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Alternative Tourism Comes of Age - Yidiot Achronot

By Natalie Weinstock (11 April 2008 Yidiot Achronot – Israel)

The recently concluded Passover holiday in Israel includes the Jewish traditions of deep housecleaning, visiting family, avoiding bread, and commemorating the liberation from bondage in Egypt. However the holiday also involves going out with the masses of Israelis to tour, either to sightsee in Eretz Israel (the Land of Israel), or abroad. Most of the country is on the road during Passover season. Now imagine yourself touring in Bethlehem, having a meal in Ramallah, or a visit to Hebron. This doesn’t sound like an ideal holiday to the average Israeli, but through the organized tours by Fred Schlomka in Kfar Saba, near Tel Aviv, many Israelis are doing just that. Since early 2008, Schlomka has been showing international tourists the other side of the coin – the Palestinian way of life. Now he is offering alternative tours to Israelis also and taking them to the Palestinian Territories.

“I don’t consider myself a radical, but a democrat,” explains Schlomka (54). His tours visit Nablus, Kaliliya, Hebron, Ramallah and East Jerusalem. He is also planning tours to Jenin, the ‘unrecognized’ Bedouin villages and trips along the restricted Palestinian roads. “I work to promote democracy and justice since today Israel is a democracy for Jews only, and the Palestinian Territories remain occupied”. Schlomka built a web site, www.toursinenglish.com that offers a variety of weekly tours to the Palestinian Territories. According to him, he receives dozens of emails and phone calls a month from interested people. More recently he has been receiving requests from Israelis and is now offering tours in Area ‘C’ which is under the control of the Israeli military. “Israelis are forbidden by the IDF to enter Area ‘A’, run by the Palestinian Authority”, said Schlomka, “but following the requests of many Israelis I began designing tours in areas permitted to them, including going deep into the West Bank to the Nablus checkpoint, and visiting Ariel, one of the largest settlements in the Occupied Territories”. On the way from Israel into the West Bank Schlomka also provides details of the land confiscated from Palestinians after 1948, which now have Jewish communities built on them.

The international tourists, he says, are interested in entering the West Bank to see the situation for themselves. In cooperation with Palestinian organizations and tour guides he brings them to the entrance of Area ‘A’ closed cities such as Nablus, Kalkiliya and Bethlehem where they are met on the other side of the checkpoints by Palestinian guides. More recently tourists are asking to spend a night or two in Palestinian cities so Schlomka coordinates hosting with families and hotel bookings. “I look at this enterprise as a learning opportunity for myself and the tourists. I’m meeting a latent demand that the vast majority of Israeli tour guides are unable and unqualified to meet. Indeed the entire Israeli tourist industry is manipulated by the monopoly of guides licensed by the tourism ministry to steer people away from Palestinian areas and keep the tourists inside Israel, within the Jewish ethos.” He said.

Schlomka organizes the transportation and guides according to the demand, and generally his tours are on a weekly schedule. He also organizes private tours that he mostly guides himself. For the weekly public tours, prices vary from $25-$75 per person depending on the scope of the tour. The Greater Jerusalem tour for instance, costs $30 while the Hebron tour is $75.

Schlomka’s activities are controversial in Israel where he considered something of a maverick, but he claims, “Most of what is presented in the Israeli and international media is the official Israeli perspective. I try to balance the picture.” When asked about the dangers of entering Palestinian areas he replies with skepticism, “There is no real danger. I work with Palestinians daily and everyone who enters Area ‘A’ has a foreign passport. Palestinians are very happy to see tourists coming to view the situation and visit their historical sites. Tourism also brings income to people in the West Bank and I encourage my clients to do their shopping in Palestinian areas.

Mr. G, who participated in one of Schlomka’s tours, says that what attracted him to take the tour was the opportunity to see the other side of the country. “It was interesting to see the West Bank which only settlers usually see. I consider myself a Zionist but I believe in complete equal rights for the Palestinian population too. It was most interesting for me to see the Samaritans village on Mount Grizim near Nablus. I heard the Palestinian guide say some things that I considered biased, so I had reservations. However I was with a group of ten and felt safe during the tour. I did not have an extreme reaction to what I saw since I keep myself informed about the situation.”

“I heard about the tours through Facebook,” said Ms. S., a student from Canada who studies at an Israeli university. “I took the tour to Bethlehem and Hebron, and was accompanied by my mother who was visiting the country. When we passed the Bethlehem checkpoint I was shocked by the humiliation of the Palestinians. I was also amazed to see the refugee camp in Bethlehem. I imagined people living in tents, hungry with no clothing, but it looked like the nearby neighborhoods. The guide explained that it was not representative of refugee camps but had benefitted from its proximity to Bethlehem.”

An event that burned in Ms. S’s memory was the frictions between the two communities in Hebron. “The Israeli settlers began to throw garbage at the Palestinian residents and it was shocking. I also recall that when we looked at West Bank settlements some soldiers watched us and approached with their jeep. The guide told us ‘Let’s go before they give us trouble and led us out by a side road so as not to meet them’.”

International Family
Schlomka's mother was born and lived in Jaffa in the early 20th century, spoke fluent Hebrew and Arabic, and came from a religious family which has lived in Palestine and Israel for almost 200 years. Today, his extended Israeli family are mostly mainstream Zionists. His father was German, and arrived in Israel in 1936 after fleeing the Nazis. Schlomka’s parents met in Tel Aviv and, disillusioned with the emerging Jewish State, they moved to Scotland in 1948, where Schlomka was born and lived until he was 16. His sister still lives in Scotland and is a Zionist. After living in many countries and working around the world, including frequent visits to Israel, Schlomka and his American-born wife decided to move permanently to the country with their two children in 2000. "Since my early experiences here I was curious about Israel, its history, and all the problems."

Since his first visits to Israel over 30 years ago, Schlomka says he has been very involved with the issues of the country, and became convinced that since the founding of the state the Palestinians have been treated with injustice. “I always knew that when I moved to Israel I would become involved in the issues”, he said “I began to work with the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) which helps Palestinians in their struggle against the state. In east Jerusalem and most of the West Bank it is almost impossible for Palestinians to obtain building permits. They are therefore forced to build illegally on their own land, and then the state demolishes their ‘illegal’ homes, over 18,000 since 1967. Our activists often chain themselves to threatened homes in attempts to halt the demolitions.”

During his activities with ICAHD, and his growing connections with Palestinians, Schlomka came up with the idea of the alternative tours. ICAHD was already conducting tours and it grew from there. “I decided that I want to show people what really goes on, for Israelis and Palestinians. No matter what agreements are made: Olso, The Road Map, Annapolis, the settlements keep growing and hope is in short supply on both sides of the Green Line.”

Schlomka’s links with Palestinians are not only political or business related. He also has many Palestinian friends that he visits frequently. “I visit friends in Ramallah, Bethlehem, and some of the smaller villages.” He said.

And how do Israeli Jews, family and friends, see your career?
"Everybody know what I'm doing, I'm not trying to hide it. I have right-wing and left-wing friends, and sometimes we argue about political issues. It's okay. Every once in a while I receive hate mail via the Internet, often with threats and racist comments about Arabs, but this is rare. There’s actually more tolerance in Israel for divergent political views than in Jewish communities abroad.”

Yet, Schlomka's extensive activity in the field might cause him a moral conflict in the near future, when his son will be drafted to the IDF, and wear the green uniform. "My son is currently not involved in politics, and I’m hoping he develops his own opinions. For now, when he gets drafted, he wants to work in a technical role, in engineering or computers, which are the things he is good at. If he is assigned to a combat role, I will do everything I can to get him out of there."

What is your solution to the problem of the ongoing conflict?
"I believe that due to the actions of Israel in the West Bank, A truly viable independent Palestinian state will never emerge. They might call it 'a state', but it will be similar to the Gaza strip, a prison. The solution that I am currently discussing with colleagues is one where there will be two states, Israel and Palestine, living together under a Union or Federal government which would be responsible for security, borders etc, similar to the European Union. Everybody could live and work anywhere they choose, whether in the Israeli or Palestinian territory, but there would still be two discrete states, with all the national trappings."

Do you think that the solution you offer is realistic?
"I really don’t know. What I do know is that most Palestinians and Israelis have already lost hope for a just solution. We need a new vision."

Translated from Hebrew by Eyal Niv