- The religious make-up of the West Bank is predominantly Sunni Islam, with Christian communities in areas like Bethlehem, Ramallah, Beit Jala, and Beit Sahour, and the only non-settlement Jewish community being the Samaritans (located in Nablus).
- While there are cultural norms that you will read about on this page that you will be expected to abide by as a foreigner, there are no religious requirements forced upon you while living here. For example, foreign women are neither pressured nor forced to wear hijab here, and foreigners may drink alcohol and eat pork in areas where it is available.
- Certain areas of the West Bank are known for being more conservative, both culturally and religiously, than others. These areas include cities such as Nablus and Hebron, as well as many of the smaller villages and Bedouin communities.
- Areas with higher Christian Palestinian populations tend to have less conservative cultural norms in terms of dress and male-to-female interactions. Also because of the Christian populations in these areas there tend to be many liquor stores, bars, and clubs.
- Liquor stores can be found primarily in Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Jericho. There is also a liquor store in the Samaritan village at the top of Mt Gerizim in Nablus,
- Bars are located in Ramallah, Bethlehem, Beit Jala, Beit Sahour (both outside of Bethlehem), and there is a famous brewery in Taybeh (outside of Ramallah).
- Clubs and large music festivals are largely centered in Ramallah (check out the city specific pages to find good bars/clubs in each city).
- You can transport liquor from one of these cities to conservative areas such as Nablus, Hebron, or the villages, but do not drink in front of a Palestinian unless you are sure they are comfortable with it and you have discussed it beforehand. Also, you should definitely not drink in public or be drunk in public in these more conservative areas.
- Most of socializing will occur in cafes, restaurants, or people’s family homes. In Ramallah or Bethlehem there are also bars or event centers where social events will occur.
- For Palestinian women from traditional families they will likely only be able to spend time with other women during daytime. Most women are expected to be home for dinner and at night.
- Most socializing between women will occur at home or at cafes, and there is a growing arguilla-based social life for women even in conservative areas.
- Note: for foreign and local women it is very uncommon to smoke cigarettes in public (particularly in conservative areas), it is of course allowed but you will draw attention to yourself if you do this.
- For men and women who wish to spend time together in traditional culture this will have to be done in public or in the presence of their families. A single man and single woman spending time together alone in private is considered unacceptable by most families.
- Gay/Trans/Bi/Queer: your sexual identity or gender identity will largely be misunderstood if it does not conform to the traditional cis-hetero norms. There is homophobia, sexism, and general miseducation on all of these topics in a large portion of the population. You will of course be safe to visit under any of these identities, but it is something I would not recommend you share as there is wide intolerance in the conservative communities.
- Focus on packing the essentials and reference our Weather section below to make sure you will be prepared for the weather, but do not worry about forgetting something as you can buy just about anything you would need at stores here.
- For Men:
- Nablus and Hebron: you should wear pants and preferably long sleeve shirts. Some men wear short sleeves as the dress code for men is less strict than for women.
- Ramallah or Bethlehem: you can dress as you like: shorts and short sleeve shirts.
- Always bring good walking shoes and a nicer button down shirt in case you get invited to a wedding.
- For Women:
- I would recommend opting for the modest side when packing for a trip, with a few outfits to go out in for nights out in Ramallah or Jerusalem, but you will attract enough attention as a foreigner that I personally prefer to not attract more by wearing short or tight clothes.
- Hijab: you are never expected to wear a hijab, except in order to enter certain mosques like the Ibrahimi Mosque where they will provide you with a covering for your body.
- Shoes: wear closed toed shoes because it is very dusty most of the year and rainy during the winter, although it is nice to have a pair of sandals for occasion during the summer. Good walking shoes all year round are a must.
- In Nablus or Hebron: I always wear full length and preferably loose pants/skirts and loose long sleeve shirts when living in conservative areas like Hebron and Nablus.
- You should always wear a bra and preferably you should not wear anything with a deep neckline.
- Note: I have worn capri pants and short sleeves in these cities but I have noticed that I draw much more stares and attention so I opt for the modest dress.
- In Ramallah or Bethlehem: I wear short sleeve shirts but still wear long skirts/dresses/pants. When women go to bars in Ramallah it is reminiscent of New York City bar-life, so if that is your style, bring some night-life outfits and a sweater that can be worn for the taxi ride to the bar.
- Weddings/Engagement Parties: If you get invited to one, which is very likely, I recommend buying something here unless you own a modest dress at home that you want to pack, but the embroidered Palestinian style dresses are absolutely stunning.
- Summer: the weather is extremely hot and dry so try to bring light clothing that breathes well (cotton or linen), there can also be lots of mosquitoes depending on your location so bring bug spray.
- Fall: it stays quite warm during the days up through November, although the nights begin to become colder so bring a jumper or light jacket.
- Winter: December—February are the “cold” months (although it rarely drops below freezing), usually averaging in the 40s/50s (Fahrenheit). January and February are also the rainy months, and it is usually a cold rain so make sure to bring a hat, scarf, and a good winter coat that can protect you from the rain.
- Spring: March and April are when the flowers are in full bloom and everywhere is very green so if you have the chance to visit Palestine during this time, make sure to go for some hikes because it is absolutely beautiful. It will still be cold in the evenings so bring a jacket but the days start to get quite warm in April and by May you are in the 70s/80s (Fahrenheit).
For the foodies out there, Palestine has some delicious traditional dishes that you absolutely must try. This is not a comprehensive list, but is just a few of the famous and delicious traditional meals/desserts:
- Maqluba: literally translating to “upside down” this dish is traditionally prepared with lamb or chicken and cooked in a pot with rice, tomatoes, eggplants, and spices, and is magical (a must-try while in Palestine).
- Msakhan: famous in Palestine because it is made from ingredients that are all grown locally. Consists of layers of bread with sautéed onions, lots of sumac, and slow cooked chicken.
- Mehshi: literally meaning stuffed, this dish is traditionally made with eggplant and zucchini stuffed with rice and sometimes meet and cooked in a tomato soup. You can also find jaj mehshi which is chicken stuffed with rice.
- Falafel and Shwarma: these are your most common “street-food” options, but should not be understated since the versions you find on the street in New York City don’t do them justice.
- Mensaf: slow cooked lamb with yellow rice that is traditionally served with a cheese soup and is one of my absolute favorites.
- Majadera: a delicious and healthy rice and lentils dish commonly served as a side dish.
- Dawali: if you are invited to a family home for Dawali, SAY YES, this dish takes many hours of preparation and are the most exquisite stuffed grape leaves I have ever had.
- Qidra: this is a speciality of Hebron and consists of spiced rice with chicken.
- Zarb: a style of cooking in which meat is slow-cooked in an underground pit over coals.
- Meshawi/Barbecue: Palestinians barbecue which brings a whole new meaning to the word, meshawi restaurants can be found all over most cities, particularly popular in Hebron.
- Kufta: delicious ground meat (usually beef or lamb) mixed with garlic and spices. This is what you will get if you order a kebab.
- Fasolia: a tomato soup with green beans.
- Qatayef: a dessert which is particularly popular during Ramadan and is a sweet stuffed pancake.
- Kunafeh: the most famous Palestinian dessert is based out of white cheese which is slow cooked over coals and has a light crust on top. Nablus is the most famous location in the world for Kunafeh, although it can be bought at any bakery in the West Bank.
Vegans/Vegetarians: I know many vegans and vegetarians who have travelled to the West Bank but this is not a common identity in traditional Palestinian culture, so you may have to rely on cooking for yourself more often, or taking the time to explain to families what being a vegan or vegetarian means. There are dishes like falafel, and many of the traditional arabic salads/mezze which are vegan/vegetarian appropriate.
Palestine fits into the overall theme of “Arab Hospitality,” but most Palestinians take that hospitality to another level.
- You should not be surprised if you are invited into the homes, or weddings, of people whom you have just met. Or for shop owners to invite you in for coffee or tea off of the street. You should not feel obliged to say yes to every offer you receive, but most Palestinians are just genuinely excited and interested in meeting a foreigner and they truly want to show you the best of their home and their culture.
- What it means to be invited or invite someone: this is a crucial aspect of culture here that many foreigners are unfamiliar with. In most cases, when someone here invited you to tea, coffee, shisha, dinner (just about anything) that means that they are going to be paying for you. Vice versa, you should be aware that if you invite a Palestinian out to eat or drink that they will likely be expecting you to pay (unless they are very used to foreigners).
- For example: my first 2 weeks in Hebron I barely spent any money because the families I was doing volunteer work for and my co-workers kept inviting me out for coffee and lunch or to their homes for dinner and they would not let me pay.
- I have often gone to family homes for dinners but as a single female you will have to just trust your instincts when it comes to single men inviting you over to their family home for dinner. Most of the time this is simply out of generosity and hospitality but of course it can also sometimes be because they are interested in marrying you (the next section will explain the dating and marriage culture which can be very confusing to foreigners).
Dating culture in the West Bank is very different from the cultures that many foreigners are used to so it is best if you understand what the cultural norms are before you arrive so you can avoid many of the faux pas that I awkwardly found myself in.
Public Displays of Affection: PDA is not normal here, even among married couples; therefore, if you travel here with a boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife/partner it is best to not be affectionate in public as it not appropriate here culturally.
Shaking Hands vs. Hand over the Heart vs. Hugs vs. Kissing on both cheeks:
- Women to Men: when meeting a man for the first time you should wait to see if he extends his hand for a handshake because I have awkwardly been left hanging many times. This is because for religious men they will not shake a woman’s hand, instead they will place their hand over their heart to say welcome and you should do the same in response.
- Women to Women: when meeting another woman for the first time it is customary to shake hands, but if it is a good friend it is customary to kiss on both cheeks.
- Men to Women: when meeting a woman for the first time you should also wait to see if she extends her hand for a handshake as some women will also not shake the hands of men.
- Men to Men: men who do not know each other usually shake hands while men who are friends usually kiss on both cheeks.
- Hugging: between men and women this is largely unacceptable unless between two foreigners, so I would not go for a hug unless the other person initiates it, although this cultural norm is much more relaxed in places like Ramallah where many people hug each other.
Dating/Sex Culture: can vary based on the city you live in, with Ramallah and Bethlehem having more open dating cultures, particularly within certain Christian communities; while the dating cultures in Nablus, Hebron, and most of the villages being much more traditional.
- Traditional Norms: dating is typically something that is approved by both the man and women’s families and they are typically only permitted to be together in public settings or with their families present.
- Dating a foreigner: if a Palestinian wants to date a foreigner in a traditional community this relationship is often kept secret otherwise it will bring shame on the Palestinian’s family. Something else to keep in mind when dating a Palestinian as a foreigner is the importance of marriage and sex within Palestinian culture. Most Palestinians are focused on marriage since there is a strong social expectation around getting married and having children.
- Sex: it is absolutely forbidden to have sex before marriage within traditional culture; however, some Palestinians in these communities do have sex before marriage but you should be aware of the fact that sex usually has more of an emotional significance than it does in Western culture. It is uncommon for Palestinians to engage in casual sex in the way it is popular in other countries, although this has become more common in some of the younger and less religious communities in Palestine.
Marriage: marriages in the West Bank happen both in the traditional fashion and the non-traditional fashion and are always an important event with all of the families and friends attending and extreme amounts of money being spent.
- Traditional Marriage: means that the parents agreed to have their children meet and if the man and woman accept each other after one or two meetings then they will become engaged and will date during that engagement period during which they can brake it off. Marriage requires a huge sum of money on the man’s part, which is often why men have to wait many years before they have saved enough to be considered eligible.
- Non-traditional marriage is what we think of as customary in the West, with a man and woman meeting and dating for a period, although in the end these marriages will almost always need to be approved by both families as well.
- Weddings/Engagement Parties: if you spend long enough in the West Bank or come during wedding season (right before Ramadan) it is likely that you will be invited to an engagement party or a wedding.
In conservative cities like Nablus and Hebron, the weddings and engagement parties are segregated by gender meaning the women have one party and the men have another party, and only at the end of the wedding celebration do the groom and his family enter the women’s party.