Settler-run tourism sparks political tensions

By Nathan Jeffay, March 3, 2011
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With just over six weeks to go before Passover, Israel is awash with advertisements for excursions during the festival. But standard destinations are facing unlikely competition - from highly-charged political sites.

Tourism to the West Bank town of Hebron has become a subject of bitter controversy of late, following an announcement in mid-February by Education Minister Gideon Saar that he is making arrangements for children from schools across Israel to visit the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Then last week, Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon revealed that he is planning similar trips for diplomats.

The Israeli media has been full of criticism of the moves. The strongest statement came from veteran peace activist Uri Avinery who claimed that Mr Saar has "ceased to be the Minister of Education and turned into Israel's minister of propaganda, aiming to instil an extreme right-wing ideology".

Those in the peace camp are also increasingly concerned about the trend of private individuals choosing to spend leisure time visiting hotspots.

A house with court eviction order is one attraction

Hagit Ofran, who heads a programme monitoring settlements at the Israeli activist group Peace Now, believes that tourism to settler-run sites is making the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more intractable. Her reasoning is that it heightens the religious importance of disputed sites in people's minds. "It's a concern that the religious elements of the conflict… are being manipulated by settlers," she said. "You cannot compromise on your religion but when it's a political conflict you can compromise."

In Hebron, where 800 settlers live close to more than 150,000 Palestinians, the Jewish community is preparing for its Passover religious music festival. A similar concert at Succot drew 30,000 visitors - and organisers expect a similar turnout. It will take place, like the Succot concert, in the courtyard of the Cave of the Patriarchs where several biblical figures are believed to be buried.

In Jerusalem, Ateret Cohanim, a right-wing organisation which encourages Jews to move to predominantly-Arab parts of east Jerusalem, believes that it has a top attraction in the form of a controversial home with a pending High Court eviction order.

Beit Yonatan, a cause célèbre of the settler movement, is a building in the east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Silwan where eight Jewish families live - according to the court, illegally. Ateret Cohanim expects to take hundreds of people to visit over Passover - so long as the residents are still in place - and to attract many to a new tour of Jerusalem synagogues, half of which takes place in predominantly-Arab areas.

The message of the Ateret Cohanim tours is straightforward: all Jerusalem should be considered Jewish. Daniel Luria, a spokesman for the group, describes the area covered as the "old Jewish quarter - what people today call the Muslim and Christian quarters".

Settler-run tourism has been on the rise since the 2005 evacuation of Gush Katif, the settlement bloc in Gaza, promoted by right-wing activists who believe that one of the weaknesses of the anti-disengagement campaign was that the general public felt little affinity to Gaza's Jewish settlements. "After the Gush Katif disaster, many on the right-wing realised that we didn't have the nation with us," said Mr Luria.

The Hebron Jewish community focuses on bringing in tourists out of recognition that "in order to garner support people need to know what they're supporting," according to its leader David Wilder.

He dismissed claims that tourism to Hebron is controversial as ridiculous, arguing that with Abraham buried there the city represents the beginning of the Jewish presence in the Middle East. As such, "leaving Hebron out of a tour of Israel is like leaving London out of a tour of the UK - the fact we're in Tel Aviv today is only because we were in Hebron 4,000 years ago."

Last updated: 12:38pm, March 3 2011