Aside from the pandemic, millions of tourists typically travel to Israel each year. But nearly all fail to find one of the hidden wonders of the Holy Land: a network of hiking trails that traverse a dazzling variety of landscapes, rivaling the great trail networks of Europe.
About 6,000 miles of hiking trails criss-cross a country the size of Massachusetts, spanning deserts and coastlines, farm fields and forests. Until very recently, all maps, guides and nearly all websites were in Hebrew only, which discouraged widespread international interest.
“Israelis love their country and these trails are almost like a private space for them; they don’t see them as a commodity for tourists to explore,” said Shay Rabineau, assistant professor of Israel studies at Binghamton University.
The trail system is the subject of his new book, Walking the Land: A History of Israeli Walking Trails, which will be published this year by Indiana University Press. The book explores the environmental relationship between Israelis and their country, but also the intersection of paths with national identity, territory, politics and the military. For Israelis, walking the trails has a meaning that goes beyond just hiking, he said.
Now associate director of the university’s Center for Israel Studies, Rabineau discovered the trail system right after college, when he spent a few years leading tour groups to the Holy Land in the country.
“Even after criss-crossing the country over a three-year period, I literally had no idea that any of these trails existed,” he says.
He heard about the trails from Israeli friends after asking them about good places to hike. In 2006, Rabineau took his brother and best friend to walk Israel’s National Trail, a 631-mile trek that runs from the Lebanese border at Dan in the north to Eilat, located at the southern tip of the country on the red road. Wed.
The Israeli National Trail is the equivalent of the Appalachian Trail in this country, though it lacks the amenities — such as official campgrounds — of its older American counterpart. Hiking the National Trail is a rite of passage for Israelis after completing military service, Rabineau said.
Hikers often rely on an informal system of “trail angels” who volunteer to help in towns along the way. The key to accessing this hiking culture: knowing Hebrew.
“It’s a slice of Israeli geography but also a slice of Israeli culture because you meet all kinds of people if you have access to this information,” he said.
The hike and the state
Looking at the number of trails per square kilometer of land area, Israel’s system is on par with countries like Germany and Switzerland, considered the origins of the European hiking tradition. While beaconing in these countries dates back 140 years, Israel built its system rapidly from the early 1960s to the late 1980s, on very different ground from its European counterparts.
But its roots are decades older.
Prior to the establishment of Israel, the Zionist movement had attempted to build a quasi-state under British rule after World War I. The population of what was then known as Palestine was approximately 90% Arab, although this was changing as Jews emigrated from Europe.
They brought hiking with them as a popular pastime. It also proved to be a cheap and effective way to familiarize yourself with the landscape and begin to assert control over the territory.
Before Israel became a state, it did not have the ability to build an army, but it could build an elite group of trekkers. Future members of the special forces, these young men and women knew the terrain intimately and used their hikes as clandestine reconnaissance missions from the 1930s.
Jewish hikers marked the first trail of the future national system in 1947, literally a week before the war broke out between Jews and Arabs, which resulted in the establishment of the State of Israel.
The markup was intended to keep hikers safe while finding their way through the desert. Over the years, some hikers have lost their lives after running out of water, falling off a cliff, or following weapons training in the desert. There was also another reason.
“The other thought was that marking a path would also mark territory and make it a place where Jews were free to walk,” Rabineau said.
If you look closely at the history of the 1948 war or the Six Day War in 1967, almost all Israeli military leaders come from these hiking and scouting clubs. The IDF uses hiking as their primary training tool to this day, doing long treks on the trails with full gear.
Rather than the scenic hills outside towns that attract families and picnickers, the trail system began in the frontier areas of the Border Zone. The first trails ran through the Judean Desert east of Jerusalem, where David hid from King Saul in biblical times and where Jewish rebels hid from the Roman legions. Bedouin treasure hunters searched here for Dead Sea Scrolls and hikers were hit by sniper fire in the 1960s.
“The Judean Desert is that space that empires have always failed to control,” Rabineau said.
Over time, the network of trails expanded inland, eventually penetrating the metropolitan areas of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa. But amid the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the trails are still political and national phenomena, and they remain spaces where Israelis seek to answer existential questions about themselves and the Jewish state.
Rabineau thought back to his own experience on the trails, which exposed him to an Israel few outsiders get to experience.
“You spend a lot of time in the desert, but you also visit small villages and towns. You sleep on soccer fields and on the corner of people’s farms,” Rabineau said.