Monday, August 20, 2018

Walking the occupation: Alternative Tourism Group shed light on realities in Palestine


By Ruth Regan - March 25, 2018
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Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [Tourism]

The mid-March sun burns bright over the olive groves surrounding Aqraba village, non-discriminate between Palestinian hamlets and sprawling Israeli settlements. 

A group of mostly Christian pilgrims are half way through an 11-day journey through the Holy Land. But this is not your 'typical’ pilgrim tour. The group are travelling on an Alternative Tourism Group (ATG) designed itinerary, indicative of their desire to dig further below the surface of life in Palestine.
 
Established in 1995, ATG works to counter the traditional perspective given to visitors to the Holy Land. ATG program coordinator, Jawad Musleh, told Palestine Monitor most visitors to Palestine are pilgrims, “maybe over 70%.”
 
He lamented, however, the majority of such visitors “just move from one tourist place to another, one church to another, without meeting people, without learning anything about the situation here.”
 
“When they come to Bethlehem they visit the [Nativity] church, they spend an hour or two in Bethlehem, then they go back [to Israel],” Musleh said.
 
“Those tourists first of all learn nothing, and they spend no money in Palestine, they don’t support the Palestinian economy in any way.”
 
Not only do these visitors not hear the Palestinian perspective, but in some cases they are actively poisoned against it.
 
“In the worst cases, their Israeli guide gives a bad image of Palestinians, whether directly, like when driving into Bethlehem they will say things like 'Now we are entering a Palestinian town so be careful of your wallets’. Or they will speak more directly and describe Palestinians as terrorists,” Musleh explained.
 
As the hikers pass through a city, they meet residents and greet them. Photo: Henry James. 
 
ATG is part of the Kairos initiative, a call by Palestinian Christians to Christians around the world to come and witness and resist the occupation. Their message, in Musleh’s words, is that “your pilgrimage is not complete without seeing and understanding the injustices against your brothers and sisters.”
 
Traditional tours entirely avoid cities such as Nablus, Ramallah and Hebron, despite their historical and biblical importance. This, Musleh said, is because they “don’t want tourists to see these kind of things, because they change the image of democratic Israel.”
 
In Hebron in particular, when visitors see its segregated nature, the extremity of occupation speaks for itself. “We don’t even have to talk about politics when we go to Hebron, we just let them [tourists] see with their eyes the realities, [such as] checkpoints and daily restrictions of movement imposed on Palestinians going to mosque or school.”
 
When ATG itineraries take travellers to such places, Musleh describes them as “shocked and surprised by what they see.”
 
ATG receives 1200 to 1300 visitors each year. This ranges from more traditional tourists to activists who join, for instance, the olive picking program in October, supporting Palestinian farmers with their harvest as they face both a constrained time limit and settler violence during this period, with fatalities every year.
 
Uniting the 11 visitors on the mid-March walk is a love of hiking and a belief it is a powerful tool for understanding a place. Besides this, there is wide diversity among the group, with Irish, American, German, Swiss, Spanish and British members, as well as a range of starting points for being in Palestine.
 
“It’s been a really interesting mix of nationalities, motivations and previous experience,” noted Chris Watts, a British traveller on the more political end of the spectrum, for whom this is his third visit to Palestine.
 
A couple from Ireland had always wanted to visit the Holy Land. A German social worker who works with refugees is by contrast not religious, but an Arabic speaker interested in the region. One man’s father was stationed in Jerusalem with the British army during the Second World War, while a Spanish priest with a congregation in Arizona is spending three months hiking pilgrimage routes. His congregation back in America do not know he is here.
 
Two nights earlier, the group stayed with families in Far’a refugee camp. They all described the experience as impactful and insightful. “One of the highlights, the family was so wonderful,” Doroernst, the group member from Germany, said.
 
“The most important thing I have learnt is their [Palestinian] hospitality, their passion for their country, and their sense of humour,” remarked Bernadette, connecting Palestinian humour with that of her native Irish, and noting the solidarity between the two nations.
Majdi Shella, the group’s guide, has a natural ability to seamlessly interweave the realities of life in Palestine into the walk.
 
Majid Shella, the guide, explains the day ahead to the hikers. Photo: Henry James.
 
Crossing Huwwara checkpoint on the drive from Nablus to Aqraba, Shella recalled having to give up a job in Ramallah because the 5-8 hour waiting time between 2000 and 2010, for what should be a one-hour journey, rendered it impossible to make it to work on time. These anecdotes have an immediate impact on the group.
 
“It’s the little things when you put them all together, it’s wearing isn’t it? It’s mind games,” responded British traveller Watts.
 
Walking lends itself to discussing such things. Shella can naturally talk about things they pass. There is nothing artificial about his delivery. One minute he is explaining the workings of an ancient Roman water system, the next pointing out the closest settlement in sight.
 
Overlooking the vividly green fields of Tawil Valley, Shella took the opportunity to explain the workings of economic occupation.
 
“The Jordan valley is the same size of Gaza. 95% of it is under Israeli control. Just 5% is under Palestinian control. We consider the Jordan valley the fruit and vegetable basket of Palestine,” Shella explained, continuing to how the peace process is hampered by Israel’s demand for control of the valley.
 
“What would remain for us?” he asked rhetorically, “besides the desert?”
 
“Nothing,” a group remember uttered, quietly.
 
Shella’s experience and engaging nature is picked up upon by the group.
 
“It’s a passion, a vocation, more than just a job for them [the guides],” noted Watts, “the commitment is powerful and comes through.”
 
Yet a couple of members of the group found the politicised tour stifling at points and questioned its objective nature.
“At times it feels like you’re getting a one-sided opinion,” commented one hiker, “but it’s up to you to find the other side.”
 
“They speak a lot about their situation of Palestine, which obviously is important for us to know,” commented another. “I can understand this because this is their everyday life and it’s really sad, but sometimes [it] is too much, I sometimes have to step away and stop listening.”
 
But Shella said he is careful to simply state facts and let realities talk for themselves.
Beyond gaining a Palestinian counter-narrative to the hegemonic Israeli one, ATG are mindful to spread income across Palestinian communities, using different guest houses, guides, restaurants and so on. When they take pilgrims to Nazareth and Haifa they use exclusively Palestinian owned hotels and hire coaches owned by Palestinians in Jerusalem.
 
The effect of the tour on these pilgrims seems like it will vary. Its impact is hard to predict. Many say they shy away from politics. Sergio, the Spanish priest, said he will not discuss this trip with his congregation; it is a personal and private journey.
 
But the first time Amy visited Palestine with her church group, she returned home to America and insisted her conservative-leaning, Republican-voting parents came here.
 
“They really did a 180. Just seeing it with their eyes,” she remembered.
 
“I’m not anti-Israel, I’m pro-Israel. But I am also pro-Palestine, pro-peace and anti-occupation,” she said.

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