Back in the days before Covid, I thru-hiked and wild camped the Masar Ibrahim Trail with my friend Chris. The length of the West Bank of Palestine, the trail is 330km long, and took 19 days. It runs from Rummana in the north to Beit Mirsim in the south.
It’s about 35°C in the city of Ramallah when I persuade Chris that he wants to hike the Masar Ibrahim Trail with me. Chris has been to Palestine a million times and knows it inside out. But has he ever hiked the entirety of the West Bank? No, he hasn’t. Come to think of it, I don’t think anyone has ever thru-hiked and wild camped this trail. Those who do choose to hike this trail usually opt for guides and stay in villages. Which is sensible, really, because this is an occupied land.
Hiking with Chris proves to be invaluable because he can speak Arabic. This skill is pretty essential if you’re thinking of hiking the Masar Ibrahim without a guide. You see, walking this route is a political act. The Israeli authorities don’t want you to be in the West Bank, let alone walk every inch of it. They don’t want you to listen to the stories of all the families whose kids have been killed by the Israeli military, or to bond with grieving mothers. They don’t want you to learn the truth about the strangling occupation that is tearing up Palestinian lives.
Our days in the northern part of the West Bank are spent walking through countless villages, fields and olive groves, camping under the ancient trees. We pass shells of bullets that Israeli soldiers have fired on village residents, and remnants of burnt tyres that Palestinian youths have used to build barricades to defend themselves.
Every day we’re invited into people’s houses to eat. It’s Ramadan, but people don’t care that they can’t eat with us. One woman, Hujam, and her relative Abdul, ply us with sweet food, water melon, dates and tea, but then get really upset when I make the mistake of telling them that I don’t want kids. “It is what God wants,” they say. “Without children, life is nothing.” In fact, they seem so upset with me that I tell them that I will think about having kids, and they sigh with relief.
This becomes a recurring interaction on the trail: people asking me why I don’t have children, and making me feel like I have failed as a woman for my life choices. I change my answer from “I don’t want kids” to “Insha’allah” (“god willing”).
On the morning of Day Five, an old man peers under the door of our tent, wondering why the hell we’re camped in his olive grove. He speaks Hebrew to us. “No, no!” we reply, “we’re tourists, not settlers!” Concerned that we look like colonisers, we buy keffiyehs to wear round our necks as soon as we arrive in Nablus. We also decide to start tying a Palestinian flag to our tent.
In the city, people have called a demonstration in solidarity with Gaza. But demonstrations have been banned by the Palestinian Authority, and armed police are everywhere. Meanwhile, back in Ramallah, people are also demonstrating. They’re tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, beaten and arrested by their own police force.
The next morning, we’re woken by the deafening sound of Israeli F16s flying over the city. This isn’t the first time we’ve heard F16s on the trail: even in nature we can’t get away from the constant reminder of Israel’s deadly war machine.
Close to Awarta, a man invites us for tea in his metal scrapyard. We sit with him and his friends. One man, Mohammed, tells us how he was shot by the Israeli military in 1990. The bullet went through his back and out of his abdomen, and now he only has one kidney. He says that his brother was murdered by the military in 2003, and that he himself was imprisoned for six years. Tragically, these stories of losing loved ones, or being imprisoned, are a common story for Palestinian people.
The Israeli settlement of Itimar is on stolen land, a stone’s throw away from us. “They want to take everything,” Mohammed says. “How can we live in peace when they are just over there? These people aren’t representative of Jewish people: they’re Zionists. There’s lots of Jewish people in solidarity with the people of Palestine.”
Mohammed also tells us how important international solidarity is. “Without international activists coming here, I couldn’t harvest my olives,” he says. “We would be beaten by settlers.”
On Day Seven, Ramadan has finished and it’s Eid – the equivalent of Christmas Day here. Everyone’s on the streets of Aqraba village, and everyone wants to ply us with sweet drinks and biscuits. “WELCOME TO PALESTINE!” people yell happily from their cars.
In Duma, we meet a man called Saddam whose sister was murdered in an arson attack by settlers, who firebombed her home. Her husband and eighteen-month-old baby also died. We’re told that in the last few years, around ten Palestinian houses have also been burnt down. Saddam takes us to the charred home, and we’re left speechless as we stand amongst the remains.
It’s Day Eight and the usual smell of rotting animal carcass fills the air. There’s garbage literally everywhere on the outskirts of villages in the West Bank. Whether it’s dumped by villagers without a proper way to dispose of waste, or by settlers, I don’t know. But today the smell is even more rancid. We come across a whole dead sheep, decaying in the 35°C heat. A household invites us in, plies us with bright orange fizzy drink, and tells us how the settlers steal and murder their livestock.
Walking on, we’re invited to join a shepherd called Mustafa and his friend Sami for tea at their shelter. They tell us about a man who was murdered by the Israeli army a few months before. His name was Laif Naim.
The conversation takes a weirdly different turn when they ask us if we’re married (“of course, yes!”) and why we don’t have kids. Not content with our usual answer of “insha’allah”, they tell Chris to go and get a second wife. “But the problem might be me!” Chris protests, but they repeat to him to get a second wife anyway.
It’s only about an hour before the sun goes down, but still 38°C when we reach the village of Kufr Malek. We collapse at a shop and buy ourselves cold drinks, and are surrounded by little kids. There’s photos all over the village of a young man called Abdullah who was killed when he was run down by an army jeep.
We continue on, passing a Bedouin village, as the wind howls around us. The gusts are strong as I peg the tent down. Ants invade us, and I spend the night awake, itching and wondering whether the tent will collapse.
We’re roughly halfway through the trail, and this marks the end of the Mediterranean olive tree terrain. We’ll now cross to desert-like landscapes that will be more mind-blowing than many other places I have seen on Earth.
To be continued…