By Julie Holm for MIFTAH
Every year Palestine is visited by thousands of foreigners. Unlike conventional tourist spots, however, most of the foreigners coming here have an agenda that is more about work and politics than sunbathing and shopping. For the past couple of years, however, the number of people traveling to Palestine just to experience the country, the culture and the conflict up close has increased. Last week I got to experience what it is like to be a tourist in Palestine as I acted as a tour guide for my family who came to visit me.
Coming to Palestine on some sort of business is one thing, but coming here for “pleasure” especially takes a certain interest in the area. It is not a place you go just because you found a good deal online. Here for business or pleasure, foreigners have very different interests, backgrounds and reasons for coming. In Ramallah, I meet people who are here to work, find work, volunteer, visiting friends or family or just to experience living in Palestine for a while. They are here on work visas or tourist visas, traveling in and out every three months. Some stay for a week or a couple of months, some stay a year and others stay forever.
Whatever the reasons are for visiting Palestine, and whatever the visitors know from before, the fact that they come here to experience the situation and see the occupation with their own eyes, has great significance on how the occupation is perceived outside of Palestine and outside academic and organizational circles working with the issue. One thing is reading about the conflict in the newspaper or hearing about it on the news. Far too little news about Palestine and the occupation reaches western viewers. Only big events like Palestine going to the UN or the more recent prisoner swap reaches television screens and newspapers viewed by people in other places in the world; unfortunately, the burning of mosques, destruction of olive trees and settler violence most often does not.
Going through the check point coming from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, my family and I got caught in a long line of cars and buses trying to pass. In front of us, however, the line was held up by two men trying to pass the check point on a motorcycle. A group of four to five Israeli soldiers stopped them and asked them questions while they openly joked among themselves. They started yelling and kicking the motorcycle and finally, when the two men turned around to go back, one of the soldiers grabbed on to the man sitting on the back of the motorcycle and hit him several times before returning to his friends laughing. This was when, I think, my parents really understood the realities of the occupation. And even though I don’t wish for anyone to experience something like that, it makes all the difference in the world to see it with your own eyes.
I brought my family on a tour to Hebron, and the tour guide told us that he would show us the realities without trying to convince us to be “pro” one or the other. But the realities spoke for themselves. Even though facts can be manipulated, it is not hard to see who is the occupier and who is the occupied. Here we saw how old Palestinian women climb out of windows and down ladders at the back of their houses to avoid having to go through checkpoints; how Israeli settlers living above Hebron’s old city throw garbage and dirty water on Palestinians walking by underneath, their children playing with BB guns, aimed at these same Palestinians, while Israeli soldiers watched and just let it happen.
After this experience, and after talking to Palestinians and seeing what life is really like in the West Bank, my family will, as many others have before them, go home and tell people they meet about the situation. When you have experienced the situation first hand you get a very different and much stronger impression of what many Palestinians have to go through every day. That is why it is great to see that the number of tourists in Palestine is increasing.
It is easy to sit in the comfort of your home, watching the (often one-sided) news and make up your mind about this very complicated conflict. Experiencing the uncomfortable situation at checkpoints, visiting settlements and refugee camps and seeing the separation wall with your own eyes gives it a very different perspective altogether.
Julie Holm is a Writer for the Media and Information Department at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy