Benjamin Barthe • Le Monde 11 July 2008
This reporter went on a tour with ToursInEnglish.com
A labyrinth of metallic turnstiles, electronic detectors and barbed wire fencing under a roof of sheet metal whitened by the sun of Palestine: it is checkpoint of Huwara, gateway to Nablus, the capital of the northern West Bank, and it is there that Thomas and Charlotte, two Parisian thirty year-olds, chose to spend part of their honeymoon. Arriving in Israel initially to visit a friend in Tel Aviv, the young bridegrooms quickly felt the need to see " the opposite side " of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After a few days in Jerusalem, including a visit of Yad Vashem, the painful memorial of the Holocaust, they reserved two places on an 'alternative tour' by an agency which refuses to reduce Palestine to a photo opportunity in front of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, or on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
"Political ", "responsible" or "alternative ", this type of tourist activity by new agencies is an important development in the West Bank since, at the beginning of the year 2006, following the election of the president Mahmoud Abbas, the Intifada de facto came to an end. " Tourism in the Holy Land is a prisoner of Israeli infrastructure and mentality," explains Fred Schlomka, an Israeli anti-occupation activist , founder of Alternative Tours in English, one of these new agencies. " The Israeli tour operators actively keep the foreign tourists away from the occupied territories. My perspective is precisely to take them in these zones, so that they become aware of the impact of the Israeli occupation. "
In Nablus, commercial crossroads of the West Bank, choked by Israeli settlements, Israeli military camps and check-points, Charlotte and Thomas meet their young Palestinian guide. In the space of five hours, the guide pilots them across the lattice of alleyways in the refugee camp of Balata, passages covered in the kasbah (market) and the height of Mount Gerizim, site of the very secret Samaritan community of Palestine.
The route is punctuated by pauses to meet a refugee camp women's committee, a soap factory, an Ottoman hammam (bathhouse) and a boutique of knafeh, a cake based on cheese and angel's hair which is the pride of the residents. This is an opportunity to discover the wealth of heritage in a city for a long time nicknamed " the baby Damascus " and especially to hear these stories of shahids (martyrs), interminable waits in check-points and arbitrary arrests at night, part of daily life for Palestinians.
" I was always fascinated by the history of the Jewish people, by the mad and completely legitimate energy which it invested to come back on its land and build this State, says Thomas. But when you see Nablus, your certainties wobble, you want to shout in scandal. Even if, on the bottom, Israel seems to me always justifiable, but her way seems to me unpardonable. "
The first steps of alternative tourism in Palestine coincide with the establishment of Palestinian Authority, in the middle of the 1990s. Until this date, the Israeli military administration forbade the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza to govern themselves. The pioneer agency, the Alternative Tourism Group (ATG), was established in 1995, in Beit Sahour, a locality next to Bethlehem, famous for its peaceful activism against occupation and notably a long tax strike during the first Intifada. From two groups the first year in more than eighty last year, ATG regularly expanded the activities, intended in most cases for the pilgrims. " In May, about 150 000 tourists entered Bethlehem, says Ayman Abu Al-Zulof, the manager of the marketing of ATG. It is a huge figure. The problem is that the majority of them saw only the Church of the Nativity and then left again to sleep in Jerusalem. With us, the pilgrims see the "wall" (the barrier of Israeli separation which encircles the city) before the church. They have opportunity to sleep at Palestinian family homes and to attend music shows. We try hard to make them meet people, traditions, culture. "
The visit in the "wall" is the face imposed by Alternative Tourism in Palestine. It notably represents in the catalogue of Alternative Tours and Transportation, the small agency that is managed from the courtyard of a hotel of Eastern Jerusalem. The route begins with the 8-metre (25 ft.) high wall in Abu Dis, a suburb of the Holy City. It continues by a visit of Ma'ale Adumim, a settlement which stretches on a dozen kilometres, in the center of the West Bank. Then it ends in checkpoint of Kalandiya, terminal of access to the region of Ramallah, where the "wall" is livened up with watchtowers, with armoured sentry boxes and with surveillance cameras.
" It is my first day in the region, but I believe have seen and understood more things than most of the tourists who come here, says Inge, a young Norwegian. I shall come back home with the idea that Israel is a much more violent State than I imagined it and that the Palestinians live behind the walls of a prison. How to negotiate out of this situation? "
Paradoxically, Palestinian Authority has hardly invested in the development of this area. While the fall of the level of violence allows the region to reappear on the card of the western tour-operators, religious tourism is the preference of the authorities of Ramallah.
Benjamin Barthe • Le Monde 11 July 2008