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Israel’s grip on Palestinian tourism

May 6, 2015 11:14 A.M. (Updated: July 4, 2015 3:31 P.M.)
Ancient spring in the Palestinian village of Battir. (AFP/Menahem Kahana)
By: Amjad Alqasis

Israel's occupation and colonization of Palestine is not limited only to its military elements, but is also manifested in its use of tourism as a political tool. It is a tool used to strengthen its position as occupying power, and to maintain its domination over Palestinian land and people, but also as an instrument for the dissemination of propaganda to millions of tourists, including politicians, community leaders and journalists who receive free-of-charge first class tours to Israel.

All of these trips are accompanied by well-drilled Israeli tour guides whose primary purpose is to spread the official Israeli narrative among all visitors. This narrative is created through the omission of crucial information, and by ensuring that no contact between visitors and local Palestinian communities takes place.

Israel, simply, knows that exposure to the present and historical realities of the occupation will have a transformative effect on the majority of tourists to Palestine, who would then return to their home countries as opponents to Israel's oppressive policies against Palestinians. For instance, an Israeli branding campaign for the tourism industry in 2008 was developed to intentionally deflect attention from the occupation.

As Rifat Kassis, the coordinator of Kairos Palestine, explains, "millions of tourists come to Bethlehem, Palestine, every year and, without talking to a single Palestinian, return home as enemies of Palestine and ambassadors of Israel." The avoidance of Palestinian areas by Israeli tours gives the message that Palestinians are dangerous and not to be trusted. The result is that tourists return home with false "confirmation" that Palestinians are indeed a threat to the safety of Israel and its tourists.

Additionally, the maze of unequal laws and restrictions gives Israeli tour companies an unfair advantage in their ability to provide seamless service for their groups. Israel follows a two-tiered strategy: firstly to invest millions of dollars into its tourism market in order to attract the maximum number of visitors; and secondly to cripple the Palestinian market as much as possible. Very few permits to build or convert buildings to hotels were granted by the Israeli authorities to investors in the Palestinian sector during the last two decades, whilst at least 15 military orders and regulations related to tourism have been issued since 1967 by the Israeli occupying authorities.

These orders raised the requirements for licensing and functioning of tourist institutions without availing those institutions of the means necessary to meet the required improvements. As a result of having quality requirements raised but access to funding sources denied, many Palestinian tourism firms were confronted with serious problems such as the often insurmountable challenge of unequal competition with Israeli firms, or demotion to lower tourist grades. Israeli tourism enterprises were offered long-term loans at concessionary interest rates, sometimes with part of the loan being converted into a grant. New Israeli tourism enterprises are eligible for tax reductions, and vigorous government support for Israeli enterprises active in Israel has proved to be a major impediment to full and equitable competition with Palestinian enterprises, which are totally deprived of such subsidies and assistance. Without the ability to accommodate additional tourists during peak season, Palestine is deprived of the opportunity to host tourists for longer periods of time, resulting in visitors taking only short day trips in Palestine. This clearly has severe implications for the local economy, and areas that could be prime opportunities for the development of tourism in the West Bank cannot be developed due to these Israeli-implemented restrictions.

In addition, very few Palestinian tour guides receive permission to lead tours in Israel. 42 permits were granted in 2005, the only time such permits were granted. Today, only 25 of those 42 are still operational, compared to 8,000 Israeli guides who are licensed to guide tours by the Israeli tourism ministry.

Freedom of movement

Another means applied by Israeli is limiting the freedom of movement of tourists. When trying to obtain a visa, for example, Israeli agencies simply submit names and passport numbers, and their request is met without delay. In contrast, Palestinian agencies attempting the same are met with administrative obstacles, and cannot guarantee that their visa request will be accepted.

Furthermore, if tourists at a border control say that they will be visiting Palestine, there is a possibility that they might be delayed for questioning by Israeli authorities. Some are subsequently deported for "security" reasons, whilst others are deported without any explanation. Ayman Abu Al Zolouf, a local tour guide with Alternative Tourism Group (ATG) describes the arrest and questioning of a Swedish group he was guiding in 2010, in Beit Sahour. He explains that they were having lunch with local families when some of the group went out to take pictures of Oush Gorab, a nearby area under full Israeli control. The Israeli forces arrested the whole group and transferred the tourists to the Gush Etzion settlement by military vehicles. After being pressured by the security forces to admit they were on a tour organized by ATG, the group was released. On another occasion, a group of British tourists guided by Ayman Abu Al Zolouf was arrested by Israeli military forces while they were next to the annexation wall near the Israeli settlement of Har Homa.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Palestinians and tourists alike were forced to negotiate a web of more than 500 permanent checkpoints and other military obstacles which restrict movement both inside the West Bank and across its borders. Checkpoints have now become solid facts on the ground, with some having been transformed into "terminals,"reminiscent of airport security procedures with permit checks, metal detectors, finger printing and personal questioning. Furthermore, there are temporary "flying" checkpoints which are erected at various locations without notice. On average, 65 flying checkpoints are established in the West Bank on a weekly basis. Ra’fat Al Shomali, a Palestinian tour guide, emphasizes the crippling impact of these checkpoints, stating that often he does not have the time to finish his tours on account of being forced to wait at checkpoints.

Another obstacle to operating a tour is the presence of 500,000- 600,000 illegal Israeli Jewish settlers currently living in the oPt. They constitute a growing and consistent threat to Palestinian lively hoods. Rami Kassis, Director of ATG, cites the harassment of Palestinians by Israeli settlers-often conducted with the support of Israeli soldiers - as one of the greatest obstacles faced by a Palestinian tour guide.

Branding

Israel is also steadily trying to exclude the Palestinians from the crucial Christian pilgrim market through various strategies. As a report of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East reporting in America (CAMERA) concludes:

"Israel has spent millions of dollars refurbishing Christian sites in Israel and trying to create new ones, such as the recently launched "Gospel Trail," which allows hikers, bikers and motorists to retrace what may have been Jesus' path through the Galillee region. . . .

"The [Israeli] Tourism Ministry is also promoting 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, fireworks display and jolly Santa Claus for the kids.

"Palestinians [emphasise that, as a result] they are being cut out of a market they once dominated. Palestinian tourism officials say Israel is discouraging visits to areas administered by the Palestinian Authority and is promoting attractions in other [de facto annexed] parts of the West Bank, such as the baptismal site at the Jordan River," the committee reported.

"We have more sites on our side, and Israel is using them to develop their own tourism, leaving us with a smaller piece of the pie," said former Palestinian Tourism Minister Kholoud Daibes, contending that Israel collects 90% of pilgrim-related revenue. "They are promoting occupied territory as part of Israel."

Israel’s grip on Palestinian tourism serves its overall goal of tightening its military occupation and colonization through dominating the discourse and introducing excepted terminology and language. Israel's colonial project aims at erasing the existence and presence of Palestinian history and identity. Therefore, Palestinian tourist institutions should aim at dominating their own discourse. This could be achieved by introducing and establishing their own language and terminology; and by employing terms which are truly reflective of and correctly frame the reality as it is, without bowing to external pressures, and without framing the situation in a manner of Israel’s choosing.

Amjad Alqasis is a human rights lawyer, legal researcher and a member of the Legal Support Network of BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights. Since August 2014, he is an adviser at Al Haq Center for Applied International Law.

The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect Ma'an News Agency's editorial policy.
Comments
Ken Loach / UK
These Arabs are always complaining. Why did the Arabs not stand and fight and defend their homes in 1948 and 1967?
06/05/2015 15:57
Malone / Hfx
The poor,poor pals..always whining about something
07/05/2015 04:08
Nick / Canada
If Palestinians stopped their terrorism, tourism would boom and there would many more visitors for Bethlehem, Hebron, Jericho and other Palestinian sites.
11/05/2015 23:30
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