THE AGE: “Scarred landscape reveals its peaceful face” by Ruth Pollard 25Mar12 March 25, 2012

by Ruth Pollard  -  The Age  -  24 March 2012

THE Ferris wheel rises up like a giant sculpture in a sea of green, an unlikely punctuation mark at the start of a 12-kilometre walk through the gentle hills and quiet valleys of the northern West Bank.

It is not long before red anemones, wild pink cyclamen and bursts of yellow corn marigold decorate the spring landscape and the ancient city of Nazareth shimmers in the distance.

In a region scarred by conflict, it is easy to forget the beauty of this area. Here, Palestinians are getting on with life: running businesses, going to university and farming.

It is the ”other face of Palestine, the one not represented in the daily images of the conflict”, says Stefan Szepesi, a Dutch economist and walking enthusiast.

Frustrated by the limits of his diplomatic life, Szepesi, who worked for the European Union and later as an adviser to Tony Blair in the Middle East Quartet office, realised he had to get to know Palestinians – and their land – much better.

What started four years ago with Szepesi and four friends has grown into a weekend walking group of internationals and Palestinians now numbering 235. They have walked more than 10,000 kilometres.

Along the way Szepesi has had tea with Bedouin shepherds in the Jordan Valley, wandered through an ancient Roman stadium in the tiny village of Sebastia, discovered monasteries in the desert of Wadi Qelt and a renovated Ottoman-era citadel in the village of Ras Karkar.

Now he has chronicled those trips in Walking Palestine: 25 Journeys into the West Bank.

As we walk along one of the trails between Haddad and Jalqamus outside the city of Jenin, once strangled by Israeli checkpoints after the violence of the second intifada, Szepesi says walking helps people to understand the conflict. “You see the scars on the landscape but you also see … people just leading their lives,” he says.

From fair trade olive oil in Burqin to the Jenin tourist park with its Ferris wheel, Palestinians are building a state, despite their divided leadership and Israel’s 44-year military occupation, Szepesi says.

Detailing all kinds of paths from paved roads to shepherd’s trails, his book provides maps, information on historical sites, wildlife and local springs, parking, public transport, accommodation, and where to eat.

“The unexpected encounters are just wonderful, they are the most important part of walking … I have never regretted accepting the offer of tea or coffee.”

Jenin local Mohammed Atari is one of the guides featured in the book. He has a degree in archaeology and peppers our walk with stories of the significant sites in the region, which feature remains from the Bronze Age, Roman-Byzantine, Crusader and Ottoman periods.

As we move through olive groves, flowering almond trees and fields of quivering wheat, Atari stops to point out plants that are used in Palestinian cooking or as traditional balms or teas, rubbing the leaves between his fingers to bring out their delicate scent.

We reach the highest point of the walk and turn to take in the view. From Mount Carmel to Nazareth, and right across the northern West Bank, the calmness is all-consuming.

At 34, Atari is old enough to remember life before the second intifada and the construction of Israel’s “separation barrier” – a system of cement walls and wire fences running hundreds of kilometres through the West Bank.

“Before the wall we were all neighbours,” he says. “When someone died in a Jewish home we would go and show our sadness, and if we had a wedding they would come and dance with us to celebrate.”

All that has gone now, and he describes the anxiety of villagers when they saw him painting the small red-and-white signs on the rocks to mark this walk’s pathway. They were convinced the land was being marked out to be taken by Israeli settlers.

Indeed, Szepesi says the 25 walks in his book avoid the settlements, mostly because they are fenced in but also because of the surrounding tensions.

In the book’s foreword, Palestinian lawyer, author and walker Raja Shehadeh says: ”Much of the landscape in the West Bank is rapidly being destroyed by roadworks, expansion of existing cities and the fast, unprecedented increase of Jewish settlements being established there in violation of international law … and as a result many areas of outstanding beauty have been destroyed.”

Not all, though. Our walk finishes in Zababdeh, a village where churches sit alongside mosques and the largest school enrols both Christian and Muslim students.

The secret treasures of this village are the ancient Byzantine mosaics in its Latin convent, thought to date to the 6th century AD. It is true, as Shehadeh writes: ”The best way to know a place is to walk it.”

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