Big in Palestine: How to travel safely in the West Bank

This week, Big in Japan is on vacation in the Middle East, and will be bringing you travel news and happenings from around this often misunderstood region.

Today’s post will give you some tips on traveling in the West Bank, that swath of land sitting between Israel and Jordan that one day might compose the vast bulk of an independent Palestine. Please keep in mind that the security situation in Israel and the Palestinian Territories changes daily (sometimes hourly), so please use this guide as a general reference, and always seek local advice before doing something that your mother certainly wouldn’t approve of!

The once and future spark to the great powder keg that is the Middle East is Palestine, a historic geographical region located on the southern east coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The name itself actually dates to 135 AD when the Romans changed Judea to Palestine in order to incite tensions between Jews and the Philistines. Needless to say, not much has changed in the subsequent two-thousand years…

Today, Palestine refers to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. You would need to have a serious malfunction to even consider stepping foot in Gaza, though traveling in the West Bank is a lot safer than the media would have you believe.

So, here’s how you do it:

From East Jerusalem, which is the large Palestinian neighborhood that sits beyond the ancient walls of the Muslim Quarter, take any Arab bus bound for Bethlehem, which sits on the other side of the security wall separating Jerusalem and the West Bank. Note that Jewish buses do not run to the security wall for obvious reasons. Once at the security wall, you must pass through a heavily militarized checkpoint, and you should expect some serious questioning by Israeli army and police.

Once on the other side, expect to be bombarded by taxi drivers. Even if you’re a fiercely independent traveler, it’s probably a good idea to strike up a bargain with a friendly-looking soul. Having a local guide, which shouldn’t cost more than US$30-50 a day, will buy you some serious peace of mind, and will provide some candid insight into the Palestinian situation.

Prior to the start of the infitada (uprising), the West Bank was a major tourist destination, especially since it’s home to the birthplace of Jesus, namely Bethlehem, as well as the ancient city of Jericho. Hebron and Ramallah, historic Palestinaian cities, are also extremely interesting destinations, as are the temples, monasteries and palaces scattered amidst the deserts of Judea and Samaria.

Although this should go without saying, it’s probably not a good idea to wear any obvious Judaic signs in this part of the world. However, most Palestinians you meet in the West Bank are extremely receptive to tourists, especially since they want their story to be told to the outside world. However, do keep in mind that emotions run high, so best to keep your politics to yourself, regardless of where they may lie. After all, traveling in the West Bank can be eye-opening experience, so best to come with a soft heart and an open mind.

Intrigued by the Middle East? Want to know more about this often misunderstood region? Check out yesterday’s post on traveling in Dubai.

** Special thanks to my mother for maintaining a fair measure of her sanity despite my love of adventure travel in dangerous places**