What started for Sohaib Samara as a way to get fit has seen him travel across the West Bank visiting hundreds of its villages. “In 2015, I was at work and I had to take the stairs to an apartment on the sixth floor,” he says, adding: “I was a shisha smoker at the time and I got there feeling extremely exhausted. I felt unhealthy for a person in their twenties […] so I decided to try to get a bike to exercise”.
After one year of solo cycling across West Bank, 30-year-old Sohaib started a cycling group called “Cycling Palestine”. “I decided to create ‘Cycling Palestine’ to allow others to see Palestine as I see it,” Sohaib says. In the two years since the group was founded, young men and women have visited almost every community of the West Bank. In the first half of 2018 alone, Sohaib’s group visited 135 West Bank villages with more than 1,000 participants taking part in these tours. However, it wasn’t always an easy ride.
Seeing people cycling in the streets is not common in Palestine. When he first started cycling Sohaib faced a lot of criticism, but now he believes things have changed. “I want to spread cycling culture to as many people as I can,” Sohaib explains. Girls, in particular, faced a lot of criticism, as it was seen socially unacceptable for girls to cycle, but this has changed: “Nowadays people contact us to ask about the upcoming tours and they look forward to knowing about our activities,” Sohaib says.
Yet, having experienced cycling in other Arab countries, Sohaib explains that the main issue is not culture but rather the Israeli occupation: “I cycled for hundreds of kilometres in Tunisia without being stopped or questioned by anyone”. However, moving around the occupied West Bank, “it is unlikely you will go further than ten kilometres without an Israeli checkpoint,” Sohaib says.
Despite the fact that the Israeli checkpoints have repeatedly ruined tours for them over the past two years, Cycling Palestine is keen to keep going. Sohaib tells us about an incident the group faced last year on a tour they organised from Ramallah to Abud village, some 20 kilometres northwest of Ramallah: “We stopped in Nabi Saleh for a break, and when we left the village to resume our route, we were stopped by about 20 vehicles of occupation forces blocking the road,” Sohaib says. “They interrogated us for about an hour before allowing us to continue,” he adds.
According to the UN’s Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA oPt), there are 572 obstacles to Palestinian movement imposed by the Israeli occupation across the West Bank. The closures are part of every tour for Sohaib and his group, but they do not stop him: “There is no point feeling upset about it,” he says, “even if there are many checkpoints surrounding us, we will challenge them and cross, if the occupation forces send us back, there are always alternative routes to discover”.
As the group grew bigger, they organised longer routes. Last year, against the backdrop of the Arab League Summit, they decided to draw attention to Palestinians’ limited freedom of movement. A group of two women and eight men cycled from Palestine to Jordan – where the summit took place – naming it “The Freedom Tour”. Sohaib told me about his experience:
This route of 455 kilometres started in front of Qalandia checkpoint towards Al-Aqaba, it took us four days to complete. We had to cross the Allenby Bridge to go to Jordan – the three kilometre-long crossing took us more than three hours. Like any Palestinians who need to travel from the West Bank to Jordan, we had to cross the Palestinian controlled border point, the Israeli, and then the Jordanian one.
Their journeys are an illustration of life under occupation; the restrictions on movement imposed by the Israeli occupation are part of every Palestinian’s life. Cycling Palestine resists by moving around. In a recent tour they cycled along the Separation Wall, with 70 cyclists following the 770 kilometre route for five days across the length of the West Bank. Moving around Palestine isn’t simply a sport for this group, for them, it’s about making a statement that the land is theirs. “Our cycling is a form of resistance,” Sohaib says, adding: “it is our duty to keep our relationship with this land, if we stop moving around, the occupation will steal more of it.”