Israeli tourists are welcome in Bethlehem and would be safe if they visit, the Palestinian Tourism Minister promised this week.
“It is true we still live under isolation, we still have the wall and you have to enter though checkpoints, but once you enter you will find people who receive you warmly and you will have a unique experience,” Khouloud Daibes said in her office near Manger Square.
In keeping with her daunting task of marketing the Palestinian Authority areas as a tourist destination, a poster in the waiting-room shows the Old City of Jerusalem framed by an olive tree and urges: “Visit Palestine.”
Ms Daibes, 43, is smartly dressed in a dark blue suit and has a down-to-earth manner. The German-educated former director of the Centre for Preserving Cultural Heritage in Bethlehem seems not entirely at ease with the trimmings of power, even the limited power of a self-rule authority.
“I hate this part of the job,” she says when asked to pose at her desk, which is set against the backdrop of posters of Yassir Arafat and his successor Mahmoud Abbas.
“Tourism is not only for economic development, it is also a tool to build bridges between the two peoples and between the Palestinians and the outside world.”
Travel by Israelis to the West Bank was banned by the army more than eight years ago at the start of the Palestinian uprising. But Ms Daibes says it could be safely resumed now, at first in Bethlehem and Jericho.
There were divergent Israeli reactions to her offer. Israeli army spokeswoman Major Avital Leibowicz said: “I would not say the West Bank is safe and that Israelis can move freely. In general, the motivation to carry out terror attacks still exists.”
But Major Peter Lerner, spokesman for the Co-ordinator of Activities in the Territories, a part of the ministry of defence, said: “The situation in Bethlehem is more stable and is showing improvement.” According to Israeli figures, 330,000 foreign tourists have travelled from Israel to Bethlehem so far this year, compared to 500,000 for all of 2007. This is poised to be the biggest year for tourism since the intifada erupted.
Ms Daibes has also boosted the number of visitors after her success last year in convincing Germany to ease travel advisories so that they no longer include warnings on Bethlehem, Jericho and Jerusalem. Bethlehem hotels are full because of an overflow of tourists from fully booked Jerusalem hotels, she says.
Ms Daibes has overseen a renewal of ties with Israel’s ministry of tourism. But she is dissatisfied with Israel’s stance. “We don’t feel Israel is mentally ready to accept the fact that we could be equal partners,” she complains.
She says that Palestinians end up with less than five per cent of the total tourism revenue for Israel and the West Bank. “It’s a very unfair distribution.
“The Israeli private sector is not allowed to enter here to do business, we are not allowed to go in and out of Israel without permits, and only a limited number of permits are given. There are a lot of guides waiting to get permits. Our buses are not allowed to go to Israel.
“We still have no control over tourist and archeological sites in the occupied territories, including Herodion, some sites in Jericho and the Qumran caves.”
Ms Daibes says that, despite engaging in negotiations, Israel was still not showing commitment to ending the occupation.
Rafi Ben-Hur, deputy director-general of the Israeli tourism ministry, described Ms Daibes’s criticisms as “unfair”.
He said that he had arranged 44 permits for Palestinian guides to enter Israel, even though Israeli guides had complained that this came at their expense.
“I believe in giving them tourists and a chance to make a good living and that this can prevent terrorism,” Mr Ben-Hur said. “We are encouraging tourists to go to Bethlehem.”