BEITILLU, West Bank — Five years ago, Majdi Abu Zaid was invited by a friend to join a recreational hiking group in the West Bank, a chance for Palestinians to rediscover their ancestral landscapes. From the first outing, he was hooked.
Last week, there were prolonged firefights in the West Bank city of Jenin, strikes by Apache combat helicopters and Israeli fighter drones, and a deadly Hamas shooting near an Israeli settlement, evoking memories of the second intifada.
Armed Israeli settlers, emboldened by their far-right government, mounted days-long rampages across occupied land, torching Palestinian properties and shooting live rounds at civilians. They are on the lookout, Abu Zaid said, for Palestinians in their villages or on surrounding trails, hoping to intimidate them into leaving.
“I’m not a coward, but I stand helpless in the face of this pathological madness of the settler thugs,” said Abu Zaid, who works as an anti-corruption adviser with the United Nations Development Program in Ramallah.
He has been hiking for the past five years with Sarha, which means “roaming,” or “wandering” in Arabic, one of many similar groups to gain a following here during covid-era travel bans — giving West Bank urbanites a chance to connect with the land, even as it is rapidly cordoned off by expanding Israeli settlements.
Hiking provides Palestinians with group fitness, social connections and direct contact with the diverse, starkly picturesque topography of the West Bank. But living as they do under Israeli military rule, this outwardly simple activity is also energized by national defiance.
“We are starting to discover how hiking is beautiful, as something distinct from normal life — work, occupation,” Abu Zaid said, “but we also know that wherever we go there will be settlers.”
This month, he and his friends set out with Sarha, equipped with trekking poles and provisions from their fruit gardens, to explore a rugged, seven-mile stretch of terrain surrounding Beitillu, a sleepy Palestinian village dotted with archaeological ruins, sheep farms, olive groves, natural springs and, as of last month, a new Israeli outpost.
Hanan Ramahi, the director of the American School of Palestine in Ramallah, has also been a regular participant for the past six years, since returning from a PhD program at Cambridge University. The activity allows her a rare respite from the stresses of the city and the restrictions on movement imposed by Israel.
Hiking is “psychologically therapeutic, literally, and, on another level, also enabled me to get to know Palestine, and make my connection to the land stronger,” she said.
On recent hikes, she has also formulated a vision for her Palestinian homeland: not necessarily in the form of statehood, but of institutions that would make the place more “livable” for young Palestinians, like fellow hiker Mahmoud Jallad.
Jallad, 18, hopes to attend business school in Barcelona in the fall. He is spending his last summer here hiking in the mornings and hanging out with friends until late at night. Gathering wild sage, mulberries and citrus fruits, he said that he worried for his people, who “are forgetting that they should all belong to one thing, and that’s Palestine.”
“These days, everyone’s following a different national faction rather than a national goal,” he said, referring to the Palestinian Authority’s aging, deeply unpopular leadership and an increasingly decentralized armed resistance movement. If he could, he added, he would join the young people regularly clashing with Israeli soldiers, but his parents don’t allow it, having “invested a lot in my education.”
Simon Jaser, Sarha’s guide, frets about the “huge possibility” that hikers could be killed or injured on West Bank trails. Security concerns following last week’s escalation prompted him to reroute Friday’s hike.
Two days earlier, 400 armed settlers had rampaged through the Palestinian village of Turmus Ayya, north of Ramallah, torching cars and homes, some with children inside, and shooting at civilians — retaliation for a terrorist shooting a day earlier in which two Hamas gunmen killed four Israelis and wounded four others near the settlement of Eli.
Smaller settler attacks followed. On Saturday, a mob of settlers, some masked, and accompanied by at least one furloughed Israeli soldier, according to an Israeli military statement, descended on the Palestinian village of Umm Safa, shooting at civilians and setting fire to a electricity generator, which cut off power to homes in the area. At least eight outposts, considered illegal under Israeli and international law, were set up on the windswept hills nearby, according to Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights group monitoring the West Bank.
Hiking groups have long had to navigate settler violence. In October, a settler perched atop a hillside rained stones down on Sarha members as they walked, exposed, through the deep valleys of Muarajat. They were forced to dart out of the line of fire for nearly two miles before finding cover on another trail.
Since then, they have made what many members describe as a painful decision to stay away from the area, knowing their absence will be seen by settlers as a victory.
In January, the same Israeli settler who attacked the Sarha group in Muarajat was filmed attacking a group called “Let’s Hike” — composed of Palestinian students and activists from Italy, France and the United States — with clubs, batons and pepper spray. Several of the hikers ended up in the hospital, including an Italian national who was treated for a fractured arm.
“The assault constitutes a practical translation of the threats which was promised by the extremists who rose to power in Israel,” Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said at the time.
Israel’s government is the most far-right, pro-settler administration in the country’s history, composed of ultranationalists, religious conservatives and ardent advocates of annexing the West Bank, which is home to more than 3 million Palestinians.
Before last week’s burst of violence, Israel had announced plans to expedite the construction of more than 4,000 additional settlement units. The new, streamlined process, altered for the first time since the 1990s, will be partially controlled by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a radical settler who has called for a Palestinian village to be “wiped out” by the Israeli army.
The U.S. State Department condemned the move, saying that the newly announced settlements “make a two-state solution more difficult to achieve and are an obstacle to peace.”
The Israeli government reacted to the American condemnation by doubling down.
“Run to the hilltops and settle yourselves there; we support you!” firebrand National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir said Friday on a visit to the West Bank outpost of Evyatar.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boasted during a cabinet meeting Sunday that he had “doubled settlement” in the West Bank “despite great and unprecedented international pressure.”
On Monday, Israel’s Higher Planning Council approved construction of some 5,600 West Bank settler housing units, including 1,000 near the West Bank settlement of Eli, announced last week after the Hamas shooting there.
A State Department official said the U.S. administration was “deeply troubled.”
Palestinian hikers are keeping a close eye on the news, but say they are dedicated to continuing their treks, even if it means bypassing newly built outposts or other hot spots.
Jaser, the guide, said most members valued the workout as much as the social gathering, which recently involved a post-hike feast of musakhan, a beloved Palestinian dish of sumac spiced chicken and onions on flatbread, as the hikers traded jokes and sang folk songs under the shade of an olive tree.
“Walking connects us to the land, and to each other,” Jaser said. “We’re not going anywhere.”