Visiting the West Bank in Palestine is not only a great offbeat travel destination but a deeply political one too, no matter what your opinion is.
Disclaimer: I am not an expert on the Israel-Palestine conflict nor do I have strong opinions about it. I support the Palestinian cause for independence but also understand the Israeli side. There is also a lot of propaganda on both sides, and the theme is extremely touchy for a lot of people. This post is meant to describe my experience travelling in the Palestinian territories, and I am aiming to stay as impartial as I can.
In December, I had the chance to end my trip in Israel by visiting the West Bank. I had originally planned to spend a few weeks there but ran out of time (Blame me for falling in love with Georgia and spending like ten weeks there. Sorry not sorry.) In total, I spent about five days in the Palestinian-controlled areas.
I wanted to jot down a few words about my visit because this is an incredibly controversial area. I know many people even boycott travel to Israel because of the conflict with Palestine. Knowing that it’s never black and white, I wanted to see it for myself and get a chance to talk to people and learn more myself. And, as always, I wanted to promote offbeat but still safe areas that only few people visit and that are often misrepresented in the media.
FAQ 1 – What’s this about the conflict?
Everyone has heard of the Israel-Palestine conflict, mostly because it’s remained unsolved for literal decades. Short explanation is that after World War I, the League of Nations (predecessor to the United Nations) decided to chop up the Middle East and gave the British a mandate to control Palestine and establish a Jewish nation alongside the then-majority Muslim population. When the British mandate ended in 1948, the country of Israel was created, and that started a civil war between Israelites and Palestinians. (There had already been fighting before, too.)
After that, there’s been a steady flow of peace processes and new wars. As a result, the area planned for the State of Palestine has shrunk remarkably. Most international organisations consider Palestine a state occupied by Israel. One proposed solution to the conflict – the one that most parties seem to support – is to form two separate states but Israel and Palestine have not been able to negotiate terms to make that actually happen.
Betlehem, the holy city separated
‘Hey! In Palestine we don’t turn our backs to people, we talk to them face to face!’
Two friends and I were on the steps of a falafel restaurant when an angry voice turned us around. A lean, thirty-something Palestinian with a dark buzzcut was yelling at us. I hadn’t even seen him approaching.
‘All these foreigners come to Betlehem and they say, they want to see this, they want to see that, they never bother to learn anything about Palestine, but the best way to learn about the country is to talk to someone from there, and I just want to tell you about my country and the conflict and show you what real life here is like… Where are you from?’
Like a knee-jerk reaction, we told him: Spain, the US, Finland. He looked at me and kind of scorned. ‘Finnish people, they only come to see the Church of Nativity,’ he scowled and turned back to Ana and Jorin, continuing to try to sell his tour just to the two of them.
It’s quite common for foreigners to visit Betlehem on taxi tours since distances between attractions are long, but nothing prepared me for the viciousness of this haggler. He was negotiating without a hint of smile on his face, getting more and more dismissive and aggressive; I felt like we were very heavily being guilt-tripped into his tour.
I found it kind of amusing. As a Finn, no one’s got beef with us – this must’ve been the first time anyone had got mad at me just because of my nationality.
Luckily, the rest of our interactions with people in Palestine that day were nothing short of wholesome, but this first taxi driver had shown us something important: the unwavering pride to be a Palestinian, and the frustration that Western nations could still close their eyes from their plight.
In the falafel shop, we made friends with a young Christian Arab, and when we ran into him later after sightseeing at the separation wall, he joined us to talk about Palestine and the conflict.
‘Ever since I was little, my parents and grandparents have been saying that there will be a new war in 2025,’ he told us. ‘I don’t know why it’s that particular year. Maybe they just mean something in the future but that’s what they’ve been saying. But they all think that a new war is inevitable.’
‘We just want peace,’ he added. There was no strong emotion in that statement, it was just that – a blank statement. It seemed sensible and factual, like 1 2 3 or the alphabet, like this should be obvious to everyone.
FAQ 2 – Is Palestine a country?
Palestine is not officially a country anymore. It used to be the name for the country west from Jordan before the establishment of Israel; now Israel has occupied most of its area. There are still areas in the West bank called A areas that are under Palestinian control where Israelis can’t enter but in practice, State of Palestine doesn’t have much international power. Since 2013, it has had a seat in the UN as a non-member observer.
Out of 193 UN member states, 138 have recognised the State of Palestine. Big players like the UK, the US and most European Union member states have not recognised Palestine even though many of them also support a two-state solution – they just need Israel to be onboard first.
Even if Palestine lacks international recognition, it still has its own flag and passport, and its demographic is different to Israel: most (but not all) Palestinians are Arabic-speaking Muslims, while most (but not all) Israelis are Hebrew-speaking Jews.
Ramallah and its controversial idol
Ramallah, the capital of the State of Palestine, is located only 15 kilometres north of Jerusalem, but it can take up to two hours to get there.
As a part of their programme against terrorism, Israel built a separation wall between Israel and the Palestinian territories in the 2000s. Now the hundreds of people whose jobs and families were left on the other side have to go through checkpoints to cross the border. This creates a painful bottleneck for traffic and delays travel massively.
And even though Ramallah sits so close to Jerusalem, it is like stepping into a whole another world. Compared to the European-like order and cleanliness of Israel, the Palestinian side reminds me of Iran in all of its organised chaos.
The bus station has no platforms: you find the right bus by shouting out the name of your destination (locals already seem to know exactly where they’re going.) Vendors on the street sell roasted chestnuts, dates, bread and salted baby corn, and simple shop fronts are shouldered by fast-food joints where a dozen rolls of falafel are always sizzling in the oil. There is significantly more garbage on the streets; congested traffic and tricky checkpoints also make it difficult to arrange efficient waste disposal.
This is Palestine: titillating and chaotic, crowded with fashionable women in hijabs and men chatting on street corners just trying to live their ordinary lives under extraordinary circumstances.
Ramallah doesn’t seem to offer much for sightseeing but talk to a local and they’ll tell you all kinds of things that might be hard to find online: like Christmas ornament markets inside churches, traditional houses by the old town, and even a Palestinian brewery a little ways outside of the capital.
But the main attraction in Ramallah is the tomb of Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and a Palestinian president. His old offices have now been turned into a museum. In all the photos, his traditional garb and black-and-white checkered Palestinian scarf stand out immediately amidst the sea of black suits. Who was Arafat? It depends on who you ask.
Arafat is a controversial figure: in Palestine, he is a loved politician who once received the Nobel peace price for his attempts at negotiations with Israel, while in Israel he is seen as a terrorist, responsible for the attacks during the second Intifada in the early 2000s.
While Arafat was known as the leader of PLO – the Palestinian Liberation Organisation – and the terror attacks were claimed by Hamas, the same organisation now keeping control in the Gaza strip, this doesn’t stop the Israeli military from dubbing the whole PLO a terrorist organisation. While I only encountered kindness from locals, I was often jarred to see posters on the streets – most often on my visit in Nablus – depicting offenders of famous terrorist attacks as heroes.
FAQ 3 – Isn’t Palestine dangerous to travel?
Palestine nowadays means the West Bank and the Gaza strip. Gaza is controlled by Hamas, an organisation that is considered by many international units a terrorist organisation, and as an active war zone it’s dangerous and impossible to visit. The West Bank, on the other hand, is perfectly safe for tourists.
It’s good to follow headlines, though, and ask advice from your hostel. Sometimes there are clashes between Palestinians and the Israeli military (especially during protests), and some non-touristy villages might be more unstable to visit.
3.1 …and for solo female travellers?
I never felt unsafe anywhere in the West Bank – in fact, people in general were incredibly friendly and hospitable! In many Arab countries, it’s usual to get a lot of attention from local men, but I didn’t experience even that in Palestine. (Doesn’t mean that it can’t happen still.) And even though Palestine is majority Muslim, you don’t need to wear a headscarf – but do dress modestly, since even the touristy areas in Palestine are somewhat more conservative than Israel!
Jericho, the oldest city in the world
One of the draws on the West Bank side is the oldest city in the world. (Or, one of the cities with longest established population, but that doesn’t sound half as fun to say.) Jericho is said to be 10,000 years old, a fact that is proudly presented on monuments all over town, confusingly scripted in English instead of Arabic on most sites. I guess Jericho gets a lot of tourists as far as tourism in Palestine goes.
Unfortunately, this seemed to be the only mercy allowed for poor tourists since all sites in the city are located kilometres apart. I’d walked from the city to Tel As-Sultan, the rather unimpressive site where the first settlement in the city had lied. (By the way, when someone says “the old town of Jericho”, don’t get all giddy thinking about cobbled streets and fairytale houses Europe-style; the “old town” is just these historic ruins.) Then I trampled through rain up the hill to the site where Jesus was said to have fasted for forty days and nights before being tempted by the Devil – the little cavern he prayed in was filled with letters and written down prayers. By the time I got to Herod’ Palace, my feet were about to fall off, and then I realised I’d headed to the wrong one of the two palace ruins in Jericho. Hisham’s Palace is the more complete of the two, with remaining pillars and mosaics, while Herod’s palace is another ancient base layer of a palace long gone.
It was getting dark when I got back to the city. My boots were collecting mud. The taxi driver informed me that his taxi would go back to Ramallah in about ten minutes, and when I turned my back to find a napkin to wipe my shoes with, they left without me. Another yellow minivan pulled to its place and the driver reassured me that this one would take me back home, too.
Waiting for the minibus to fill, I wandered off to find snacks for the ride. When I walked into the little corner store, the man behind the counter got to his feet and offered me a gentle smile.
‘Where are you from?’
I tried to refuse the cup of mango juice that he poured me but he insisted. We got to chatting.
‘I’m staying in Ramallah, I just came here on a daytrip,’ I answered his questions. ‘Now I’m just looking for something to take on the bus with me… But I don’t know what I feel like.’
I finally decided on a chocolate bar but when I put it on the counter, the man refused payment. Simply refused. I’ve encountered all kinds of pseudo-polite offers, I’m even familiar with Iranian tarof – the act of offering things with the expectation that the receiver will say no – but this man wouldn’t budge. And I’m here desperately trying to spend money in Palestine… I thought. A little desperately, I pointed at a can of Pringles.
‘Oh, I’d also like one of those! How much is it?’
In the end, I managed to pay for most of my shopping, but not before the man had wrapped two sour worm sweets in a napkin and given them to me. For free. He wouldn’t hear a no.
Palestine might just be the most hospitable place I’ve ever visited.
FAQ 4 – Can I visit the West Bank too?
You can unless you have an Israeli nationality – even if you’re a double national. Israelis are forbidden to enter A areas which are under Palestinian control in the West Bank. I believe most Israelis don’t have any bad blood against Palestinians but their lives can be very separated; an Israeli I met working in my hostel told me that the Palestinians he’d met in his life he could probably count with one hand.
But there are more tourists than you might think. According to the Palestinian tourism ministry, 2.9 million tourists visited the West Bank in 2018. I’d wager that most of these were daytrippers from the Israeli side, though. If you want to help the local economy, try to spend a few days in the West Bank and support their hotels and businesses with your money!
The Israeli government really doesn’t want you to visit Palestine, though, so don’t mention that when you enter the country. The border control often asks where you’re planning to visit so just don’t mention the West Bank. If they ask you while you’re exiting the country, tell them the truth, though. They probably know already. Prepare for a long questioning.
Soap sellers and souqs in Nablus
My last day trip in the West Bank took me to Nablus, the city often dubbed the most beautiful in the West Bank. The second-biggest city in Palestine is known for its handmade olive oil soap, Samaritan population (only one of two in the world), cheese dough snack called knafeh and a sprawling market, the souq, built into the winding nooks and crannies of the sand-coloured old town.
What I wasn’t expecting, though, was finding the best hummus of my entire trip.
Hungry (as always) I wandered into a little falafel shop by the side of the Grand Mosque. (I’m embarrassed to admit I was encouraged by the presence of two other foreigners, a rare find in the West Bank.) The man running the shop was loitering around the front and offered me a warm smile as I approached.
‘What are these? Is this falafel?’ I pointed to the fried balls double the size of a normal falafel and completely revealed my ignorance about Middle Eastern food.
‘No, it’s –‘ and he proceeded to say a name I couldn’t pronounce – ‘would you like to try it? Do you want to sit down or take away?’
‘Sit down, please, if there’s space.’ As we were talking, I noticed one of the workers spilling tons of delicious looking olive oil on a pile of hummus. ‘Hey, sorry, what is that? Is that hummus? What’s the green thing on top of it?’
‘That’s green chilli,’ the man smiled. ‘Do you want that instead?’
I barely even hesitated. ‘Can I have both?’
I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I sat at a little table next to the kitchen, and suddenly the tabletop was filled with plates: a towering pile of hummus garnished with spicy green peppers, pita bread, pickled vegetables, falafel. I was about to dig in when the man came back and added another little plate of roasted vegetables. ‘Try these too! It’s free!’
The man told me that, like most falafel shops around, the little restaurant didn’t have a name but locals knew it by the owner’s last name. (At this point I was so deep into my delicious hummus that I completely failed to write it down.) The other two foreigners got into the talk as well. The third table in the tiny restaurant had already filled with two hijab-wearing women lunching on falafel in pita.
I left the shop full, for the first time maybe ever not able to finish my meal. Before leaving, the owner kindly advised where to find the famous knafeh, baked Arabic sweet cheese, that is said to be the best in the Palestinian territories.
Well, there’s always space for dessert.
FAQ 5 – How can I visit the West Bank?
The easiest way to get to the West Bank is to take a bus from Jerusalem at the station near the Damascos Gate to get to Ramallah. The A areas are mostly fenced off with a massive separation wall, and you’ll have to go through a checkpoint to get to the other side. As a foreigner, you won’t have to get off the bus but you need to have your passport and Israeli visa slip with you when you enter or leave an A area.
From Ramallah, it’s easy to get everywhere around the West Bank. I stayed in a hostel in Ramallah (called Hostel in Ramallah – mind-blowing, I know), but most of the other cities in the West Bank also have backpacker hostels. I only spent a few days in the West Bank (sad), but the next time I’d like to also visit Hebron and Jenin, and do some hiking. This post has some excellent suggestions on where to visit!
To end with…
This post has been absolutely massive and I’m pretty sure I’m about to be kicked out of this Starbucks. (If I was still in Palestine, I’d be in a café called Stars&Bucks instead. Yep.) But I still have one final thing to say:
The conflict between Israel and Palestine is a deeply political issue that causes a lot of emotions, no matter which side you’re on. I know many people refuse to travel to Israel because of the conflict, and I’ve met many Israelis that can get very heated if you as much as suggest at human rights violations from the part of the IDF (Israeli Defence Forces.) There is a lot of propaganda on both sides, and obviously the issue is not easy to understand nor resolve.
When you travel to a place like this, you simply cannot look at it as just a normal holiday – you have to do some reading. And when you get there, talk to people. Not only about the conflict but about their lives, their families, themselves. (In Israel, I felt like most people were reluctant to talk about politics, whereas in Palestine many people brought the conflict up themselves immediately.)
I’d highly recommend spending some time in the West Bank if you’re already travelling in the area. While the sightseeing isn’t quite up to par with Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, the state is full of incredible history, and the absolute kindness of the people I encountered blew me away again and again.
In a place as conflicted as Palestine, it’s downright irresponsible to refuse learning about its politics. Because – unfortunately – it is a place that is currently defined by them. You don’t have to have an opinion; but you have to know what’s going on.