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A desert wilderness beckons ... in Palestine

West Bank tourism is in its infancy, but it boasts many attractions.

Palestinian children fly kites during a festival on the beach of Beit Lahiya in the northern Gaza Strip July 30, 2009. The festival was organized by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). (Suhaib Salem/Reuters)

WADI QELT, Israel — High up among these semi-arid hills exists one of the world's least known and accessible wildernesses. Gazelle and rock hyrax roam here while raptors, white storks and honey buzzards circle over the desert landscape below.

A tourist's paradise, according to one entrepreneurial local, if only the tourists knew about it ... and were allowed in.

Imad Atrash, head of the Palestinian Wildlife Society, envisages treks through desert landscape, birdwatching tours, and the opportunity to glimpse this indigenous wildlife.

But forget the tented camps and fitted jeeps — this is no African safari. This is the Palestinian territory of the West Bank and until recently it was locked in a cycle of violence and economic depression.

Atrash hopes that adventurous tourists will see beyond the headlines and take a chance on the possibilities that West Bank travel has to offer.

He even goes so far as to enthuse about the possibilities of ecotourism in a region that most vacationers visit only in passing on a trip to Israel.

With his telescope, Atrash picks out a rock hyrax, a rabbit-like creature that sleeps for most of the day, lying slumped midway up a cliff across from the dramatic St George’s Monastery.

But if a sleepy hyrax doesn’t top the “must-see” list, Palestine has much more to offer, he points out: holy sights in Bethlehem, monasteries perched on hilltops, dramatic views of rolling desert-like landscape above Jericho, and Roman ruins to the North.

West Bank’s tourism industry is in its infancy. Deterred by the imposing security wall that rings Jerusalem to the east, most tourists only make it through the checkpoints to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, as part of a one-day coach tour from Israel, depriving hotels of crucial income.

The Dead Sea, famed for its healing properties, also draws thousands of visitors in a single day, but its banks — and resorts — fall under Israeli jurisdiction, lying as they do in the border zone with Jordan.