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Tourism as a vehicle for right-wing Israeli political propaganda: the reflections of one peace worker’s experiences on a trip to the Dead Sea

Recently I decided to take a break from work. What better way to escape temporarily from modern stresses and political conflict than to spend a day at the Dead Sea floating in the briny water, sun bathing, and covering my skin with mineral-rich mud? Surely there is nothing controversial about a trip to enjoy the beauty of one of the world’s natural wonders - or so I thought.

As soon as the tour bus, filled with travelers from around the world, left Jerusalem, a voice came over the loud speaker telling us that the Israelis had “made the desert bloom.” The tour guide talked with pride about Israeli irrigation techniques and how from an aerial view it is easy to tell where Israelis live because those areas are green. What this guide did not mention was the very serious problem of water discrimination suffered by Palestinians who live under Israeli occupation. For example, the Jordon Valley, a region that includes nearly 30% of the land in the West Bank and refers to the area west of both the Jordon river and of the northern part of the Dead Sea, is the most fertile part of the Palestinian territories, yet 98% of the water resources in the Jordon Valley have been put under the control of Israel through a series of military decrees. The state water company Mekorot provides water to the Israeli settlers, who illegally occupy Palestinian land, at subsidized rates not available to the Palestinians who then must pay many more times the price for the same water. In addition, because Palestinians are prohibited from digging wells more than 200 meters deep, the water from their shallow wells often drains into Israeli wells which are between 500-1200m deep.[1]

Not only did this tour guide neglect to mention the issue of water discrimination suffered by Palestinians, she completely omitted the Palestinians from her narrative, despite the fact that much of the bus trip involved driving through the Palestinian territory of the West Bank and past Palestinian homes and people. The story we were told was based on the “myth of empty lands,” a phrase used by historians and others to describe the mentality of settlers intent on acquiring new territory at the expense of the already-existing indigenous population. (The phrase often is used when describing the attitudes of European settlers in colonial North America and South Africa). This mindset denies the existence of the people whose livelihoods depend upon their ability to use the land on which they live and their ancestors have lived for centuries. Part of the power and appeal of this “myth of empty lands” for those who believe in it, is that even if it has little to do with reality, it expresses certain political goals and aspirations. Every time that Palestinians are driven off of their land, this myth seems to come closer to the truth.

A number of times the bus passed rows of tree stumps, and although I cannot be certain, they looked very much like the remains of former Palestinian olive groves. Such remains exist throughout the West Bank and are a familiar sight to the thousands of humanitarian workers, peace activists and others (Palestinian, Israeli, and ‘international’) who have documented the intentional destruction of olive trees, some of which are centuries old, by Israeli forces and the Israeli settlers who occupy the land illegally. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture Israelis destroy one productive olive tree every minute in the Palestinian territories.[2] This practice is a form of ethnic cleansing in that it serves to rid the area of Palestinian people: farming families who for generations have owned the land, tended to the trees, and depended on the yearly harvest find themselves forced to join the ever-growing ranks of refugees. These rows of tree stumps which dot the countryside along the highway were never mentioned. In fact, whenever we passed them, the guide would draw our attention elsewhere, to the “flourishing, green Israeli settlements” on the hilltops, the ancient story of Masada, or what we could expect to see at the Dead Sea.

Also not mentioned by the guide and further contributing to the destruction of Palestinian farms and groves is the apartheid road system that has been created by the Israeli government in the Palestinian territories. While approximately 1,661 km of new highways called “Israeli by-pass roads” have been built in the West Bank, the Palestinians who live there are prohibited from using most of them. In addition, these highways have a 50 to 70 meter buffer zone on each side, so that for every 100 km of road, roughly 41,525 acres of Palestinian land has been confiscated.[3] Palestinians who need to travel must use instead the alternative, and oddly-named, “Fabric of Life” road network, which connects one Palestinian area to another. These roads usually are made of stone, dirt or gravel. Often they take long and winding routes and fall into disrepair. As a result, it is not uncommon for a Palestinian to spend hours traveling a distance that an Israeli is able to travel in a matter of minutes. Because these Palestinian roads are often one-lane, they can be blocked or closed easily. In fact, have spoken with a number of Michigan Peace Team volunteers from previous years who told me how they had spent days helping Palestinians remove piles of rocks that had been put on their roads by Israeli military and settlers.

I sat with the other international travelers in the comfortable, air-conditioned tour bus as it sped down the modern Israeli highway. Most seemed not to notice the dirt roads we passed or realize the place of privilege that they occupied as tourists traveling in occupied Palestine with an Israeli company. I heard one innocently remark to another about how easy it was to travel in the area and that there had been so much improvement in the system of transportation in recent years.

While human rights workers monitor Israeli checkpoints in order to help discourage, prevent or at the very least document the human rights abuses that occur on a regular basis against Palestinians, who often are forced to wait at them for hours, riding on an Israeli bus with an Israeli license plate meant that we passed through the checkpoint with no difficulty. The presence of soldiers with machine guns in full view was somewhat daunting, but every effort was made to put this situation in a positive light for the tourists. We were told that “security was needed because Bin Laden had just been killed” and because Israeli Independence Day celebrations would be held soon. Not surprisingly nothing was said about the upcoming 60th anniversary of al-Nakba or ‘the disaster’ for the Palestinians.

The checkpoint soldiers waved at us. One female soldier who looked to be no more than sixteen or seventeen years old flashed us a big, innocent smile as she waved. Her expression was full of hope and friendship. Who could resist? The tourists, already in high spirits, began to return the waves and smiles. It seemed that an alliance had been formed, but I had to ask myself, upon what was this alliance based? What level of awareness did these tourists have? Did they realize how much was being omitted and distorted by the tour guide? What would they tell their friends and families after returning to their home countries? `

On the return trip from the Dead Sea and especially as we came nearer to Jerusalem, the tour guide’s speech become more overtly political. First she invoked the Holocaust (never mind that the Palestinians had nothing to do with it) then she spoke of how “the Jews only wanted a nation just like everyone else in the world” (a statement problematic from so many perspectives and on so many levels that it can hardly be addressed here). Then came the bomb – “we are surrounded by Arabs who want to push us into the sea.” On that note a busload of tired tourists, salty and sunburned, pulled up to the hotel. No one seemed to have the energy or inclination to question what they were told, and at any rate, no opportunity was given.

Photo to the right: t-shirts for sale at the rest stop on the way to the Dead Sea. While the Israeli government may call its military forces in the West Bank "Defense Forces," Palestinians and many others consider this to be misleading and believe that the term "Occupation Forces" more accurately describes the role of the Israeli military in this region.

[1] This information was provided by the organizers of “The 6th Bil’in Annual Conference on Popular Resistance” in Bil’in, Palestine in April of 2011. It is based on the personal experiences and eyewitness accounts of thousands of people, Palestinian, Israeli, and ‘international,’ who have lived and worked in the area for years. It is also based on documentation provided by additional sources including the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the Palestinian Authority, the Ma’an Development Center, Peace Now, and reporters for the Guardian, New York Times, and Washington Post.
[2] See jordanvalleysolidarity.org
[3] This material was provided at the above-mentioned Bil’in conference and comes from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and The Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs.

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