A Visit to Palestine

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Gaza docks overlooking the Mediterranean Sea

Today is World Tourism Day.

This year has been a difficult one for would be travelers and those looking to get away on holiday. The Corona Virus pandemic has limited where people can go, caused concerns about safety, increases costs and inconvenience and in general, made people unsure of how to travel.

Tourism has always been an important source of income for many communities across the world, including the occupied Palestinian territories. Tourists are a boost to the economy and in many places, tourism helps to bring people closer together and broaden people’s world views.

Despite being beautiful, interesting and full of activities and sights, tourism in Palestine is far from easy and as popular as it should be. Years of conflict have given the impression that visiting Jerusalem, Bethlehem or Ramallah is fraught with danger. Gaza, despite being on the Mediterranean sea, is closed to the world now and its tourism industry has shrunk to almost nothing.

Traveling in Palestine has always been coloured by safety concerns, limits on the freedom of movement and discriminatory border policies.

Passing through Borders

Getting to Palestine means crossing multiple borders. This isn’t easy for many people, as there is a well documented practice of discrimination as the Israeli border for those looking to visit Palestine. It is especially difficult for anyone who is Muslim and for anyone with any connection to Palestine related activism or work. Intrusive and hostile interviewing by Israeli border staff can include having your social media checked, your emails checked and your political and religious beliefs questioned. This often makes the journey stressful, unpredictable and makes people reluctant to try it. My own experiences at the Israeli border have never been easy or pleasant and crossing into Gaza via Egypt was also uncomfortable, tiring and at times dangerous when traveling through the Sinai area. These experiences are a stark reminder of how Palestinians lack control over their own borders and are at the mercy of other authorities that view them as threats and inconveniences.

Checkpoints and Moving Around

Once you are allowed into Israel and into the occupied Palestinian territories, you will note that moving around city to city isn’t always easy or straightforward. The ethnic divisions are obvious in places like Jerusalem, and there are places you may not feel entirely welcome or allowed to go based on your passport/ID and/or religion. Curfews, closures of checkpoints and limited public transport as well as Palestinian taxi drivers or friends being unable to travel freely also means you need to plan your day carefully and not get stuck in the wrong place with limited ways to reach where you are spending the night. Across the West Bank, checkpoints add time and inconvenience to your journey and passing through a checkpoint is always unpleasant. It gives you a brief glimpse into how freedom of movement is denied to Palestinians and the indignity with which they are treated.

Security and Safety

Safety is always a concern for tourists and with armed security personnel or the possibility of getting caught in protests or random violence, many people show concern when you mention going to Palestine. Having been to both Gaza and the West Bank, I can say I didn’t feel anymore unsafe than other places however, I was aware of the potential issues and made sure to do my research and listen to my Palestinian guides and friends. Armed security personnel and clear hostility from Israeli police settlers in Jerusalem and Heron was a difficult thing to experience and made me acknowledge the tension and stress with which Palestinians live everyday.

Important Sites and Beautiful Landscapes 

There are so many interesting and beautiful places across the West Bank and Gaza that it is hard to visit them all in a short visit. I have ben fortunate enough to have extended time in the West Bank and excellent guides when in Gaza and was able to see a lot of tourist sites, religious sites and meet interesting people. The Old City of Jerusalem remains one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. Its high walls, cobbled streets, Al Aqsa and its markets make it unique, full of history and spiritual significance for millions. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Wailing Wall are also important places to visit and you can get a great view of the whole city by walking along the walls.

Nablus has a charming old city and market as well as the Sumerian community where you can visit ancient Jewish ruins and get a beautiful view of the city and surrounding hills. Hebron is home to the Tomb of the Patriarchs whilst Bethlehem has the Church of the Nativity and the recent Banksy ‘Walled-Off’ Hotel. Ramallah is vibrant and with lots of great places to eat, as well as having various museums and places you can visit to learn more about Palestine and the occupation from people working in social work, charity etc. Jericho is an ancient city, the lowest point below sea level and has a number of historical sites to visit such as Hisham’s Palace which is home to beautiful mosaics.

The natural beauty of Palestine is evident as you drive around. Hills, olive groves and the palm trees around Jericho as well the Dead Sea create beautiful picturesque scenes for your instagram feed!

However, the occupation is evident everywhere you go. The Separation Wall can be seen almost everywhere, checkpoints, settlements and settler only roads are part of the landscape and the impact on the occupation is evident in how Palestinians live everyday.

In Gaza, a lot of tourist sites have been damaged by bombardments or due to the blockade. The beautiful coastline may look lovely and be a place of respite for its residents, but it is also polluted and unsafe due to the occupation and ongoing siege.

Food and Fun

Palestine is not only about occupation and struggle. Palestinian culture is fun and interesting and food- a key component in any trip- is varied and delicious. You can see Dabke dancing during festivities or if you are lucky enough to be invited to a wedding (this is very likely once you make friends there!). There are countless markets, traditional soap or handicraft shopping and places to see your souvenirs being made.

Palestinians are known for their hospitality and you will definitely make many friends and be invited to places to eat. The kindness of Palestinians is truly remarkable and you leave with many warm memories.

There is the world famous Nabus knafe to eat, as well as delicious fresh hummous and seafood in Gaza and other dishes such as maklouba and shwarma. You can also get some interesting variations on burgers in small fast food places and a lot of good coffee and sweets like baklava.

Although a trip to Palestine may seem daunting or dangerous, it is worth the effort. Many people have certain ideas and expectations about Palestine, however there is more to Palestine than the occupation. It is also very truly that the occupation impacts every aspect of life for Palestinians and that seeing it in person makes it all the more brutal and shocking. Time spent in Palestine should be about appreciating what is beautiful about a truly wonderful place, but also to recognise what it means to be living under occupation, recognising your own privilege and coming back committed to advocating for the human rights of Palestinians.

 

 

 

 

 

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