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David Wilson

Destination West Bank

Palestinians are trying to profit from Holy Land tourism. But they face formidable challenges.

By David Wilson

The military checkpoint near the Jewish settlement of Ariel seemed like countless others we had passed through in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. A pair of young soldiers in full battle dress boarded our bus and asked to see the precious papers that permitted our Palestinian driver and guide to travel in and out of Israel. Then the soldiers slowly made their way down the aisle, checking passports and giving us the once-over.

Outside, the soldiers conferred briefly with an armed man in civilian clothes and an older woman in uniform before speaking again to our guide, Wisam. He clicked on the scratchy intercom and grimly announced that this checkpoint would be anything but routine. “Okay, you have to get off the bus and take everything with you, your cameras, suitcases — everything.”

Soldiers herded us to a nearby inspection building and told us to line up outside in the hot sun. One by one, we fed our belongings into an X-ray machine and passed through an airport-style metal detector. On the other side, inspectors politely asked us to open our bags and grilled us about our jobs, where we live, even the books we were reading.

Ninety minutes later, we were back on the bus, all except for Wisam. Despite his permit, the Israeli officials decided to deny him passage through the checkpoint. They wouldn’t say why. Without Wisam, we couldn’t continue our journey north to Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee. So we drove on to the next exit and turned around. Wisam was waiting for us near the checkpoint on the southbound shoulder. He boarded the bus and once again switched on the intercom. “This is occupation,” he declared, his voice shaking with rage. “This is humiliation and harassment.”

Former British prime minister and Mideast peace envoy Tony Blair likely did not have incidents like this one in mind when he asserted last summer that the occupied West Bank — the hodgepodge of Palestinian territories west of the Jordan River and occupied by Israel since 1967 — is ripe for a surge in Holy Land tourism. And it’s certainly not the kind of incident the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and the U.S. government anticipated when they co-sponsored 15 religion and travel writers on a tour of holy sites in the West Bank last summer. (I was the sole Canadian in the group.) Yet being detained, searched, interrogated and turned back at the checkpoint was as authentic a Palestinian experience as one could imagine — and a sobering reality check for our hosts.

Beset by enormous economic challenges including 40 percent unemployment, the Palestinian Authority looks at the $2.7 billion a year (2008 figures) Israel earns from tourism and sees opportunity. Many Holy Land pilgrimage sites — Bethlehem, Jericho and Nazareth, to name three — are in or adjacent to occupied Palestinian territory. The problem is that most pilgrims shuttle in and out on Israeli tour buses and don’t spend the night in Palestinian-owned hotels, eat in Palestinian restaurants or buy things in Palestinian shops.

Bethlehem is a prime example. Every day, more than 5,000 pilgrims visit the city where Jesus was born, yet by sunset almost all of them have left. The five-star Intercontinental Jacir Palace Hotel, with its infinity pool, sumptuous lobby and room rates as low as $40 a night for groups, is ready for customers but few check in.

The Palestinians believe they can boost tourism if they can dispel the notion that Palestine is dangerous. One balmy night over dinner in a tent near Bethlehem, Dr. Khouloud Daibes, the Palestinian minister of tourism, pleads with us, “Please, tell the world that Palestine is safe.”

She means the West Bank, not Hamas-controlled Gaza on the Mediterranean coast. Since the end of the Second Intifada in 2006, the crime rate in the West Bank has plummeted, partly because the Palestinian Authority has strengthened law enforcement and partly because political violence has subsided, despite lingering and palpable hostility between Palestinians, Jewish settlers and the Israeli occupying forces. In formerly strife-torn Palestinian cities such as Nablus and Hebron, it’s possible to spend the day visiting religious sites and marketplaces, then take a leisurely after-dinner stroll without having to exercise anything more than common sense.

Safe? Yes. Hassle-free? Not so long as Israel continues to restrict the movement of Palestinian people, goods and services. Our detainment at the Ariel checkpoint was a mild inconvenience compared to the ordeal Palestinians face every day. Nevertheless, it turned what should have been an easy one-hour drive from Nablus to Nazareth into a circuitous detour through the desert — and played havoc with a tight schedule.

Modern travellers, especially pilgrims on the kind of mass-market package tours the Palestinians envision, tend to dislike surprises. What happened at Ariel demonstrated very clearly that Palestinian tour operators cannot guarantee their customers a smooth ride, not yet anyway. Was that the message the Israelis were trying to put across? Only the officials who detained us know for sure, and they weren’t saying.

Until Palestinians win the right to move freely from place to place, it is hard to imagine Palestinian tour operators competing with the well-oiled Israeli tourism machine. At the moment, it’s easier to imagine Palestinians marketing the West Bank to travellers who want their encounter with the Holy Land to include contact with political reality.

That’s essentially what the Palestinians already offer. A Palestinian-led visit to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem includes a lengthy description of the 39-day siege of the building by Israeli forces in 2002. In Hebron, you’ll see where Abraham is believed to be buried, but you’ll also be shown the open-air market where a mesh roof had to be installed because ultra-Orthodox Jewish settlers were hurling things at Palestinians below. In the village of Taybeh, near Ramallah, you’ll visit the only brewery in the Middle East, then be taken outside and shown an illegal Jewish settlement taking shape on a hilltop nearby.  

This highly polarized view of the Holy Land will not suit everyone. But it will resonate with the global movement that stands in solidarity with the Palestinians.

A campaign that markets Palestine as it is right now has a good chance of attracting a different kind of pilgrim to the region — the traveller who takes equal pleasure in visiting Christian shrines and listening to muezzins calling the Muslim faithful to prayer; who is nourished by getting to know the people who run a rustic country restaurant as well as the delicacies they prepare; or who may be detained at a checkpoint and chalks it up to experiencing the realities of the Holy Land today. 

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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