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


Through the desert with Palestinian mountainbikers from Bethlehem

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

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

A group of Palestinians from Bethlehem use bicycles as a means to 'win their freedom'. They ride everywhere, including across the Israeli border, without a permit. MO* journalist Pieter Stockmans crossed the desert with them, cycling from Bethlehem in Palestine to the Dead Sea in Israel.

© 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.

© Pieter Stockmans

A group of Palestinians from Bethlehem use bicycles to ‘win their freedom’. They cycle 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.

Also read these two articles in the same series on cycling in Palestine:

Beard, long light brown hair, racing shorts, cycling jersey: Anas Dadou looks like Jesus reincarnated 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 to a Bedouin village, where we will sleep and continue our trek through the desert the next morning.

‘I envy you cyclists in Europe,’ says Victor Al-Bandak when we pick him up at his home, not far from the Israeli annexation wall that cuts through Bethlehem. ‘You can jump on your bikes and just go. Here you have to watch out for military checkpoints, settlements and walls.’

‘Every time you ride you can run into something that makes you detour for miles. I even have to ask for a permit to go to my own hometown of Jerusalem.’

An adventurous sense of home

Victor Al-Bandak is a lawyer specialising in international commercial law. The Christian Al-Bandak family has lived in Bethlehem for many centuries. But Victor often thought about emigrating and leaving the difficult life under military occupation behind. It was the bicycle that kept him in Bethlehem.


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

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

The boy grew up without a father. From time to time he has seen him disappear into Israeli prisons. A few months ago, when Jihad came home from school, his mother told him that his father had been arrested again. When Jihad heard that this time his father would be imprisoned for five years, he burst into tears.

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

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

The “Nativity Cycling” team

Like madmen in the dark, we glide along the busy motorway. ‘The bicycle 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 bicycle lights move forward through the vast emptiness. Suddenly the arrow to our campsite 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 develops about cycling under military occupation. About dreams and ambitions for cycling in Palestine. ‘A year ago, when I was in sixth grade, an Israeli jeep came into our neighbourhood. I heard explosions, my friend’s cousin was dead,’ Jihad tells us 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.

© Pieter Stockmans

Twenty years separate Jihad and his uncle Anas. ‘When I was 15,’ Anas says, ‘my friend was killed by an Israeli sniper. I grew up with him, played with him. Ah, who would I be today without the bicycle? Cycling helps me to stay strong and healthy. Seeing nature, trees, rivers, the beautiful things in life: it helps you 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 original Palestinian city next to the Israeli city of Tel Aviv. The Israeli permit system makes it impossible for them to do so. For years, Anas was one of those dreamers, knowing the sea only from television and the Internet.

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

Since then he has inspired 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 start a cycling club and organise a race from Bethlehem,’ says Victor. ‘We are still brainstorming to find a good name.’ Victor’s favourite is “Nativity Cycling”, referring to the fourth-century Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Tomorrow morning, they will fulfil 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.

© Pieter Stockmans

From Church of the Nativity to Massada

Anas and Samer are hunched over a smartphone in the Bedouin tent. Google Maps and a map of the desert guide the group to Massada. Around 30 BC, the Jewish king Herod the Great had a fortress built on this huge cliff 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 fledgling 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 come via the Dead Sea highway in occupied Palestine or the Israeli city of Arad, but we cycle through the desert.

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

Every time Jihad finds a bullet casing — probably from the Israeli army carrying out military exercises here — he screams. But even Victor cannot contain his youthful enthusiasm when he finds old stones and remains of pots.

© Pieter Stockmans

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

© Pieter Stockmans

Anas and Samer take out their map. Straight ahead? To the south? Doubts arise. Suddenly, from behind the mountains, they hear the sound of motorbikes: a group of Israeli bikers from Tel Aviv.

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

I’m sure it’s that way,’ says one of the bikers.

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 climbs a 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. You can drive here from there 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 site’ by UNESCO, the United Nations cultural, scientific and educational organisation.

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

Inequality aside, the encounter between the two groups of bikers and with the Israeli family was a sign of equality. Here, in the middle of the desert, origin and legal status are irrelevant. They all enjoy 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

© 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.

© Pieter Stockmans

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

But mountainbikers from occupied Palestine have to apply for permits to enter Israel. Anas and his cycling apostles reject this inequality. They refuse to ask Israel for permits to travel throughout the country, which is now called Israel or Palestine.

‘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 we approach the so-called Green Line. The Green Line is the so-called border between ‘Israel’ and ‘Palestine’ (the West Bank). Zionist forces were able to advance 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 conquered the West Bank and began to colonise it with Jewish settlements, in violation of international laws of war. Today, around 750,000 Israeli settlers live in the occupied Palestinian territories, including the Hebron family we met on the way. Their numbers are increasing 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 only a fictional line in United Nations treaties. On Google Maps, however, it still appears as a dotted line. ‘What is Israel if it erases and disputes this line itself?’ asks Anas. Like Israel itself, we do not respect this fictitious border.

For the Israeli government and many Israelis, ‘Israel’ means Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. For Israelis, it’s one country.

The moment the blue dot of our GPS location on Google Maps is to the 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 Palestinians on their bikes debunk the myth of the Israeli ‘security wall’. Because this wall is not built on this recognised border, it is built inside 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 in a dramatic precipice. As we approach the cliffs — you could feel them coming — we spontaneously broke into a sprint.

And there they are — standing three hundred metres above sea level, looking out over the vast plain three hundred metres below. Over a distance of five kilometres we have to descend more than 600 metres, but nobody seems to think about what those steep metres will look like.

But 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.

© Pieter Stockmans

Soon after, reality hits: 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 blackberry bush, Anas sits down. He takes off his helmet, lets his hair down and rolls himself a cigarette. He looks up at the summit where we stood two hours earlier.

It is now dark and we are barely six kilometres 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 we didn’t give up,’ he says. ‘After all, we are at the lowest point on earth.’

© Pieter Stockmans

© Pieter Stockmans

The journey, not the destination. The reality, not the myth. This group of courageous 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 in the face of restrictive occupation rules.

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

Route 90 is the longest road Israel has built 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.’

This road will take us from Israel back into occupied Palestine. Again I expected to find the military checkpoint at the Green Line. But when I open Google Maps after two tough climbs — below sea level, as if climbing mountains on the ocean floor — I see that I am long back in occupied Palestine. There was no checkpoint at the border.

Finally, 330 metres below sea level, I arrive at the Israeli military checkpoint. It is manned by a 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 pick him up because his Palestinian licence plate does not allow him to cross the checkpoint, but 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.

© Pieter Stockmans

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

But five minutes later, these Palestinians are seizing their freedom. Mohammed hands everyone a bottle of water, loads the mountain bikes into the pickup and within minutes we are on our way to Bethlehem. Arabic music blazes from the loudspeakers: freedom is palpable.

Pieter Stockmans follows the global actions of the European Union, European refugee policy, developments in Central Europe and the region to the east of the EU.