As Israeli and Palestinian heads of state grow more reluctant to show up at the negotiating table, pioneering travel outfitters are bridging the gap between the two cultures in a different way—by encouraging visitors to break bread with locals on both sides of the unofficial border.

“We wanted to offer an unbiased trip to both destinations so that travellers could get a real sense of the day-to-day reality for Palestinians and Israelis," explains Cara Brown, food product manager for small group tour operator Intrepid Travel. Beginning in March, the company’s nine-day Israel & the Palestinian Territories Real Food Adventure will be available for $3,165 (around Rs2 lakh) per person on a near-monthly basis, including stops in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Nablus and Bethlehem.

“We want to raise conversations and awareness and break down barriers," says Brown, whose employer often focuses on providing off-the-beaten-path cultural experiences. How better to do it than through food?

The experience

Intrepid’s trips begin in Tel Aviv, the restaurant capital of the Middle East, and end in Jerusalem, where travellers check out religious sites before tucking into bowls of hummus at one of the Old City’s hummusiyas. In between, guests visit an Israeli winery near the Negev desert, a Palestinian bakery in Nablus, and a cooking demonstration in the village of Buq’ata, populated by Druze Arabs. The activities are guided by Palestinian group leaders licensed by the Israeli ministry of tourism (the Israeli credential process is important—it required guides to pass difficult, balanced tests that prove their comprehensive knowledge). “We want to expose travellers to different experiences," says Brown. “It lets people form their own impressions."

Among the activities she’s proudest to offer is a cooking class in Nablus, a Palestinian city in the northern West Bank, led by a local Slow Food chapter run by Palestinian women. “It’s a great example of how we can support local communities—and in this case, women—which is fantastic," explains Brown.

The experience begins with a trip to the local market, or kasbah, and ends with a lunch of kousa mahshi (rice- and beef-stuffed zucchini) or lemony warak dawali (stuffed grape leaves). “We have lunch with the local women and talk about their lives in their small town; it’s a highlight of the trip, for sure," says Brown. Politics inevitably comes up.

Intrepid also supports independent businesses via its choice of accommodations. “We tend to stay away from Western chains because we want to contribute to the local economy," says Brown. “The infrastructure in the Palestinian territories isn’t as advanced as in Israel, but travellers are pleasantly surprised by the family-run places we stay at."

The popular breakfast dish ‘shakshuka’. Photo: iStockphoto
The popular breakfast dish ‘shakshuka’. Photo: iStockphoto

Making it happen

Intrepid is the only international tour operator offering trips along these lines, though independent agents facilitate similar experiences on a bespoke basis. Of the 200-300 trips organized by the agency Touring Israel each year, 30% include a day trip to the West Bank, often with guides who identify as Israeli Arabs and live in Jerusalem. “It’s the best way to bridge the gap and be balanced," owner Joe Yudin says.

He organizes meals in Palestinian homes, tours of a hummus factory in Ramallah, and restaurant crawls in Jericho or Bethlehem. “Ramallah is absolutely where the food scene is hottest in the Palestinian territories," says Yudin. It’s also the Palestinian nightlife hub—Touring Israel regularly organizes bar hops that focus on hookah spots and jazz clubs.

The key to these experiences is knowing when to go and when to stay away. Yudin monitors hyperlocal news. When a rabbi was recently murdered in the West Bank, for instance, it didn’t make international air waves—but it did stir up demonstrations and stone-throwing attacks. “When it’s quiet, we go in; when it’s not quiet, we stay away," he says. Usually, that’s not a problem. “Thousands of people go back and forth every day—it’s totally safe now," he explains.

Intrepid follows a similar strategy. “The safety of our travellers and staff is our first priority," says Jenny Gray, Middle East product manager for the company. “We monitor all border and routing situations through official travel advisories and advice from our local teams, who have extensive networks on the ground in both territories."

As for the logistics of crossing checkpoints, Yudin says: “It’s not a big deal. You can hop in a taxi in Jerusalem and be in Ramallah in 10 minutes." Just expect some simple questions and potential bag checks when coming back in the opposite direction, he cautions.

Dried fruit at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem. Photo: iStockphoto
Dried fruit at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem. Photo: iStockphoto

Why now

The rising popularity of Middle Eastern cuisine has generated interest in the region. Even within the region, understanding of its cuisine is evolving quickly. Young Israelis tend to travel extensively after finishing military service, and they come back home with heads full of global flavours. “The post-army travellers are completely responsible for the diversification of the food scene here—and the Palestinians are getting in on the act, too. They don’t want to get left behind," explains Yudin.

Of course, food is also the easiest way to connect with locals, to tap into their experiences and understand the region’s complex politics. “There are fights between Lebanon and Israel about who has better hummus, whose national dish it is. The whole issue of whether there is such a thing as Israeli cuisine has become politicized," says Yudin.

Understanding that there’s more to Israeli or Palestinian food than hummus may be the start of untangling that dilemma—and perhaps a two-cuisine solution is the finest diplomatic road of them all.

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