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21 Sep, 2011

Tourism To Be Vital Lifeline for a Future Palestine

The Palestinian people, who are expected to formally launch their bid for independence and statehood at the United Nations this Friday, see tourism as a major pillar of their future plans for economic development, jobs and income. Direct access to and the ability to travel freely through the Palestine and the many important sites of the Holy Land will lead to a tourism bonanza that will go a long way towards helping the Palestinian people end the oppressive Israeli occupation, and rebuild the country once that happens.

In a report entitled “Building the State of Palestine A Success Story”, Palestinian Prime Minister Salim Fayyad says, “Our effort has been to make statehood inevitable. Our state will be built by building it. We are now ready.” It adds, “The only barrier to full independence remains Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territory.”

Designed explicitly to “remove all pretexts that were exploited to justify our continued occupation,” the report shows in detail how the Palestinians have been working to put the fundamentals of statehood in place in terms of infrastructure, security, education, health, transportation, etc. These developments will catch readers by surprise; having gone unreported in the mainstream global media, they are largely unknown to the world. Indeed, a careful reading will raise serious questions about why the global media has failed to report them, and how this shortfall has contributed to presenting an eminently false perception of the Palestinians as a backward, violence-prone people undeserving of independence and statehood.

For example, the world will be surprised to learn:

(+) In 2010, approximately 577,000 guests stayed at hotels throughout the Palestinian territory, staying on average slightly more than 2 days. 37% of tourists arrived from EU member states, 16% from other European countries, and 13% from the USA and Canada. In comparison to 2009 the number of guests increased by 28%.

(+) Preliminary designs for the Palestine International Airport in the Al Buqei’a area of East Jerusalem have been finalised. The new airport will include a passenger terminal, a cargo terminal, two airstrips, an aircraft parking area, boarding facilities, a helicopter landing pad, and other required logistical services. Work is underway to finalise an environmental impact assessment (EIA) and an integrated pollution prevention and control (IPPC) study for this vital gateway.

(+) Between May 2009 and May 2011, a total of 397 kilometres of inter-city and rural roads, as well as 1,263 kilometres of municipal roads, were paved or rehabilitated. Over the same period licensing revenues have risen by US$ 90 million in the West Bank. Regional transportation schemes, technical specifications and standards for road design and construction were drafted.

(+) In Q1 of 2011 the value of the agriculture sector rose by 7.5% in absolute terms, in comparison to the first quarter of 2010. Also in Q1 of 2011, the agriculture sector accounted for 10.6% of total employment.

(+) According to Ministry of Education statistics, a total of 2,577 schools provided education services in Palestine by the end of 2010, including 1,917 in the West Bank and 660 in Gaza. Out of these, the Government supervises 1,921 schools, or 74.5%. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) supervises 325 schools, or 12.7%, while 331 schools, or 12.8%, are operated by civil society organisations.

The Ultimate Objective

In his introduction to the report, Prime Minister Fayyad makes clear that “providing for the needs of our citizens under occupation, and despite the occupation” was a formidable challenge. However, in the two years since the development plans were approved, the PNA has largely met or exceeded these national goals.” He says, “Our ultimate objective, a free and independent Palestinian state in the territories occupied in 1967, with East Jerusalem as its capital, has not yet been realized. But we have created an environment, recognized by the international community, in which we, Palestinians, are now prepared for such statehood.”

According to the report, Palestinians “now live in a more secure environment, with unified and empowered security and policing services accountable to Palestinian civil authority. They can now more safely walk the streets of our cities, towns and villages with greater personal security.” In making these changes, Mr Fayyad says, “Palestinians have demonstrated that we are a “can-do” people. While continuing to live under an oppressive military occupation, we have overcome the spirit of defeatism precipitated by four decades of it, taking, to the fullest extent possible, our fate into our own hands.

“This has been a movement of self-empowerment in the quest for freedom, justice and dignity. From underneath the dreadful weight of dispossession, misery and self-doubt, Palestinians have come together and empowered themselves under the most challenging of circumstances. Rather than point fingers and lament our tragic fate, we embarked on the more productive path of building our way out of the challenges we have been dealt. Brick by brick, day by day, we have marched forward to prepare not only the ground but also ourselves for the responsibilities inherent in independence and freedom as an equal and responsible member of the world community of nations.”

He adds, “Our effort has been to make statehood inevitable. Our state will be built by building it. We are now ready. This has not been an effort at confrontation. To the contrary, it is meant to create a physical and psychological environment that allows for a re-invigoration of the peace process. We seek peace, justice, and reconciliation with our neighbors and our rightful place as a free and independent country within the community of nations, nothing more, but also nothing less.”

The results of the Israeli occupation

The report highlights how the ongoing occupation is obstructing Palestinian efforts “to facilitate a transition from a welfare-oriented to a development approach.” It says, “To shift from relief to development assistance requires that we be able to exercise full control over our natural resources, realize freedom of movement for persons and goods, and manage our own international gateways.

Readers will learn the following Israeli practices which, the report says, have prevented “the implementation of countless projects vital for socio-economic development in Palestine.”

(+) The Palestinian territory remains fragmented into areas designated as “A”, “B”, and “C” under the Oslo Accord. There is no territorial link between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, or contiguity within the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Israeli restrictions on movement and access, including their full control of external border crossings into the West Bank and Gaza, continue to be real obstacles to establishing the state.

(+) The West Bank’s natural resources, such as land and water, are predominantly out of reach for Palestinians.

(+) Israel continues to deny permission for major projects, including the rehabilitation of the Gaza commercial port, the fishing port, and Yasser Arafat International Airport in Rafah. In the West Bank we were prevented from commencing construction of the Palestine International Airport in the Al Buqei’a area of East Jerusalem, and from establishing regional connection points for our electricity network to serve communities in “Area C”.

(+) Israel has destroyed already existing public and private infrastructure that was established with the support of the international community. Examples include the demolition 342 Palestinian-owned structures in the West Bank during the first half of 2011 (including 125 residential buildings, thereby displacing a total of 656 citizens), the demolition of 82 structures in East Jerusalem in 2010 (since 2000 alone, the Israeli authorities have demolished more than 800 Palestinian-owned structures in East Jerusalem), and the destruction of water wells in Al ‘Aqrabaniya village in the Nablus Governorate and Kafr Dan village in the Jenin governorate.

(+) Transportation infrastructure is also not immune from destruction: Al-Hurriya Road (Freedom Road) near Qarawah Bani Hassan (Salfit Governorate) village was demolished twice by Israeli authorities, once in November 2010 and the second time in March 2011.

(+) Israeli permits are required before engaging in any form of construction activity in the 60% of the West Bank currently designated as “Area C”, causing endless delays. In one example, the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA) finally received Israeli permission to implement the Wadi az Zumar wastewater project in the West Bank after facing delays of more than 10 years. The project, which serves nine communities in the northern West Bank, includes the installation of sewerage networks and transmission pipelines.

(+) In the Gaza Strip, Israel continues to restrict imports of critical raw materials, equipment and machinery, all of which are required for infrastructure work.

Pervasive suffering

“The capricious control regime imposed by the State of Israel still constitutes a major challenge, undermining the very fabric of our nation,” the report says. “Realistically, genuine and sustainable development cannot occur without ending the occupation and establishing an independent, sovereign, and viable State of Palestine.”

It notes: “The political climate remains unstable, which stifles growth and hampers business confidence. The occupation is curbing foreign investment and business partnerships, which undermines the integration and competitiveness of the local economy. In Gaza, poverty and suffering remain pervasive. Limited measures taken by the Government of Israel have done little to alleviate the misery caused by the enduring and entrenched siege. Our international development partners remain constrained in helping us implement our projects and programmes.”

Even after the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, there will be challenges to overcome because institutional development and reform are continuous processes. The report says, “Following independence, we will continue to work to overcome the impact of the occupation. When it can exercise full sovereignty, the Government is determined to consolidate and expand on the reforms and developments achieved to date through effective local, regional and international networking and partnership.” Addressing these challenges will require more concerted efforts not only nationally, but from the global community, the report says.

The following are two key excerpts from the report

Tourism: The Promise Of A New Global Destination

In 2010, approximately 577,000 guests stayed at hotels throughout the Palestinian territory, staying on average slightly more than 2 days. 37% of tourists arrived from EU member states, 16% from other European countries, and 13% from the USA and Canada. In comparison to 2009 the number of guests increased by 28% and overnight stays by 23%.

In Q1 of 2011, there were some 132,000 hotel guests. 36% came from EU member states, 14% from other European countries and 15% from the USA and Canada. Over the reporting period hotel occupancy increased by 6% in comparison to Q1 of 2010, but dropped by 22% in comparison to Q4 of 2010. The decline vis-à-vis Q4 2010 can be attributed to seasonal tourism by stays by 23%. Christian pilgrims to Bethlehem.

In March 2011, a total of 97 hotels were in operation in Palestine. These held 5,159 rooms with a capacity of 10,818 beds. This is an increase on 2010, when 95 hotels, with 4,898 rooms and 10,520 beds, were in operation.

As articulated in its 13th programme, the Government is working to increase Palestine’s tourism by a better exploitation of its competitiveness. The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities (MoTA) has sponsored and organised many festivals and events in collaboration with LGUs and civil society organisations, including specialised associations and bodies. The MoTA also took part in international tourism fairs in France, Italy, Scotland, Ukraine, Brazil, Britain, Canada, Spain, and Germany. A number of training courses have been offered to tourist guides in the West Bank, inspection visits have been conducted of travel offices and hotels, and multilingual information materials have been produced to introduce major Palestinian tourist sites.

To preserve Palestinian national identity and cultural heritage in the face of the Israeli occupation, the Government is protecting and maintaining cultural heritage sites. The Palestinian Cultural Heritage Database is now operational and MoTA staff is in the process of listing, examining, photographing and entering data about national archaeological artefacts, including those discovered during organised, rescue-oriented excavations and those that had been seized.

In cooperation with UNESCO, the MoTA set up a committee, with representatives from various museums in Palestine, to draft a national strategy for museums. In liaison with some donors, MoTA has continued to rehabilitate and renovate several museums, including the Ar Rawiya and Al Balad Museums in Bethlehem, archaeology museums in Ramallah and Tulkarem, and the Dura Museum. The lighting of Hisham’s Palace in Jericho has been completed and the construction of the Yasser Arafat Museum project continues.

Culture and Heritage: Honoring Artistic and Literary Achievements

The Program of the 13th Government highlights the role Palestinian culture plays in upholding the unity of our society in spite of the persecution it has been subjected to over decades of oppressive occupation. The Program emphasises the Government’s commitment to working towards developing a spirited, resilient, creative and pluralistic national culture that is open to full interaction with other cultures from around the world.

According to the assessment of the European Union Representative Office (the donor Co- chair of the Social Protection Sector Working Group), “The PNA has shown an institutional commitment to supporting and protecting the rich, diversified Palestinian cultural heritage through effective and efficient planning, consolidated legal framework, adherence to applicable international standards, and proficient management of cultural resources in the oPt.”

The Ministry of Culture (MoC) has continued to support and develop cultural life in Palestine through a package of programmes, including Culture for All, cultural contact and exchange, cultural heritage protection, and the development of physical, institutional and legal infrastructure. The Ministry targets thousands of Palestinians as beneficiaries, especially youth, children and citizens in marginalised communities.

Having identified the rejuvenation of cultural life and promotion of cultural contacts as a priority, the Government sponsored a range of cultural events over the summer in 2011, creating a distinctive cultural season that narrates the story of the Palestinian people and presents their original culture and heritage. These events included the 3rd Palestine International Festival, the Jerusalem Summer Nights Festival and festivals in Bir Zeit, Jifna, El Bireh, and Ramallah, as well as the Al-Quds culture fair in East Jerusalem. Organised across the Palestinian homeland, these events have challenged Israel’s policy of fragmenting our areas. They consolidated communication between our citizens and with the outside world by hosting many groups and individual artists from various Arab and foreign countries.

To support and stimulate artistic and literary creativity, on the side-lines of the National Culture Day, the MoC honoured the Cultural Personality of 2011 and launched the Palestinian exile literature and prisoner movement literature series. The Ministry also organised more than 65 events to honor and highlight artistic and literary achievements by Palestinian pioneers and innovators, and organized seminars to provide authors and artists with an opportunity to present their works. To promote artistic creativity among Palestinian youth, the MoC co- sponsored programmes to teach music, dancing, and other expressions of art.

To maintain and safeguard our national heritage, the MoC is working towards collating and documenting oral histories and narrations of Palestinian life. The foundations for the establishment of the National Register of Palestinian Heritage have been laid.

As part of its international cultural contact and exchange programme the Ministry concluded several agreements with Jordan, Bulgaria and Brazil. The MoC has also hosted authors and artists from various countries and provided assistance to Palestinian writers and artists to help them take part in international cultural events.