By Sophie Craven
Strolling through the back streets of the beautiful Palestinian town of Bethlehem, you come across many tourists enjoying the sights, smells and tastes of this peaceful little town. Take another look and you glimpse the nervous look on their faces as they’re shuttled on and off of Israeli tour buses, scuttling from holy site to holy site and avoiding the eyes of the locals.
‘It is really not good,” said a taxi driver based at Bethlehem’s Church of Nativity. “Israeli tour companies prevent their tour groups from buying anything in the souvenir shops. The tours are paid for in West Jerusalem and then come to Palestinian towns without supporting the Palestinian economy in any way. How can I support my family?’
The 2014 Israeli assault on Gaza rocked both the Palestinian and Israeli tourist industries.
In Bethlehem this blow was painfully obvious around Christmas-time, when the expected annual hordes of tourists simply did not show up. Bethlehem relies on its image as a Christmas retreat, but this year the footfall dropped dramatically and small family-run businesses began to struggle more than ever.
“It is very difficult to fill bookings for tours,” a Palestinian tour guide and professional graffiti artist reported. “The thing is, it’s much easier for tourists to book through Israeli companies. They will have an easier time at customs and Israeli tour companies can offer a much more stable environment as they are even able to greet clients off of the plane, and walk them through customs. In contrast, clients of Palestinian tour groups may face longer delays at the airport. The tour companies are not allowed into the arrivals area and must wait outside for their tour groups”.
This was verified by 972 magazine, which reported the administrative obstacles also faced by Palestinian tour companies in the visa application process.
In November, a Palestinian guest-house owner told of her struggle to book out rooms: “I am very stressed this year because I don’t know if I can fill my guesthouse. Christmas bookings fund my kids’ Christmas and this year it is just not looking likely”.
The Israeli tourism industry also actively works to blur lines concerning the location of historical sites, claiming sites such as the Herodium outside of Bethlehem as Israeli archeological sites despite the fact that they are clearly within the 1967 borders. This appropriation is reportedly for the protection and preservation of the sites; but then an entrance fee is slapped down on and it’s listed on the tourism itinery for Israel.
In Nablus, my friend and I saw an Israeli tour company drop off a group of Belgian tourists at An-Najah university for a tour of the grounds. When we asked what they were up to, one replied that they were “touring Israel”.
This misconception, or even ignorance, of the Israeli-Palestinian borders is exacerbated by tour companies who refuse to tell tourists when they have crossed into the West Bank. Tour groups coming into Sebastiya, a small, richly historical town north of Nablus, actively avoid taking the ‘Arab’ road to the town, instead coming in around the old city in order to avoid the Palestinian residents. Similarly, Israeli tours to the Samaritan village and Joseph’s Tomb come in on a settler road and are under armed protection from Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF). They are taken to the isolated view point from which you can see Nablus and its refugee camps (Askar and Balata), and told a Zionist version of the history of ‘Shechem’ (what Israel still calls the modern Palestinian town of Nablus).
A myth is therefore perpetuated: Palestinians are to be feared and avoided at all costs.
In addition to this, the Israeli appropriation of Palestinian culture, in their tours and tourism advertising, smothers opportunities for Palestinian tour companies to offer a unique cultural experience, despite efforts from the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and programs such as PNN’s ‘Pal-Experiment’ to draw international attention to Palestine’s delights.
Israeli food tours offer the chance to learn how to cook what they call “Israeli dishes like fatoush salad, hummus and Moroccan fish” . Itineraries on Israeli tours include “foraging with Bedouins” followed by a “home cooked meal, visits to spice farms and wineries”- blatantly ignoring the plight of Palestinian Bedouins living in the West Bank under Israeli occupation- disenfranchised and forcefully relocated time and time again.
The Israeli tourism industry is also attempting to dominate the Christian pilgrim market, according to 972 Magazine, spending huge amounts on the refurbishment of religious sites within Israel and even offering a “Christmas Eve alternative to Bethlehem — which is under control of the Palestinian Authority — by inviting pilgrims and foreign diplomats to the Israeli city of Nazareth to enjoy a Christmas market, parade and fireworks…”, as reported by Los Angeles Times.
Israeli domination of Palestinian tourism does so much more than squeeze the Palestinian economy. It allows Israel to control what internationals are told about Palestinians, to send them away with poisoned ideas about the community and society of Palestine, and to suffocate the real face of Palestine behind both a real wall and an imaginary one built of rumors and stereotype. It is easier to justify the occupation of an entire people when you cannot hear their voices.
Israel knows that international communication with Palestinians on a daily basis would undermine its campaign of painting a picture of terrorism, fear and danger in the West Bank. It knows that should word get out about the true nature of Palestinians- honest, kind and generous– the international community would have even less of an excuse for its already unfathomable support of the Israeli occupation.