Yes, you read the title correctly. Palestine – the conflict-torn region full of violent retaliations and unruly mobs that we see depicted on our tv screens – needs to be at the top of your travel list.
Exactly one year ago, I had the opportunity to travel through the occupied territory of the West Bank and I can personally vouch that this one-sided narrative of Palestine that we see in our western media outlets couldn’t be further from the truth.
In addition to uncrowded ruins of the utmost religious and historic importance, unique landscapes and a vibrant culture full of some of the most hospitable and resilient people that I have ever come across, Palestine has easily become one of my most rewarding travel experiences to date. Visiting the West Bank isn’t just enlightening, its the responsible thing to do.
** Please note that out of the occupied territories of Palestine I am only promoting travel to the West Bank. The Gaza Strip requires a travel permit which is only given to those who have a purpose for traveling to the region such as journalists or those with a connection to international organizations. Western governments have issued a severe and strict warning against traveling to the Gaza Strip due to ongoing military conflict – the region is effectively considered a war zone**
Background on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the most polarizing issues in modern history. Contrary to popular belief, the struggle has nothing to do with theoretical differences between Islam and Judaism and everything to do with land and competing nationalism.
While the political intricacies of this issue would call for an entirely separate blog post, in short…
The fighting between Israelis and Palestinians began in the mid-20th century over land disputes resulting from the first and second World Wars. During this time the Jewish state of Israel was established which caused many Palestinians to flee their homeland and take refuge in neighboring Arab states. The conflict came to a head in 1967 after the 6 Day War in which Israel captured the Gaza Strip from Egypt and the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) from Jordan – two territories with predominately Palestinian populations.
In the aftermath of the 6 Day War the United Nations adopted Resolution 242 which outlined a basic framework for achieving peace which required Israel to withdraw from the territories acquired during the war and for all participants to recognize the right for both an Israeli and Palestinian state to exist. This of course, did not happen. Instead, the Israelis began to establish Jewish settlements in these occupied lands – settlements which are illegal according to international law. This is something that Israel vehemently denies claiming that there can’t be illegal settlements since Palestine isn’t really a state.
51 years later, there is still unrest in the region as Israel continues to occupy the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
In addition to the illegal settlements, Israel has built a barrier wall around the West Bank (also deemed in violation of international law). While Israel considers it a security measure against terrorism, the Palestinians consider it an apartheid wall.
With the use of this massive concrete barrier, Israel is able to control the movement of Palestinians into the Jewish State by restricting their visits solely for medical purposes, trade and other needs as well as limiting the number of Palestinians that are allowed to work in Israel. The Israeli government further controls the movement of Palestinians by forbidding them from using Israeli roads and by instilling a system of permanent, temporary and random manned checkpoints along the wall. These restrictions impose burdens on Palestinians by limiting their access to basic services and essentially imprisons them within the confines of the West Bank.
The Tourism Issue
Just as Israel controls the movement of Palestinians coming in and out of the West Bank, it also controls the number of tourists going in.
By utilizing it’s upper hand when it comes to access to international media outlets, the Israeli government purposefully reinforces negative stereotypes of Palestinians, depicting them as dangerous and violent extremists, to discourage international travel to the West Bank. Israel understands that exposure to the harsh realities of the occupied territories would inspire travelers to become advocates against Israel’s oppressive policies. By keeping travelers and the economic opportunities that tourism brings at bay, Israel has an easier time exerting it’s control over the occupied territories.
“The famous Israeli general and politician, Moshe Dayan, was even quoted as saying that he would license a Palestinian to fly a jet fighter before he would license a Palestinian to be a tour guide. As such, Palestinians were prohibited from working as tour guides in the West Bank and Gaza until the 1990s” – The Alternative Tourism Group, a Palestinian NGO
The most recent example of Israel exerting its dominance over the Palestinian narrative in western media outlets took place just several weeks ago with CNN’s firing of long time contributor Marc Lamont Hill.
Hill, in a UN speech criticizing Israeli policy, made the mistake of calling for a “free Palestine from the river to the sea”. Many pro-Israeli advocacy groups such as the Anti-Defamation League gave the network pushback claiming that Hill’s remarks were anti-semitic and called for the elimination of a Jewish state to reclaim the land for Palestine – a sentiment they say is similar to those of Hamas and other anti-Israeli terrorists groups.
Hill has since given further explanations for his speech stating, “I support Palestinian freedom. I support Palestinian self-determination. I am deeply critical of Israeli policy and practice. I do not support ant-semitism, killing of Jewish people or any of the other things attributed to my speech. I have spent my life fighting these things. From the river to the sea means that all of the areas of historic Palestine – e.g. West Bank, Gaza Strip and Israel – must be spaces of freedom, safety and peace for Palestinians. The idea that this is a Hamas phrase is simply untrue.”
CNN let him go anyway.
On a personal note, I have witnessed Israel’s attempt to marginalize and isolate Palestinians first hand.
While traveling throughout the Middle East, I met up with my cousin who had been in Israel for several months as part of a study abroad program. She informed me that upon arrival at her Israeli University she was instructed to sign a contract stating that she would refrain from traveling to the West Bank. However, through her interactions with local students she soon discovered that the contract was less about her safety (which the university implied) and more about which side of the story she would tell upon her return to the States. Needless to say, we went anyway.
Now I must admit, at first I was a little apprehensive about my trip to the West Bank (which took place in December of 2017) as we arrived just one week after Trump announced that the U.S. Embassy was going to be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – a move that only added fuel to the slow burning fire of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But even in times of heightened tensions we, as Americans, were not only welcomed with hospitality but also gratitude for taking the time to visit their corner of the world and listening to their story.
One Palestinian storyteller in particular stands out, Alaa – my taxi driver/tour guide.
Meet Alaa Adel Ibrahim Asakerh
Alaa grew up in a village called Rafeda just outside of Bethlehem in the West Bank. He now works as a taxi driver for the world famous Walled Off Hotel and from his taxi provides tours to various points of interest throughout the West Bank.
LM: For first time travelers visiting the West Bank, what should they be sure to see?
AA: There’s so much to see in Bethlehem alone but you should also get out and explore other cities in the West Bank too.
Church of the Nativity – the site where Jesus was born
Chapel of the Milk Grotto – where Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus hide during the Massacre of Innocents. The name is from a drop of milk that fell on the floor from the Virgin Mary and changed the cave floors white.
Banksy graffiti – Banksy is a world famous street artist from England who is also a political activist for Palestine. Banksy keeps his identity hidden so no one knows who he is or what he looks like but his art can be seen all over the West Bank., especially along the wall.
The Walled Off Hotel – This hotel is owned by Banksy and brags about having “the worst view in the world” because it’s located directly across the street from the wall that separates us from Israel. Inside the hotel, there is a very good museum about the wall and the Palestinian struggle.
Chapel of the Shepherd’s Field – This church is located in the field where the angels told the shepherds about the birth of Jesus.
Other destinations in the West Bank
Herod’s Palace – Herod the Great built this fortress in the 1st century during the Roman period on the highest hill in the Judean Desert, about 5 KM south of Bethlehem. This is one of the best archeological sites in the Holy Land
Mar-Saba Monastery – This is a beautiful ancient 5th century monastery that hangs over a steep cliff above Kidran Creek, about 10KM east of Bethlehem.
Jordan River – The river that runs from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea.This site is important for Christians because this is where John the Baptist baptized Jesus. It’s important to Jews because this is the river they crossed to enter the promised land after years of wandering in the desert
Jericho – this is a very important city for archaeology as its said to be the oldest city in the world dating as far back as 9000 BCE. To Christians, this is the site where Jesus was said to have cured the blind.
The Dead Sea – the lowest point on land, it’s a nice place to swim since the salt makes it very easy to float
Hebron City – its the largest city in the West Bank and is the second holiest city in Judaism and one of four holy cities in Islam
LM: What do you want travelers to know who may be nervous about traveling to the West Bank?
AA: It’s really safe to visit and not like what the media shows. We are simply Palestinian, not terrorists. We do not have a problem with the Jewish religion. We do not want war, we only want to raise our children in peace. Don’t be afraid to come to the West Bank to see with your own eyes what’s really going on here. Spend your money where people need it the most. Spend your money in our hotels, eat in our restaurants and buy our crafts.
The Tourism Solution
Alaa makes a valid point, tourism has the capacity to be part of the solution. Not only will Palestinians reap economic benefits from an increase in tourism but it will also provide them with the opportunity to share their culture, tell their side of the story and inform the world about the realities in Palestine, fostering the attention and support they need from the international community.
If visiting the Holy Land this holiday season or at any point in the future- be sure to carve a few days in your itinerary to visit the West Bank to get to know the Palestinian story first hand.
To contact Alaa for a tour he can be reached:
Instagram ( Alaa_taxi_driver_bethlehem)
Email: Alaa.as82@hotmail. Com
For more information on traveling in Palestine (including practical information such as currency, banks, transportation and medical services) visit the Alternative Tourism Group’s website – a Palestinian NGO specializing in tours, pilgrimages and home stays that include critical examinations of the history, culture and politics of the Holy Land.
To ensure you remain a responsible traveler throughout your time in the West Bank, download A Code of Conduct for Tourism in the Holy Land put forth by the Palestinian Initiative for Responsible Tourism.