Palestine's Tourism and Archeology Under Israel's Colonial Occupation
Palestine's Tourism and Archeology Under Israel's Colonial Occupation
On 20 June 2014: the World Heritage Committee began the examination of 36 sites nominated for inclusion on the World Heritage List. The first property discussed was "Palestine: Land of olives and vines, Cultural Landscape of Southern Jerusalem, Battir" and it was submitted by Palestine as an emergency nomination.
Being the oldest religious tourist attraction in the world is an integral part of Palestine's history, cultural heritage, and social fabric. It is a source of national pride. Palestine's tourism and archeological heritage make it one of the top tourist destinations. This asset could be significantly improved through regional cooperation with Egypt and Jordan to Cyprus, Greece, and Turkey. However, Palestine's tremendous potential has been hindered due to western colonialism, the Nakba, the 1967 occupation, and all of Israel's colonial policies that aim to alter Palestine's identity by imposing a system of Jewish supremacy throughout the land of historic Palestine. Israel's monopoly over tourism and archeology, including by controlling the narrative and access, has been key to Israeli efforts to consolidate its ongoing colonial occupation, annexation, and apartheid, thus perpetuating the denial of the rights of the people of Palestine.
Due to Palestine's strategic location, its archeological and touristic riches are unique. Palestine sits in the Mediterranean Levant and connects three continents (Europe, Asia, and Africa); and was a passageway from the East to Egypt and from Egypt to Syria and Turkey. Palestine's religious importance to the monotheistic religions has also made it a popular destination for centuries for people from Asia, Africa, and Europe. One of history's most prominent examples of religious pilgrimage are the sites located in the path of the Holy Family's journey from Palestine to Egypt.
Due to this importance and alleged “religious” interests, during the XIX Century, certain colonial powers sought to establish a presence in Palestine, including through the opening of consulates in Jerusalem, Jaffa, and Haifa. Thus, the centrality of Palestine for Christianity served as an excuse for several colonial powers to establish missions in the country, including religious legations. Additionally, specific Protestant missions imported "Christian Zionism" to the country.
Also, during the XIX Century, British and French explorers provided some of the most comprehensive surveys of Palestine, including through the Palestine Exploration Fund. By describing a vibrant society with institutions and infrastructure to receive pilgrims and tourists from abroad, Victor Guerin's "Geographical, Historical, and Archeological Description of Palestine" (1868) represents Palestine's importance, dispelling the false notion of "land without a people for a people without a land."
As a result of the Nakba and the closure of the main entry points into Palestine, including the Jaffa and Haifa ports and the al-Lydd Airport, most Palestinian businesspeople left the country, relocating mainly to Lebanon and Jordan, where they successfully developed various economic activities, including tourism.
Jerusalem (East) was the only touristic area developed after 1948, with dozens of hotels that served not only western pilgrims but also pilgrims from Arab and Muslim countries. As a result, several Arab consulates were established, including Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon. In 1967, the occupying Power, Israel, expelled the Arab diplomats, and the Palestinian touristic development ended.
The Peace Process
Many Palestinians had high hopes for what tourism could offer following the start of the peace process. An example is the approval of the Bethlehem 2000 project, endorsed by UN resolution 53/27 of 1998, which aimed at preparing Palestine to host millions of tourists for the millennium celebration that was prevented by the Israeli aggression that took place after the collapse of the peace process in 2000.
- "Tourist buses or any other form of tourist transport authorized by either side, and operated by companies registered and licensed by it, will be allowed to enter and proceed on their tour within the area under the jurisdiction of the other side, provided that such buses or other vehicles conform with the EEC technical specifications [I. currently adopted.] All such vehicles will be clearly marked as tourist vehicles."
- "Each side will license, according to its own rules and regulations, travel agents, tour companies, tour guides, and other tourism businesses (hereinafter - tourism entities) within its jurisdiction."
While the interim agreements were supposed to be replaced by a final status agreement after five years from the date of the "Declaration of Principles" agreement (which was due by 4 May 1999), they continue to serve as the main principle of Palestinian engagement with Israel regarding tourism.
The Palestinian Ministry of Tourism is currently working on returning the tourism situation to what it was before the COVID-19 emergency was declared, including restoring permits to about 50 tour guides and tour operators.
Palestine's Presence in International Organizations
Palestine became a full UNESCO member on 31 October 2011. Since then, three sites have been inscribed as World Heritage Sites: The Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route in Bethlehem, Battir inscribed as "Land of Olives and Vines — Cultural Landscape of Southern Jerusalem," as well as Hebron's Old City (including the Ibrahimi Mosque). Jordan registered the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls in 1982.
Part of Palestine's agenda in the UNESCO is to protect its cultural heritage as an integral part of Palestine's national identity. The UN system is also taking other initiatives towards the same objective, including protecting natural resources.
Control of Tourism is an Indication of Israeli Control of Palestinian Lives
Without Palestinian control over its border crossings, airspace, and eventually maritime borders, the Palestinian economy will not be able to develop to its full potential, let alone tourism. These are fundamental requirements for an independent state. However, Israel has no intention of even discussing these issues.
Due to its control over all of historic Palestine, Israel is comfortable with the current state of tourism:
- Several parties, including representatives of the international community, have reduced the issue of tourism in Palestine to an economic matter rather than a central element of Palestine's identity.
- Through its tight control, Israel prohibits foreigners from accessing the culture and people of Palestine. This includes imposing heavy ideological tests on tour guides that negate the Arab, Christian, and Muslim identities of Palestine.
- Palestinian sites are promoted as part of Israel, not treated as independent tourist destinations, like the Old City of Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, and Bethlehem.
- Israel profits from sites that are part of Palestine's cultural and historical heritage while denying the Palestinian narrative and preventing Palestine from becoming an independent tourist destination.
Using Tourism to Normalize the Occupation
Israel uses several formulas to normalize its ongoing annexation process through tourism. From a marketing perspective, a systematic process has taken place since 1948 to transform Palestine merely into the "Holy Land" and then as "Israel." The international community has largely ignored this process, including numerous bilateral tourism agreements Israel has signed with some countries that ignore Palestine, Palestinian rights, and the use of occupied Palestinian sites by Israeli companies.
The international community can easily develop tourism-related guidelines based on the 1967 borders, including not advertising occupied Jerusalem and Bethlehem as part of Israel and discouraging tourists from staying in illegal settlements (for example, all settlements around Bethlehem have locations listed on Airbnb) while taking pro-active action with tour operators to prevent the contributing to Israel's colonial occupation.
According to economic figures, the current overall situation in occupied Palestine is as follows:
- Contribution to GDP:
By 2017 the contribution of tourism to GDP was a mere of 4%, significantly less than other economies in the region, such as Jordan (20%), Egypt (13%), and Lebanon (37%). In Israel, the contribution was 6%.
- Contribution to Employment:
Before COVID-19, the tourism sector accounted for merely 2% of employment. This is by far the lowest in our region, considering 8% in Israel, 19% in Jordan, 11% in Egypt, and 4% in Lebanon.
In the occupied West Bank alone, there are over 6,000 archeological sites. Israel does not prevent the trade of archeological artifacts, which has led to the looting of Palestinian archeological artifacts from occupied territory. At the same time, the Israeli occupation has prevented Palestinians from being able to develop and protect most of those sites, including with legislation, as it's the case in several countries in the region, including Egypt and Iraq. Recently, the Israeli occupation authorities have used the excuse of "looting" to make Israel's Antiquities Authority work in the occupied West Bank, which is a clear sign of Israel's ongoing annexation of occupied Palestinian territory.
This move did not come in a vacuum. Last November, Israeli Minister Ze'ev Elkin, a settler in one of the most important archeological areas of the occupied West Bank, east of Bethlehem, announced extra funding for heritage sites in the occupied Palestinian territory. Pressure from right-wing Zionist organizations, including from the "Shiloh Forum," presented reports urging the Israeli government to take action on archeological sites in the occupied West Bank, falsely accusing Palestinians of "destruction of antiquity sites associated with Jewish heritage". Due to such baseless claims, an Israeli parliament committee recommended the work of Israel Antiquities Authorities in the occupied West Bank, consistent with a strategy favored by Zionist extremists in Israel's government and opposition.
The past decade has witnessed increased attempts to use Palestinian archeological and religious sites for political purposes, including ongoing raids, attacks, and attempts at changing the historic Status Quo in Al Aqsa Mosque Compound in Jerusalem. The Israeli Antiquities Authority has its headquarters in occupied Jerusalem and already operates in the illegally annexed areas in and around the city. They have partnered with radical Zionist organizations such as Elad, involved in excavations in Silwan, which also participates in funding the Israeli Antiquities Authority.
The advancement of annexation through archeological and religious sites is integral to Israeli policies in occupied Palestine. It is turning vast areas into "nature reserves" part of such schemes, as was seen last May when around 22,000 dunums of land in the Jericho area were unilaterally turned into a "nature reserve," which effectively prevents Palestinian development, including planting trees. Approximately 7% of the occupied West Bank has been declared as "natural reserves" since 1967.
Israel's archeological policies in occupied Palestine are heavily ideological, from rewriting history to colonial expansion, all aimed at consolidating Israel's system of annexation and Jewish supremacy on both sides of the 1967 border.
A peace agreement with Israel requires the implementation of international conventions, relevant UN resolutions, and cooperation from the international community, including holding Israel accountable. This file presents tremendous potential for regional cooperation, which begins by honoring Palestine's rights, including exercising complete control over its touristic and archeological sites.
Palestine as an Independent Touristic Destination
It is imperative that Palestine, a country renowned for its archeological and touristic sites, is treated as an independent tourism destination. It should possess complete control over its archaeological and touristic attractions, as well as its border crossings and airports. Treating Palestine as a subcontractor of Israeli tourism is consistent with Israel's policy of normalizing its colonial occupation and perpetuating an apartheid regime that negates the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people. The success of cooperation depends on both parties being on an equal footing and respecting their rights and obligations under signed agreements and international law.
Palestine's historical proposals for a peace agreement with Israel are based on fulfilling Palestinian rights that will enable full cooperation. The current situation does not meet the minimum requirements per signed agreements. Instead of cooperating based on respect for its obligations, the Israeli government has continued on the path of the previous government, making it clear that Israeli control over Palestinian archeological and touristic sites is an integral part of Israel's state policy to deny Palestinians their inalienable right to self-determination.
Tourism and archeology are not just a core of Palestine's cultural heritage but its national identity. There are more factors involved here than just economic activity. Financial considerations should not override Palestine's national liberation strategy and its future as a free nation. Israel's attempts to eliminate the Palestinian narrative and monopolize the touristic and archeological sectors contradict the basic principles of the peace process, let alone their obligations under international humanitarian law.
Cooperation with regional parties is essential and should be conducted based on equality and respect for international law, with Palestine enjoying sovereign control over its sites within its borders and other fundamental enablers for tourism such as an international airport and border crossings.
Meanwhile, in the absence of a final status agreement and the end of Israel's colonial occupation, Palestine will continue to demand the full implementation of signed agreements and Israel's respect for its obligations under international law. This involves allowing freedom of movement (for Palestinian tour operators, guides, and buses), relations with other international parties, and returning all stolen archeological artifacts from Palestine.
Equally relevant should be Palestine's ability to engage regionally to gain experience and cooperate with and contribute to the development of other countries, particularly Egypt and Jordan. Such relations shall not be subjected to relations with Israel or any conditions imposed by the occupying Power. They should include developing sites and services and encouraging Arab pilgrimage, Christian and Muslim, to Palestine.
 It refers to the five years that the agreements were supposed to last before a final solution was reached.
 The term “Holy Land” or “Terra Sancta” has been used for centuries and it is also used in Palestine. The reference here deals with the attempts at replacing the term Palestine. The use of “Palestine, the Holy Land” is part of Palestine’s efforts to revert this situation.
 The official number from the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities is 6,963 archeological sites, including in Gaza.