'(Don't) Visit Palestine': Why Palestinians are calling for a tourism boycott of Israel's occupation
After two years of pandemic restrictions, Palestine has seen a revival of tourism. In 2022, more than 700,000 tourists from around the world are estimated to have visited the occupied Palestinian territory.
Whether hoping to reach East Jerusalem, the West Bank, or Gaza Strip, all tourists must go through strict Israeli airport checks or military checkpoints as an inevitable step, with Israel controlling all entry and exit points, including with Egypt and Jordan.
"Whether hoping to reach East Jerusalem, the West Bank, or Gaza Strip, all tourists must go through strict Israeli airport checks or military checkpoints as an inevitable step"
Some view the growing number of Arabs and Muslims arriving in the occupied Palestinian territory as a positive thing, believing that these visitors will contribute to the economy and that seeing the reality of the occupation in person may make them more zealous advocates for the Palestinian cause.
However, more and more Palestinians, many of whom remain in exile and are unable to return to their homeland, have voiced their concerns and scepticism at the growing tourism industry and its implications.
For some Palestinians, the tourism industry is complicit in Israel’s attempts to erase Palestine from the map while appropriating its culture and normalising the illegal occupation and state violence.
For Neda, a 21-year-old Palestinian who grew up in Jordan, which hosts more than two million Palestinian refugees, the visa restrictions imposed upon her by Israel make her dream of going back to her homeland unreachable.
“As Palestinian refugees who are unable to go to our homeland, when we see people from other nationalities going, it feels like a stab in the back, as we cannot return,” she told The New Arab.
“Therefore, out of respect for our wishes, we do not endorse tourism to Palestine or in any settler-colonial case.”
According to her, refraining from visiting Israel and Palestine falls under the larger call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israeli apartheid practices made by Palestinian civil society.
“Boycott includes not going to Palestine, as it necessarily requires passing through Israel and thus, recognising that Israel is the sovereign authority over the land, which constitutes a form of legitimisation,” Neda explained.
As part of its military occupation, Israel has imposed severe restrictions on the movement of Palestinians within the occupied Palestinian territory, while denying the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians living in exile the right to return.
Even Palestinians in the diaspora who hold another passport are often denied entry by Israeli authorities due to their legal status and ethnicity.
Israel’s restrictions on entry even extend to those who are not Palestinian nationals but have expressed pro-Palestinian sentiments, support for BDS, or are outspokenly critical of Israel’s human rights record.
Activists, academics, and journalists are regularly questioned for hours by Israeli border authorities and denied entry for their views.
At the beginning of this year, Israel implemented even more draconian travel policies for both people of Palestinian origin and foreigners, further restricting visas to work, study or live in the West Bank.
"Even when tourists do visit Palestinian towns and cities, it is Israel that benefits economically"
According to Human Rights Watch, these policies aim to further isolate Palestinians by “weakening the social, cultural and intellectual ties that they have tried to maintain with the outside world”.
For Palestinian citizens of Gaza, the restrictions are even more severe. For those who hold Gazan papers, travel restrictions set by Israel make it almost impossible to leave the blockaded coastal enclave.
Even in extreme cases, such as medical emergencies, Gazans with severe health conditions are regularly denied the right to travel, and effectively handed a death sentence.
Hebh Jamal, a Palestinian activist living in Germany, is unable to visit her hometown of Jerusalem with her family, as her husband and son are from Gaza.
For Jamal, “every trip to Palestine should be intentional,” especially for Muslims who visit Jerusalem for religious purposes.
“Going to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage and tying it down solely to a spiritual significance depoliticises the whole struggle, which Israel loves,” she explained to The New Arab.
“Israel doesn’t have an issue with Muslims going to Al Aqsa, it has an issue with Muslims being political about going to Al Aqsa. And I think that a lot of the Muslim travel agencies are playing right through the Israeli propaganda.”
In recent years, many travel agencies across the Muslim world have started offering trips to East Jerusalem and the West Bank targeted towards Muslims, who are attracted by the pilgrimage packages they offer.
Nevertheless, many of these organised tourist packages do not even mention the name 'Palestine' in the descriptions of their trips, labelling them only as “Muslim pilgrimages in Israel”, while specifying the itinerary as Jerusalem, Bethlehem or Al-Khalil (Hebron).
Even when tourists do visit Palestinian towns and cities, it is Israel that benefits economically.
According to an estimate from former Palestinian Tourism Minister Kholoud Daibes, Israel collects 90% of pilgrim-related revenue. In fact, little of the tourism sector in East Jerusalem and the West Bank is owned by or employs Palestinians, with little direct benefit.
Permits to set up travel agencies, become a tour guide or build hotels all require plenty of bureaucratic authorisation from Israel, which is extremely difficult to get for Palestinians.
"Today, making an active choice not to visit has also emerged as a new form of resistance towards Israel's increasing attempts to use tourism to sanitise its occupation"
The exploitation of Palestinian land and people for the benefit of the Israeli tourism industry doesn’t stop there: in Bethlehem, for instance, Palestinian shop owners pay an average of 35% commission to Israeli tour operators to bring tourists to their stores, according to an official document of the Negotiations Affairs Department of the PLO released in 2017.
For Sara, a 20-year-old student living in occupied Nablus, the economic prospects of tourism simply do not justify the ethical concerns and implications.
“I have seen some activists come and look at us as if we were in a zoo. People nowadays don’t need to come to Palestine to know what is happening daily, and as our economy is tightly controlled and tied to the Zionist economy, it makes it impossible to support Palestinian businesses only,” she told The New Arab.
“Because tourists only shop in specific locations, they don’t make a real difference to our local economy,” Sara added.
In order to control the narrative around its occupation, Israel has focused efforts on promoting itself as a “liberal” and “progressive” nation and an attractive destination for tourists.
The ‘Brand Israel’ project that was launched in 2006 aimed precisely to normalise Israel’s occupation by hiring public relations firms, launching costly advertising campaigns in Europe, and offering American influencers – from actors to politicians and journalists – free trips.
In 2013, the Israeli Minister of Tourism even released a brochure in which Bethlehem was referred to as an “Israeli destination”.
Palestinians and activists say these efforts have served as propaganda to conceal the reality of Israel’s military occupation and violations of Palestinian human rights behind tourist hotspots.
The famous 'Visit Palestine' poster designed in 1936 by a Zionist artist has since become a symbol of resistance among Palestinians.
Today, making an active choice not to visit has also emerged as a new form of resistance towards Israel’s attempts to use tourism to sanitise its occupation.
“We, Palestinians aren’t suffering or dying because we are hungry or because we don’t make enough money: we are suffering because our resistance is always suppressed,” concluded Sara.
Sania Mahyou is a Belgian-Moroccan freelance journalist and a student at Sciences Po Paris. She writes about political struggles, culture and minority rights in the MENA region.
Follow her on Twitter: @MahyouSania