Palestinian 'justice tourism' in East Jerusalem turns Israeli occupation into exhibition

"Justice tourism" turns Israel's occupation into exhibition
5 min read
18 August, 2023

Tourism in Jerusalem is intertwined with Israel's occupation. However, while Israel's Ministry of Tourism officially governs Jerusalem's tourism industry, there's a new, rising movement of alternative tourism initiated by Palestinian activists and guides who aim to counter the Israeli perspective. This type of tourism is known as justice tourism, political tourism, or alternative tourism.

Osama Resheq, a legal supervisor at Al-Quds University and a proponent of alternative tourism, explains the goal of the movement is to “turn the Israeli occupation into an exhibition”. Since the tourism sector in Israel is heavily regulated and only presents one side of the conflict, it is up to Palestinians in Jerusalem to share their own perspective and narrative.

Osama's tours reflect his experience as a Palestinian living under occupation. "I show the colonial features of Jerusalem and how Israel restricts our movement," he added. 

"In 1972, East Jerusalem – mainly Palestinian – had 34 hotels while West Jerusalem – mainly Israeli – had 23. Over time, the division of hotels changed. Now East Jerusalem only has 133 rooms, compared with over 10,000 in West Jerusalem"

The attendees of Osama's tours are often international academics or activists that are interested to know more about Palestine. 

The Israeli occupation controls the tourism sector in Jerusalem. Foreign tourists typically arrive through Israeli-run agencies that direct them to Israeli-owned hotels and markets. 

In 1972, East Jerusalem – mainly Palestinian – had 34 hotels while West Jerusalem – mainly Israeli – had 23. Over time, the division of hotels changed. Now East Jerusalem only has 133 rooms, compared with over 10,000 in West Jerusalem. 

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The Israeli Ministry of Tourism's website provides a comprehensive list of over 6,800 certified tourist guides, including both Israelis and Palestinians. To obtain certification, these guides are required to undergo a two-year study of Jerusalem's history at Israeli universities and institutes.

Abdullah Salameh is among these certified guides. Abdullah told The New Arab that the majority of tours are typically organised by Israeli tour operators. "Tourists who come from Israeli agencies have a pre-arranged plan and the tour route cannot be altered by the guide," Abdullah explained. 

British graffiti artist Banksy's 'Walled Off Hotel' in Bethlehem encourages tourists to confront Israel's occupation head on
British graffiti artist Banksy's 'Walled Off Hotel' in Bethlehem encourages tourists to confront Israel's occupation [Getty Images]

As a result, Abdullah often partners with Palestinian tour operators to highlight Christian sites in Jerusalem. This is particularly important to him as a Christian with in-depth knowledge of Christianity and its historical significance in the city.

According to Abdullah, Israeli tourism agencies are required to hire Palestinian tourist guides for cities under the control of the Palestinian Authority, such as Bethlehem, which is a top destination for Christian tourists.

However, these Palestinian guides who offer alternative tourism experiences are not officially certified and may face scrutiny and apprehension by Israeli police. To avoid any issues, they often claim to be spending time with friends without accepting payment for their services.

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Osama argues that the Israeli schools where the certified tourist guides receive education follow curriculums that present a biased, one-sided narrative, often centred around biblical content. He also points out that alternative tourist guides are remunerated with lower wages compared to their certified counterparts, “but this doesn't matter, because our goal is to raise awareness about the Palestinian cause, not anything else.”

One of the leading organisations of alternative tourism in Jerusalem is Grass Roots in Jerusalem. Administrative and Financial Manager Yazan Jawad says the organisation aims to give an accurate narrative about the history of Jerusalem and Israel's occupation. 

"Besides our political tours of Jerusalem, we provide maps and infographics about the history of Jerusalem as an Arab city, and how Israel attempts to erase this. Even if you ask Google to lead you downtown in Jerusalem, they will take you to Jaffa Street in West Jerusalem, not East Jerusalem's Old City – the real centre."

In November 2018, Human Rights Watch reported on the violations of Airbnb and, popular housing and hotel reservation websites. They were found to list apartments located in illegal Israeli settlements.

“The business activity that Airbnb and conduct helps make West Bank settlements more profitable and therefore sustainable, thus facilitating Israel’s unlawful transfer of its citizens to the settlements,” the report stated. 

In 2018, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released a report highlighting tourism-related activities “ensure the sustainability of residential settlement communities” and “contribute to the profitability of the settlements”.

According to Amnesty, Israel's strategy of establishing a tourism industry centred on settlements coincides with a surge in visitor numbers experienced by the country. In 2018, Israel recorded a historic total of over four million visitors.

“Israel has constructed many of its settlements close to archaeological sites to make the link between the modern State of Israel and its Jewish history explicit. At the same time, Israel downplays or ignores the significance of non-Jewish periods at archaeological and historic sites,” Amnesty reported. 

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In 2021, the Lifta Boutique Hotel was inaugurated in the Palestinian village of Lifta, situated in Jerusalem. The village had its Palestinian presence erasure in the 1948 Nakba when the town was ethnically cleansed. However, On the hotel's website, they described the location as “an abandoned village”. 

Despite the rising of alternative tourism in Jerusalem as pro-Palestinian tourism, it still has many challenges. "We're just individuals who are working against the system. We aim to expose the occupation for what it is," Osama explained.

Yet Osama remains optimistic that the tours he and his colleagues can create a positive change among visitors: “The more tours we make, the more people are informed. We hope they will become ambassadors for the Palestinian cause when they return home."  

Abeer Ayyoub is a freelance journalist based in Amman

Follow her on Twitter: @abeerayyoub