ISRAELI GOVERNMENT SUPPORT FOR THE SETTLEMENT TOURISM INDUSTRY
Israel provides a range of financial incentives to businesses operating in settlements as part of its policy to help sustain and expand them. For example, Israel has designated 90 settlements as “national priority areas”, which allows businesses to benefit from reductions in the price of land, grants for the development of infrastructure and preferential tax treatment.
As part of this programme of government support for the settlement economy, Israel has increased support to the tourism industry linked to settlements in recent years. For example, in 2010, it allocated approximately US$110 million to protect and develop visitor infrastructure at historic sites “that reflect the national heritage of the Jewish people” across Israel and the OPT. These sites included 13 in East Jerusalem and 30 in the rest of the West Bank.
Within East Jerusalem, the government is developing ambitious plans to build tourism infrastructure in Palestinian parts of the city. In May 2018, it announced it would spend US$13 million on excavations at the City of David, a settler-managed archaeological site in the neighbourhood of Silwan. In May 2018, the Israeli government also announced a budget of approximately US$54 million for a controversial cable car project that will connect the visitors’ centre at the City of David to West Jerusalem.
In June 2016, the government announced an additional programme of “special financial aid”, with specific provisions to support the development of the tourism industry in settlements in Area C. This resulted in a grant of US$1.3 million for “public tourism infrastructure”. The Prime Minister’s Office also announced subsidies for the “establishment, conversion and expansion” of hotels, B&Bs and guest rooms in settlements in the West Bank.
THE IMPORTANCE OF TOURISM TO THE SETTLEMENT ECONOMY
Israel’s policy of developing a tourism industry based in and around settlements comes as the country enjoys a boom in visitor numbers. In 2017, tourist arrivals grew by 25% to a record 3.6 million visitors, bringing in US$5.8 billion. In 2018, more than four million visitors were recorded. This growth has brought financial benefits both to Israel and to businesses operating in occupied territory. This is because most foreign visitors also enter the OPT. The top three most visited places by foreign tourists in 2017 were all in Jerusalem’s Old City, which Israel annexed in 1967 along with the rest of East Jerusalem.
Many foreign and Israeli tourists also visit attractions linked to settlements in Area C. According to Israeli Ministry of Tourism figures, 45% of foreign visitors went to the Dead Sea, much of which is in the OPT. The rest of Area C is not well known as a tourist destination and there are no government figures for visitors. However, as an indication of how popular it is becoming, the Yesha Council, an umbrella body for Israeli settlement municipal councils, stated that during the Passover holiday in 2018, some 300,000 people visited various “tourist sites, routes, museums, festivals, wineries and archaeological sites”. There are many of these scattered across Area C. A recent guidebook listedmore than 200 places to visit, stay or eat in settlements.
In addition, gift shops and visitor centres at tourist sites in the OPT sell produce grown and manufactured by Israeli settlers, such as wine, olive oil, handicrafts and cosmetics. Tourists visiting these attractions and spending money in the restaurants and other sites directly contribute to the maintenance and growth of settlements, since businesses are owned or managed by settlers.
LEGITIMIZING OCCUPATION THROUGH TOURISM?
As well as the financial gains, the Israeli government has political and ideological reasons for developing a tourism industry in occupied East Jerusalem and Area C of the West Bank. Settler groups supported by the Israeli government emphasize the Jewish people’s historic connections to the region. As a spokesperson for settlers in Hebron explained:
“From our perspective, living here is key to giving the modern state of Israel its rooting in Jewish history.”
Israel has constructed many of its settlements close to archaeological sites to make the link between the modern State of Israel and its Jewish history explicit. This is part of an active campaign to normalize and legitimize Israel’s increasing control of the OPT. At the same time, Israel downplays or ignores the significance of non-Jewish periods at archaeological and historic sites. This rewriting of history has the effect of minimizing the Palestinian people’s own historic links to the region.
In addition, websites and visitor maps issued by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and Israel’s Ministry of Tourism do not show the West Bank’s borders. Instead, the area is marked as “Judea” and “Samaria”, a term for the West Bank used by the government and settlers and not by Palestinians. This suggests a deliberate attempt to conceal from tourists that these places are in the OPT.
This is keenly felt by Palestinians living close to archaeological and tourism sites.
“Tourists coming here are brainwashed, they are lied to, they do not know this is our land,” explained Mahmoud Zaki Hassan Abu Shenar, a farmer living next to Shiloh settlement. There, the settlers run and are developing a large visitor centre with Israeli government funding.
The designation of certain locations as tourist sites is also used by the Israeli government to justify the takeover of Palestinian land and homes. For example, by declaring that populated areas of annexed East Jerusalem lie within national parks, the government has limited the ability of Palestinian residents there to construct or expand their homes and exposed them to a risk of house demolitions. It has also limited the ability of Palestinian landowners to farm their land and resulted in expulsions. Nature reserves in Area C are protected by military order, which penalizes Palestinians for attempting to graze their animals and prevents them from establishing or expanding their homes and other structures or using land for agricultural purposes.61 Palestinian communities living next to archaeological sites falling within the jurisdiction of settler regional councils have been evicted from their homes and barred from entering their land.