lost its moral compass.”

Before I visited Palestine I had imagined meeting religious zealots. But when I was actually there I didn't meet anyone who had the slightest desire to tell me much about Islam and two of the men I met were atheists, which didn't seem to be a problem for their family members. The questions that I asked about Islam were answered courteously and in detail. Looking back though, I wish that I would have asked more questions.

I did, however, learn a few things about the Israeli settlers. The settlements themselves are rather like gated communities in the United States except there are more guns, and soldiers providing “protection.” (Settlers can have guns, non-settler-Israeli citizens can’t easily get a gun.) In the settlements, like in a gated community, a person could live there and not really have any contact with the people who live outside the walls.

There are between half a million and 750,000 people living in the settlements and all of them, according to international law, are living in Palestine illegally. Their reasons for living in settlements vary from person to person. Some people are settlers because housing is so cheap in the settlements and, anyway, they can commute daily to the nearby Israeli cities. Other people do it because they always wanted to be a farmer and knew that in a settlement they could get cheap land and plenty of water (often stolen from Palestinian springs). And still other people choose to live in a settlement because they believe that is what God wants them to do.

The Israeli public in Israel proper is told that the settlements are on land that is unused or unwanted. Most people in Israel, I was told, are totally ignorant about what goes on in "the occupied territories." And even the soldiers who are posted to settlements and are often shocked at what they are asked to do.

While I was making the movie, for two days I attended one of these "peace and reconciliation" gatherings. On this gathering, some Israeli citizens from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv joined traveled to Palestine, which is very easy for them to do, for the weekend. A highlight of the weekend was visiting the house of a settler who lived about a 10-minute drive from the village I was staying in. This particular settler was a Jewish rabbi who impressed me when I met him as being a congenial and jolly man. Indeed, he welcomed us into his house and served us coffee and snacks. As I heard him speak, what was remarkable was that he reminded me of some of the racist preachers I used to hear in the United States. Those preachers used to say things like, "If the nee-gra lives in this area it will be unsafe for any white woman to walk the streets" and "God wants the races to live separately."

the jobial rabbi who lectured us on Zionism
The congenial rabbi who invited us into his lovely house in a settlement shook hands with us after his lecture on the necessity of Zionism.

This rabbi spent his days teaching hatred to young Israelis. He taught them that all Palestinians take particular joy in the death of an Israeli, and that the will of God and the prophets was that the Israeli people settle the land from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River—much of which belongs to the Palestinians. The rabbi believed that if the Palestinians wanted to further the will of God they would be well-advised to move out of Palestine and into Jordan. He encouraged us not to think in terms of human rights or right and wrong but in terms of the will of God.

He also told us that there is no such thing as an American Jew, or a French Jew, there is simply "a Jew." He felt that all Jews should do everything they could to make sure that the will of God is carried out. If the Jewish people worked together, he claimed, they would become enlightened religious teachers who would lead the world.

A couple of the Westerners who were in the room with me were ready to shout obscenities and storm out of the room as they heard the rabbi’s racist rant. Fortunately, the Jewish people who had come from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem kept things in the room calm and only later did they tell us that they had been depressed and shocked by the rabbi's remarks. Later one of them told me that religious zealots have taken control of much of the Israeli government.

After the "peace and reconciliation weekend," one of the people attending it gave me a ride into Jerusalem. The ride took less than an hour and was, at least for me, dramatic.

the Israeli security barrier as seen from Bethlehem
The famous "separation barrier" as seen from Bethlehem, Palestine.

As we got closer to Jerusalem, the number of fortifications and soldiers increased dramatically. We seemed to be going through checkpoint after checkpoint where people with machine guns looked at us, noted that we were in a car with Israeli license plates, and waved us through. When I asked the driver, if I could take pictures—she pointed out the signs that said, "No pictures."

And then suddenly we were in Jerusalem where, like in Tel Aviv, almost no one lives in a stand-alone house—everyone lives in some kind of apartment building. Often those apartment buildings are along leafy well-tended quiet manicured streets as indeed was my hotel, the Jerusalem Castle Hotel.

I arrived in Jerusalem at 7 PM on a Saturday night. The first thing I asked my hotel operator was, "Where can I buy beer?" He told me that because this was the Jewish sabbath I would have to wait for darkness which was coming in an hour at which time, he assured me, the stores would reopen and I could buy a beer. I thanked him and in an hour or so enjoyed a beer.

By 7:30 the next morning I had visited both the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Wailing Wall. Both are in the "Old City" and within a 15-minute walk of each other.

the Dead Sea just outside of Jerusalem
On the Dead Sea are small beach resorts like this one.

That afternoon I visited the Dead Sea, a 25-minute bus ride away from Jerusalem, and on my last morning in Jerusalem, I visited the third most holy place in Islam, The Dome of the Rock, and which is, conveniently, located directly above the Wailing Wall.

a student takes a shortcut in front of the Dome of the Rock
A student takes a shortcut in front of the Dome of the Rock.
I found Jerusalem to be pretty creepy. Around many corners are soldiers with machine guns. Many of those soldiers appeared to be young recruits who were either on their way to work or on the way home from some kind of training.

Someone told me that most of Israelis are the equivalent of, "Christmas/Easter Christians." That is, they celebrate the holidays, and go through some of the motions of Jewish life, but the finer points of Judaism don’t interest them. However, the same person told me, most Jewish people living in Jerusalem are there to make a political statement: "Israel is the land of the Jews, I'm Jewish, get over it. This is mine." So in Jerusalem you see all kinds of funny flags, funny hats and strange hair-dos that the different Jewish sects think are important.

But there are a fair number of people dressed in traditional Muslim clothing as well.

the Wailing Wall has different sections for men and women The Wailing Wall has different sections for men and women, above it is the Dome of the Rock.

To tell you the truth, after I visited the Wailing Wall, I realized that I was too traumatized by my experiences in Palestine to really enjoy Israel. So I cut short my visit and went to Bethlehem, Palestine, a 25-minute bus ride from Jerusalem.

There I could relax.


You can find many more pictures of the walk that I did here: https://flic.kr/s/aHsmDNatCg