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16 May, 2011

Exclusive Interview: Israel’s Travel Chokehold on Occupied Palestine

This interview with Majed Ishaq, marketing director, Palestine Ministry of Tourism, is arguably the first time that a travel publication has highlighted the frustrations faced by local Palestinians and tourists in moving to, from and within the Israeli-occupied territories. Within the context of the “Arab awakening”, a closer look at the occupation of Palestine is long overdue.


Editor’s Note: Travel Impact Newswire Executive Editor Imtiaz Muqbil met with Majed Ishaq, marketing director of the Palestine Ministry of Tourism, at the ITB Berlin 2011 last March to discuss the frustrations of travelling to, from and within the occupied territories, the West Bank and Gaza. The interview will help provide a broader context and perspective to the clashes that erupted over this past weekend as Palestinians marked the Nakba.

The Palestinian people seek and deserve the same freedom and independence as people elsewhere. A better understanding of the suffocating, repressive occupation they face just on a daily basis may help build more support for their cause. That will certainly help alleviate the widespread violence spawned by this long-standing conflict, bring some semblance of peace to the world and free up valuable time, effort, money and intellectual resources to solve the many other pressing global problems facing future generations.

That can only be good for global travel & tourism.

The interview should be carefully read and studied especially in the United States and Europe whose tax-payers directly and indirectly bear both the price and costs of this conflict. Perhaps it is time for them to question their political and business leaders for a better return on investment.

The following websites can provide maps, background and context.








Imtiaz Muqbil: How can foreign visitors reach the Palestinian territories?

Majed Ishaq: We do not have any access points under the control of the Palestinian Authority to the Palestinian areas – the West Bank and Gaza. If we come through Jordan we have to cross Allenby Bridge or Sheikh Hussein Bridge. It’s mainly for tourists. It’s controlled by the Israelis and the Jordanians on the other side. Through Israel you can come via Ben-Gurion airport (in Tel Aviv), and if you come from Egypt, the Taba crossing point, which is under Israeli control. The Rafah crossing from Gaza is controlled by the Egyptians, but it’s closed to visitors.

We now have plans ready in the Palestinian Authority for a national airport in the area of Jericho in the Jordan Valley but until now we don’t have approval from the Israeli side. It depends on the political negotiations. We have no power to issue visas to our guests, our visitors and our tourists. If they want to come to visit us, they have come through Israel or checkpoints under Israeli control. This means that all countries which don’t have relations with the Israeli government have difficulty in coming, such as most of the Arab world and the Muslim world, even though the potential is great.

In future, if we do get crossing points under our control, we will get millions of Christians coming to visit Bethlehem, and millions of Muslims coming to Palestine to visit Jerusalem. Before the Israeli occupation, Jerusalem was a must place to visit for Muslims after Makkah (Mecca) to continue their Hajj and Umrah (pilgrimages). But because of the Israeli occupation, we are losing this huge market. Of course, even if it is opened today, we will not be able to accommodate it, but it will increase investment, infrastructure.

Q. What about visa problems?

A. Only Israeli embassies can issue visas. For those countries that have official relations with Israel, most of them don’t need visas and they can come to Palestine. But everything is controlled by the Israelis and under their rules and regulations.

Inside Palestine, each city or each governorate is controlled by the Israeli army through checkpoints. So tourists coming for example from Jordan, enter from the border crossing which is under Israeli control. Then they take a bus and can travel all over Israel and Palestine. But when they enter the Palestinian cities, they have to cross numerous checkpoints which are controlled by the Israeli army.

Bethlehem is the second most popular city for visitors to the Holy Land (after Jerusalem). It is completely surrounded by the Separation Wall. Until recently there was only one access point for tourists to enter Bethlehem (through the wall). But we now have three access points, so tourist buses can go in and out more easily. The same in Jericho. They have to cross a checkpoint and in some cities through the wall. So tourist groups going from Jerusalem to Ramallah, they have to cross the separation wall and the same procedure when they go to the north – Jenin, Nablus etc.

Q. This means you cannot get into the occupied territories without having to deal with the Israelis. Even if you don’t want to go Israel at all you still need to go to an Israeli embassy for a visa and cross an Israeli-controlled checkpoint?

A. Yes.

Q. For the countries which need visas, how long does it take to get a visa?

A. It depends, they have various categories. For countries without visa requirements, they can get the visa on the border. In some countries, they have to apply 2 – 3 weeks in advance. For some countries, it is very difficult to get visa at all. For Turkey, we have a problem. We have high demand from Turkey to visit Palestine and Jerusalem. But after what happened in the last 2 years and the (decline in) relations between the two countries, it is very difficult for Turkish tour operators to get visas. Especially if they apply through a Palestinian company. If they apply through an Israel travel agent, it is much easier.

Q So even if you don’t have any interest in going to Israel, you have to answer all their security questions.

A. Yes, everything it is totally controlled by Israel.

Q Have you heard of tourists being hassled?

A. Yes of course, we have had many complaints, especially for those coming through Ben-Gurion airport. If they say they are going to the Palestinian areas, they are subject to delays and questions. This is a way for them (the Israelis) to control the (pro-Palestine) solidarity groups coming to Palestine. All over Palestine, there are now strikes and demonstrations against the Israeli occupation and the separation wall so the Israelis are controlling such movements by people coming to show solidarity with Palestinians and joining in the demonstrations.

Q What happens at the checkpoints? Do they fingerprint visitors? Photograph them?

A. Fingerprints no, but only ask questions and of course the security check. Sometimes, people are just denied entry into Israel, such as those on a blacklist. Solidarity activists are coming to the Palestinian side frequently. They are known to the Israeli security. They are not allowing them to get into Palestine.

Q. But these people don’t really want to go to Israel at all.

A. Yes, but they have to cross through Israel.

Q. Have you seen any relaxation of these rules and regulations?

A. In the last year it’s getting better, to be honest. Before 2009 when you were crossing from Jordan to Palestine, via the Allenby Bridge, they issued a visa which is called West Bank visa. If you declare that you are coming to West Bank, then they stamp a West Bank visa. Then you can go to the Palestinian areas but not to Jerusalem.

Q. What about Gaza?

A. Totally closed. Even tourists cannot go there. It is completely closed.

Q. Do you think the Egyptians plan to do something about it? Have you made any representations?

A. Not yet.

Q. Will you be doing anything about it?

A. Yes. But it’s not at touristic level. It’s at the political level.

Q. But tourism will be a beneficiary.

A. Yes, but if they are going to Gaza, they can visit only Gaza and not the West Bank as Gaza is separated from the West Bank.

Q. But tourists may just want to show solidarity, create a few jobs, buy some souvenirs to put some money into the hands of people of Gaza…

A. Exactly, but it depends on the Egyptian side. If they decide to open the borders. There is no Israeli presence at the Rafah crossing.

Q. Has it ever been possible to go to Gaza to spend a few days with Palestinian people as visitors?

A. Yes, it was possible, when the crossing point was controlled by the PA. Before the split between Hamas and Fatah. It was possible for some visitors, not really groups. But for visitors to come to Gaza directly from Rafah.

Q. From the Palestinian territories those who need to leave for medical treatment, study, VFR, etc., what is the procedure for leaving?

A. Leaving is much easier for locals (laughs). The only way out for Palestinians in West Bank is through Allenby Bridge.

Q. Not through Ben-Gurion airport?

A. No. If you need to fly out, you need a special permit which is very, very hard to get. They issue it only for VIPs or for emergencies. The only way is to go through Jordan and fly from there. From Gaza, if the Rafah is crossing is closed you cannot leave.

Q. So the people of Gaza are prisoners in that little area?

A. Yes, in a way. I know many people who cannot leave, for any reason. Even for medical reasons. Hundreds of people have died because of not being able to leave.

Q. What about students?

A. The same. When they open it, they open it for special cases. This was the situation before the change of government in Egypt. They used to open it for short periods, one or two days only for very special cases.

Q. Who controls the borders with Gaza?

A. The Egyptians. It is not controlled by Israel. Totally by the Egyptians.

Q. Why would they want to keep the Palestinian people prisoners?

A. This is a political question. This was the case before the changes in the Egypt. We have heard many complaints at all levels, the people level, the official level, and the Arab world is asking why Egypt is closing the border to the Palestinians from Gaza. It’s a political question and has to do with the relations between Hamas which controls Gaza, and the Egyptian government at the time.

Q. And the Israelis and the Americans as well?

A. Yes, of course.

Q. So you can leave from the Allenby Bridge.

A. This is the only way.

Q. How do you apply for a visa?

A. There are diplomatic missions in Ramallah.

Q. Are there any problems, any extra checks?

A. Not that I know of. Perhaps the only country that may require extra checks is the USA. They have cooperation with the Israelis when they check. But when you apply for a Schengen visa, it’s much easier than any other countries.

Q. What kind of documentation do you travel under?

A. We have Palestinian passports, which are recognised by Israel.

Q. If you leave via Allenby Bridge, can you come back via Ben-Gurion airport?

A. No, we have to leave and re-enter by the same way.

Q. And to get to Jordan, you don’t need a visa?

A. No. You just pay 10 Jordanian dinars, which is like 10 Euros, and you can get a permit to stay for one month, and use it as a crossing point to transit to other countries.

Q. Is the situation changing in any way for inbound travel & tourism?

A. Israel is now trying to facilitate tourist groups to come to Israel and Palestine. They now have three access-points to Bethlehem which is the second most visited city in the Holy Land. The Israeli ministry of tourism knows that without Bethlehem, Jericho, they cannot market Israel. Bethlehem is the most important point of interest as far as tourism is concerned. Between 2000 to 2006, the Israeli Ministry of Tourism spent a huge budget in marketing Israel, in marketing Eilat, Tel Aviv, their beaches, but they failed. So they have decided now to negotiate with the Palestinians to facilitate access of tourists to the Palestinian areas, especially Bethlehem and Jericho. They are trying to improve the situation for the tourists and groups to visit Bethlehem without any obstacles and delays.

Q. But that’s only for people of their friendly countries?

A. Mainly for tourists, for foreigners.

Q. But that won’t include people from Muslim countries?

A. Including Muslims, Muslim tourist groups. If they come, they behave with them the same like others…

Q. Then why are the Turks having problems?

A. They have problems with the visa. When they are in Israel, if they want to come to Palestine, the Israelis are trying to facilitate the movements inside between the Israeli and the Palestinian areas.

Q. Why would they create problems for giving the Muslims a visa and then facilitate their movement inside?

A. It’s not facilitating. They are dealing with them like any other tourist groups. They do not ask them if they are Muslims or Christians. They just see the passports, to ensure they are not locals, not Palestinians. Then they allow them to get into the Palestinian areas.

Q. Previously that was not the case?

A. That’s right. Groups used to spend one hour or two hours waiting at the checkpoints to go to Bethlehem and leave Bethlehem. Even leaving Bethlehem. Before 2009, some groups used to spend like two hours leaving Bethlehem for Jerusalem. It was a way of putting obstacles for them. It was not totally political or security related. More for competitive reasons. Really. Because they didn’t want our tourists to stay in Bethlehem. They just want to use Bethlehem. Bethlehem is a must in a package for pilgrimage and normal tourists. It’s a must to see and visit. So they do not close it. But they want to control it. They wanted them to just visit Bethlehem for two or three hours, spend some money on shopping and maybe eating in a restaurant and then leave. If you stay for four nights, and you are experiencing a delay each morning and each afternoon entering and leaving Bethlehem, that’s a disaster for tourists. They cannot just sit and wait in the bus for 2-3 hours. There used to be only one checkpoint but now there are three. So it’s kind of a competition. It’s not security. The tourist busses are licensed by Israel, with yellow plates. Our (Palestinian) buses cannot go to Israel so it means only Israeli buses are coming to Bethlehem, there is no security reason to check them. It does not make sense. The same for leaving. Why check them? Why make them wait for 2-3 hours a day?

Q. So no overnight stays in Bethlehem?

A. Not in the past. But now the overnights are increasing. Last year we had 80% (of visitors staying overnight). In the high season, all hotels in Israel are fully booked. So the Israeli tour operators start to look for hotels in the Palestinian areas. And the same with our local agents. So it’s kind of a response to a tourism demand and supply situation.  They want the tourists to stay in Israel and spend their money there. If there is big demand and shortage of hotels, then they open it so that the travel agents can get hotels in all areas.

Q. Now for local people to travel within the occupied areas, to visit friends and relatives within the West Bank and Gaza, how long does it take?

A. First of all, Jerusalem, it’s totally closed. You need a special permit to go to even to pray in Jerusalem. If you are in Bethlehem, which is only 10 miles from Jerusalem, you need to get a permit to go to Jerusalem and to go through the checkpoints. It’s actually more than a checkpoint. It’s a huge terminal where you go through very complicated security check with fingerprints and special magnetic cards and special permits which are hard to get. Even if you get it, you have to renew it every six months. They give it to very special people like doctors, teachers. For a normal visit, if I want to go with my family to Jerusalem or to Nazareth or Tiberia to pray in the Sea of Galilee, in one of the churches there, I cannot.

Q. What about old people?

A. Not even for them. It’s got nothing to do with age. It has to do with the reason why you have to go to Israel and whether you can prove it. For health reasons, you have to get reports from the hospital and doctor. To go to work there, you have to go the Israeli companies and they will apply on your behalf. It’s really hard.

But for the tourism industry, they give us permits for almost all professionals working in the industry. This is only for private sector. For the government, we do not even apply, as it has to do with the political reasons. But almost all tourism professionals in the West Bank can go to Israel to follow up with the groups.

We still have problems with the guides. We have around 130 Palestinian guides, according to the Oslo agreement and the Paris Protocol. They are licensed as general guides. But until now they are giving us only 42 permits, out of 130. And we are having a very hard time to get more permits from the Israeli side. Even (George) Mitchell (the recently resigned US Middle East peace envoy) and the Quartet, they have been trying but we are not getting more than 42 permits.

Q. Why?

A. If you are a Palestinian guide with for example a group from America, and you have some 40-45 or 50 tourists in your bus for one week or 10 days, and you cross all over the country, see checkpoints, see the separation wall, etc. As a Palestinian, when you talk about this to the tourists, it’s much different than an Israeli guide. And this is very critical for the Israeli government. That’s why they are not giving licenses… Moshe Dayan, the former defence minister, he said that it’s harder for us (Israel) to give a license to a Palestinian guide than to give a Palestinian pilot a license to fly. This means that guiding for them is critical issue and has to be controlled.

Q. As part of the propaganda efforts?

A. Exactly. There is no way for the tourists to close the eyes when they see the separation wall, the gates, the checkpoints, see people separated from Jerusalem, Bethlehem. You cannot deny it.

Q. The Israeli guide will give his perspective?

A. Of course, which is totally different from the Palestinian perspective. And competition is another reason, and security….

Q. Do the 42 guides face any problems when they go to renew their licenses?

A. Not really. Most of them are afraid to be very open and to speak so directly.

Q. So they have to censor themselves out of fear that their licenses may not get renewed, if there is an Israeli security agent amongst the group?

A. Sure, 100% they will lose the license or not renew that permit. So they are very careful about how to send political message to their tourists.

Q. Can we go back to the problems the local people face when traveling from one point to the other?

A. As I said, Jerusalem is closed to them. If they are travelling inside the West Bank, they have to go through checkpoints. So if you want to travel from Bethlehem to the north, to Nablus, you use bypass roads. These are special roads only for Palestinians, and sometimes very dangerous roads. These are not normal roads. When you travel from Bethlehem to Ramallah, via Jerusalem, a normal journey should take no more than 20-25 minutes. But now through these backroads through the valley and highlands, you need a minimum, minimum 70-80 minutes, if you are not stopped by checkpoints. If you are stopped, you need 3-4 hours.

Q. How many checkpoints along the way?

Between Bethlehem and Ramallah you have to cross minimum 2 checkpoints. These are permanent checkpoints but sometimes we call it flying checkpoints. They just set them up anywhere and stop the cars. No one has any idea when and where they are going to be set up. If stopped, you have no idea how long you will have to wait. So you have no way to organise your time. You have to set at least three hours but even then you cannot guarantee when you will arrive.

Q. What is the quality of the “Palestinians-only roads”?

The topography of the land, especially from Bethlehem to Ramallah, is very dangerous. Especially at night. There are no lights, and when it rains then it really becomes very slippery. We see many accidents. Now they are saying they will improve the infrastructure and the roads. Officially, we are against using these bypass roads as they are very dangerous. It was forced on us by the Israeli side, but now it’s been 10 years already so now the Palestinians are looking for financiers to improve these roads.

It is really getting better, especially when you speak about checkpoints, much better than 2 years ago I think with the pressure from Mitchell and Quartet, the checkpoints are getting much better than before.

Q. Much better in terms of what?

A. The number has decreased. They have opened some new ones, but others they have closed. It’s getting much better. We can feel it.

Q. Could this be a political move, to say that if you are a Fatah supporter, you get these privileges?

A. I don’t think so. On the ground they don’t distinguish between Fatah or Hamas or Christian or Muslim. They don’t care.

Q. What happens in case of medical reasons?

A. Nothing changes. It’s the same regardless of who you are.

Q. Any other improvements in other areas?

A. Visa issuance is improving. Now many countries can come to Israel without visa. Ukraine started from the beginning of this year. And that will have a positive impact on the Palestinian areas, as they will visit Jerusalem and Bethlehem and Jericho. The checkpoints are getting easier and the access to the Palestinian areas is much better now. But it could change all of a sudden, any terrorist attack and everything will go back to “normal”.

Q. If there is an independent state and freedom for the Palestinians, people would be able to fly in directly?

A. This is our dream. The only thing we need is a very small access just to Palestine. We can get many groups besides the Muslim and Arab world. We know that many groups don’t want to come to Israel. They want to come to Palestine, but they don’t come because they will be subject to Israeli control. We Palestinians should control one gate to let people come to Palestine freely without going through Israel.

Q. How about if Jordan takes responsibility and their embassies give a visa for Jordan and occupied West Bank, would that be a temporary way of fixing that?

A. It has nothing to with the visas, it has to controlling with the land, the crossing points. Even if you get through with visas from the Jordanian side, you will be controlled and checked by the Israelis.

Q. Yes, but if a visa can be given at the Jordanian embassies only for Jordan and the Palestinian territories, those who remain in the area allowed by the visas should not have any problems. Why should anyone who wants nothing to do with Israel have to apply for a visa at an Israeli embassy to go to Palestine?

A. We haven’t thought of it but it deserves to be studied. It’s a good idea. However, (inside the occupied territories) they will still stop and question you.

Q. How important is tourism to the Palestinian economy.

A. It’s very important for job creation and foreign exchange earnings. As my minister is saying all the time, it’s like a gate for us to meet other people. Because it’s really difficult to travel abroad and even to travel even within areas of the West Bank and Jerusalem. It visitors come, we have a chance to meet people. Even if we are imprisoned in this world.

Last year was a peak for Palestine in terms of number of visitors, we had 1.6 million, of whom 60,000 were from Germany. Now we are getting very good traffic from Russia, Ukraine and from Poland. Poland is now number 1 in terms of overnight stays in Palestinian areas. We had 1.5 overnights in Palestinian hotels, of course including East Jerusalem.

I was in Poland in October last year and all of the agents were insisting that if they sell the Holy Land, they will deal with the Palestinian tour operators and they will stay only in Palestinian hotels, as they feel safe and hospitable. The prices are good and security is guaranteed 100%.

In Bethlehem, we now have eight hotels under construction, plus recreation parks, restaurants everything… with the help of Palestinians and Palestinian money, including from Palestinians living abroad. Most of the investments now are family investments of 100-150 rooms. We also have hotel chains coming back to Palestine — Moevenpick, Marriott, and of course we have the Intercon. So things are improving. People are investing in infrastructure. And the Palestinian authority is investing in marketing Palestine in 15 countries.

Tourism in Palestine is very much related to political issues. When we have stability as we have in last two years, we will have more tourists coming to our areas. We used to get 3% of our revenues from tourism, now we are getting 7%. So things are on the right track. But even so, we are still very afraid. Because we know that things can change quickly.

Without peace and stability tourism will remain subject to the fragile situation, some years it will go up and but in a day when it will go down to zero which we have witnessed between 2000-2006. For six years we had virtually no tourism to Palestine. But thank God now, if you see the Palestinian cities, you see more tourists than locals, especially at night. Honestly speaking, the Palestinian Authority has proved that at the security level they are offering very high security climate for both locals and tourists.

Q. Thank you for your time, Mr Majed.