Roll up for West Bank settlements tours

By Michal Levertov, October 24, 2008

A £770,000 PR campaign launched on Rosh Hashanah by an umbrella settler group has more than doubled the number of Israelis who visited West Bank settlements during the holidays, according to organisers.

Around 25,000 Israelis took part in tours and events at the settlements and nearby sites following an intensive three-week advertising campaign intended not just to boost tourism but to change mainstream attitudes towards the Jewish presence in the West Bank.

Run by the Public Relations Administration, itself established by settler representative body the Yesha council, the campaign ran under the slogan: Judea and Samaria, The Story of Every Jew. It consisted of 1,200 billboards, 200 advertisements on buses and heavy advertising on Israeli national radio as well as in the Hebrew printed and internet media.

The activities on offer included guided tours, visits to wineries and to archaeological sites.

Danny Dayan, chairman of the Yesha council, said the results were "a great success".

He said: "For 30 years now we avoided discussing the ideological dimension, the basic fact that Judea and Samaria is the centre of the Jewish essence. I vowed to change that."

In the biggest settler campaign since the anti-disengagement protests, the adverts presented children dressed in biblical costumes and referring to bible stories set in the West Bank.

"It's a campaign that talks about tradition, and not about religion - I too am not religious," explained PRA head Yakir Segev.

"We wanted to be pleasant and not divisive," he added, explaining that for many Israeli Jewish families, "the binding point of tradition is mainly around children".

In Susia, south of Hebron, activities included tours in 4x4 vehicles around ancient Susia, an audio-visual presentation, creative activities for children and guided hikes.

"This year about 10 per cent of the visitors were secular, whereas secular people usually make up only two per cent of the holiday events," said Nadav Avramov, Susia's director of education.

Mr Segev noted that among the settlers, the new campaign had brought a great sense of relief. "For 30 years they were not able to talk abut their ideals, because somebody thought that the public would not understand it, or that it was the wrong thing to do, tactically," he said.

"No one lives in [the West Bank settlement of] Eli to prevent missiles reaching Tel Aviv, but rather because it a part of Eretz Yisrael."

Mr Dayan was more careful about predicting the initiative's long-term success. "It's only the beginning and nobody is deluding himself that one campaign will do the job. But it looks encouraging."

However, the response was not entirely positive. Viral emails circulated in response to the campaign showed spoof adverts featuring images of the abuse of Palestinians - including a photo showing alleged settler abuse near Susia - in place of the smiling pictures of children dressed as biblical characters.

Elsewhere, billboard posters were vandalised with anti-occupation graffiti. 

And left-wing groups were also critical of the initiative. "I would have been surprised if following the huge amount of money that was invested in the campaign, the settlers would not have succeeded in bringing more visitors to the West Bank," said Yariv Oppenheimer, the head of Peace Now.

"But I don't feel that any great breakthrough in public opinion was achieved."

Mr Oppenheimer, who received death threats in Tel Aviv earlier this week, noted that "the campaign tries to present the settlers' pleasant side, and it's a shame that its initiators were not able to deal with these severe domestic problems they have."

Last updated: 11:12am, October 23 2008