In search of an alternative Palestine

Tourists are increasingly being offered the chance to experience a Palestine not seen on the Holy Land tour bus circuit.

By Gail Simmons

It is a hot May morning in Palestine and I am hiking in the Jerusalem Desert, a landscape virtually unchanged in 2,000 years. The delicate green veneer of spring has faded, and the desert is already a deep, burnished bronze. My guide, George Rishmawi, points out the ruins of an abandoned early Christian monastery, now crumbling back into the wilderness.

"Nobody is taking care of these minor historic sites," George says. And he begins to talk of his hopes that this new hiking trail, the Masar Ibrahim al-Khalil, will bring more people to rural Palestine, and create an awareness of its heritage beyond the Holy Land hot-spots of Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Jericho.

As we walk George, a Palestinian Christian, tells me about the problems they face in getting tourists to come and spend time – and money – in his country. "When tourists visiting Israel come to Bethlehem, the coaches stop at the shops on the Israeli side so they buy all their souvenirs, like our olive wood crafts, from there," he says.

I had witnessed this myself a few days earlier, watching scores of people step from the coaches to queue for the Church of the Nativity, then afterwards hop straight back on before driving away. But according to George, who travels to the US each year for work, some visitors to Israel do not even make it as far as Bethlehem.

"I've met Americans who say that, when they went to Israel, they were told they shouldn't come to the place where Jesus was born because there is too much danger if they go to the Palestinian side. They are told that the Palestinians are all terrorists."

George believes he knows why foreigners are advised against visiting his country. "The Israelis want to take all the money from tourists for themselves," he says. "But by walking in this landscape, and staying with Palestinian families, people can see that we are not terrorists."

The Masar Ibrahim is just one of the many new tourism initiatives that Palestinians are creating to provide employment in impoverished rural areas and, by encouraging tourists to interact with ordinary Palestinians, challenge assumptions about a region that receives much negative press in the mainstream media.

Keen to experience some of this so-called 'cultural tourism' for myself, I had spent the previous night in a village on the Masar Ibrahim's route, sharing the host family's evening meal and chatting to the animated, English-speaking teenagers of the house about such universal topics as Facebook.

Private companies and non-profit enterprises alike are increasingly offering tourists such opportunities to experience a Palestine not seen on the Holy Land tour bus circuit. Some, like the Siraj Centre for Holy Land Studies, invite visitors to engage in celebrations of Palestinian culture, learn some Arabic, and volunteer with community organisations.

Siraj's clients can also take part in the annual olive harvest, and learn from the local women about traditional crafts and cuisine. Other organisations, such as the Palestine Farm Project, provide farm stays in exchange for working in the fields, helping to build bonds between Palestinian hosts and their international guests.

And increasingly, tour companies from outside the region are responding to demand from their clientele for this style of tourism venture. Fiyaz Mughal, the London-based director of Middle East Journeys which operates trips to the region, says he aims to give his clients a more authentic view of Palestinian culture.

"We try to avoid the usual mass tourism experience, where people are driven around for a few hours for a 'snapshot' view of the country," he explains. "Instead, we encourage visitors to stay with local families, get an understanding of the issues affecting them, and really enjoy living with Palestinians."

As well as seeing the everyday problems faced by a people under long-term occupation, travellers this year are learning about the economic challenges caused by the recent uprisings in Arab countries, which has meant fewer tourists – and less work.

Anas Halaiqa, a young accountant who works part-time for the Siraj Centre, knows all about the employment problems facing his contemporaries – and not just in tourism. "Over 50,000 graduates applied to the education ministry for just 1,000 teaching posts this year," he tells me.

For many young, talented graduates like Anas, tourism can provide an invaluable financial lifeline. But, it seems, not even tourism work is enough to make ends meet nowadays and most people who work in the industry, as in other sectors, have to find alternative income streams.

"Life is very expensive here, very difficult," says George Rishmawi. "We have three, sometimes four jobs, just to make a living." As a result, many of his contemporaries are emigrating: to the US, to Europe, to South America. But not George. "I want to stay," he says. "I love my country and I want to die here."

Back in Bethlehem after my hike I meet Mazin Qumsiyeh, a professor of biology at Bethlehem University and a human rights activist who takes visitors on political tours around the separation wall. For him, tourism has a large part to play in showing the outside world what is happening in Palestine.

"Almost every day I take an international delegation around the wall so they can see the situation for themselves," he says. "And as a biologist I'm also involved in eco-tourism, bringing people into the countryside to discover the impact of the occupation on the nature and the environment."

For those who may be sceptical about tourism's role in the resistance, Qumsiyeh has a ready answer. "Tourism makes a huge impact in changing people's perceptions," he argues. "It's important that they see for themselves what is happening here. Some tourists who come on these short visits end up committing their lives to activism."

But for Fiyaz Mughal in London, it is not about the politics – or even just the heritage – of Palestine. "Of course, people love the antiquities and historical sites," he says. "But really, it's about the people. Under all the duress they are facing, these are people who are not only resilient, but always willing to give. For me, this is what makes visiting Palestine a unique experience."