A pickup truck drives through the town announcing watermelon for sale over a loudspeaker. Feral cats slink through side streets and dig through dumpsters. The breeze carries the scent of jasmine through the summer air, and fireworks celebrate a wedding. This is the side of Palestine that isn’t seen on TV. In idyllic moments like this, it is easy to forget the struggles that Palestinians encounter every single day. Travel restrictions cripple economic growth, and water scarcity is an ever-present concern. Traveling to the West Bank is not easy, but once the flight has been flown and the border has been crossed, travelers can appreciate one of the most complex, misunderstood, and overwhelmingly beautiful regions of the world.
Geography & Demographics
The West Bank is located between Israel and Jordan and borders the Dead Sea in the southeast. The West Bank has some very rocky terrain, and because many of the roads and sidewalks are uneven, sturdy shoes are necessary. As in many other Arab countries, road traffic in the West Bank does not strictly follow traffic laws. Though taxis are available, walking is the easiest mode of transportation once surroundings become more familiar. Walking is the best way to notice the small, endearing details of Palestine that are easily missed by riding in a car.
The West Bank has a Mediterranean climate, with temperatures around forty degrees Fahrenheit in the winter months and peaking between ninety and one hundred in the summer months. While the summer temperature sounds unbearable, it is a dry heat and is not as stifling as a humid heat. It is wise to keep a hat or scarf on hand at all times for sun protection; limiting the skin’s exposure to the sun helps significantly with keeping cool. Due to the fact that sunscreen is considered a luxury rather than a necessity, it is very expensive in Palestine. Therefore, it is best to pack sunscreen when visiting during the summer months.
Because it is a desert, environmental concerns in the West Bank include the freshwater supply and sewage treatment. Water scarcity is a very serious issue in the West Bank; there are sinks and toilets, but that does not mean that there will always be water to fill them. Even if access to running water in one home is plentiful, it is important to respect the fact that not everyone has it. Sponge bathe when possible to conserve water. Invest in baby wipes, especially in the summer when it is hot and dusty.
According to recent statistics, the population of Palestine has a literacy rate of just over 95%, and the UNRWA continues to provide basic education to Palestinian refugee children. Education is a very high priority for Palestinians, as it is widely seen as the best way to improve a person's social and political situation. The majority of the West Bank is Muslim (about 75%), though the Bethlehem area specifically has a considerable Christian population. Muslims and Christians do coexist in the West Bank, but because communities tend to center around religion, they mostly keep to themselves.
Food & Culture
Arabic is the primary spoken language in the West Bank. Most Palestinians have some exposure to the English language, and English is widely understood. Hebrew is spoken by Israeli settlers, and many Palestinians do have Hebrew language skills. Recently, there has been a strong focus on education initiatives like English as a Second Language. Even though an English curriculum is required in schools, communities want to learn from native English speakers.
Palestine utilizes the Israeli shekel most frequently in monetary transactions, but the Jordanian dinar is also accepted in some places. The exchange rate usually hovers around 3.5 to 4 shekels (₪) for every U.S. dollar. The most commonly used denominations are in coin form, so a coin purse is useful to make sure the currency doesn’t get lost in your pockets or handbags; with a diameter of 18 mm (0.7 inches), the one shekel coin is very tiny and easy to lose.
In the West Bank, there is always a corner store with food, beverages, and basic necessities, but a produce market is the best place to buy fruits and vegetables. There will be more variety and better prices. The West Bank produces agricultural products like olives and citrus fruits. Olive wood and mother-of-pearl souvenirs are a significant part of the economy, and olive wood shops are very prevalent.
Things to Do
Like Jordan and Israel, the West Bank is on the Dead Sea, and this is a very popular place to visit. However, the West Bank has much more to offer than the spa-like salt lake. Many Palestinians work as tour guides and organize trips to see the West Bank’s various historical sites. The locals also have never-ending knowledge of more recently relevant tourist spots, like parts of the Separation Wall with Banksy paintings, and taxi drivers are always offering to give “Banksy tours.” Mar Saba is a beautiful place to go hiking and see the ancient Greek Orthodox monastery; the hills and cliffs are breathtaking, both dangerous and majestic. Visitors can imagine the Christmas story as they tour the birthplace of Jesus at the Church of the Nativity in Beit Lahem (Bethlehem) and, just a few miles down the road in Beit Sahour, visit Shepherd’s Field. The Glass-Blower Quarter of Hebron still produces colorful glass as it did during Roman rule. Though the rich history is exhilarating, nothing is as refreshing as a pool after a long day of sightseeing and walking through the desert. Many hotels will allow visitors to use their pools for a fee, like the Golden Park Hotel in Beit Sahour. The Murad Tourist Resort in Beit Jala offers a Turkish bath as well as a water park.
Volunteering in Palestine
The Conflict. The most important thing to be prepared for when traveling to the West Bank is the effects of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Even the simplest idea becomes problematic; for example, though location is usually the easiest way to describe a country, defining what land is “Palestine” invariably sparks debate. Furthermore, the nuanced differences of opinions amongst different audiences make it even more challenging to talk about the political and social issues. Ultimately, when in the West Bank and Israel, it is most important to listen and understand the perspectives of those who live there. For example, “Arab” and “Jew” are not mutually exclusive traits. “Arab,” “Arab Jew,” “Israeli Arab,” and “Israeli Jew” are all distinct and legitimate ways that people in this region define their identities. Many news organizations often fail to note the complexity of Palestinian/Israeli society, and as a result, many foreigners have difficulty understanding why the conflict has gone on for so long.
Many Palestinians are open to sharing their struggles of living under occupation. Their stories are a shock to foreigners who are not accustomed to such open violence, but these accounts provide a much richer idea of the toll the Conflict has on both Israeli and Palestinian society. The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict becomes much more personal upon seeing the destruction firsthand, and this enhances a visitor’s ability to see the person rather than the politics. Travelers are ambassadors to their home countries, and communicating the human side of Israel/Palestine is crucial for international understanding.
Placements. For volunteers interested in learning more about the effects of the current conflict on communities, many organizations offer community program placements as well as humanitarian-focused volunteer opportunities. Volunteers can also learn the Arabic language along the way, some programs even offer free language lessons. Teaching English, as mentioned above, is also a very common choice for volunteers, whether working informally with refugee students or formally in schools that lack the resources to educate the local students.
Palestine is indeed in need of volunteers as their people continue to endure the challenges of political unrest and civil society attempts to regain stability and peace. But volunteers should be very aware of the risks and challenges they will face volunteering in Palestine before traveling there. All volunteers are encouraged to thoroughly research the country and communicate any concerns with their volunteer program provider prior to departure.