As the blue and white flag bearing the Star of David struggles to flutter in the humid, sand-flecked breeze of the Jordan Valley, a tanned soldier in baggy jeans and wraparound shades slowly circles the bus. He eyeballs one passenger after another through the filthy windows, his finger twitching on the trigger of an assault rifle.

It may be an unusual way to greet tourists, but Israel can be an unusual place. The bulk of passengers packed into this bus are Arabs, mostly pilgrims, travelling to Jerusalem from Amman across the Allenby Bridge, which connects the West Bank to Jordan, across the Jordan River. The West Bank is referred to as Palestinian territory occupied by Israel.

"They are just trying to scare us," a woman whispers to her daughter. As we dismount and file past more gun-toting young men towards immigration, it's fair to say that they are doing a good job.

"Why do you come to Israel?" barks a teenage guard, eyeing me suspiciously. "Will you travel in the West Bank?"

"No," I lie, "Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. We're on holiday." She gets up suddenly and marches out of the booth with our passports. Just as I am beginning to panic at the thought of the upcoming strip search, she returns, sits down and shrugs. Minutes pass. "Go," she suddenly grunts, tossing our passports across the desk. Welcome to Israel.

It's not until we board the bus for Jerusalem that I realise we got off lightly. An American we met in the chaotic yet comparatively jovial Jordanian border shack - and who was in front of us in the immigration queue - gets on pale-faced, his clothes dishevelled. All talk of our ordeal ceases, and we pass the rest of the journey swapping travel stories of happier times in Southeast Asia. So much so that, emerging from a long, dark tunnel, the driver struggles to get our attention.

"Look," he shouts over his shoulder - annoyed at the fact we haven't been paying attention - "Jerusalem."

It is impossible not to feel a tingle along the spine on seeing the city spread across the valley like a blanket, with the golden Dome of the Rock at its centre, blazing in the morning sun. After all, this is a city that has been fought over for the past four millennia.

It's hard to turn our backs on the city after having disembarked outside the imposing Damascus Gate, although the throngs of camera-wielding tourists take away some of the allure. We head straight to the Arab bus station to board a packed taxi van to Ramallah, the Palestinian capital and the liberal heart of the West Bank, and begin our trundle through the ramshackle suburbs of East Jerusalem - the Arab district - towards the Kalandia checkpoint.

It takes about 20 minutes to get there. Before us stands a vast complex of concrete walls and barbed wire. Foot passengers coming the other way have to pass through a long metal corridor, through turnstiles and a security check - complete with bulletproof glass, barbed wire and blunt, heavily armed Israeli soldiers. Since 2002, when Israel built its security wall across a highway that joined Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Ramallah, the checkpoint has been a part of life for those wanting to travel between the cities, including thousands of Palestinians who wait every day to cross, to get to places of work on the Israeli side.

The landscape changes as soon as the van passes through the checkpoint gate. Revolutionary graffiti and the red, green, black and white of the Palestinian flag cover this side of the wall, which goes snaking up the hillside. Men stand outside coffee shops smoking and watching the traffic fighting its way to and from the checkpoint. A foul smell of gas (tear gas is used by Israel Defence Force soldiers to disperse Palestinian protesters here), mixed with exhaust fumes and charcoal hangs in the air. A taxi, driving on the wrong side of the road, screams into oncoming traffic.

Ramallah is a dusty, chaotic but charming Arab city, a capital that throngs with life. It is 25 kilometres north of Jerusalem and was bombed in Israeli air strikes at the turn of the century and occupied by Israeli troops in 2002. The city remains a hotbed of political activism, centred on Al-Manara Square, where banners and flags hang from every lamp post and railing. Nevertheless, it is friendly, safe and immediately likeable - the kind of place where you can chat to locals, sit in cafes or wander around at night looking for something alcoholic to drink without getting into any trouble.

Ramallah and Nablus are the only cities in the West Bank to have been policed and administered by the Palestinian Authority since the 1967 Israeli occupation brought the area under Israeli military control. Elsewhere in the occupied territories, Israeli settlements, checkpoints and military installations dot the landscape and Palestinians are restricted from using the highways and certain bus stations. Ramallah and Nablus, for the time being at least, belong to the Palestinians.

The next day I board another packed bus, this time headed for Nablus. About 63 kilometres north of Jerusalem, Nablus was one of the focal points of the first and second intifadas - or uprisings - against Israeli occupation. As we race through the West Bank countryside, we pass Israeli flags planted along the highway. Israeli settlements cap many of the hills. The settlements are home to some 450,000 Jewish settlers, and they are one of the major sticking points in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, along with the division of Jerusalem. A fellow passenger sees me looking at one of the heavily fortified Israeli villages and sadly shakes his head.

Minutes after getting off the bus in Nablus, I am approached by Ahmed, a tour guide, who, in perfect English, offers to show me the sights for a ridiculous fee.

"Much blood has been shed in this city," he says, offering to take me to a nearby Palestinian refugee camp and meet the "families of the martyrs, killed by Israel". I decline; we have difficulty agreeing on a price, and I am very much a solo traveller. Ahmed shrugs ambivalently and gives me his card anyway, before walking off. I am once again surprised at how little hassle a foreigner gets in the West Bank in comparison with, say, Cairo.

Nablus is a beautiful city with a troubled past. The old town is a maze of alleys, market stalls and mosques. Hawkers sell soap - the city is famous for it - and flags and banners hang in every window. It is the centrepiece of Palestine's nascent tourist industry, and I am surprised to find an efficient, English-speaking tourism office in the centre of the city.

Close to the old town is a boutique hotel, the International Friends Guest House, filled with keffiyeh-wearing Westerners chatting intensely over coffee and shisha.

The further you delve into the West Bank, the more calm and breathtakingly beautiful it appears. On the way back to Ramallah, the bus takes a different route, along single-lane roads snaking through mountain villages. I am told later that Palestinian traffic is not really supposed to use Israeli "settler highways", but the rule is not always imposed and sometimes the drivers chance it. On other occasions they take these back roads.

Rounding one corner, we are treated to an epic view over the Jordan Valley and, just for a second, one is able to forget the realities these lands face. Such views are for the most part reserved for the Jewish settlers on the hilltops.

En route to Jordan via Jerusalem, I chat to an American tourist in the lobby of my hostel about where I have been. "Ramallah," I say, and his face contorts in response.

"Wow, you're brave," he says. Then adds, "Why?"

It dawns on me that the question travellers to Israel should be asking is, "Why not?"


Getting there: Qatar Airways flies from Hong Kong to Doha, and from the Qatari capital to Amman, Jordan. It takes about an hour to drive from Amman to the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge.