Imtaiz Muqbil- Bangkok Post
Hundreds of Thai Christians heading for pilgrimage to the Holy Land are being exposed to "propaganda travels that further sway international opinion away from the hard facts of Israeli occupation," church leaders say.
Speaking at a consultation of church-backed tourism watchdog groups in Chiang Mai last week, Dr Prawate Khidarn, general secretary of the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA), called on the Christian pilgrims not to be taken in by only the Israeli side of the story as they travel around the Holy Land.
"Many Thais are visiting the Holy Land these days," he said. "There are only a few Thai travel companies organising these trips, and the packages all have to be approved in advance by the Israeli authorities before they grant a visa."
Dr Prawate was commenting after a presentation by Mr Ranjan Solomon of the Goa-based non-governmental organisation Alternatives in which he said: "Travel through the occupied territories can have a salutatory effect on anyone provided it is not a trip under an Israeli tourism package."
The roughly 20 groups represented at the consultation expressed indignation that the only invitee who could not make it to the meeting was Rami Kassis, a Christian and Director of Alternative Tourism Group, Palestine. He was not able to attend because he had been unable to get the necessary Israeli exit permits.
And yet, Mr Solomon pointed out, thousands of Israelis travel freely to many parts of the world while the Palestinians are deprived of these rights by the occupying power.
An Indian who once headed the Ecumenical Coalition on Tourism office in Thailand, Mr Solomon says he has visited the Holy Land on these "staged propaganda trips" and been shocked at the one-sided lies he was told about the situation in the occupied territories.
Now, he said, "the Israelis don't give me a visa anymore."
However, he added, why should those who want to go only to Palestine have to apply for a visa at the Israeli embassy in the first place?
"Palestine could quite easily get up to three million tourists annually, if the Israeli authorities do not close the borders," he said.
"Tourism experts suggest that destinations like Ramallah, Jerusalem, and Bethlehem could eventually be a gateway for the international community to enter into encounters with the Palestinians and form independent opinions about the real nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict and actually promote heightened solidarity with the Palestinian people."
He added, "News of the occupation is rarely disseminated through established media outlets. It can only pass from those courageous people who risk being 'justice tourists', and who choose pilgrimage as it must really be - the search for truth.
"People committed to peace and freedom based on justice need to continue the visit, learn, and carry the message themselves back to their homes whether in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, USA, Canada, Australia, or just about anywhere from where travellers launch out as pilgrims to The Holy Land."
In a powerful presentation, Mr Solomon noted that citizens of some Western countries who do not need a visa want to "visit Palestine as a matter of solidarity (in order) to witness first and foremost the brutal consequences of the Israeli military Occupation."
"Yet, a growing number of solidarity tourists are actually stopped upon arrival and turned back or held back and harassed. Only some are allowed immediate entry. The rest are taken away by airport authorities as suspected 'security threats.'
"Strangely, several of these are people in their 60s and 70s. It's hard to believe that Israeli authorities see these people as violent individuals. A more plausible explanation is that they are held because their purpose for coming to Israel was to further expose to the world the truth behind the occupation."
According to Mr Solomon, "Israel has also frequently denied entry to and deported an increasing number of peace activists and humanitarian workers for fear that they are aiding the occupied Palestinian population.
"Such people are often interrogated, with extensive body searches and luggage inspection before they are finally allowed entry."
He said that with the "ongoing construction of the apartheid wall, denounced by the International Court of Justice as contrary to international law, the Palestinian people are experiencing yet another layer of tyranny.
"While the Israeli government claims the wall is for security purposes, it serves nothing more than to drown out the Palestinian cry for justice and independence behind concrete slabs and ominous watchtowers.
"What the wall really does is to restrict fair and appropriate levels of access for Palestinians to a normal life. Visitors who come to protest the insanity and inhumanity of the wall are, they say, getting the message: 'Israel does not want you. Your very existence is a threat to our state. We do not want to hear or see you. Leave."'
Mr Solomon called on Christian pilgrims to become "justice tourists" and not buy the lies perpetuated by the Israelis and parroted by the international media that seek to "portray the Palestinian as vile and violent and the Israeli as victim."
"Israel has succeeded in representing itself as the perpetual victim and ensures that it does everything to disallow people to think with an analytical and fair mind about the occupation - often described as oppression unparalleled in history," Mr Solomon said.
He said it was important to motivate the churches and especially Christian pilgrims so that they better understand how the so-called "war on terror" rhetoric is used to "give visitors false fears about security in Palestinian territories."
At the same time, "an important focus should be to reach the harsh truth of the occupation to those countries who give economic and political assistance to Israel.
"Equally important is the need to mobilise the international community in the form of civil society voices who will speak with courage and conviction as to isolate Israel until it relents and hands justice to the Palestinians," he commented.
This can lead to a new form of "Justice Tourism" which can crack the Israeli monopoly on Christian pilgrimages and create "a viable alternative to this situation by promoting human encounter and breaking the silence in order to lead to political awareness, personal transformation of the visited and visitor and contributing to a just peace through advocacy and political action," Mr Solomon said.