Israel would rather conceal the dreadful nature of the colonialist regime and the severe oppression it heaps on Palestinians. It will stop at nothing to create the image of ‘victim’ rather than acknowledge its role as that of ‘occupier-victimizer’. Small wonder, it is afraid of the tourist. They fear she/he may be aroused by some scenes which they wish to explore further. Israel wants the tourist to be just that – a sentimental traveler in the Holy Land, sightless when it comes to the political facts on-the-ground but alert to abstract religious matters.
Israel hides the ghastly truths
Israel does not want the world to see the insane separation wall, the ruthless house demolitions, the demeaning prison conditions, the premeditated damage done to olive fields and the agriculture sector, the illegal settlements on stolen land, the pointless bypasses built on Palestinian lands, the patterns of stealing water from Palestinian lands that feed the opulent luxuries of the illegal settlers.
For certain, Israel would rather not have visitors witness the ultimate cruelty as manifested in the siege of Gaza, the acute poverty caused by the occupation and obstruction to development. They do not want the visitor to celebrate and appreciate Palestinian culture. They would rather nullify and obliterate Palestine’s cultural advancement.
Israel does not want visitors to see refugee camps inhabited by people who were driven out by Israel way back in 1948 during the war of partition when they appropriated land from and displaced people in hundreds and thousands. Nor does Israel want the visitor to find out how many historic sites they have appropriated from the Palestinians and laid claim to those spaces as if they were part of Israel historically – all for touristic profit.
Israel would also never volunteer to expose visitors to the true fact of Jerusalem. They would rather that the world remains oblivious to the fact Jerusalem is not theirs alone. To claim Jerusalem is one of their many malevolent political goals. After all, the truth about Jerusalem is that it is a place of pilgrimage and worship for Jews, Christians and Muslims since the biblical era. Its Old City has significant religious sites around the Temple Mount compound, including the Western Wall (sacred to Judaism), the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (a Christian pilgrimage site) and the Dome of the Rock (a 7th-century Islamic shrine with a gold dome). Israel wants the profits from the location and hence the piece-by-piece annexation.
Israel does not want visitors to know how many prisoners Israel captures on flimsy pretexts just to subdue protesters who contest the illegal occupation. Israel does not want the tourist to know the narrative that there are night-after-night, needless and unwarranted night raids in umpteen villages, or that thousands of children,women and men(young and old) are arrested and jailed for no valid reason, or held under administrative detention (an arrangement under which people are known to have spent over a decade in jail for no real crime.
Israel would not like visitors to see check points and the way in which people are hustled and mistreated by soldiers with just the intent of harassing and humiliating them, as if they were common cattle. Nor can Israel cannot afford to have people witness soldiers block children from going to and returning from school unless accompanied by neutral observers. Israel desperately needs to mask the way in which they destroy fully yielded crops or age-old olive trees.
Disguising the truth
They would rather disguise their inhuman and racist behaviour by orienting the tourist to make-believe that they are up against a dangerous and treacherous terroristic people. They will not dare say in the open: “Enough with the two-state solution. Land-for-peace is over. We don’t want a Palestinian state. Exterminate the Arabs and have them resettled anywhere but here.” extermination is tacit policy and practice.
The peace process, always fragile, is now a sheer façade. The new round of peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians mediated by the USA is typically raising excitement from a news-starved corporate media. But the end-truth is that after all the gobbledygook is said and done it will be back to square one. Israel will grab more land and more Palestinians will be killed and imprisoned .
Obstructing tourism to hide the truth –Palestinians create alternatives
Unsuspecting tourists often enter the territories on an innocent tour and come into untailored contact with Palestinians in the tourism sector. That leads them, on occasions, into encounters with people, families, NGOs, human rights activists. Naïve tourists who came into The Holy Land with no intent to examine the political dimensions of the occupation have often been known to say: ‘I came here as a tourist but am returning as an advocate for justice. I have never witnessed such cruelties before and want to go home and tell the truth about the occupation, the harmful myths about the Palestinians, and the facts about the illegal occupation’. Now that frightens Israel more than many other things. This may be what prompts them to describe the solidarity tourist as a terrorist!
So, Israel has now chosen a somewhat reprehensible and illegal pathway (not that illegality is new to the Israeli political lexicon) to conceal these truths. Israeli officials announced that come April end, tour groups would not be allowed to take tourists to stay overnight in Palestinian-controlled portions of the West Bank. Israel has since frozen the order. The population authority stated that the nature of the directive was not final, and therefore it remains frozen for now. However, an amplification or abandonment of the policy has not yet been announced. It is also not clear which authority would be responsible for enforcement. The origin of the directive points at Shin Bet security service officials, the pretext being that probable terrorists were embedded with tourists. So, the likelihood that Palestinian tourism will soon be targeted is quite high.
Tour Operators warned against Bethlehem-bound tourism
A Haaretz report[i] revealed that “several Israeli travel agencies that deal with foreign tourists reported receiving a letter from the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority this week, instructing them to commit not to take tourists to the Palestinian Authority effective May 15. This would mean that tourists would not be able to spend the night in Bethlehem”.
According to a report from the Border Control Department of the Population and Immigration Authority, “every request to invite a tour group to Israel must be accompanied by a form undertaking not to take the groups into Palestinian territory, specifically for overnight stays in Bethlehem. The letter states that without this form, requests will not be processed.
Photo credit: Majdi Mohammed / AP
Israel knows that the step itself is a step one-too-far. First, if implemented, they would be obstructing freedom of religion to Christians around the world. The Holy Land is sacred to Christians for, it is the cradle of their faith. They will not stand by while Israel snatches away from them the right to visit the various sacred sites connected to the birth place of Christ and the growth of Christianity. Second, they would be obstructing the right of freedom of movement- a fundamental human right which Israel would be imprudent to oppose.
So this step may just be a form of muscle flexing, a threat to the political activist and groups who come to Palestine in solidarity. With Israel, political senselessness is hard to second guess. Israel may think it can neutralize Palestinian tourism by allowing only Israeli tour operators to enter the territories with security protection. There are innumerable western groups, including Jewish, who want to do the ‘real tour’- engage in a true encounter with the reality of the occupation and its horrendous impact on Palestinians.
Justice tourism – We will not be moved
These solidarity groups will not easily be silenced. They will speak up and, if subdued, will resort to employing their only remaining instrument- isolate Israel with an aggressive BDS strategy. Such a movement can spread swiftly and far and wide. There are, as it is, enough structures of internal repression in Palestinian territories that makes international news. And when one adds to international rejection of Israel’s virtual suicidal, self-inflicted boycott, it is clear that it may be Israel that is heading for perilous times. They clearly want to see Palestine through Palestinian eyes. They do not want the propaganda business tour that Israeli tour operators offer.
An influential non-profit that brings American Jewish leaders to stay with Palestinians in Bethlehem and elsewhere in the territories has expressed concern. Encounter[ii], who include in their groups senior Jewish communal executives and prominent rabbis, says new Israel laws could strangle its ability to run its programs. “Participants in our program are striving to better understand the complexity of the current situation, and to do so with integrity, they need access to a range of voices, which they won’t have if such a law, is enacted,” said Yona Shem-Tov, the group’s executive director. “My hope is the Interior Ministry will seriously reconsider not only the implications of the optics of such a law, but also the very real cost it will exact on American Jewish leaders seeking to be of service to Israel and their constituents by better understanding the multifaceted nature of this conflict.”
High stakes for Israel, but hardly an escape route
Justice Tourism is now gaining ground as a peaceful form of international resistance. Justice or alternative tours are crucial for bringing people into a vital consciousness with the Palestinian reality. Such tours offer information and learning experiences that amplify their perception of the occupation. In other words, justice tours pose the real query in addressing the question of justice in the Palestinian-Israeli relationship. To what are justice tours an alternative? To conventional tours that impart facts, anecdotes and “light” history about disconnected sites, to passive listeners. Tourists come away with a lot of facts that they soon forget because they are disjointed and do not fit into any overarching conceptual framework. Just as problematic, conventional tour guides impart hidden ideologies aimed at replacing the essential narratives or stories.
In a world where the mainstream and corporate controlled media hides the truth about Palestine because it is, by and large, Zionist controlled, social media has opened up new vistas of awareness about the Palestinian reality. By itself, it has promoted curious and angry travelers to explore the truth about Palestine and see justice.
Israel will find it hard – if not impossible- to stem the tide of travelers without being severely punished and ostracized. If there is one thing that scares the wits out of Israel, it is cultural-academic-economic boycott sanctions, divestment. In that sense, tourism has stakes that are far too high for Israel to get away with in the long run. Who knows, this
Clearly, the international community must respond to the Kairos Movement’s call[iii] to “Come and See” as a precondition to becoming peacemakers and torchbearers of justice. That would be a pilgrimage for justice as seen through the eyes of the Palestinian people who, despite having suffered decades of occupation and dispossession, maintain their dignity, faith, and capacity for hope.
In the final analysis, it will be the voices of those who bear witness to the errant ways of the occupation that can change perceptions and rally voices and actions for justice.
[ii] Encounter provides the only opportunity for mainstream American Jewish leaders to visit Palestinian territories in the West Bank. On our Middle East program, a pluralistic group of Jewish leaders meet Palestinian civilians and leaders in Bethlehem, Hebron, or East Jerusalem and engage in thoughtful conversation about the complexities of Israel and the conflict.