First ‘settlers’, now holidaymakers
Jewish settlers on the West Bank have started using a new tactic in order to win funding and gain legitimacy with secular Israelis over their occupation: tourism.
February 10, 2010 4:44 by Orly Halpern
Five Israel Tourism Ministry officials recently spent a day bumping across the Judean Desert in 4x4s, taking a guided tour down a river in an Israeli-run nature reserve, and visiting ancient biblical sites.
“You really spoiled us,” Ahoova Zaken, head of the ministry’s advertising department, told the owner of the adventure tour company after a drive behind the wheel, fresh watermelon, and some historical background, “That was really fun.”
That’s just what the hosts hoped to hear. Many Israelis view the West Bank as a dangerous place and Jewish settlers living here as radicals. Now the settlers are investing millions of dollars to develop tourism as a tool to rebrand their image in order to shore up political support for settlements in the face of American and E.U. pressure, who view them as an obstacle to peace.
Over a long lunch at the new Binyamin Regional Council Visitor Center, the council’s chief executive, Moshi Asher, told his ministry guests that the Israeli press was to blame for creating a rift between settlers and mainstream secular Israelis. Indeed even the verb ‘settling’ is pejorative in Hebrew slang, referring to guests who overstay their welcome.
Asher hoped the center would help change those attitudes. “Our role is to remove the barriers by meeting each other so that they see that we don’t have horns,” he said and announced that his council had allotted $1 million to develop the Visitors’ Center, in the Psagot settlement, a few kilometers from Ramallah.
Investing in local tourism is a new strategy for the settler community, which has long used political demonstrations to fight territorial compromise. The Gush Etzion Council has a tourism budget of at least $500,000 this year, half of it from the Tourism Ministry, which matches amounts from the settler councils. The Samaria Council invested $30,000 and the Yesha Council, the umbrella body representing all Jews living inside the West Bank, earmarked $1.5 million for a three-year public relations campaign that included some 1,000 billboards carrying the slogan: “Judea and Samaria – the story of every Jew.”
Binyamin Council also recently hired a tourism director, Moshe Ronetzky. It was Ronetzky – wearing a skullcap on his head and a pistol on his hip – who took the ministry officials for a tour in a bulletproof van to show what the region had to offer.
Unfortunately, the tourism officials said, it would not be an easy sell. “First of all there is the obstacle of fear,” Zaken told her hosts on the edge of the settlement of Eli, south of Nablus. Here she and her colleagues were treated to fresh fruit and chocolate soufflés in a train carriage converted into a tiny dining room.
The occupied Palestinian Territories is a no-go zone for many Israelis. Arabs, Jewish settlers, and Israeli soldiers clash on a regular basis and Israeli memories of deadly roadside shootings by Palestinians during the Second Intifada have not been forgotten.
Nevertheless, the Israeli Minister of Tourism announced that despite his government’s temporary freeze on building in the West Bank, tourism sites would continue to be developed. However, as Zaken told the settlers in Eli, the ministry could not legally promote any place that was listed on the government’s Sasson Report, a document that named about 100 settlement outposts that Israel calls illegal.
Nevertheless, the Eli settlers hope to turn the mountainside train carriage located below the settlement into a tourist destination.
But one tourism official noticed the thick-trunks of the ancient olive trees just outside the carriage window and asked to whom the trees belonged. The settlement was just 30 years old, but the trees appeared to be more than 100.
“They don’t belong to the Arabs,” said one of the settlers, in a don’t-discuss-it-further tone. The Israeli Peace Now organization’s list of settlement outposts showed that the train carriage is also considered an illegal outpost.
Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights in the 1967 war. Today hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers live among 2.3 million Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The settlers were confident that mainstream Israelis needed only enter the land of their Biblical heritage in order to connect with their roots, identify with the Jews here – and oppose any form of a ‘land for peace’ deal with the Palestinians.
“I believe that tourism is the right path to bring peace without returning any lands,” said Yoram Bitane, whose public relations company recently organized a cherry-picking festival in Gush Etzion. “[Israeli tourists] will come and it will change their views.”
For religious Jewish settlers, transferring the West Bank to the Palestinians would be sacrilegious, because it would mean the loss of Jewish control over the land they believe was God-given. Yet most Israelis have never visited these sites. At the hilltop settlement of Shilo, named after the ancient Jewish village that was home to the Ark of the Tabernacles, Rachel Erlich, the director of the settlement’s biblical site, said that Christian evangelicals visit more often than Israelis.
But she wasn’t concerned that this site, which lies deep in the West Bank, might be evacuated. She said, “They’ve been saying that for 30 years.”