BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- They surveyed the scene below them: Palestine’s characteristic terraces, spotted with olive trees and sloping hills, with an Israeli settlement on the horizon.
Last Friday morning over 100 Palestinian youths gathered at the top of a mountain north of Ramallah, preparing to descend into the nearby olive groves of Deir Jarir and the historic town of Taybeh just beyond.
They were members of Tajwal Safar, Arabic for "Touring and Traveling," a Palestinian youth group that organizes day-long walks and tours of different sites across the West Bank.
Though seemingly only a hiking group, Tajwal Safar both physically and socially unites Palestinian members from across territories occupied by Israel into an integrated, national group, effectively creating a political act of resistance against Israel’s military occupation of Palestine.
The group was created in early 2011, after Samer Sharif, 24, one of the group’s founders, participated in the Arab Education Forum in Jordan. AEF offers the Safar Youth Mobility Fund, a grant that promotes travel for Arab youth within the Arab World, and which served as the inspiration for Tajwal Safar. After participating, a few "decided to do something special for Palestine," Sharif explained.
The Safar Youth Mobility Fund, like many organizations in the West Bank, is sponsored by foreign governments. Tajwal Safar, however, is completely self-funded.
"We don’t get money from any organizations, or any companies, or any foreign governments," Sharif said. "Everybody pays 50 or 40 shekels ($11-14), depending on the journey."
The group is therefore free from foreign influence and can organize hikes "(aimed) to learn" without intrusion from foreign interests looking to promote specific political goals.
Before starting that day’s walk, the participants introduced themselves to the group. The range of cities represented was impressive: Nablus, Hebron, Bethlehem, Ramallah, Jericho, Jerusalem as well as various places "dakhl," or inside Israel.
"We are making this social network from around Palestine; from Nablus and from Hebron, and from Ramallah and Jerusalem, and from the lands of ’48," Sharif explained, referring to the regions of historic Palestine today a part of the State of Israel.
Many participants in Tajwal Safar come from the main cities of the West Bank, or Area A, which are under Palestinian Authority control, and therefore have to cross into Area C, under full Israeli military control, in order to reach the sites of Tajwal Safar's bimonthly walks.
The mechanisms put in place by the occupation make travel between these urban centers incredibly difficult, and effectively sever off Palestinian mobility.
"During the last years, because of occupation, there was no communication between these cities," Sharif said.
Though political in nature, the motivating factor for many Tajwal Safar members is the social aspect and opportunity to learn about their historic homeland together, as a unified national group.
"In Palestine, there is nothing 'not political.' Everything we do is political. And so we are just trying to make … these people think about their land, and to think about their hometown; their country," Sharif said.
When talking to participants, they too emphasize the social aspect, the ability to commune freely and explore different parts of Palestine together. As one participant named Jamil said, the main purpose of Tajwal Safar is to "(link) Palestinian boys and girls as one family."
Sharif underscored Tajwal’s role in strengthening the Palestinian identity between it's youth.
"What we do now is improve values … And what we need is to keep improving these values, and to facilitate strong communication between Palestinian youth in different cities."
We walked through an olive grove and then descended into the neighboring towns of Deir Jarir and Taybeh, the former most famous for Taybeh Brewery, the only Palestinian beer company.
Guides introduced us to the various religious sites in Taybeh, including the historic Saint George’s Church.
As the sun set over Taybeh and we returned to the bus, the sense of community was apparent.
As Samer echoed, "We can achieve freedom by thinking for ourselves."