In the footsteps of the Bible - with plenty of good food!
In the footsteps of the Bible - with plenty of good food! Karni Eldad

Award-winning wines; delicious cuisine; breathtaking nature; thrilling family adventures; endless, rich history.

These aren't the first things which come to mind for most people when the words "West Bank" or even "Judea and Samaria" come up in conversation.

As someone who moved from London's concrete jungle to the hills of Samaria myself, the gap between perception and the reality of what life here is really like hits me almost every day. It's always most pronounced when friends and relatives - of all political and religious persuasions - come to visit: "Wow, I didn't realize it was so nice here!" is usually one of the first (so very British) things to pass their lips.

One even expressed genuine amazement that we don't live surrounded by barbed wire and barricades.

When my wife set up a tour company specifically providing trips to Samaria (aptly-named SoulWalk Tours) some people thought she must have gone mad. What kind of business model is that? Who wants to visit a war zone? And yet, as the steadily growing number of foreign and Israeli visitors are learning for themselves, such a perception is so incredibly far from the reality.

So what is Judea and Samaria really like, beyond the headlines?

If you don't have the courage to simply "take the plunge" and find out for yourself firsthand, the best place to start is "Yesha is Fun" - a stunning compendium of just some of what Judea and Samaria has to offer, for you to peruse from the safety of your living room. 

Like the book itself, its author, Karni Eldad, doesn't conform to the stereotypes usually associated with "settlers" or "settlements," as Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria are often sweepingly (and misleadingly) referred to by many media outlets.

A secular musician and mother of two, born in Jerusalem, Eldad is the daughter of former MK Professor Aryeh Eldad. Today, she lives in the small town of Tekoa in Gush Etzion - a mixed secular-religious community nestled in the scenic hills of Judea.

Prior to his political and academic careers, her father served as head of the IDF's Medical Corps - a position which saw him and his family move extensively: from the Sinai Desert (when it was still held by Israel) to the Jordan Valley; from Tel Aviv to Kfar Adumim in Judea - and even a spell in London.

Not your stereotypical "settler": Karni Elddad
Not your stereotypical "settler": Karni Elddad Credit: Courtesy

But for Karni, there was no place like "Yesha" - the Hebrew acronym for Judea (Yehuda) Samaria (Shomron) and Gaza (Aza), all of which were liberated in the 1967 Six Day War. Despite the expulsion of Jews from Gaza in 2005, the term "Yesha" is still commonly used to describe Judea and Samaria - the mountainous highlands running through the center of Israel.

Karni says the impressive rise in tourism to Judea-Samaria in recent years should come as no surprise - and she insists it's just a hint of the true potential of the region as a tourism hub. That's a sentiment shared by Israel's new Tourism Minister as well, who significantly opted to hold his first working meeting since being appointed with representatives from the Samaria Regional Council, to discuss promoting tourism there.

"The potential is unbelievable," Eldad tells me, particularly noting how so much - the majority, in fact - of Biblical history occurred in the hills and valleys of Judea and Samaria.

"The fact that Abraham walked here and there aren't millions of tourists coming to walk in his footsteps is crazy - not just Jews, but Christians as well," and anyone else interested in Biblical or ancient history in general.

"It's an incredibly meaningful place to go visit - you're walking where the (Biblical) patriarchs and kings and prophets walked.

"Millions of people around the world are dreaming about this, but they don't come!"

The reason for that gap between potential and actuality is no secret. Simply visit most news sites and the only thing you'll see is stone-throwings, attacks or, in much of the western media, checkpoints and barbed wire - certainly not a great advertisement for wholesome family fun.

But Eldad emphasizes that the main hurdle is far subtler - and explains why most of the tourism growth in recent years has been domestic, Israeli tourism: An "anti-Israel" undercurrent in the western media which paints Jewish residents of the "West Bank" as two-dimensional, almost non-human characters, with nothing to offer beyond sinister or foreboding headlines, while only the Arab Palestinians are seen more humanly - though primarily as two-dimensional "victims" as well.

Of course, that perception could not be further from the truth - but as Eldad points out, while abstract factual and political argumentation tends to have little impact on people's deeply-rooted, preconceived notions, it takes only a few minutes of actually experiencing the reality for it to hit home to even the deepest of cynics. 

"It's unbelievable how different the ideas in people's head are to the reality on the ground. It's not just a huge gap - it's a valley!" she articulates animatedly.

"People conceive of this place as impossible to live in because you have to duck from the shooting," she laughs.

But how many of them know it is home to some of the world's top wineries, for example?

Samaria in particular is home to a number of award-winning wineries
Samaria in particular is home to a number of award-winning wineries Credit: Karni Eldad

"The reality is that they grew grapes for here for thousands of years - in fact it's one of the oldest places people produced wine in," she explains.

That is due to the unique combination of geography and environment: The height of the mountains, the rich soil, relatively dry climate, and the stark differences in temperature in summer and winter make it ideal for wine grapes.

The destruction of the second Jewish commonwealth in 70 CE dealt a serious blow to the ancient wine-making industry, and for centuries after the Islamic conquest and migration of Muslim settlers in the seventh century it was almost non-existent (in Islam wine is strictly forbidden.)

But since the revival of Jewish life here in the twentieth century, the wine industry has shot to international acclaim - much to the critics' own surprise. 

"There's no shooting - but there is very good wine!"
As she details throughout her book, the number of wineries in Judea and Samaria which have taken home international awards is simply astonishing. 

"They get blind-tasted in global competitions as far away as Paris. The critics don't know it came from Har Bracha or Hevron or Yitzhar.

"They get such a shock when they see a 'settler' with a long beard and peyot, or a flowing headscarf, coming up to receive the award!" Eldad chuckles.

"What people need to understand is you can't make wine in a war zone," she points out.

"You can't make wine - which is a very peaceful process, and very connected to the land and an agricultural and tranquil thing to do - when you're shooting a gun or fighting all day.

"There's no shooting - but there is very good wine!"

Or you could just go grape-picking!
Or you could just go grape-picking! Credit: Karni Eldad

"The place has so much to give and so much fun to offer," she continues. "You don't have to overcome the fears because they are just not true. The source of these fears is anti-Semitism and propaganda."

Of course, there is no denying that there is a conflict here. The struggle faced by Jewish residents in the face of efforts to drive them out is a real one - and indeed it is in great part the ideological convictions of the Jews of Judea-Samaria that has spurred its miraculous growth. However, the nature of that struggle is complex, and certainly in 2015 different to the dark days of the Second Intifada - although the same can equally be said for Jerusalem and even Tel Aviv.

"No, it's not based on a total lie - but there is no shooting, no intifada - it's much more dangerous in Manhattan!"

Meet the people behind the headlines
Meet the people behind the headlines Credit: Chagay Marom

There's always something new to discover.

Among the many hidden gems contained within Yesha is Fun you'll find a Dead Sea resort in the Jordan Valley, a mouth-watering boutique chocolate factory and some of the most picturesque Bed & Breakfasts you will ever visit.

"You can drink wine, spend time at the beach, go to a wonderful Bed and Breakfast, and have a great time - and nothing will happen to you," Eldad says.

So apart from the rich history and delicious kosher food and wine (which, to be honest, already makes it a Jewish tourist's paradise), what else is there to do?

A lot, is the answer. For nature lovers there is no shortage of gorgeous nature trails to hike, cycle or jeep through, and for the more adventurous there is everything from horse-riding (or camel- and mule-riding for the more Biblically-inclined), to quad-biking and paintballing - and one of the world's longest zip-lines.

Not for the faint-hearted!
Not for the faint-hearted! Credit:

"Before eating, go to longest zip-line in Israel," Karni recommends. "But only before eating, not after!"

Located south of Jerusalem, next to the village of Bat Ayin in Gush Etzion (itself an interesting place to visit), "Deer Land" is nestled deep in the lush, green Judean Hills.

If you have the courage to brave the gut-wrenching zip-line you'll be able to recover your balance (and hopefully your appetite) at the serene natural spring at the end - one of many dotted throughout the region. And then, if you still have the stomach, you can refuel at the delicious Gavna restaurant nearby and admire the view in a more civilized fashion.

Walk, cycle, or take a mule or a horse (or a zip-line) - however you travel this land, it won't fail to astonish you.

Camel riding in the Judean Desert - for the more... Bilbically-inclined
Camel riding in the Judean Desert - for the more... Bilbically-inclined Credit: Karni Eldad

Unlike her father, Eldad insists she's no politician or activist; "I'm just a person who loves this land and wants to have fun."

But she has taken many journalists around Judea and Samaria, and believes those kinds of human experience are more effective in communicating the Israeli point of view than any amount of traditional "advocacy" or "hasbara."

Although some in the foreign press have a clear anti-Israel agenda, most, she says, do not - they are simply wedded to certain false assumptions and preconceptions, aided by the constant, visceral campaigning of anti-Israel groups. But like any visitor, when they see things for what they really are, much of that false narrative falls away.

"Talking to journalists won't help - you can't reason them out of their preconceived notions, like most people," she tells me.

"So I just rely on two things: good humor, and getting them drunk - you can't argue with that!" she laughs.

"It's always funny because they connect with a 'right-winger' like me and they can't believe my message is that you can have fun in Yesha - it's not just that Yesha is about 'our right to this land and the fact that we came back to our fatherland,' and so on.

"That's obvious to me, and it might not be so obvious to other people - but I'm not here to be the ministry of education or foreign minister, I'm here to have fun; and if I can help Judea and Samaria on the way, why not?"

So what's her favorite place in all of Judea and Samaria?

"Favorite place? It depends on my mood!

"If I'm in the mood for chocolate I'll go to Pnei Kedem. It's a hole in the middle of the desert, but it has this fantastic chocolate factory.

"If I'm in the mood for same fresh goat's cheese, I'll to to Har Hevron, to Susya," which is also home to a preserved Talmud-era village.

"If I'm in the mood for some breathtaking adventure, I'll go ziplining. Good food? Yakir or Gavna. Good wine? You can drive all along Route 60 - from Yitzhar and Har Bracha, Tura (in Rechelim), Shiloh, Psagot, down all the way to Gush Etzion and Hevron... the only problem is by the end you'll be driving drunk - and that is genuinely dangerous!"

Breakfast with a view in Yakir
Breakfast with a view in Yakir Credit: Karni Eldad

Before we end our interview, I ask Karni one last question: "What would you say to all the people reading this, or your book, and saying: 'It all sounds so incredible, but I'm still just too scared!'?"

Without hesitating, she responds: "I'd say two things."

"One: no guts, no going. Overcome your fear and have the best time of your life, because this fear is really based on false information, it's a false reality.

"Two: OK, don't come - there'll be more for me!"

Yesha Is Fun
Yesha Is Fun Credit: Courtesy

Yesha Is Fun, by Karni Eldad and Shlomo Bashan, can be purchased online in paperback here.