Is Palestine beautiful for tourists

"You scare people"

Effects of the Israeli occupation on tourism in Palestine

Interview with Rafat Shomali, Christian Palestinian from Beit Sahour. He has been leading international tour groups through Bethlehem for over 15 years and is now the owner of the travel agency Peace by Piece.

The view of Israel / Palestine in the Federal Republic of Germany is shaped by the history of anti-Semitism and the extermination of the Jews. As a result, not only Germans, but also Palestinians and Jewish Israelis are repeatedly delegitimized whenever they criticize the Israeli occupation policy or discrimination against Palestinian Israelis, even if they refer to human rights and international law.

This has been particularly true of the BDS campaign in recent years. This calls for boycotts and sanctions against Israel until the country implements United Nations resolutions regarding a two-state settlement. The boycott demand is also directed against Israeli artists and cultural events financed from Israeli state funds.

The Bundestag, many state parliaments and city councils have decided that BDS is anti-Semitic and should not be supported with public funds, rooms, etc. As a result, events on the subject of Palestine / Israel often have to be canceled because rooms that have already been promised are withdrawn - for fear of landlords of losing public financial support or of being criticized.

At the same time, Israel has been implementing military and administrative measures against the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip for over 50 years, the effects of which are comparable to a comprehensive boycott and sanctions. However, this does not lead to a corresponding exclusion in Germany.

With a series of interviews we address the effects of corresponding Israeli politics in various areas, most recently on the Palestinian economy (it's been about annexation for a long time) and art and culture (the whole odyssey is absurd).

Bethlehem is a central place for Christian people from all over the world, which many also visit. What does this tourism mean for Bethlehem?

Rafat Shomali: Economically speaking, tourism is the main source of income for us in Bethlehem and Beit Sahour. Also for the many local businesses that supply the souvenir shops. In Beit Sahour in particular, we often receive community groups who want to stay with Palestinian host families. And for them that is a helpful additional income.

Tourism is also mainly seen globally through this economic lens. But for us it is more. Tourism also enables us to be heard for our concerns. We live under Israeli military occupation and we are often portrayed in the international media in a very one-sided way. That is why tourism is also an opportunity for us to convey our point of view directly.

Do you see any effects of the Israeli occupation on the number of tourists in Bethlehem?

Rafat Shomali: The airport and our border crossings, including those towards Jordan, are under Israeli control. So when the people arrive, they are asked why they are visiting, and they should actually say that they want to visit places in Israel. Because if they say they want to go to Palestine, they could run into problems. Many were turned away at the border for the simple reason that they wanted to come to us. But a lot of people don't want to lie and say that they want to work through a Palestinian travel agency to Bethlehem and maybe even volunteer. This is followed by at least a thorough questioning, often an investigation, and for many this is a deterrent.

Then when you come to a Palestinian city, you will see the big red Israeli signs saying it is dangerous to come to us. So when you’re here for the first time and you don’t know much, you’re scared. Generally they dehumanize us and intimidate people.

In general, we see a decline in overnight stays by tourists. In this context, we are therefore dependent on guests who come more than once. Because most of them spend only two or three hours in Bethlehem on their first visit, if they come with an Israeli agency. You walk through the Church of the Nativity, maybe see one of the souvenir shops and drive away again. In other words, a tourist costs us more than we earn from him. They use our infrastructure but don't spend any money.

Many such groups come. They also ask to meet Palestinian Christians or to pray with a local community. Even if they are only here for a short time, they notice that we are friendly people and that many of them want to come back for a longer stay. For example, I look after a Baptist group. You were here for the third time recently and most recently worked on the Tent of Nations. It's a slow process, but people are changing their perspective.

"Israel uses its control of the water against us"

Are there any effects of the Israeli occupation on the tourist infrastructure in general?

Rafat Shomali: Yes, but they affect us all. Access to water, for example. If someone wants to build a new hotel, that has to be taken into account. The amount of our water allocations from Israel is the same as it was 15 years ago, although the population has grown. So we have to buy our own water, the water under our feet, from Israel. An upper limit was set for this in the Oslo Agreement. So often nothing comes out of the line. This applies to everyone in Palestine and of course to those who visit us.

The Israeli settlement of Har Homa, next door, built on the land of Beit Sahour, has unlimited access to water. We are not. Israel is using its control of the water against us.

I suppose most pilgrims want to visit several Christian places, in Israel and in Palestine. How do you organize that?

Rafat Shomali: Yes, the groups also want to go to Nazareth and Tiberias, for which we have to use Israeli buses. That's why we coordinate this with Israeli travel agencies. But we urge them to stay in Christian hotels and pensions to support the Christian economy. The same is true of Jerusalem, where we Palestinians have to deal with many difficulties.

That said, every tour group means a battle for resources, right? The more time a group spends with the other agency, the less they are with you.

Rafat Shomali: But it's not just about money. It is also about conveying what is commonly called the "Middle East conflict". Many Israeli tour guides don't even mention us, we don't exist for them. And many guests don't know much about us anyway, especially the groups from the USA. They come, they go, they see the wall when they come to Bethlehem. An Israeli tour guide simply ignores that.

One thing is certain, every tourist visits the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. In 2002 my father told me about the siege of Bethlehem that was taking place at the time. People were locked in the church for 40 days and under fire by the Israeli army. This experience ultimately led my parents to leave the country for Canada. They didn't feel safe here anymore. It's part of our story too. We live under a brutal military occupation and that should not be kept secret by the tour guides.

"For me, Bethlehem is not a mystical place. We have been living here for 2000 years"

And what do you do when you accompany your groups to the Israeli side?

Rafat Shomali: I have had my license as a tour guide since 2007, but have never received the Israeli permit to escort to Jerusalem and so on. An appendix to the Oslo Accords of 1994 states that only 42 Palestinian travel guides should receive this permit. The agreement was actually only intended for a short time and was originally intended to result in a final status agreement from 1999. But that never happened, and the Israelis continue to hold permits for only 42 Palestinian guides. A few have since passed away and after some back and forth they agreed to transfer these permits to new colleagues.

We have asked the Palestinian Authority to react and also limit the number of Israeli guides here. At the Church of the Nativity, you will see many Israeli buses with Israeli guides. They're taking our business away from us. If that is possible, they should at least let us on the other side as well.

What are your options for enforcing these demands?

Rafat Shomali: We had an agreement like this before, for about ten years. But that was stopped in 2010. At that time, Israeli coaches were not allowed to come to us. So when a tour group arrived at the Israeli checkpoint at the entrance to Bethlehem, they got off the bus and walked to the other side. A Palestinian tour guide picked her up and brought her to her destination.

So they walked through the checkpoint and noticed it, even if that is only a small sample of what Palestinian workers go through every day on their way to Israel. And of course they used Palestinian buses and support the local economy. These companies went bankrupt after 2010, of course. But before that we all had work. Tour groups all day long.

Why was this agreement stopped?

Rafat Shomali: I dont know. Maybe it was a political deal, maybe they just made it. At the same time, Israel says that visiting Israeli citizens in Palestinian cities is too dangerous. Apparently this does not apply to Israeli tour guides.

German tourists have already told me about the scare tactics and the one-sided portrayal of the Palestinian side by the Israeli travel agencies.

Rafat Shomali: Yes, the way many tourists see us really annoys me. Many Americans come and ask me when I converted to Christianity. My answer is that you should read the Bible, it says when we converted. You think we're new to it.

The best we can do as Palestinian tour guides is to connect Jesus, the country and the people. The biblical shepherd's field that we then visit once belonged to my family a long time ago. We used to hang out there as teenagers. And people don't just want to hear stories about dead stones, they want to know something about the living, the local Christian community that lives here to this day.

The area is of great importance to Muslims, Jews and Christians. Many are therefore convinced that the basic problem with Israel and Palestine is religious in nature.

Rafat Shomali: This is how you get it explained by the Israeli tour guides. Our problem is not religion, but the occupation. In 1948 they drove people away in trucks. The idea is still the same today, only the means are different. They make life so difficult for us that we can go by ourselves. But Israeli tour guides don't talk about that, nor is it part of their lives.

Some tourists call themselves pilgrims. They want to visit the places where Jesus was. But for me Bethlehem is not a mystical place. We have lived here for 2000 years. (Peter Schäfer)

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