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Israel backtracks on banning travel agencies from visiting West Bank

April 26, 2017 5:39 P.M. (Updated: April 26, 2017 9:16 P.M.)
BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- Two days after Israeli authorities notified Israeli travel agencies that they would be forced to pledge not to take groups of tourists to the occupied West Bank, Israel cancelled the decision on Wednesday.

The Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities said it was officially informed that the ban, which was set to go into effect on May 15, had been rescinded.

A Hebrew-language document dated April 23 issued by the Border Control Department of the Israeli Population and Immigration Authority notified travel agencies they would have to "attach, with each request to bring a group of tourists into the country, a special form pledging that they will not send tourists to Judea and Samaria,” using the Israeli term for the occupied West Bank.

The document warned tourism agencies that their requests to bring groups of tourists would "not be processed" if the pledge was not signed and attached.

The decision faced a backlash from Israel travel agencies, particularly those that organize Christian tour groups to spend the night in the city of Bethlehem in the southern occupied West Bank, which is believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ.

Israel’s population authority reportedly issued a clarification later stating that the groups would still be permitted to visit Bethlehem, and would only be blocked from spending the night there.

According to Israeli daily Haaretz, after Israel’s Interior Ministry announced Wednesday that ban was suspended, the ministry was expected to examine the matter and publish further clarification within a few days.

Haaretz reported that Israel’ security agency the Shin Bet was involved in drafting the suspended directive, “given previous incidents and suspicions that potential terrorists were traveling with groups of tourists.”

A day before the notification was sent out, Israel reportedly ordered a freeze on permits given to pro-Palestinian organizations to travel to Israel, following reports that a Palestinian who assaulted four Israelis in Tel Aviv that day had been given a one-day permit at the request of one such organization.

Travel agencies quoted by Haaretz mainly complained about the implications such a ban would have on costs for the Israel-led tour groups, as lodging in Bethlehem is much less expensive than staying the night in Jerusalem.

If implemented, the regulation would also be an additional blow to a suffering Palestinian tourism industry, which already has to contend with numerous unequal laws and restrictions that have crippled the Palestinian market, while investing millions of dollars in the Israeli market.

However, when it comes tourism in Bethlehem, Israeli tour groups tend to avoid dealing with the reality of Israel's occupation of the territory.

Christian Palestinian organization Kairos Palestine has noted that “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."

Meanwhile, individual tourists who tell Israeli border control officials of their intention to visit the occupied West Bank face the possibility of undergoing lengthy interrogations, or even deportation for alleged security reasons, or without being provided an explanation at all.

When tourists are able to reach the occupied West Bank, they are then forced to negotiate with hundreds of Israeli checkpoints and other military obstacles that restrict movement for Palestinians both within the West Bank and along its borders with Israel and Jordan.

“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,” human rights lawyer and legal researcher Amjad Alqasis wrote in 2015.
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