National Geographic

West Bank Hopscotch

Near Jericho, West Bank, 31°51'06" N, 35°26'12" E

Bassam Almohor leads the way into the West Bank.

What is the West Bank?

The West Bank is a shard of a future homeland—the core a possible nation—for the world’s Palestinians. It slopes under the sun, in chalky ridges and tan valleys, like the pleats of a rumpled skirt, down to the muddy currents of the biblical Jordan River. (Hence: the west bank.) It is a small enclave of dusty olive groves and minarets that could fit twice inside the area of the Hawaiian Islands. It is an island itself—walled off, fenced, an Arab atoll occupied since 1967 by the Israeli army. Yet more than 2.5 million people live there. They are packed into ancient towns pooled in the valley bottoms. (These are Palestinian.) Or, they peer through razor wire from American-style tract homes that crown many hilltops. (These settlements, erected by nationalist and ultra-religious Israelis, are deemed illegal by most of the world.) The two communities—the people of the valleys and the people of the hills—fear each other. They inhabit opposing universes that happen to overlap exactly within the West Bank. They are hostile. They rarely communicate. They are married by grievance.

“Our world is a world of checkpoints,” Bassam says, pulling on his backpack. “We have a whole hierarchy of them. We measure ourselves by them.”

He explains: “People will say, ‘My checkpoint is better than yours!’ Or they will say, ‘Man, listen to my worst checkpoint story!’ That is how much we have bought into these divisions. People put on checkpoint airs.”

Bassam is my new walking guide. He trudges ahead, a compact man with frizzy hair, with the melancholic face of a philosopher, with legs of iron. He has tramped all over the West Bank. (“Walking makes a small place large.”) He has held many jobs. With me he will be a pathfinder, storyteller and photographer. He carries a small bag of dried fruit and a very large camera. He is an original: a humanist who has made somber visits to the death camps of the Holocaust in Europe. An intellectual. A contrarian who, with his wife Haya, has sent his son to a Quaker school in a Muslim society. He wears the wicked smile of a man inviting you to savor the ironies of the world. He leads me through the West Bank—his home—in the manner of a doctor offering a tour of an insane asylum.

We depart from Jericho, among the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.

We employ no cargo animals. The West Bank is much too small to require mules. If we wished, we could walk across the region in a day—it is less than 20 miles wide at its narrowest point. But its size is deceptive. It will take us weeks to meander through the West Bank. Why? Because of its complexity. Because of its dense, compacted history. Because of its maze of frontiers, boundaries, micro-prisons, no-go zones.

ibrahim Musa Salim mans teh loneliest juice stand in the world. The barren hills above Jericho, West Bank. Photograph by Paul Salopek

In the barren hills above Jericho, Ibrahim Musa Salim mans the world’s loneliest juice stand. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Every few hours—sometimes every few minutes—Bassam steps across invisible lines that I cannot see. One kilometer: Area A (Palestinian control.) Another kilometer: Area B. (Joint Israeli-Palestinian control.) The next kilometer: Area C. (Full Israeli control.) Then: repeat and mix. Each zone imposes its own rules for land ownership, for civil rights, for freedom of movement. (Most Palestinians do not dare approach Israeli settlements. Israelis cannot legally set foot in Area A.)

This cracked arrangement was conceived as the solution to—though it could be mistaken for the root problem of—the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The current political map of the West Bank, which looks like a cross-section of a diseased brain, was drawn by the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993. As Israeli settlements multiply, the dividing lines grow more mottled, more intractable.   

“Where are we now?” I often ask Bassam.

“Area A,” he will say, walking past a darkened casino in the outskirts of Jericho. Its lobby rings with silence. Its unused slot machines gather dust in blue shadows—a lost gamble after the violence of the Second Intifada.

Or:

“Area C,” he will huff, climbing up a rocky canyon called Wadi Qelt toward an Orthodox Christian monastery. For the first time in a year of walking, I spot trail markers. A luxury of affluent societies. A startling transition to order. An Israeli organization has painted them on the stones.

Or:

“This is a United Nations camp,” he will say, shuffling along one of the gritty alleyways where hundreds of thousands of war-displaced Palestinian refugees live in urban squalor. Only garbage dumpsters stenciled “UN” reveal the community’s true ruling authority.  

Artifact of forced migration: A UN dumpster in a suburban refugee camp. Jericho, West Bank. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Artifact of forced migration: a UN dumpster in a suburban refugee camp in Jericho. Photograph by Paul Salopek

I attempt to record our route’s political hopscotch during 24 hours:

6:30 a.m.—Area C. Bassam and I awake in a camp of gloomy Bedouins near a highway. Why gloomy? These nomads have been displaced many times by the Arab-Israeli wars. More than 60 years ago, they lost their original pastures in the Negev desert. They cannot migrate annually with their sheep as their ancestors did: No free space remains in the West Bank. They must inhabit tin shacks next to an Israeli Defense Force artillery range. They have nowhere else to live. Over fire-roasted coffee, they ask endless questions about my camels in Saudi Arabia. They laugh in delight at the stories. They struggle to recall their own. It is difficult to look into their faces.

9:15 a.m.—Area C. We walk past Nabi Musa, according to folk tradition the tomb of Moses. A compound of white domes set in barren, waterless hills. A mile farther on, we stumble into an Israeli tank training ground. The road is cratered, littered with shell casings, with spent bullet rounds. Then, around a bend, a hallucination: Several pubescent girls are dancing, gyrating in bright spandex, to Israeli pop music. There are no other human beings in sight.

Bullet on the road to Bethlehem. West Bank. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Bullet on the road to Bethlehem. Photograph by Paul Salopek

“It’s for a Bat Mitzvah,” says a man filming with video camera.  

11:00 a.m.—Area C. A geyser of water jets high into the ceramic blue desert sky. From a broken pipe? From a miraculous spring? It is impossible to say. It is a fountain that sparkles, unwatched, in the gravel wastes east of Jerusalem. Israeli dirt bikers roar by us, leaving us in clouds of dust. As if not dehumanized enough by their loud machines, they wear their machines’ license plates pinned to their jerseys. The cyborgs nod at us. Bassam laughs.

4 p.m.—Area C, or maybe B. (Or maybe even A: It is unclear.) We stagger down a rugged scarp across from Mar Saba, the beautiful, 1,500-year-old Orthodox monastery outside Bethlehem that restricts entry to women and even female domestic animals.

“On steep slopes you must carry my pack,” I inform Bassam. “It is in my National Geographic contract.”

He mutters an expletive.

“I’m afraid you get charged $100 every time you insult me, too,” I say. “I have a good contract.”

He repeats the expletive twice: “One for you. One for National Geographic. Consider it a donation.”

7 p.m.—Area A. Back in full Palestinian Authority control. We reach the city of Bethlehem after 26 miles of walking. Later, Bassam leads me, gingerly, on blistered feet, to the Church of the Nativity. The grotto where Jesus Christ was born is controlled by the Greek Orthodox Church. The church teems with pilgrims from France, from Argentina, from Nigeria, from Texas.

Next door a newer Roman Catholic cathedral must make do with a peep hole. This hole, drilled through a locked door, is located in a lonely basement passage next to the underground grotto. Visitors must bend down. They must peer through into the yellow light of holy birthplace.  The hole is just big enough, I note by testing, to admit my pencil. A true West Bank arrangement: a celestial Oslo Accord.

Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, West Bank. Photograph by Paul Salopek

In Bethlehem, the Church of the Nativity. Photograph by Paul Salopek

 

There are 60 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Sabine
    May 1, 2014

    Thank you for such details.

  2. Tevan
    May 1, 2014

    Very sad and unfortunate living for both Palestinians and Israelis; indeed.

  3. Jim Grubba
    May 1, 2014

    Hello again, Mr. Salopek. I am always pleased to see a new post from you. But this one left a bad taste; 2 peoples “united” for thousands of years by a distrust & (I apologize for saying it) hate. Part of me wants to shed a tear for all of the West Bank, & the other part of me wants to say “a pox on you all” for not figuring out how to live together in peace. But your prose shows they appear to prefer the hate over peace…so sad. Safe journey to you & Bassam. Please watch each other’s back. Namaste.

    • Paul Salopek
      May 12, 2014

      Only a sociopath prefers hate above peace, Jim. My friend Bassam doesn’t. Even the Israeli settlers I’ve interviewed don’t. I understand your frustration. But what is going on here is abetted by powerful outside forces on both sides. The very fact that you—thousands of miles away—hear about a shooting or stoning in the West Bank and are understandably weary of it proves the point.

  4. Charles Woernle
    May 1, 2014

    “He wears the wicked smile of a man inviting you to savor the ironies of the world.” I wonder, sadly, why “wicked” makes this sentence so poignant. Always a pleasure to read your reports, Paul. Safari njema, bwana.

  5. Berena
    May 1, 2014

    Hello Paul,
    I love your stories and how you try to understand the people you meet on the way. I thought West Bank is just Palestinian and that the checkpoints are only on the borders with Israel. I also didn’t know the scenery is so barren like on your photos.
    What do you do as you walk by yourself for hours? Do you sing, count steps, talk to yourself, learn new words in Arabic? By the way, how much Arabic did you learn so far?
    Thank you so much for traveling.
    Berena

  6. Susana Pérez
    May 1, 2014

    I need a contract like tour, Mr. Salopek. In this way, many people would keep silence un from of me! Ha,ha, ha. On the other hand, i like so muchos how you write… I understand why you hace gotten the Pulitzer.
    Thank you, sir!

  7. Paul
    May 1, 2014

    Every time I reflect on the horrors of the holocause I wonder how can those people who suffered so much make others suffer so much. Sad indeed.

  8. MatiasTartara
    May 1, 2014

    Excellent as usual!
    I found this in the internet, energy generated by your steps, maybe you can use it!
    http://www.iflscience.com/technology/charge-gadgets-just-walking

    • Paul Salopek
      May 12, 2014

      Check it out, folks: “[A] 15-mile hike can charge a smartphone.” Very cool, Matias. Thanks for the tip.

  9. Linda Hoernke
    May 1, 2014

    Thank you again Paul. I so enjoy your writing. I was not aware of the areas that are so close and yet so far from each other. A lesson from the other side of the world. Safe travels~~

  10. Lillian McCain
    May 1, 2014

    I hope you will tell about the advance preparation for your long journey. Arranging for your guides in the all locations without knowing exactly when you would be arriving seems most challenging.

    • Paul Salopek
      May 12, 2014

      There’s no formula, Lillian. It’s mostly been word of mouth.

  11. L. J. Daniels
    May 1, 2014

    World human population in 1942 was not quite 2.5 billion, despite the awful slaughter going on amongst many of the human apes who were just as chronically unwilling to get along with one another in those relatively recent historical times as they are today, and with our own human ape density now poised to reach 8 billion or so in the next few years, what did you THINK you were going to encounter on your long walk Out of Eden into the brave new dawn of the 21st century, Paul?.. No one should know more truly than you, that the human foot prints you’re following are filled to the brim with our own kind’s blood, as well as that of every other poor and damnned by US creature that we just happened to encounter along our way, and that there will be more, MUCH more, yet to come… What are you THINKING,
    Paul?… I, too, love the prose/poetry
    and the pithy, wonderfully evocative
    descriptions of new friends and much
    travel travail at first encountered, then somehow overcome or dodged or just slogged through or slyly circumvented
    somehow by your compadres & you… The people and all the other animals (not excluding the people) are simply masterfully and truly drawn and have moved me to puddle up more than once as I follow along in YOUR brave
    footsteps, and I AM truly grateful to you for making such a journey and for sharing it with us out here in the world
    I just can’t help but wonder where our
    human path’s going to take us, finally.
    EVOLVING ain’t really all tha,t bad of an idea, if you get my drift, but, Man, we surely do have to do it, an’ FAST..
    All the Best to us all & to you, Paul
    … JD…

    • Paul Salopek
      May 12, 2014

      I don’t know, either, JD. But let’s keep walking together. Maybe we’ll stumble across some answers.

  12. Ashok Aranha
    May 2, 2014

    Hi Paul, your language is sheer poetry. I love it. I have a question? How do you select your guides who travel with you?

  13. Linda T.
    May 2, 2014

    Your journey is a reminder again of how cruelly humans can treat each other…and I agree with the comment about not understanding how people who have endured the holocaust can treat others so cruelly.

  14. Nita
    May 2, 2014

    Wonderful. I too wondered what you did while walking…talk, share thoughts. Though I am sure there are a varied things to keep you busy, observing, learning, living your walk. Take care.

  15. Jaime D
    May 2, 2014

    Thank you for this great report Paul! I check in on you almost once a week, I am glad you are making progress on this great journey. I was saddened to learn about how complicated and contraining this whole area, A, B, or C can be… understanding how great a place on earth these borders exist in, I wish it were less violent. God Speed!

  16. JohnWV
    May 3, 2014

    Israel kills Palestinian families and children with American attack jets and white phosphorous. Israel jails Palestinians and Palestinian children cruelly and indefinitely. Israel defines itself as a Jewish state and, by supremacist apartheid enforcement, validates that definition. We Americans resist believing, or even comprehending, the horror. This June 18, 2012 excerpt from Times of India facilitates understanding of the Jewish state’s behavior.

    RABBI OVADIA Rabbi Ovadia Yosef is the former Chief Rabbi of Israel and the spiritual leader of the Shas party, Israels “kingmaker” party. In a sermon given on Saturday on laws concerning what non-Jews are permitted to do on Shabbat, Yosef said: “Goyim” [non-Jews] were born only to serve us. Without that, they have no place in the world – only to serve the People of Israel. Why are gentiles needed? They will work, they will plow, they will reap. We will sit like an effendi and eat.” According to Yosef, death has “no dominion” over non-Jews in Israel. “With gentiles, it will be like any person – they need to die, but [God] will give them longevity. Why? Imagine that one’s donkey would die, they’d lose their money. This is his servant… That’s why he gets a long life, to work well for this Jew.”

    MENACHEM BEGIN “Our race is the Master Race. We Jews are divine gods on this planet. We are as different from the inferior races as they are from insects. In fact, compared to our race, other races are beasts and animals, cattle at best. Other races are considered as human excrement. Our destiny is to rule over the inferior races. Our earthly kingdom will be ruled by our leader with a rod of iron. The masses will lick our feet and serve us as our slaves.”

  17. Eva Maria Huschka
    May 3, 2014

    I hope you had a good rest in Amman. I missed your posts. As always, you are able to put into words the total insanity that rules in this part of the world. I always read your posts twice, first for the new info and then just for the pure pleasure of reading your sentences. The place you are in reminds me of the old saying “stop the world, I want to get off!” Is there ever going to be a solution that leaves people to follow a normal, a good life?
    I think it will take at least one more generation to be educated so as to understand what it takes to make human beings happy: It is NOT hate and presumptuousness, but tolerance and the simple golden rule “Treat others as you have them treat you”.
    P.S. I am shocked about the preceding commentary. Hard to believe that any sensible postworldwartwo person would spread such thoughts.
    Take care of your mental and physical health!

  18. Barbara Quinn
    May 3, 2014

    Hi Paul, you know when you watch the news broadcasts on the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, you only get the smallest pieces of information. This post makes that conflict more clear to me because of its details and the profound sense of displacement for everyone there…no matter which ” side” they are on . It’s horrible. I know more but can not understand why people treat each other like that. Who are they? Who are we?

    • Paul Salopek
      May 12, 2014

      The only thing separating the behavior of people who don’t know war and those who do is exactly that—war. Readers from the democracies of the Global north used to write me whenever I covered African conflicts and ask: “What’s wrong with those people?” I had to remind them that their own fathers and grandfathers participated in the greatest mass killing of human beings in the history of the species, a slaughter that consumed at least 60 million people.

  19. Janin S
    May 3, 2014

    Paul, may your heart be the recepient of a greater amount of love and compassion than the amount of hate and destruction that your eyes are witnessing. Bendiciones desde Mexico.

  20. Lorna Ellema
    May 4, 2014

    My daughter is right, I should get myself an iPad so I can take you to bed with me coz I read and re-read your posts. I can only wish…

  21. Henry
    May 5, 2014

    i must say thats not very nice… Making your guide carry your bag. And charging him money…

  22. rafael díaz mayorquín
    May 6, 2014

    Paul; desde el Edo. de Nayarit, república mexicana, los asociados de “Ruta de Aztlan a Tenochtitlan, A.C., también peregrinos como Tu, te mandados saludos afectuosos y te felicitamos por mostrarnos al mundo este interminable rosario de micros y macro historias de la diversidad de ser y actuar de la diáspora humana. Estás creando una nueva forma de hacer y escribir la historia. Allá por el año 2019 estaremos esperando tus pasos, tus vivencias y tus herencias.

    • Paul Salopek
      May 12, 2014

      Felicidades, Rafael. Conozco bien los volcanes de Nayarit. Vamos a brindar por nuestro viaje comunal cuando llego a su bello estado.

  23. Shakkina
    May 6, 2014

    I have been a silent but fascinated follower of your travel, wishing you good luck, health and spirit to continue with abundant energy.
    Human history is full of conflicts and we are from a race that destroys ourselves and everything around us. I also realise we take for granted safer peaceful living. and these places remind us the cruelty humans inflict. Sincerely thank you for this experience you are sharing with many.

  24. Kate McCarey
    May 7, 2014

    thie sums up the situation in the West Bank so well – I will definitely use this piece in educating young people in the UK

  25. robert guetzlaff
    May 7, 2014

    SCARY & “WILD”

  26. daniel
    May 7, 2014

    Dear Paul,you must be incredibly fit to walk across the desert. Keep fit, keep walking and keep up the good work.

  27. Ciorinna Sih
    May 7, 2014

    I concur with the above voices, where is the charity toward your fellow man ? The scenery looks so desolate,what does it do to your spirit? All the best, Paul

  28. maggie hastie
    May 8, 2014

    ‘Tracks’ by Robyn Davidson is another great travelling book to read. All yusallmak Paul.

    • Paul Salopek
      May 12, 2014

      Yes, and it includes an excellent psychoanalysis of camels.

  29. Martha Richitelli
    May 8, 2014

    Totally love following your journey Since I am 81, I doubt I will see the end, but wish you well, keep safe.

    • Paul Salopek
      May 12, 2014

      You’ll make it, Martha. And I need your encouragement to keep going.

  30. Dave D
    May 9, 2014

    Paul, great job. Thanks so much for your insight .

  31. Dave d
    May 9, 2014

    Stop it Martha you will see the end ….

  32. Dave d
    May 9, 2014

    I’m curious about the digs on the way. Please elaborate if you can. Thanks

  33. Tara J
    May 9, 2014

    I’m enjoying following your journey tremendously. I’m travelling in Israel at the moment and it’s a beautiful country, although I haven’t spent much time in the West Bank. I have one question for you: in a place like the West Bank, where there’s so much conflict and terrorism, how do you manage to stay safe?

  34. Tara J
    May 9, 2014

    And to JohnWV (regarding your post about Rabbi Ovadia and Menachem Begin): this isn’t what most Jews believe about gentiles

  35. Patsy Jaynes
    May 9, 2014

    Paul: it has taken me a year of armchair traveling to catch up with you. Now I can stay with you for the rest of the journey. Stay safe and healthy.

  36. jayda
    May 9, 2014

    I never heard about this until my social studies teacher in middle school told our class about you today!!!!!!!!!

  37. jayda
    May 9, 2014

    p.s. Mr.Cretton is AWESOME!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  38. jayda
    May 9, 2014

    Y O L O

  39. jacob
    May 9, 2014

    you are so cool

  40. jacob
    May 9, 2014

    hi jayda

  41. jacob
    May 9, 2014

    stay safe

  42. nick
    May 9, 2014

    shush jacob

  43. jacob
    May 9, 2014

    wuts up

  44. jacob
    May 9, 2014

    no jayda

  45. Onni Milne
    May 11, 2014

    It is with a heavy heart that I read this post. As a child of Holocaust survivors, I am sickened by actions of Israeli coward thugs who attack Palestinians to steal their land under the label of religion. This is just theft under another name. This is just Taliban with a Jewish flavour. Those settler do not act for me. It is possible for peoples who are different to live together in peace. It is possible when those in power allow it to happen and make it happen. That is not the political culture in Israel today under Mr. Bibi.

  46. Blanca Pinon
    May 15, 2014

    Thank you for your powerful and poignant account of life for Palestinians and Israelis … once visited some places described and a heavy heart still lingers with me …

  47. Geraldine Valiakas
    May 16, 2014

    If we could all zero the biological clock and walk through these ancient civilizations we would discover that indeed, little has changed where border/ethnic disputes and religious persecution is commonplace. There are numerous theories why things happen as they do. But they exist and I truly believe that this epic walk will help all of us see the enormity of this task retracing the evolution of the human race. Too many wars, conflicts and not much has changed. Then why bother? Because things are different up close. People have grown tired and numb to age old conflicts and we have to retrace our steps to feel whether or not there is any humanity and self worth fighting for. Paul’s simple prose tells us there is so much more to look at, to feel, to smell. Already there are so many that have been awakened. I follow in Paul’s footsteps and continue to hope.

  48. Daniel Schafler
    May 16, 2014

    sadly biased history and framing in your account. even the mood is something made up for the “entertainment” of the reader. I won’t go into details, but will only remind out gullible readers, “let the buyer beware”.

    • Jim G
      May 17, 2014

      This in response to Mr. Schafler; sir, I have not commented on other folk’s posts. However, I do take insult when you refer to me as a gullible reader. I follow Mr. Salopek because I enjoy to. Simple as that – no religious/political/idealogical reasons. If that makes me “gullible”, then so be it. Namaste.

  49. Noel Marquez
    May 18, 2014

    Your walk has become a symbol of peace and understanding for all world cultures to appreciate and reflect upon. The comments from the readers reveal the hope you are inspiring us with to do better to make our world better. Walk on brother…we are free to be and to help those that are not. Adelante!!

  50. Jenny
    May 25, 2014

    Thank you Paul for sharing your steps and your thoughts, your words are beautiful and bring understanding and compassion and fill the void of ignorance. This is how true Peace begins! What an inspiration you are – I am sure your steps are lightened by the prayers and love of your supporters – mine included! Take care Paul.

  51. Jojo Geronimo
    July 12, 2014

    I’m reading your posts on the West Bank – past and present – at the same time as the Israeli attack on the Gaza people is happening. It seems what is happening in the West Bank is no different from what’s happening in Gaza – only now, it appears worse in the latter. I was wondering if you care to comment. Thank you for your work and safe trails.

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