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Kibbutz Be’eri is a great place to ride a bike. There are bike paths that wind through wheat fields and pass by eucalyptus trees. There’s a bike shop and a cyclists-friendly cafe.
But business is down right now. Is it any wonder? Kibbutz Be’eri is just 8kms from the Gaza Strip.
This tiny sliver of land, home to 1.3m Palestinians, is in the news at the moment. Hamas fighters and Israeli troops are at each other’s throats.
Yesterday an Israeli tank fired a shell that killed a Palestinian cameraman and three other people. Every death is shocking but, being a cyclist, I am somehow hard-wired to sit up and take notice when something bad happens to somebody on two wheels. The TV images of two teenage boys, killed as they were minding their own business, was personalised for me by the fact the lads were riding a bike. One was pedalling, the other getting a backie.
This is a normal thing for teens to be doing. In the UK you’d get a ticking off by a policeman if caught doing it. In the Gaza Strip you could be hit by an air-exploding tank shell. One second riding along with your mate, the next second lying in the road dead.
In the mid-1980s I spent a year in Israel. I did a lot of bike touring in the West Bank, something that would be impossible now. I rode my first mountain bike there, a Specialized Rockhopper specially imported by my bike-mad friend, Gil Bor, author of one of my favourite bedtime reads Bochner formulae for orthogonal G-structures on compact manifolds.
After university, in 1993, I went back to Israel to write the Berlitz Discover Guide to Israel. This was researched from a touring mountain bike.
Today, cycle touring in parts of Israel is tougher than it once was. Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reports that bookings are currently 50 percent down at LaMedavesh (Hebrew for ‘Pedal’) bicycle centre at Kibbutz Be’eri .
LaMedavesh owner Erez Manor said:
“Today most customers are experienced riders who come alone. Families and children prefer to ride elsewhere.”
The forthcoming Passover holiday would normally be peak time for Medavesh. Manor thinks business will be well down but that a few religious people would come.
“They aren’t afraid like the non-religious are.”
Israel is a fantastic country to cycle through. In Quarto Publishing’s ‘Classic Mountain Bike Routes of the World’ (2000) I did a chapter on Israel’s putative long-distance bicycle route, the Israel Bike Trail, a dream of Jon Lipman of the Carmel Mountain Bike Club. Some of it couldn’t be ridden today because of safety fears.
The 850km Israel Bike Trail - modelled on the Israel National Trail, a hiking route created by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel - runs from Metula in the north of Israel to Eilat in the south.
Last week plans were revealed for lots of local links to the Israel Bike Trail. This new network of joined-up routes is being promoted by the Ministries of Tourism, Environmental Protection, Transportation, Finance, Culture, the Nature and Parks Authority, and the Jewish National Fund.
Getting more people on bikes is a good thing, especially if it helps the political situation. And it can.
US-Israel religious charity Hazon (Hebrew for ‘Vision’) quotes 19th Century politico Theodore Herzl, founder of Zionism, who said “the light bicycle that brings new life.” Light bicycles? Yep, we can all relate to that.
Hazon is the creator of the bi-annual Israel Ride, an organised ride across Israel, mainly attended by Jews, mostly from America, but Arab Israelis and Arabs from other nations also take part.
Hazon is a supporter of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, situated on Kibbutz Ketura in Israel’s Southern Arava valley. This organisation has a logo with its name in English, Hebrew and Arabic. It champions peace, saving the planet and cycling.
David Lehrer, director of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, said of the Israel Ride:
“It brings together lots of things that the Institute is all about, the environment, getting people to see Israel in a way that they can’t normally see, you see it very differently than from a car seat. It’s bringing diverse people together – from the US, Israelis, Jordanians, Palestinians – a chance to learn from each other, a chance to see that we have more in common than separates us.
“It’s the opportunity to come together on an issue that concerns all of us and that affects all of us, the environment, the earth, and this particular part of the earth – only by working together, Jews and Arabs, can we protect our shared environment. Nature knows no boundaries.”
Hazon founder Nigel Savage said:
“This is what happens when the People of the Book become the People of the Bike.”
(People of the Book is an Islamic phrase to describe the Abraham-linked religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam).
Talking after the Israel Ride of 2005, Danny Ronen of Oakland, California, said:
“Me and Muatassim, a Palestinian, ended up staying in the same room together and spending time getting to know each other, and realizing that we are incredibly similar. Me being Jewish and him being Muslim is a non-issue. But you can’t build relationships without personal connections.”
It’s good to see that cycling isn’t just a sport, a form of transport, a means of keeping fit, it can also bring people together. Amen to that.
Map sourced from Walla, the Israeli equivalent of Google Maps.