Visiting Palestine: Religious Pilgrimage from the Arab World
Visiting Palestine: Religious Pilgrimage from the Arab World
One of the primary drivers of Palestine's economy is religious tourism, which is deeply rooted in its cultural and religious heritage. For centuries, pilgrims from various faiths have visited Palestine to connect with their spiritual roots. Despite the enormous potential of religious tourism in Palestine, the industry has undergone significant changes since Palestine's Nakba of 1948, primarily due to the illegal policies of the Israeli occupation. These policies have resulted in the fragmentation of Palestine's land and the isolation of Palestinians in exile and the Arab world, leading to a shift in patterns of religious tourism. Aiming to shed light on the current situation of religious tourism in Palestine, this media brief sheds light on the current status of religious tourism in Palestine.
Pilgrimage to Palestine, the World's Oldest Pilgrimage Site
Palestine holds the distinction of being the world's oldest pilgrimage destination. Situated in the Levant and connecting three continents between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, Palestine has drawn millions of pilgrims since ancient times. In the 19th century, the tourism industry for Western pilgrimage to Palestine became more structured, and infrastructure was developed in various parts of the country, ranging from the port of Jaffa to Jerusalem. With the growth of the tourism industry and increased connectivity with the rest of the region, the number of Arab pilgrims also continued to rise, creating a thriving industry that lasted until the Israeli occupation in 1967.
Following the Nakba of 1948, Palestine lost several significant ports of contact with the rest of the world, including Al Lydd Airport and the seaports of Jaffa and Haifa. Additionally, train lines connecting Palestine with neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq were lost. Palestine's tourism industry survived the 1948-1967 period despite losing important pilgrimage sites such as Jaffa, Al Lydd, Nazareth, and Galilee. During this period, many hotel rooms were constructed in Jerusalem, and pilgrims arrived by taxis, buses, and daily flights from major Arab capitals through Jerusalem Airport. However, the Israeli occupation of 1967 ended these developments, and Arab pilgrimage, both Muslim and Christian, almost disappeared from Jerusalem and the rest of Palestine.
Severing Centuries-Old Ties
Following the signing of the Oslo Interim Agreement of 1993 between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel (Declaration of Principles), which established the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), the development of tourism was considered a critical component in building institutions for the State of Palestine. Article 28 of Annex III of the Interim Agreement, the Protocol Concerning Civil Affairs, clearly outlines that the PNA can issue visitor permits for individuals from countries that lack diplomatic relations with the occupying Power, Israel. These permits may be granted for three months up to one year, depending on the case and after clearance from the occupying Power, and could include investors, students, and others. This formula was meant to be used during the interim period of five years until a final agreement that grants freedom to Palestine was reached.
Israel continues to restrict travel to Palestine, even from countries with diplomatic relations with Israel, such as Egypt and Jordan. Citizens of these countries are not treated like those of other countries with diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv. Such restrictions are part of the Israeli occupation's efforts to isolate the land and people of Palestine from the rest of the world, not only by separating families but also by making it difficult for Palestine to connect with the Arab world. It is essential to note that Israel, as the occupying Power, does not have sovereign rights over any inch of the occupied territory of Palestine. Therefore, the international community must reject any attempts by the Israeli occupation to limit the contact of Palestine with the rest of the world.
The Occupying Power, Israel, Refuses to Implement the Interim Agreement
The Israeli occupation has been actively pursuing the annexation of Palestinian land, taking steps to undermine any sense of Palestinian sovereignty. Despite the Oslo Declaration of Principles being intended as a temporary five-year interim agreement, culminating in a final status agreement by May 1999, the reality is far from this vision. The arrangements put in place during this interim period for tourism, including the Paris Protocol that provided freedom of movement for tour guides, operators, and buses, were intended to create an independent industry in the context of a free State of Palestine. However, the Israeli occupation has disregarded its obligations under international law and UN resolutions, and the interim agreements themselves, leaving no framework for Israeli-Palestinian relations on issues such as tourism and archaeology other than the interests of Zionist institutions that often coordinate with Israeli settlers.
According to the agreements made with Israel, the Palestinian National Authority was empowered to issue visitor permits allowing tourists to visit areas of the Palestinian territory under Palestinian authority control. This meant, for instance, that a Jordanian citizen could spend Christmas in Bethlehem by obtaining a Palestinian permit. It also held the potential to revive Muslim pilgrimage routes, which held significant importance in Palestine as starting or ending points for the Hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca. Unfortunately, these possibilities were blocked by the occupying Power.
An Annexation-Driven False Narrative
The ongoing annexation process of Palestinian land by Israel has a clear objective of consolidating a single-state reality (apartheid) on both sides of the 1967 border, which legalizes the supremacy of Jews and discriminates against Palestinians. This involves implementing discriminatory laws and promoting a biased and historically inaccurate narrative that supports the exclusivity of Jewish Zionism. As reflected in the political program of the current Israeli government: "The Jewish people have an exclusive and inalienable right to all parts of the Land of Israel. The government will promote and develop settlement in all parts of the Land of Israel – in the Galilee, the Negev, the Golan Heights, Judea and Samaria."
The proposed Israeli political agenda has a detrimental impact on the tourism industry. The Israeli tourism minister has declared that "heritage on both sides of the Green Line will receive full protection… the pinnacle will be the protection of heritage assets of the land of the bible and the eternal people." This perspective overlooks the rich and diverse history of Palestine, which spans thousands of years and includes significant Muslim and Christian heritage.
The Israeli government intends to implement various measures in tourism and archeology that justify their annexation, such as using "heritage" sites to demonstrate that they are not occupiers. Additionally, policies introduced by the Lapid/Gantz government, such as allowing the Israeli Antiquities Authority to operate in the occupied West Bank, further support their agenda. It is noteworthy that the Israeli Antiquities Authority has its headquarters in occupied East Jerusalem and receives aid from international cooperation, including the European Union. In January of this year, the Israeli Antiquities Authority was involved in the theft of archeological artifacts from Sabastiya, located in the northern West Bank.
The "Abraham Accords" and Muslim Tourism
The normalization agreements between Israel and certain Arab countries contained provisions relating to tourism and established a subcommittee on tourism through the "Negev Forum" to monitor progress. However, the "Abraham Accords" have contributed to exacerbating the radicalization of Israeli policies and promoting hate speech and radical agendas. This influence is observed in tourism as Israel has sought to leverage the Accords to normalize its illegal annexation of occupied Jerusalem.
The general sentiment among the Arab public is that normalization with Israel is widely frowned upon, including in the countries that have normalized relations. The number of individuals from these nations willing to travel through the Israeli occupation remains low. It is evident that Arab tourism can only be directed towards Palestine and its sacred sites through proper coordination and oversight by relevant Palestinian bodies, including official entities, religious authorities, and private sector representatives.
To unlock the full potential of Palestine's tourism industry, it is crucial to establish connections with the Arab world while respecting the region's rich history of pilgrimage. This re-engagement would avoid any normalization with the Israeli occupation, which poses a significant obstacle to developing archaeological and joint tourism projects between Palestine and other Arab countries. Despite these challenges, opportunities exist for collaboration with Arab experts in archaeology and public and private sector partnerships in tourism.
Despite the ongoing oppression of the Israeli occupation, it is essential to maintain a vision of an independent and flourishing tourism industry that celebrates the cultural and religious heritage of Palestine and the wider Arab world. Crucially, restoring religious pilgrimage from the Arab world is vital to achieving this vision in line with Palestine's national and cultural identity. The ability to worship and visit holy sites is an integral aspect of personal liberty. Unfortunately, Palestinian Muslims and Christians from the Arab world have endured protracted restrictions on their freedom to access Holy sites in Palestine due to the occupying Power’s illegal policies.
As we strive to end the Israeli occupation and ensure the full implementation of international law, the international community needs to exert pressure and hold the Israeli government accountable. This will allow Palestine to develop its tourism industry, including pilgrimage sites, independently and in conjunction with the rest of the region. It is imperative that Arab pilgrims have access to Palestine through appropriate channels. Religious leaders should play a pivotal role in promoting this vision. It would revive the historical significance of pilgrimage to the Holy Land and safeguard Palestine's beauty and cultural richness rather than exploiting it as a tool to normalize colonization and annexation.
 “ (...) the fourth Geneva conventions, which hold that occupation is only a temporary situation, that the occupant does not acquire sovereignty over the territory and that re-establishing the full and free exercise of sovereignty will normally end the state of occupation.”
 Jordan refused to be part of this platform.