Thoughts about Visiting the West Bank of Palestine
In all my travels to date, visting the West Bank of Palestine — principally Hebron (Al-Khalil in Arabic) — was one of the best decisions I have made. It is one of those special places where connections really came alive. The Palestinian people were very helpful, sincere and filled with cordial kindness & warmth.
It was a marked change from the Israeli approach whereby I felt like a bother. While deeply struggling, the Palestinians appear to really make the best with what little they have. In contrast to Israel’s cuisine that I tried, the food I sampled in the West Bank was satisfying on multiple levels – unpretentious, inexpensive and made with care.
Just like in most places with similar economic turmoil, you will most likely encounter semi-aggresive denizens trying to make easy tourist money – but weave past that and you get an amazing experience. Being randomly led to back-alley restaurants by a friendly old local to playing soccer/football with a handful of kids are memories that won’t be forgotten any time soon and don’t get experienced unless you suppress your fears (if any) and just immerse yourself. Sure, there might be a feeling of safety in a tour group, but I feel the best benefits are lost if you can’t explore and interact on your own time.
Is the West Bank for the inexperienced traveler – perhaps not, especially due to the lack of information on the web. Is it for the luxury tourist – certainly not. This isn’t about glamor, in-your-face excitement or feel-good hedonism but rather a much deeper experience that has the potential to blow your mind. Do some of the Israeli authorities at the airport appreciate you visiting here? It didn’t appear so based on my experience, but sometimes you need to push the envelope and do the work to experience the plump fruit off branches higher above. If you need external stimulation or think Croatia is off the beaten path, this might not really the place for you. If you enjoy powerful people connections and can appreciate the simple things in life, I highly recommend it.
Transportation into and around Palestine’s West Bank
Getting anywhere, obviously, can be done 100 different ways. My way isn’t necessarily the best – but it worked for me. Further, these things can change so make sure you check the proper databases (which I will note).
The closest international airport to the West Bank would be Tel Aviv (TLV) followed by Amman, Jordan (AMM). The quickest and easiest would definitely be to fly into Tel Aviv. Prepare to be asked what your travel plans are by the immigrations booth. I didn’t have plans when I arrived and I said such. Make no mistake about it – it is perfectly legal to visit the West Bank from Israel.
From Israel, most West Bank towns of interest are served by the bus station by Damascus Gate (walk west of Damascus Gate to bus station (blue & white buses)).
Getting to Hebron from Jerusalem
From the Damascus Gate station (think of this as the main Jeruselem Palestinian bus station) take Bus #21 in the direction of Beit Jala and ride to Bethlehem. In Bethlehem, you can take a shared minivan (“servees”) directly into Hebron.
Getting to Bethlehem from Jerusalem
From the Damascus Gate station (think of this as the main Jeruselem Palestinian bus station) take Bus #21 in the direction of Beit Jala and ride to Bethlehem.
Getting to Ramallah from Jerusalem
From the Damascus Gate station (think of this as the main Jeruselem Palestinian bus station) take Bus #18 to downtown Ramallah
Getting from Tel Aviv to Hebron
I got to the Central Bus Station (think of this as the main Jerusalem Israeli bus station) in Jerusalem (from Tel Aviv’s Bus Station, you can get to the Jerusalem CBS with the #405 bus out of Platform 607 – check the monitors for platform) and took Bus 160 with its bulletproof glass and, on the day I used it, weapon-toting Israeli kids, from Platform 7 to Kiryat Arba (Sderot Kalev Ben Yefune/Emek Hevron stop) [fare can be checked at Egged site but was 9.5ILS as of 2014]. Kiryat Arba is an internationally-frowned-upon Israeli settlement on the outskirts of Hebron. From the bus stop, walk out the front gate. The guard might look bewildered but continue on (and on the way back, I was required to show the friendly guard my passport to re-enter the settlement). I think from the front gate of the settlement you can pretty much continue straight up a hill (because that is how I returned to the settlement) but I hung a left and then a right up a fork and right again over a hill and soon found myself in the middle of town.
If you don’t want to deal with the bulletproof/Israeli settlement method or if you are traveling on the Sabbath (which is Friday sundown to Saturday sundown), leave from Damascus Gate. If you want to minimize checkpoint issues and connections and want to visit Hebron, I’d recommend my method out of the Israeli bus station. For schedules out of the Israeli bus stations, you should check the Egged Bus schedule to make sure my information is still up to date. Also – you can check timetables which, if you don’t have GPS, will give you an idea of when you should be getting off the bus.
Other Countries to Visit from the West Bank of Palestine
Your only option would be Jordan and then onwards. Be careful of what order you do things in. If you wanted to see Lebanon, Jordan and the West Bank/Israel, you should go to Lebanon first and then onwards to Jordan, etc. as you cannot get into Lebanon from the West Bank/Israel. If you just want to do Jordan, then you can pass between the West Bank & Jordan. Research which crossing would be best if you are planning on going to/from Jordan.
Places to Visit in the West Bank of Palestine
Bethlehem: Church of the Nativity and other historical sights
Ramallah: If you want nightlife and you are going to be in the West Bank, this is your best option. This also makes for a fine hub to explore the north (Jenin, Nablus), the west (Jericho) and the south (Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron).
Olive oil (and olive oil soap): Head north from Ramallah to towns around Sanfit, towns around Nablus and towns outside of Jenin, such as Zababdeh and Burqin. For an idea of some of the many, check the Canaan Fair Trade Map of Farmers who supply their olive oil.
What to Buy & Try in the West Bank of Palestine
Foods to Try in the West Bank of Palestine
Of what I had, it was tastier and cheaper in the West Bank compared to Israel proper. Falafel (friend balls of chickpeas, parsley, etc which can be eaten as a sandwich); hummus (spreadable & dip-worthy made of ground chickpeas, sesame oil, lemon juice, etc.); baba ghanoush (a spread like hummus but made with roasted eggplant); shawarma (slow-grilled meat on a spit that is shaved off into a sandwich or on a plate with sides; mujaddara (a seasoned dish made from lentils, rice & onions); milkshakes; juices; Turkish coffee and, if in Nablus, search out the special pastry called kanafeh.
Gifts to Buy in the West Bank of Palestine
Olive oil, soaps and Palestinian-made keffiyeh’s (coloured scarfs) and traditional Palestinian embroidery. In Hebron, you can check out the Women in Hebron shop to pick up keffiyeh’s or other goods. If memory serves, it is on your left hand side in the main passageway if you are walking from the Mosque to the new market.
As it relates to the keffiyeh, if you want to help the Palestinian economy most, and get the domestically-made product, your keffiyeh needs to be made by Hirbawi Textiles as it is the last keffiyeh factory remaining in Palestine (allegedly due in some part to Chinese manufacturers saturating the market with cheap alternatives). Some of the vendors sell this Palestinian-made one but many sell cheaper Chinese knock-offs. I will soon have a post up on the factory.
Also, a relative newcomer, is Taybeh beer made in the West Bank Christian town of Taybeh. They have held a festival in October but in 2013, it was moved to Ramallah due to issues with the Taybeh town council. The beer is exported outside of the West Bank (Europe, Japan, etc).
Note that if you want Palestinian goods and you are staying in Israel, you better buy them in the West Bank. I had no luck finding Palestinian products in Israel apparently due to regional politics.
Lodging in the West Bank
I found there to be a lack of information on the internet concerning places to stay. However, I would feel comfortable showing up to towns and asking around due to the friendly nature of the Palestinians and how things work. I was offered free places to sleep without even asking. I think you are best served looking/asking for “guesthouses”.
Best Time to Visit the West Bank of Palestine
Northern Hemisphere Summer (Jun,Jul,Aug) at its peak: low 80’s F (~26-28C) in the day, low 60’s (~17C) at night.
Northern Hemisphere Winter (Dec,Jan,Feb) at its peak: high 50’s (~12C) in the day, low 40’s (~4C) at night.
Wet winters (January wettest), dry summers (July driest).
For what it is worth, I visited Hebron in January and it did not rain while I was there. There is no main tourist season to avoid because tourists are afraid of non-Disneyfied spots like the West Bank. I think you will get a good experience visiting the West Bank any time of year with the best probably being Spring due to the lower temperatures and lower risk of rain. That said, I visited in January and it was a great time to go.
If you do find yourself visiting the West Bank in the winter (Dec-Feb), and want to warm up, head to Jericho where temperatures are much warmer. If you find yourself visiting the West Bank in the summer (Jun-Sept), and want to get hotter, head to Jericho with temperatures reaching into the 100F/39C realm. In other words, in the summer time, the higher elevations in the north and west might be a better choice.
Visiting the Gaza Strip
I realize that this whole guide is about the West Bank and that some may be interested in visiting the Gaza Strip. In order to enter legally, you will have to enter through the Rafah Border Crossing (which shares a border with Egypt). As such, you must leave Israel to Egypt and then to the Gaza Strip. There is a border crossing from Israel but only if you have some clout, and so that is generally unusable. The downside of the Rafah Border Crossing is that it often shuts down for hours, days or weeks depending on the many situations going on in Egypt, Gaza & Israel.
As the Israeli’s bulldozed the $73m Gaza Seaport before it could be completed, there are no authorized ways to enter by sea. However, in case you want to get crafty and try to unofficially enter by sea, the US Department of State has this warning:
Those attempting to enter Gaza by sea may be forcibly diverted to an Israeli military port and placed in detention until deportation from Israel can be arranged.
This is because Israeli warships enforce a naval blockade just off the coast.
As for the airport: Following peace talks, the Gaza International Airport was started in 1996 and opened in late-1998 in Raffah (US President Bill Clinton attended the ribbon cutting). The airport — which costed nearly $90 million USD — was mostly funded by donations from countries including Japan, Morocco, Germany and Spain. Less than three years after opening, Israeli warplanes bombed the brand new control towers and terminal and demolished the runway with tanks and bulldozers thereby transforming the functioning airport into piles of rubble.
There is an airfield in Gaza, but don’t expect to find ticket on Expedia anytime soon.
The best time to visit Gaza would be November through May, as the temperatures are more favourable.
Due to Israeli blockades, I wouldn’t expect to buy much there.
Simple Words and Phrases in Arabic
The easiest, quickest resource for rudimentary travel-necessary Arabic is the Wikitravel Arabic Phrasebook.
Quick Travel Facts About the West Bank of Palestine
- Can you get by with English? It might take a couple people before you find what you need, but generally hand signals and perseverance bridge the gaps.
- Do I need a visa to visit the West Bank? American, Canadian and most Western Countries do not need a visa to visit. Check the the Israeli Ministry for Foreign Affairs to check on your country. Entrance is controlled by Israel so if you can get into Israel without a visa, you should be able to get into the West Bank likewise
- What Power Plugs are Used in the West Bank of Palestine? The European Plug (Type C). Also they have Type H but a type C will fit in a Type H. 220 Volts / 50 Hz. Be careful using things like US hairdryers without a converter. Most electronics (battery chargers, mobile phones, etc.) only need an adapter plug
- Is the Water Safe to Drink in the West Bank? Generally yes.
- Do I need vaccines or shots to visit the West Bank of Palestine? No
- What currency is used in the West Bank of Palestine? the Israeli Shekel (ILS). See conversion