JERUSALEM: Visit Palestine. The words appear in large print below a Jerusalem sunset on posters made famous now for their irony: published by a Zionist development agency in 1936, it recognizes that there were people, there were homes, and there was a Palestine.
Today, people from all over the world are visiting what was Palestine. But if any clue is to be found by the meager showing at prayers in Islam’s third holiest site Al Aqsa Mosque, Arabs and Muslims are not. There are of course, legitimate deterrents for Arab travelers and though there are ways to get around these problems – not getting your passport stamped, going when the passport is close to expiry anyway – these are still risky scenarios for a traveler wanting peace of mind.
This is terribly unfortunate. There is the economic/political concern by many that traveling to Israel contributes to their wealth, thereby supporting a state whose policies much of the world finds abhorrent. But the fact remains that Israel gets visitors from all over the world.
Many Jewish families send their kids ritualistically to the country to learn the culture and develop a bond with the ‘promised land.’ Christians too have good reason to go, with more than a few religious sites reputed to be Jesus’ place of birth and death. Certainly, travel is not restricted to these religious groups either, with anyone interested in a bit of history, current events, or beaches and nightlife having cause to visit.
But who visits the West Bank?
The US and some European countries eagerly warn against travel to the West Bank while travel into Israel proper is rarely discouraged. Day-trippers arrive on Israeli tour buses to Bethlehem but do not spend the night and rarely stay long enough to eat or buy anything. In short, they need not spend a single shekel, meet a single Palestinian, or see a single representation of life outside the Church of the Nativity. No stereotypes are confronted, no fears allayed.
One Western expat living in West Jerusalem tells me, much to my excitement, that he has indeed been to Bethlehem during Christmas. “It’s depressing, he says.
Tourists have dwindled, even to one of Christianity’s holiest sites for a Christmas holiday.
Some activists do temporary stints in the West Bank but then have trouble returning.
But the Palestinians need tourists as well. Maintaining any sort of industry with numerous, unreliable checkpoints and restrictions in place is near impossible, leaving an economy largely based on agriculture and construction (often of settler’s homes!).
Palestinians need tourists’ money, they need to be able to represent themselves, and they need their attention. When outsiders hear the stories we heard, see the wall, experience the checkpoints, appreciate the land, Israel via the US will no longer be the sole mouthpiece of what Palestinians are and do.
Another Western expat stationed in Jerusalem told us how his father arrived for a visit asking about where all the ‘terrorists’ live. One week later, he was donning a kafeya (the Palestinian scarf) and speaking out for the Palestinians.
Apparently I was “brave, “crazy, and “adventurous, for daring to visit the West Bank. Anyone who has been would know that I need not be any of the above to spend some time amongst fellow Arabs on their part of the land. I need only be interested and careful – not visiting hotspots like Nablus or Jenin. Compared to driving in Egypt, or walking around in some major European or American city, I have no doubts about which is statistically more dangerous.
What is ironic is that no matter what the news is, it always works to the Palestinians’ disadvantage. While Israel and Western media never tire of using suicide bombings as justifications for all policies, it is still the Palestinian territories which are considered unsafe, without acknowledgment in any way that what makes them unsafe is Israel’s activities there.
If Palestinians are really the sole and perpetual bad guys then Israel proper should be the place on travel advisory lists across embassies and in Guide Books.
Instead, Israel is the one reaping the tourist dollars while telling tourists how dangerous Palestinians make their lives. This is why, for example, the wall was necessary – “it works. Of course, nobody accepts “it works, as a defense for attacks on Israel or settlers.
Because I know this article will likely not have the mobilizing effect I would wish it to have, I will at least relay some of my own travel experiences in the Holy Land.
The problem with writing commentary on a visit to Israel and the Palestinian Territories is that there are too many stories to tell, too many impressions to reconcile.
There are many realities for Palestinians still living in their homeland: there are those with Israeli citizenship and those in refugee camps, some who may visit Jerusalem (and access Islam’s third holiest site), and others who cannot; there are Palestinians who cannot even leave their hometowns.
And despite this, despite the relative wealth and enviable positions of some of the Palestinians we met on our admittedly brief encounter, the theme that ran through all their stories was the same: injustice.
First, a caveat: my account cannot purport to be reflective of a diverse population, it only relays a few impressions.
Crossing the checkpoint into the West Bank was my first surprise. The land was lush and beautiful, streets and buildings far cleaner than Cairo. We passed many areas where trees were cut down – learning later that the IDF had chopped them, for security reasons of course.
In Bethlehem we chat with one grandmother who breaks down in tears telling us how they cannot go to Jerusalem and pray in Al-Aqsa, a prayer Muslims consider worth 500 prayers. Her husband tells her not to tell this story, that their visitors don’t need to hear about all that.
But perhaps she is luckier than her daughter-in-law. Planning a trip for her two young sons and husband, she learned that she had a “black dot next to her name which would not allow her outside the country, into Israel or Jerusalem, or even into other West Banks towns. In other words, unless she fights it, the girl (not especially religious, never politically involved) will never be able to cross a checkpoint and leave her town of Bethlehem. She takes it with a mock sad face until she gets a lawyer who can sort it out.
Hebron (Khalil to Arabs) is notorious for clashes between residents, settlers, and soldiers. These days it is calm enough to visit though. An American woman from Christian Peacemaker Teams shows us around, telling us stories from the fought-over city.
The woman tells us stories about Orthodox kids who have harassed her and residents both verbally and physically. Nets are stretched above Hebron’s old city to protect the stall-holders from what settlers attempt to throw at them.
She tells us of families going away on holiday or on pilgrimage to Mecca and returning to find that Israeli settlers or soldiers have taken over their homes. Because of the robust Israeli legal system, complainants may win their court cases, but the result is that the apartments are confiscated as uninhabited military buffer zones. She explains how this process is ongoing, with settlers and military taking more and more of the Palestinians’ land and homes and doing more to make life almost unbearable. Her team even escorts Palestinian children to school to protect them. A string of IDF soldiers patrol lanes as we speak.
Eventually we get around to the wall, covered with art, graffiti, icons, symbols and websites. We are shown how the barrier separated people from their land, a university even from its property. The UN produced maps showing just how much land Israel took illegally for the project. Tens of thousands are “completely encircled by the wall, and over a hundred thousand more almost encircled, according to a UN report, cutting residents off from their land, health and education services, jobs, and markets within the West Bank. (Visit www.ochaopt.org for more information).
An Israeli cab
driver, oblivious of the ongoing expansion of settlements in the West Bank, explains how the wall was necessary for protection.
“We don’t want it [the West Bank], he tries to tell us. At the same time, we had driven by more than a few new settlements in the making – mobile homes which are immediately serviced with water and electricity. One large settlement we see atop a mountain in Bethlehem was built on what was once a natural reserve where families would go for picnics.
The cab driver believes Palestinians are acting irrationally out of emotion.
At another point on the trip I have the opportunity to visit a privileged Palestinian family living in an East Jerusalem suburb. Until now they have managed to hold on to their Jerusalem permits but if they return to their home in the West Bank, which they long to do, they will lose their access. The Israeli government has started cracking down on permit-holders who have gone to live in the West Bank. Through house checks and a bit of spying they can easily take away the permit, reducing the numbers of Palestinians in Jerusalem.
“We pay taxes just like they pay taxes, the couple complain.
We drive on a road which separates the Jewish neighborhood from the Arab one. It is visibly clear, though, where the government has spent its money. On the Arab side, garbage is not picked up, roads are not maintained, and there are no exits from the highway to take residents to their homes. They are upset that they cannot go back home while any person claiming to be Jewish from anywhere in the world can go and live wherever they please.
Visit Palestine. Unfortunately, it seems the only ones doing so are the ones visiting Israel.