Palestinian climbers defy wartime obstacles to scale West Bank cliffs

Budding Palestinian climbing community claims to face increased harassment from military, settlers since outbreak of war against Hamas in Gaza; IDF: The claims are unfamiliar to us

Palestinian rock climbers take a break as they practice their hobby at a site in Wadi al-Ghul about 20 kilometers by road south of Bethlehem in the West Bank on March 16, 2024. (Sonia Logre/ AFP).
Palestinian rock climbers take a break as they practice their hobby at a site in Wadi al-Ghul about 20 kilometers by road south of Bethlehem in the West Bank on March 16, 2024. (Sonia Logre/ AFP).

As Palestinian climber Faris Abu Gosh encouraged his friend ascending a limestone cliff in the West Bank, the war raging in Gaza momentarily slipped from his mind.

Scaling rock faces has offered solace since the fighting erupted, but he and his friends have also had to face mounting challenges in what was already not an easy place for their budding climbing community. The climbers claim to have faced mounting obstacles from the Israeli military and settlers since the outbreak of the war.

Yet, they have simply adapted, finding detours around new Israeli checkpoints or ways to avoid the heightened risks of confrontations with soldiers or settlers living in the surrounding hills.

“For the last seven years, I’ve been completely obsessed with climbing and developed my entire life around it,” said Abu Gosh, a 22-year-old physiotherapy student.

On a recent Saturday, a dozen Palestinian and Italian climbers were geared up in Wadi al-Ghul, a West Bank river valley that turns lush and green with winter rain.

As much as Palestinian climbers enjoy this recently opened spot for its natural beauty, they also appreciate its location far from Israeli settlements.

A Palestinian climber scales a rock wall at a site in Wadi al-Ghul about 20 kilometers by road south of Bethlehem in the West Bank on March 16, 2024 (Sonia Logre/ AFP).

And when Israeli troops are in the area, “we feel safer when foreigners come climb with us,” said Abu Gosh. “Soldiers usually don’t bother white people,” he claimed.

Israel’s ongoing war against Hamas in Gaza was launched on October 7, when thousands of Hamas terrorists invaded southern Israel from the Strip, killing close to 1,200 people and taking 253 hostages.

Since October 7, troops have arrested some 3,600 wanted Palestinians across the West Bank, including more than 1,600 affiliated with Hamas. According to the Palestinian Authority health ministry, more than 400 West Bank Palestinians have been killed in that time, several of them in clashes with settlers.

“In the first month, it was almost impossible to leave certain towns and villages because the Israeli army closed roads,” said Heba Shaheen, president of the Palestine Climbing Association. “It was really hard, and it is still very hard,” she added, describing a widespread feeling of insecurity in the West Bank.

Shaheen said climbers have to travel on dirt roads and make long detours, noting they might have to drive 90 minutes just because they cannot cross a 50-meter (160-foot) stretch of road that is only for Israelis.

One of the climbers, Tariq Kaabna, told AFP an Israeli soldier had just that morning taken a water bottle from him and dumped its contents into Kaabna’s backpack.

In response to the report, the IDF said that “the claims are unfamiliar to us. Further details will be investigated and treated accordingly.”

Seven extremist settlers and two outposts were sanctioned by the United States since the beginning of February for having engaged in violence toward Palestinians in the West Bank.

At the Ein Qiniya site near Ramallah, “there has been an increase in settlers and soldiers going into the area,” said Abu Gosh, who hails from the Qalandiya refugee camp.

“Once the climbers were kicked out of the climbing site for military purposes. This stuff actually wasn’t happening before,” he added.

Israeli park authorities have closed Ein Farah, a canyon filled by a river in winter, to climbers since the beginning of the war. Though located in the West Bank just 15 kilometers (9 miles) east of Jerusalem, in the 1970s the site was declared an Israeli nature reserve named Ein Prat, a practice that some rights groups claim is a roundabout way of restricting Palestinian access to West Bank land.

The West Bank’s rocky topography offers massive potential for establishing or “bolting” new routes, dozens of which have been opened over the past 15 years.

However, climbing’s physicality brings the Palestinian sporting community further into the land struggle that has rocked the West Bank since Israel captured the West Bank in 1967.

A Palestinian climber gears up at a site in Wadi al-Ghul about 20 kilometers by road south of Bethlehem in the West Bank on March 16, 2024 (Credit: Sonia Logre/ AFP)

“When we were developing, we would see or hear the military, but we thought it would be safe,” said Tim Bruns, a US climber who bolted some of the first West Bank routes with his friend Will Harris in the mid-2010s.

Bruns told AFP he was set to join a climbing trip to the West Bank in December with mountaineering star Alex Honnold, but it was canceled at the last minute over security and access concerns.

Palestinian climbers like Shaheen and Abu Gosh have felt guilty at times for continuing climbing while the war rages in Gaza.

“Before the war, climbing was an escape. But after the war started, there was nothing that could help us forget what is going on [in Gaza],” she told AFP.

Though the Palestinian climbing community is in its early days, Shaheen hopes they will one day get to compete in the Olympics.

The Palestine Climbing Association’s inclusion in the International Federation of Sport Climbing in February 2024 was one step in this direction.

“The ultimate goal is to sustain the climbing in Palestine by Palestinians,” she said.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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