Alternative tourism is gaining ground in the conflict zones around Israel

Locals walk past the Separation Barrier in East Jerusalem. Photo: Venkata Susmita Biswas

Locals walk past the Separation Barrier in East Jerusalem. Photo: Venkata Susmita Biswas  

Next time you visit Israel, venture into neighbouring Palestine and the West Bank to find new answers

Narrow winding roads around the hilly neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem bring us to the arterial road in the locality, Derekh Yericho (Jericho Street).

On one side of the street are shops and residences, the other side looks like a garbage dump on the precipice of a valley. Discarded household sundry lie in neglect on the edge of the road. Pavements belong in dreams here, so do sewage disposal systems. As we slowly roll down the road, our tour guide reminds us that East Jerusalem is under the purview of the Jerusalem municipality. The same municipality that creates vast green spaces, wide roads with pavements, and provides water and sewage systems to residents of West Jerusalem.

This road used to be the main route to the city of Jericho (now in Palestine). But that is not where this road leads any more. It leads to a wall. A high concrete wall with graffiti calling to tear down the barrier — the infamous separation between Israel and the West Bank. We disembark and everyone naturally gravitates towards the wall. The local people, East Jerusalemites, walk past the wall without once glancing at it, some even park their cars along the wall with utmost precision while we helplessly stand and stare at it.

Touring Palestine and East Jerusalem is not common for those visiting Israel. But this trend has been steadily gaining popularity among independent tourists who deliberately go beyond the standard pilgrimage sites to step out of the tourist bubble. “By visiting Palestine, I learnt about how many Palestinians feel disenfranchised. The people I talked to said they feel stuck, abandoned by international society. Seeing the hopelessness when I mentioned peace on either side was a sobering experience,” says Amanda Bennet, an exchange student from University of Texas.

This emerging breed of tourists occasionally comes with prior knowledge about the conflict and sometimes not. And educating the lot of tourists who stumble upon these tours by accident, as tours that are off the beaten track, is what tour guides do. “Most people on our tours are not very political, and we are not looking for the activists,” says Fred Schlomka, chief executive officer of Green Olive Tours.

Over the past 10 years, a few tour operators, and many NGOs and human rights organisations on both sides of the Green Line, have started offering alternative tours of East Jerusalem, Palestine, and Israeli settlements inside the West Bank. These tours take tourists deep into conflict zones. They try to break negative stereotypes about Palestine as an unsafe place infested with terrorists by showing tourists the natural beauty, cultural wealth and hospitality of Palestine.

The concept of alternative tourism was introduced in Palestine for the first time by the Alternative Tourism Group (ATG) in 1995 after the end of the First Intifada (five-year Palestinian uprising). “That was when people wanted to learn about the Palestinian question, political realities, and the struggle here,” says Rami Kassis, executive director of ATG.

Initially, Kassis’ and his group’s intentions were not understood by Palestine’s tourism community. But this has changed over the last two decades. According to Kassis, the Palestinian ministry of tourism now sees ATG as a role model for tour operators in the region. “They realise the importance of our kind of tourism,” Kassis says.

Tourists visiting Palestine often spend less than a day there and zip in and out of the pilgrimage sites in Bethlehem. Other major cities in Palestine like Hebron, Jericho, Nablus, Jenin, each of which have unique cultural, historical and archaeological treasures, are often overlooked. “We encourage tourists to stay longer, and explore Palestine beyond Bethlehem. We suggest they visit other cities, refugee camps and interact with people in remote villages,” says Kassis.

Hiking is another way to experience Palestine. Anwar Dawabsheh, a senior tour guide with Siraj Center for Holy Land Studies, picks fresh fava beans from a farm in Aqraba near Nablus and describes its various uses as he guides tourists on a nature trail in Palestine. The goal of tour guides like Dawabsheh is to introduce international visitors to the Palestinian way of life, hiking through the villages and hills of the region.

An increase in the global community’s interest in Palestine is evident not only from the growth of tourists but also from the interest of tour operators in other countries. Esther van Raaij, MD of Saffraan, a Dutch tourism agency, is visiting Palestine to evaluate tourism opportunities for her clients. She says there is a demand for cultural, social, environmental and political tours of Palestine from people in the Netherlands. Since there are not many Dutch companies that offer such tours, she hopes that when she starts operating in Palestine, there will be a market for it.

Advocacy and education are a large part of the work of alternative tour operators. Guides often have no time to breathe on these tours, as travellers bombard them with questions, ask for clarifications, and get into debates. “Do Arab and Israeli children study together?” “Can Israelis safely enter areas that are completely under Palestinian control?” “What is the general sentiment about Prime Minister Netanyahu?” The questions don’t stop.

The alternative tours have not gone unnoticed by the Israeli government. Though tourists on alternative tours are not harassed generally, “there have been instances of visitors to the country being sent back from the airport on grounds of suspicion of their true intent,” says Kassis.

Tour operators themselves have not completely escaped the government’s criticism. “The Israel tourism ministry has on occasion contacted us after reading the material on our website. The ministry is of the opinion that Israeli tour companies should be pro-Israel. Well, we are pro-Israel, we are trying to make this a better country,” says Schlomka.

Breaking the Silence, an Israeli NGO that collects and publishes testimonies from soldiers formerly with the Israel Defense Forces, offers political tours of Hebron and the South Hebron Hills guided by the very soldiers who served in the Occupied Territories. This NGO has come under attack for speaking out against the Occupation and the Israeli Army, and its members have even been labelled traitors.

International visitors to Israel and Palestine have an advantage over both Israelis and Palestinians — they can cross the Green Line with ease, unlike Israelis who are warned against entering areas under complete Palestinian control and Palestinians whose entry into Israel is forbidden and subject to permits which are difficult to obtain. According to Amanda Bennett, who travelled to multiple Palestinian cities while studying in Israel, “I think our privilege (freedom of movement) means that we have a responsibility to listen to those who don't have that privilege, and lift up their voices. Tourists who travel with open minds and open hearts can tell stories that help those in their home countries humanise both sides.” And to these open-minded messengers there is one call: Visit Palestine.

Venkata Susmita Biswas is a freelance journalist who spent two years in Israel documenting her experiences living there.

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Printable version | Jun 3, 2020 2:29:00 AM |

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