Through the desert with Palestinian mountain bikers from Bethlehem

Free Palestine on bikes: ‘If Israelis can go anywhere in this country, so can we’

© Pieter Stockmans

From left to right: Victor Al-Bandak, Ibrahim Murra, Jihad Salah, Abu Ismaiel, Anas Dadou, Samer Sleibi. Palestinians from Bethlehem in the occupied Palestinian territories ready to start their crossing of the desert towards Masada in Israel.

A group of Palestinians from Bethlehem are using bicycles as a means to ‘win their freedom.’ They ride everywhere, including across the border with Israel, without asking for a permit — even though it is forbidden. MO* journalist Pieter Stockmans crossed the desert with them, cycling from Bethlehem in the Palestinian territories to the Dead Sea in Israel.

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.

Beard, long light brown hair, racing shorts, cycling jersey: Anas Dadou looks like the reincarnation of Jesus as a cyclist. Today I become one of his cycling apostles.

Anas, Victor Al-Bandak, Samer Sleibi, Ibrahim Murra and Jihad Salah are waiting for me on their mountain bikes in full cycling gear. We will ride forty kilometres through the desert in the dark until we reach a Bedouin village, sleep there and continue the trek through the desert the next morning.

‘I envy you cyclists in Europe,’ says Victor Al-Bandak when we pick him up at his house, not far from the Israeli annexation wall that runs right through Bethlehem. ‘You can jump on your bikes and just ride. Here you have to be mindful of military checkpoints, settlements and walls.’

‘On every ride, you can encounter something that makes you have to detour for kilometres. I even have to ask for a permit to go to my own hometown Jerusalem.’

An adventurous sense of home

Victor Al-Bandak is a lawyer in international business law. The Christian Al-Bandak family has lived in Bethlehem for many centuries. And yet Victor thought several times about emigrating and leaving behind the difficult life under military occupation. But it was the bicycle that kept him in Bethlehem.

‘You can jump on your bikes and just ride. Here, on any ride, you can encounter something that will make you detour for miles.’

‘My cycling companions, the nature around Bethlehem, the adventures: it makes me feel at home,’ says Victor. ‘And really alive. You feel powerful after such a hard bike ride.’

Jihad Salah is Anas’s nephew. English-speaking, very talkative, hyperkinetic. Whenever Anas goes out, Jihad begs to come along.

The boy grew up without a father. Every so often he saw him disappear into Israeli jail. A few months ago, when Jihad came home from school, his mother told him that father had been arrested again. When Jihad heard that this time he would be jailed for five years, he burst into tears.

In their Al-Khader neighbourhood, in southern Bethlehem, the step to violence is small for many young people. Anas wants to protect his nephew from that, with the help of the bicycle. It takes the boy to distant horizons and broadens his mental horizon.

The bicycle helps him resist the lure of Palestinian militias and is an escape from the violence of Israeli soldiers and the oppressive world of their neighbourhoods full of poverty and stress.

The “Nativity Cycling” team

Like madmen in the dark, we skim along the breakdown lane along the busy highway. ‘The bike is my life, my freedom!’ Anas shouts over the noise of the cars, dancing on his bike with music in his ears.

Turning left, towards the Bedouin village of Ar-Rashayda, we find ourselves in the silence of the desert. Under the bright starry sky, five bike lights move forward through the vast emptiness. Suddenly, the arrow to our overnight spot appears: Abu Ismaiel Tent, Bedouin tents in the middle of the desert.

‘Who would I be today without the bike? Cycling helps to stay positive in life. And to forget.’

Over dinner provided by Abu Ismaiel, a conversation unfolds about cycling under military occupation. About dreams and ambitions for cycling in Palestine. ‘A year ago, when I was in the sixth grade, an Israeli jeep entered our neighbourhood. I heard explosions, my friend’s cousin was dead,’ Jihad recounts, in his own chaotic way.

© Pieter Stockmans

The group arrived at Abu Ismaiel Tent: Bedouin tents in the middle of the desert, the overnight stop.

Twenty years separate Jihad and his uncle Anas. ‘When I was 15,’ Anas recounts, ‘my friend was killed by an Israeli sniper. I grew up with that boy, played with him. Ah, who would I be today without the bike? Cycling helps me stay strong and healthy. Seeing nature, trees, rivers, the beautiful things in life: it helps to stay positive. It helps you forget.’

Many Palestinians only know the sea from TV or the internet. But one day Anas got on his bike and rode right up to the sea in Jaffa. Without a permit.

Many Palestinians from the occupied territories dream of seeing the Mediterranean Sea and ancient Jaffa, the originally Palestinian city next to the Israeli city of Tel Aviv. The Israeli permit system makes it impossible for them. For years, Anas was another such dreamer, knowing the sea only from television and the internet.

Until he discovered cycling seven years ago. One day, Anas got on his bike and just started riding. All the way to the sea in Jaffa. Without a permit.

Since then, he has been inspiring others. Jihad, for example, saw more of the country at the age of 12 than most Palestinians do in their entire lives. Thanks to his uncle, and thanks to cycling.

‘Our dream is to set up a cycling club and organise a race from Bethlehem,’ says Victor. ‘We are still brainstorming to find a good name.’ Victor has a preference for ‘Nativity Cycling,’ referring to the fourth-century Church of the Nativity of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem.

Tomorrow morning, they will realise another dream: crossing the Judean Desert to the Dead Sea, in Israel.

© Pieter Stockmans

Between Bethlehem in the Palestinian territories and the Dead Sea in Israel lies an immense void: the Judean Desert. In Arabic: El Bariyah. Somewhere in that desert runs the so-called green line: the fictitious border between Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. There is no border infrastructure on that border. Only emptiness. In the distance, on the hilltop still deep in occupied Palestine, an Israeli military checkpoint does stand.

From Church of the Nativity to Massada

Anas and Samer stand in the Bedouin tent bent over a smartphone. Google Maps and a map of the desert will guide the group to Massada. On this huge cliff, around 30 BC, the Jewish king Herod the Great had a fortress built four hundred metres above the Dead Sea. Around 70 AD, Jewish rebels and their families took refuge here after the revolt against the Romans in Jerusalem.

Massada is the second most visited site in Israel. It became one of the founding myths of the young state of Israel in 1948. Israeli archaeologists fabricated stories to promote the nationalist agenda and organised tours to Massada for Zionist youth movements.

Most visitors arrive via the highway along the Dead Sea in occupied Palestine or via the Israeli city of Arad, but we cycle across the desert.

We ride continuously between 350 and 550 metres of altitude, through an absolute void. The slopes pull up at a twenty per cent gradient and loom imposingly in front of us for kilometres.

Every time Jihad finds bullet casings — probably from the Israeli army holding military exercises here — he cries out. But even Victor cannot suppress his youthful enthusiasm when he finds old stones and remnants of pots.

© Pieter Stockmans

Samer and Anas try to use Google Maps to figure out exactly where we are, and which direction to go.

Anas and Samer take out their map. Straight ahead? South? Doubt strikes. Suddenly, from behind the mountains, there is the sound of motorbikes: a group of Israeli bikers from Tel Aviv.

‘We are looking for the road to Massada,’ says Anas.

‘For sure it’s that way,’ points out one of the motorcyclists.

On Google Maps, I see that we are still in Palestine.

Divided and unequal

A few kilometres further on, still in occupied Palestine, a 4x4 car comes driving up the steep slope. An Israeli family gets out at a spectacular viewpoint: a man, a woman and six children. ‘We are from Hebron,’ says the man. ‘By car from there you can get here in half an hour.’

Here, in the desert, origin or legal status seems of no importance. These are all people enjoying this special place.

The ancient city of Hebron has been recognised as an ‘endangered Palestinian heritage’ by UNESCO, the United Nations’ culture, science and education organisation.

The city was partitioned in 1997: 80% of the city (called zone “H1”), with about 140,000 Palestinian residents, came under the administration of the Palestinian Authority. In the remaining 20% (“H2”), in a closed part of the old city, live some five hundred extremist Israeli settlers, protected by two thousand soldiers. Life for Palestinians is made so difficult there that many have already moved away.

Setting aside unequal rights, one could see equality shining through the encounter between the two groups of bikers and the one with the Israeli family. Here, in the middle of the desert, origin or legal status is of no importance. All of them are enjoying this special place.

© Pieter Stockmans

Motorcyclists from Israel. They are allowed to ride into occupied Palestine without formalities or obstacles and move freely anywhere here. Palestinian mountain bikers are not allowed to, to Israel.

© Pieter Stockmans

An Israeli family ‘from Hebron’. They live as Israeli settlers in the occupied Palestinian city of Hebron, illegally under international law of war.

But this special place is in Palestine and it is militarily occupied by Israel. Motorcyclists from Israel are allowed to drive into occupied Palestine without formalities or obstacles and move freely anywhere here. The Israeli family even lives in occupied Palestine as settlers, which is illegal under international law.

But mountain bikers from occupied Palestine must apply for permits to enter Israel. Anas and his cycling apostles refuse this inequality. They refuse to ask Israel for permits to move around the entire country called Israel or Palestine today.

‘If Israelis can go anywhere in this country, so can we,’ says Anas.

Green line in the sand

What Anas means by ‘this land’ becomes clear as the so-called Green Line approaches. The Green Line is the so-called border between ‘Israel’ and ‘Palestine’ (the West Bank). Zionist forces were able to advance up to this line in 1948 during the Arab-Israeli war.

Until 1967, it was the real border between Israel and Jordan, which then controlled the West Bank.

But then Israel captured the West Bank and began colonising that area with Jewish settlements, against the international laws of war. Today, some 750,000 Israeli settlers live in the occupied Palestinian territories, including the family from Hebron we met on the way. Their numbers continue to rise every year.

‘Israel,’ in the eyes of the Israeli government and many Israelis, means Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. For Israelis, this is one country.

The Green Line is nothing more than a fictitious line in United Nations treaties. On Google Maps, though, you can still see it as a dotted line. ‘What is Israel, if it itself erases and disputes this line?’ asks Anas. ‘Just like Israel itself, we too disregard this fictitious border.’

‘Israel,’ in the eyes of the Israeli government and many Israelis, means Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. For Israelis, this is one country.

The moment the blue dot of our GPS location on Google Maps is right of that dotted line, there is no border, no wall, no checkpoint in the real world. No Green Line in the sand. Just emptiness, mountains, rocks, desert.

These cycling Palestinians thus debunk the myth of the Israeli ‘security wall.’ Because that wall is not built on this recognised border, it is built inside in occupied Palestine. The wall does not keep Palestinians out of Israel, but in their enclaves.

The journey, not the destination

The Judean Desert is a plateau that ends with a dramatic precipice. As we approach the cliffs — you can just feel them coming — we spontaneously start sprinting.

And there they are — we are standing three hundred metres above sea level and looking out over the immense plain three hundred metres below sea level. Over a distance of five kilometres, we will have to descend more than 600 metres, but no one seems to think about what these steep descent metres will look like.

But for now, this is just a side note. With the world at their feet, these Palestinians understand it all — this is what it is all about, this powerful feeling, this is how you conquer ‘freedom.’

© Pieter Stockmans

We stand three hundred metres above sea level and look out over the immense plain three hundred metres below.

Shortly after, the dream gives way to reality: we have no choice but to climb down the cliffs. We cover the next five kilometres in two hours, climbing and scrambling with the mountain bikes on our backs.

Finally at the bottom of the plain, near what looks like a biblical bramble bush, Anas sits down. He takes off his bike helmet, loosens his hair and rolls a cigarette. He looks up, at the summit where we stood two hours earlier.

It is dark by now and we are barely six kilometres away from Massada. But we are grateful for the ordinary tarmac of Israel’s Route 90. Anas kneels down and kisses the ground. ‘We tried and didn’t give up,’ he says. ‘And after all, we are at the lowest point on earth.’

© Pieter Stockmans


The journey, not the destination. The reality, not the myth. This group of daring Palestinians enjoyed sport, nature and freedom. And yet their act is also automatically political, because freedom is not to be taken for granted but to be seized against restrictive rules of occupation.

‘We will ride on along Route 90 until we reach the Israeli military checkpoint. There, Mohammed, our driver, is waiting for us,’ says Anas.

Route 90 is the longest road built by Israel across the country from north to south: from the northern border near Lebanon and the Sea of Galilee, along the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea in occupied Palestine, along the Arava Valley in the Negev Desert to Eilat on the Red Sea.

‘My family has been rooted in this country for centuries, and someone from another country comes here to control me.’

Via this road, we will re-enter occupied Palestine from Israel. Again, I expect the military checkpoint on the Green Line. But when I open Google Maps after two tough climbs — below sea level, as if climbing up mountains on the ocean floor — I see that I am long back in occupied Palestine. There was no checkpoint to be seen at the border.

Finally, 330 metres below sea level, I arrive at the Israeli military checkpoint. It is manned by one young girl with a rifle. The others are far behind.

Our driver Mohammed is waiting on the other side of the checkpoint. He calls Anas, who turns out to have a flat tyre. Mohammed is not allowed to go pick him up because his Palestinian license plate does not allow him to go to the other side of the checkpoint, yet we are — on both sides of the checkpoint — in occupied Palestine.

© Pieter Stockmans

Driver Mohammed is waiting at the first Israeli military checkpoint. It is not on the recognised border, but ín occupied Palestine.

Victor, the lawyer, sighs. Not out of exhaustion, but out of indignation: ‘A Jewish-Israeli with European roots forbids a Palestinian to go from one point to the other in his own country. My family has been rooted in this country for centuries, and someone from another country comes here to control me. We have had enough.’

But five minutes later, these Palestinians seize their freedom. Mohammed puts water bottles in the hands of all the cyclists, loads the mountain bikes onto the pick-up, and after a few minutes we are on our way to Bethlehem. Arabic music pops from the loudspeakers: freedom is palpable.

Pieter Stockmans tracks the global action of the European Union, European refugee policy, evolutions in central Europe and the region to the east of the EU.

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