On the bike, with Palestinian 'steadfastness'

Cycling in the land of settlements, walls and military checkpoints

© Pieter Stockmans

 

Can you build a cycling club in occupied Palestine? Sohaib Samara is doing it with his group Cycling Palestine. MO* journalist Pieter Stockmans navigated with him between settlements, walls and military checkpoints. With weekly cycling tours for young people and a bike shop in Ramallah, Sohaib is one step closer to his ultimate dream, a real Palestinian cycling academy.

Translation of this article is provided by kompreno, using a combination of machine translation and human correction. More articles from MO* are included in kompreno‘s curation of the finest analysis, opinion & reporting — from all across Europe, translated into your language. Original source.


A Palestine Cycling Academy is what Sohaib Samara dreams of. With bike tours and events, bike rentals, bike repairs, bike shops in several Palestinian cities, a range of tourist routes, and races.

For that dream, Sohaib put everything aside, but six years later, the Cycling Academy has not yet become a reality. Still, he has come a long way. His cycling club Cycling Palestine already reached 16,000 young people from all corners of Palestine with weekly, adventurous bike rides. Earlier this year, Sohaib was appointed to the Board of Directors of the Palestinian Cycling Federation, which is affiliated to the International Cycling Union (UCI).

“We are strengthening the presence of Palestinian civilians throughout their land. We demand freedom to move throughout Palestine.”

During a bike ride through the Palestinian province of Salfit, Sohaib tells me how it all got started: “We started as a group of friends with bikepacking trips (multi-day bike rides with minimal luggage, ed.). We did real freedom rides. By publishing about it on Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, word got around, and we soon started organising tours in Palestine. Word of mouth and social media allowed us to grow strongly.”

At the time, Sohaib was still a paramedic for the Palestinian Red Crescent. In 2016, he took the plunge: he quit his job, opened a bike shop in Ramallah and founded the club Cycling Palestine.

Steadfastness as a cycling philosophy

“Initially, I received a lot of negative comments,” says Sohaib. “But what we do is not just cycling. We have big sporting, cultural and national goals. Of course, we want to promote cycling in Palestine. But we also want to make Palestinians aware of the beauty of our country’s nature and culture.”

“Our political goal is the most important one: we strengthen the presence of Palestinian citizens throughout our country, we claim the freedom to move throughout Palestine. This is how we strengthen our national consciousness.”

“This land is our land,” says Sohaib. “We have to be everywhere, on the bike, on foot, or doing any other sport. Ride everywhere in oneyours homeland to own it.”

With that strategy, he puts into practice the Palestinian cultural value of sumud. Sumud is Arabic for “steadfastness,” sustaining the presence of Palestinians on their land. Being present throughout one’s land is, of course, a political act in Palestine, because parts of the land are colonised by Israelis and made inaccessible to Palestinians. Bicycles provide a certain freedom of movement in a country where there is none in principle.

This philosophy is immediately evident in the videos of Cycling Palestine’s weekly bike rides on Instagram and TikTok. Each tour begins with a video in which all participants stand in a long line with their bikes and mention their town or village, as the camera passes them one by one. Places in all corners of Palestine — but also Israel — are mentioned.

In this way, Cycling Palestine brings together Palestinians separated by the Israeli occupation. The cycling club thus allows these Palestinians to “be present” together throughout the country.

Continue reading below the videos

Support from the Palestinian government?

For the first 30 kilometres, we ride from Ramallah past three physical displays of Israeli colonisation of Palestine: the annexation wall, a Jewish settlement and a Palestinian refugee camp. We cycle along one of the main roads Israel built in occupied Palestine.

These roads are sometimes called settler roads. They mainly serve Jewish settlements. Palestinian villages along our route are not always well connected to them, or can only be reached by a separate road network.

They cannot buy new bicycles, that is too expensive. Moreover, new imported goods always go through Israel.

Over a cup of tea by the side of the road, Sohaib tells me about the challenges Cycling Palestine faces: “The more well-known we become, the more support vehicles we need to transport bikes and participants, and the more guides we have to train.”

“And above all, the more second-hand bikes we have to get hold of.” The club can’t buy new bikes, it’s too expensive. Moreover, the Palestinian economy is under Israeli control. Palestine has no airport or autonomous borders, and new imported goods always go through Israel.

© Pieter Stockmans

 

“So we look for cheap second-hand bikes that circulate in Palestine, and we repair them until they are OK and safe,” says Sohaib.

For now, Cycling Palestine receives no financial support from the government or other donors.

‘The Palestinian Ministry of Tourism is not really cooperating. They don’t think it’s “tangible” enough.’

“We once got 1,000 euros from a Palestinian organisation,” says Sohaib. “And we were able to go to Italy last year to give a presentation on Cycling Palestine, through the B-Hub programme of Palestinian Birzeit University. We could create jobs in this sector. Cycling tour guides, marketing managers, bike mechanics.”

“We should recruit someone who knows a lot about the donor programmes of international entities like the EU, the US and foundations. Cycling in Palestine is very new, it’s still science fiction. The Palestinian Ministry of Tourism is not really cooperating. They don’t consider it ‘tangible’ enough.”

Israel is promoting cycling, but Palestine is slow to respond, which Sohaib finds frustrating. He understands that Israel is exploiting the beauty of the land, including the areas in Palestine. But Israel has more resources and influence to claim the tourist assets of the occupied Palestinian territories, and that hurts him.

“We see the potential as well as the limitations. Israel is planning all the time. We are forced to function on survival mode and we’re stuck with a passive government. But we don’t sit by. We are doing it ourselves.”

In the Land of Olive Trees

Salfit, also called the Land of Olive Trees, is one of those beautiful areas with cycling potential, but it also has limitations, as Israeli colonisation is pervasive there. Israel allows Palestinians to control only 6% of the province. The rest of the area is colonised by Israel, and Palestinians are not allowed to build there.

In recent years, Israel built more new Jewish settlements here than there are Palestinian villages, as well as highways connecting these settlements with each other and with Israel. It also built a complex infrastructure to control Palestinians in their surrounded enclaves. The Israeli army enforces this settlement system, which is illegal under international law of war.

At one of the countless military watchtowers, we turn left, up a steep mountain, into the countryside around Salfit. It becomes immediately clear what this country has to offer. The village of Yasuf, for example, draped on the mountainside, overlooking deep and distant valleys.

© Pieter Stockmans

 

Sohaib shows me underground channels, leading to a water source under lime orchards. “This spring dates back to Ottoman times,” he says.

This area contains a large aquifer, an underground water basin, on which Palestinian villages rely for clean water. The Israeli annexation of this area threatens this water supply.

We squeeze some limes into our water bottles and drink delicious natural lemonade. On the hills of the village, children play on their scooters, mountain bikes and e-bikes, which are very popular in Palestine. Sohaib strikes up a chat with them. He is constantly recruiting members for what he calls “the army of cyclists.”

“We map out routes that stay away from soldiers, settlers, checkpoints and military training. But the occupation often turns up unexpectedly.”

There is a Jewish settlement on the road to the village, but this was to be expected, as there is a military watchtower there and a strange road sign: “This road leads to a Palestinian village. Access is dangerous for Israeli citizens.”

Such road signs are part of the wider separation policy, and it prevents Israelis from seeing that peaceful coexistence as equals is indeed possible. After all, it is not dangerous for Israelis who come there as equals rather than settlers.

For Palestinians, however, cycling in militarily occupied territory can be dangerous sometimes. “We build routes far away from soldiers, settlers, checkpoints, military training,” Sohaib explains. “We are responsible for the safety of the participants. For example, the entire Jordan Valley is military territory.”

However, “the occupation often turns up unexpectedly. Once, when we cycled to the Jordan River, soldiers sent us back. And this summer, when we did a ride to Deir Ballout, soldiers stopped us at a checkpoint. I explained to the soldiers that we were from Cycling Palestine. We waited for an hour in the blazing sun. And then we could pass through. There are lots of incidents like that.”

© Pieter Stockmans

 

30 kilometers of settlements

The roads we cycle on often run between Palestinian villages, under the Israeli road network. On the road to the town of Salfit, we ride under a bridge with the Israeli main road above us.

We are on our way to Sohaib’s family in Bruqin, a village on the hills along the highway west of Salfit. It lies behind a gate that the Israeli army can arbitrarily close at any time. Above Bruqin lies the infamous Ariel Finger.

It is a long narrow strip of land that pulls 30 kilometres into Palestine from Israel, and is full of Jewish settlements. The wall, fences, roadblocks and military checkpoints separate this strip of settlements from Palestinian villages in several places. They also separate those villages from each other and from the urban centre of Salfit.

Seven Palestinian villages lie north of this separation infrastructure. Their residents can no longer reach hospitals, schools and other services in the city. The potential of cycling and mapping out long routes is also cut short in this way, but this seems like a luxury problem.

The “finger” almost cuts the Palestinian territories in two. Thus, Israel makes the so-called two-state solution impossible. The so-called Deal of the Century presented by former US President Donald Trump in 2020 envisaged the total Israeli annexation of the entire strip of settlements up to Ariel.

© Pieter Stockmans

 

In 1967, immediately after Israel captured “Judea and Samaria” (the “West Bank”) from Jordan, Israeli defence ministers conceived the plan to build a settlement in this area, with the ultimate goal of turning it into a city. Ariel was built, on the lands of Salfit and surrounding Palestinian villages.

Today Ariel effectively functions as a city, completely normalised in the Israeli consciousness. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared Ariel the capital of so-called Samaria a few years ago.

Children of Israelis living outside the occupied territories study at the University of Ariel, i.e. in the occupied territories. They drive into the Ariel Finger from Israel via Israeli highways, without noticing that they are in occupied territory. This public space development ensures the normalisation of occupation in Israeli consciousness.

“If Trump’s Deal of the Century were implemented, the wall would go right through our house.”

For now, the international community is not taking part in this normalisation. The European Union does not give grants for scientific research to Ariel University. And recently, fast-food chain McDonald’s refused an offer to open a restaurant in Ariel, just as it did so in other Jewish settlements in Palestine.

“If Trump’s Deal of the Century were to be implemented, the wall would go right through our house. As a municipal official, I have seen the official plans,” says Murad Samara, an uncle of Sohaib. He works at the Salfit municipality and is well-informed about Israel’s separation infrastructure and political developments.

© Pieter Stockmans

 

Palestinian pros?

Murad takes us by car back to Ramallah, where we had started our trip. The sun sinks over the quiet countryside.

The marked calm in these villages is hard to reconcile with the fear that prevails. A day after our bike ride, Israeli settlers pelt Sohaib’s car with stones after a bike ride with youngsters. A little girl in another car was injured. Palestinians often file complaints against such crimes, but Israeli police rarely prosecute the perpetrators.

At our farewell, Sohaib’s wife is also present. She works as coordinator of the Palestinian Green Building Council, an NGO dedicated to sustainable and environmentally friendly building. “Once, when I was in Belgium for work, I saw real cyclists on the road,” she says. “I sent photos to Sohaib and wrote ‘behold, cyclists in the land of cycling’.”

Is training professional cyclists with Palestine Cycling Academy an ambition for Sohaib? “No,” he replies. “As long as the Israeli occupation continues and the Palestinian economy is subject to Israel, that seems logistically impossible to me.”

“There are Palestinian cyclists in Israel though, from the Palestinian minority in Israel. They sometimes ride with us as friends. But they cannot be professionally associated with us because they are registered with the Israeli cycling federation.”

“Israelis seek cooperation with us, to show that they are peaceful. But we cannot work together as long as they take Palestinian land.”

Sohaib recounts his accidental encounter with Sylvan Adams, the Israeli-Canadian millionaire and financier of the Israeli professional team Israel-Premier Tech: “We were cycling around Jericho in Palestine, militarily occupied by Israel. He was also there with friends. When he saw us, he asked if we could work together. He could provide us with a car and bicycles. He also wanted to organise a tour together. But we can’t do that. We respect the Palestinian BDS campaign: Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.”

“They want to cycle with us during the day and kill us at night? Israelis seek such cooperation to show they are peaceful. But we cannot cooperate with Israel as long as they take Palestinian land. If Palestine is free and equal, then we certainly could.”

© Pieter Stockmans

 

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