Tourism: How Most Israelis Experience Occupation

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On June 6, 2012, the Jerusalem Development Authority launched its fourth annual Jerusalem Festival of Light in the Old City. The previous year’s show had been a resounding success, according to sponsors quoted in the Jerusalem Post, with over 250,000 visitors enjoying “art installations bursting with light and 3-D movies splayed across the city’s ancient walls and buildings.” In 2011, the Muslim Quarter of the Old City was included within the festival’s purview for the first time, with Damascus Gate retooled as the backdrop for a massive video projection.

For Israeli Jews, who represented the vast majority of attendees, the event was an opportunity to visit Old City sites which many of them deem dangerous and out of bounds, even in daylight hours: “The festival will awaken tourism inside of Jerusalem and encourage people to come to places they wouldn’t normally go to, like east Jerusalem, where there are beautiful places,” the chairman of the Jerusalem Development Authority, Moshe Leon, told the Post. He hastened to add that “the Authority had the full cooperation of the Arab merchants…who were enthusiastic about the influx of tourists.” [1] Despite such assurances, most Palestinian shopkeepers in the Old City elected to close down for the duration of the 2012 nighttime event. Shutters were locked and streets largely unpopulated by locals as Israeli art mavens took the prompt from the festival brochure to “wander among the picturesque alleyways, among spectacular works from Israel and abroad.”

Missing from the official literature was any mention of the week’s historic anniversary — June 2012 marking the passage of 45 years since the onset of the Israeli military occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank in 1967. (“No connection,” I was told by visitors.) As such, the festival participated in a greater Israeli silence, as noted by left-wing Israeli writer Noam Sheizaf: “Last weekend, Israeli newspapers devoted most of their pages to the [thirtieth anniversary of the] Lebanon war. Yet its obvious lesson — that the Palestinian issue cannot be resolved by force, nor can it be made to disappear — was hardly discussed. Nor was any reference made to the Six-Day War’s anniversary. Israelis have all but forgotten the Palestinians. The longest military occupation in the world is entering its forty-sixth year amidst a deafening silence.” [2]

This silence notwithstanding, the tourist festival was arguably a fitting tribute to the 1967 anniversary. For in fact, the occupation was a tourist event of sorts. Or rather, it was experienced as such by many Israeli Jews — an experience that can be traced to the very first days after the Israeli conquest on June 10, 1967. Indeed, any Jew or Palestinian who lived through the war, particularly a resident of Jerusalem, can recall the massive flow of Israelis into the newly occupied Palestinian territories in the war’s immediate aftermath. The Israeli press of this period described surging Israeli tourist crowds in Jerusalem’s Old City, the rush to buy souvenirs in Bethlehem and inexpensive appliances in Gaza City, and the collective wonder at access to places that had been off limits to Israeli passport holders for nearly two decades. Tourism was a crucial avenue by which Israeli civilians experienced their newfound status as occupiers.

The Camera and the Gun

Israeli tourism in sizable numbers began immediately after the cessation of violence. Crowds streamed into the Old City with “curio shops doing a roaring trade” and soldiers “wander[ing] around with a gun in one hand and a camera in the other.” Over the course of subsequent days, newspapers would describe “hastily written notices, announcing organized tours of old Jerusalem in the near future” and announce the impending availability of luxury hotels in Palestinian resort towns. [3] On June 17, it was reported that some 350,000 persons had already “walked to the [Western] wall,” the edifice holy to Jews as the last remnant of the Second Temple, including “old people, and the lame, mothers with infants in carriages and a multitude of children.”[4] By the end of June, private tourist companies were operating in “liberated Jerusalem” and advertising their tours with the promise that “owners of accordions who are prepared to play Hebrew songs will travel for free.” [5] Israeli newspapers were flush with descriptions and photographs of the enthusiastic throngs: “Everyone who can has taken a holiday and come to Jerusalem, and spends it packed in a solid…mass of people who cannot see anything except the upper parts of the houses. Soldiers on leave carry their Uzis over their heads so that nobody will set them off by accident.” [6]

Officially, Israeli civilians were banned from the remainder of the West Bank in the first week after the armistice. Yet the tourist crowds were not deterred. The state sought to quell their numbers, fearful of the deleterious economic and social effects that a massive visitor influx might generate. State officials also tried to dissuade with accounts of the territories’ poor infrastructure, warning that water was not potable and the roads unsuited for mass transportation. Yet despite such admonitions and the continued travel ban, Israeli tourists swelled the pedestrian ranks in the streets of numerous West Bank locales. The ban was lifted gradually, and on June 25 the Jerusalem-Bethlehem-Gush Etzion corridor was officially opened to much national fanfare: “The Israelis are coming!” one headline, in the Hebrew daily Ma‘ariv, proclaimed — the arrival of tourists to Gush Etzion, the cornerstone of the “Greater Israel” settlement project, preceding that of Jewish settlers by several months.

The Israeli Ministry of Tourism was quick to respond. In the first week of the occupation, it began a “refresher course” for licensed tour guides in the “new territory” and announced plans to update its promotional material. Hebrew-language guides for the Palestinian territories had not yet been published, so the Hebrew press assumed the role, outlining the proper etiquette for visiting Arabs in their homes, what to wear on such visits (avoid mini-skirts, for example), how to consume the honorific coffee (“one should drink drop by drop…one doesn’t thank for coffee”) and how to greet one’s host in appropriate Arabic. [7] That Israeli tourists might not be welcomed into private Palestinian interiors was not addressed by the Israeli media, the trope of hospitality displacing that of occupation. [8]

A “Shopping Shabbat” in Gaza

While Israeli itineraries and agendas were varied (some flocked to biblical sites, while others focused on hiking and natural landscapes), nearly everyone, it seems, was eager to buy. The Israeli press of this period is filled with accounts of pent-up demand that was only partly frustrated by restrictions on Israeli purchases of West Bank goods: “In the bazaars behind the Damascus Gate,” the Jerusalem Post related on June 26, 1967, “through which thousands of tourists wound their way to reach the Church of the Holy Sepulcher — the local populations scrupulously refused to trade against Israeli or foreign hard currency. The Jerusalem Post was the only item that could be bought with Israeli money. The magnificent figs and great variety of spices were ‘out of bounds’ for Israelis and tourists. Mayor Kollek promised that this tourist problem, too, would be shortly overcome.”

But the press had already reported shelves stripped clean of souvenirs and “cola and chocolate sold in large quantities.” [9] Indeed, as the Jerusalem Post reported on June 26 from the southern West Bank: “Most of the tourists went shopping with a vengeance in spite of the official ban, buying up fruit, vegetables, glassware, jars, chewing gum and pencils with Israeli currency.” Jerusalem’s Old City was the initial locus of the shopping frenzy. Mass consumption gradually spread to other West Bank locales, as Israeli visitors “descended” on “statues, soap and the rest,” [10] in what one press photo caption referred to as a “shopping invasion.” Food critics in the Hebrew-language press documented the best place to drink European-style coffee in the Old City, suggested where to buy “Indian dates” and Italian shoes, and recommended the best restaurants in Hebron and Bethlehem, most of which were already mobbed with Israelis. “When we got to Bethlehem,” one reporter noted on June 22, “we saw all of Dizengoff [Street in Tel Aviv] eating hummus and pickles.”[11] Israeli commentators were already bemoaning the lack of “authentic” Arab goods in Palestinian markets, lamenting that most had been imported from China.

Israeli consumer desires fluctuated. In the early days of the tourist craze, the Israeli demand for souvenirs, culinary delights and luxury goods was high. This period was followed by a run on household goods and appliances, which could be purchased at a fraction of their Israeli prices. “First we bought transistors, cosmetics, straw baskets and men’s shirts,” wrote one journalist a month after the armistice, “and even English salt at a pharmacy. Today, the prices have already gone up a little, but you still won’t find your friends at Israeli stores. They [West Bank stores] are still tens of percentages away from the Israeli prices.” [12] In mid-July, this reporter estimated, the “scope of Israeli shopping in the West Bank” was valued at 25 million liras per month. When Gaza City opened to Israeli visitors on July 21 (the remainder of the Strip would be opened at a later date), a headline announced that “Thirty-Five Thousand Israelis Spent a ‘Shopping Shabbat’ in Gaza.” The article was vivid in its description: “The Israelis fell on the shops…and bought everything, almost without comprehension. The stream of buying mounted quickly to the extent that, on the outskirts of town, one saw porters bearing goods from the warehouses and apartments of the merchants.” [13]

For some press commentators, this consumptive outburst was a source of national shame. “What kind of spiritual drive has pushed these men and women…to buy, buy, buy?” they mused. “I have no objection,” another noted, “to a population denied the right to visit certain places for 20 years. But must we descend on every shop to buy things, whether we need them or not, as if we’re a country in need or in hunger?” [14]In other accounts, the Israeli consumer appetite told a political story, evidencing Israel’s benign intentions as occupier. “For three weeks,” wrote the Jerusalem Post on June 30, “they [the Palestinians] looked on as Israelis in increasing numbers flocked to [the Old City], and found them lacking the arrogance of conquerors, a nation of curious sightseers and seekers of modest bargains.” In this account, Israeli consumer desires were thought to belie Palestinian fears of a repressive occupation.

Arcade Revelry

Jerusalem’s 2012 Festival of Light made no mention of this tourist history — a history of Israeli itineraries which lasted well into the 1980s, although with much lesser intensity, to be interrupted by the first Palestinian intifada and then to return, in fits and starts, after the Oslo accords of 1993. The outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, coupled with the rightward political shift in the Israeli population, would interrupt such itineraries again — with tourism only resuming slowly, and in limited numbers, enabled by the sense of security that the separation barrier gradually instilled in many Israelis (fulfilling Ehud Barak’s promise of “us here, them there”). Today, those Israeli tourists who return to the Old City’s restaurants and souvenir shops on occasional Saturdays do so with a sense of the diminished presence and proximity of Palestinians under occupation (a rubric which, in the imagination of almost all Israeli Jews, precludes Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents).

Instead of reflecting on the past, or on the political realities that frame their visit, 2012 festival organizers and participants revel in the touristic present — in the municipality’s ability to remake a Jerusalem cartography that most Israeli Jews still associate chiefly with political violence. One Israeli blogger paid tribute to the festival this way: “While recently the Damascus Gate has been in the news as a site of protest, tonight it was lit up like a giant pinball machine.” He meant the expression literally — “Damascus Pinball” was the video image selected for projection upon the giant passageway for the 2012 festival, the flippers controlled by festival-goers. [15]The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz described the scene this way: “Techno music, punctuated by old-fashioned ‘pings’ every time a point is scored in the game being projected on the ancient stones, pierces the midnight air — adding, as if it were needed, an additional touch of surrealism to the scene.” [16] And so the occupation enters its forty-sixth year.

For more news and analysis on the Middle East visit MERIP’s Middle East Report Online here.


[1] Jerusalem Post, May 26, 2011.
[2] Noam Sheizaf, “No End in Sight,” +972, June 5, 2012.
[3] Jerusalem Post, June 11, 1967.
[4] Jerusalem Post, June 18, 1967.
[5] Ma‘ariv, June 25, 1967. [Hebrew]
[6] Jerusalem Post, July 3, 1967.
[7] Ma‘ariv, June 25, 1967. [Hebrew]
[8] Neither this instructional idiom, nor Israeli tourist desire for intimacy with Palestinian locales, was historically unprecedented. Rather, it can be traced to the early decades of the twentieth century. In the 1920s Hebrew-language travel diaries of David Benvenisti, a celebrated Zionist geographer and natural historian, the author instructs his readers (themselves members of Palestine’s Jewish community) on the proper way of entering a Bedouin tent and greeting the sheikh, how and when to drink the ceremonial coffee, and what to discuss in fireside conversations. See Rebecca L. Stein, “Traveling Zion: Hiking and Settler-Nationalism in Pre-1948 Palestine,”Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies 11/3 (Fall 2009).
[9] Jerusalem Post, June 11, 1967.
[10] Yediot Aharonot, June 21, 1967. [Hebrew]
[11] Yediot Aharonot, June 21, 1967. [Hebrew]
[12] Yediot Aharonot, July 14, 1967. [Hebrew]
[13] Yediot Aharonot, July 14, 1967. [Hebrew]
[14] Yediot Aharonot, July 7, 1967.
[15] A picture of the illuminated Damascus Gate is halfway down this web page:
[16] Ha’aretz, June 12, 2012.

3 Responses to Tourism: How Most Israelis Experience Occupation

  1. #MidEastPosts: Tourism: How Most Israelis Experience Occupation – israel palestine tourism

  2. Editor, MEP 29/06/2012 at 6:42 PM

    Hi Karl.

    Harsh – and I don’t think the analogy stacks up.

    Here’s why.

    1. When the U.S. looks back on its past it does so with huge pride, but it is mostly ashamed by the treatment of the original inhabitants. It is justified by “we did not know better”, or they were different times, or even it wasn’t us – it was the British, Dutch, whomever…

    Israeli’s do not have the excuses. They do know better, the time is now – and it is they who are displacing millions. If you choose not to be ashamed of what Israel is doing, to ignore the pain of those you have and are forcing out of their lands, then you have to question your ethics and morality.

    2. The original Indian population in the States was largely wiped out, while the Dutch were an expatriate population and moved on or assimilated. Palestinians are not being wiped out or being assimilated. Millions of them encircle Israel as refugees in foreign lands, usually denied basic rights. Their dream is the homecoming. It is a dream that has not dimmed in 50 years. It will not dim in 100.

    You may not ‘feel’ this living in your Israel bubble, surrounded by like minded people, but that does not take away the reality just a few 100 km from you are people who probably once lived in the home you live in, certainly on its land, and they want it back.

    3. What stops them is the support Israel enjoys from the most influential parts of the United States. The question Israel has to ask itself is will the U.S. still be the dominant power in 100 years, or will the Arab world have sorted itself out in 100 years to actually be a united entity. If there is a possibility that either no longer stacks up in Israel’s favour, it behooves the country to begin securing its future now by being less intransigent, and while it still has the cards to play.

  3. Karl 29/06/2012 at 12:10 PM

    Weiss’s home in NY State was successfully secured by force. He’s occupying AmerIndian Land. Wonder if he’s counting the years?

    Worked in NY State, is currently working just fine in Judea & Samaria.

    Normal evolution of history. 100 years from now, Arab village names will be the mascot names for Israeli High School basketball teams. Kinda like the situation where Weiss feels right at home today.

    And we didn’t even discuss the Dutch, did we? Lot of Dutch ghosts floating around between Manhattan and Albany, as we who know how to read know.

    But who cares about the Dutch now? They’re a footnote in dusty history books – exactly where the Palestinians are headed.

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