GALEA: Political tourism challenges Palestinian tolerance 30Nov13 November 30, 2013


by Samuela Galea   -   Palestine Monitor   -   30 November 2013

“Hebron – the ultimate family experience in Israel: Isn’t it about time you took your children to visit your great-grandparents in Hebron?” Such is the concise, convenient way in which Jewish tourism companies advertise their tours of Hebron – one of the oldest continuously lived in cities in the world. Considering the fact that Hebron is of sacred value to Muslims, Jews and Christians alike, the above statement would seem like an innocent suggestion but for the shocking reality lived outside of the ‘bullet-proof’ tourist buses bringing Israelis, as well as foreign Jews and other internationals, to the site. 

Palestinian children run around the small streets of Hebron sharing pumpkin seeds and playing games on a simple Saturday afternoon until they are forced to stop and pause – a passing procession of neatly dressed  tourists , passes by them, flanked and bordered by armed bodyguards. These are not just any bodyguards, they are fully equipped Israeli soldiers who seem almost too young for their uniforms and the large, complex automatic guns they carry… who seem almost out of place geared up for battle in the middle of a market. A small car decorated with flowers and ribbons for the bride and groom tries to make its way to a wedding, followed and preceded by enthusiastic family members, but as they turn a corner and face the touring party, the smile and joy vanishes from their faces. Their song becomes dead silence as the soldiers push them back, slowly yet decisively, forcing them to turn around. One can immediately feel the heaviness and discord in the atmosphere between Palestinian civilians going about their daily lives and the uncomfortable, threatening presence of the Israeli army. It is ironic and clear that those providing ‘bullet-proof’ buses are indeed of the same nation causing the very need for such vehicles in the first place.

Yet all this is of course of no direct consequence to a family on holiday. The life and truth around them is drowned out and forgotten whilst the Rabbi tour-guide passionately explains and demonstrates crucial parts of this old city to his attentive listeners.

The community of about 200,000 Palestinians in Hebron has, in its midst, the settlements of Avraham Avinu and Beit Romano, homes to around 700 Settlers. After an agreement concluded in 1997 between the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Israel, Hebron was divided in two, and these settlements as well as central parts of the old city fell under Israeli control. As a result, numerous businesses were closed down, and many Palestinian families were forced to leave their homes and move to refugee camps in the areas surrounding the district of the Hebron, thus reducing the once lively,city center to a “ghost town,” as described by B’Tselem’s 2007 report on the situation. The report includes various resident testimonies and explains Hebron’s situation in detail, highlighting that though the international community considers the settlements to be illegal, nothing seems to be done about their existence and constant enlargement. Over the past years, the situation has not changed; last October saw Minister Uri Ariel announcing plans of doubling the Settler homes in Hebron.

All the while, Jewish solidarity movements are encouraged to provide assistance to the settlers in Hebron, who continue to be considered a heroic Jewish stronghold within the city. During last Saturday’s tour, members of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) followed the Settlers and soldiers, as they do each week, in order to document any incidents. Representatives of the Programme spoke to the Palestine Monitor about the nature of these tours, explaining that the Israeli authorities’ “main aim is to maintain a presence in the old city.”. Political tours are thus added to the long list of maintaining a presence-activities, which constantly restrict the rights and freedoms of Palestinian residents, testing their patience and tolerance in such extreme ways that would leave them no other option but to abandon their homes. The International Solidarity Movement quoted Palestinian residents earlier this year saying that Israeli forces and settlers disrupt and invade their lives as inconveniently as possible, in an attempt to drive them away, whilst incidents of violence and harassment never cease to be reported – one such case being that of a Palestinian child who was beaten unconscious by soldiers at a military roadblock in the city last October.

A representative for B’Tselem taking photos of the tour and also a resident in Hebron spoke to the Palestine Monitor, pointing out the division of streets close to the Ibrahimi Mosque – one part is for Palestinians to walk through, the other for Israeli and International citizens. “Palestinians living here need a special permit to cross through this area, otherwise they must make a whole turn to get to the other side… I have seen Israeli police grabbing and beating children, claiming that they have thrown stones or tried to cross the fence. These children are beaten up so badly that they end up having to go to hospital.”

Looking up from the ground level tour at hand, one can see the faces of Palestinian children and mothers peering cautiously onto the road from small windows above. Every so often, Israeli soldiers appear on Palestinian rooftops, acting as protective sentinels for the settlers. The fences above the market – installed to protect the Palestinians walking in the street from the rubbish and sewage often poured onto them by the settlers –  are a further reminder of the intensity of the situation that residents tolerate day by day.

Not only is the Israeli occupation of the city visible and felt everywhere by the closed shops, the abandoned homes, the absent residents driven out in past years, the subjection to settlers’ and soldier’s violence – it is further emphasized and enforced by these weekly tours which corrupt the original ancient and lively significance of the city as though it were, along with its inhabitants, only an attraction or object of wonder, an exotic zoo of the living and the stone. The dignity of Palestinian residents in Hebron is already wounded and humiliated enough, but the tour every Saturday adds a punctuated time and place to their suffering. “I am afraid of the soldiers,” explained a young teenager who had been on his way to a friend’s house but was then blocked by the tour. He lagged behind as he spoke to the Palestine Monitor, “They do not like us, I dare not go any further.”

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