The political context of the Israeli occupation means that the vast majority of tourists who visit the ‘Holy Land’ only see Palestinians through the window of a tour bus or serving them Falafel in a restaurant in Jerusalem. The media has done a great job in discouraging people from visiting Palestine, painting an image of crazy, rocket-launching terrorists that need to be safely kept behind an eight-meter high wall.
Despite the various warnings you may notice in the tourist guidebooks and government websites, you can easily visit the West Bank (Gaza is a different story). Just make sure you do not mention your detour when entering Israel. Any mention of Palestine will land you in a small room with a well-trained special agent for a few long and extremely humiliating hours and if you are unlucky a night in a detention centre before an early return flight. So smile and say you are visiting the famous Tel Aviv beaches (??), or the holy sites in ISRAEL, even if some are technically in Palestine (or if you want to make a point but probably not visit Palestine join the yearly Welcome to Palestine Campaign. Going ‘beyond’ the standard pilgrimage or mainstream tourist trip to Israel will definitely help you to understand the conflict a bit better and witness first hand the devastating consequences of the occupation.
Visiting Hebron, a city holy to Muslims, Christians, and Jews alike and one of the oldest continuously inhabited towns in the world,is not only retracing the footsteps of Abraham, Isaac and King David but also to see for yourself the impact of the Israeli occupation and witness extremist Zionists in action. The formerly bustling old city centre and former commercial center of the entire southern West Bank with its narrow, winding streets, flat-roofed stone houses, and old bazaars has been squeezed out of life and has been turned into a ghost town.
Around 450 extremist settlers have occupied the city centre and are guarded by at least four times as many Israeli soldiers.The city has been occupied by Israel since 1967, which soon began constructing settlements in and around the city – like they have been doing illegally all around the West Bank. The first Jewish settlers, who acted as tourists, occupied a Hotel in downtown Hebron in 1968 and began occupying surrounding apartments by force. The Israeli government insisted, as part of the 1995 Oslo II Agreement, on keeping the Al-Shuhada’a Street and the old vegetable market. Two years later the PLO and the Israeli government signed the so-called Hebron Agreement which divided the city into Palestinian-administered H1 (80%) and Israeli-controlled H2 (20%, incl. the Old City, Ibrahimi Mosque and the settlement enclaves).
The fundamentalist settlers of Hebron are guided by the religious conviction that they are reviving a Jewish presence in Hebron that dates back 4000 years ago to the days of Abraham. Al-Shuhada’a Street, or apartheid street as it is also known, is one of the weirdest places you will ever visit. The rows of empty Palestinian shops and houses are boarded up with steel shutters, many daubed with Stars of David to show who is in charge. The only permitted vehicles are those of the settlers and the Israeli military’
The first time I visited the city with a tour organized by the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH), we had to duck from stones being thrown at us by extremist settlers. The guides- observers- said we were lucky this time because on the tour before us they threw a sofa from a third floor window to scare away the ‘intruders’. It is quite an experience to see settlers pushing baby prams with a machine-gun on their shoulder and it does feel wrong to walk on a street, which is strictly forbidden for Palestinians. However, this is a view of the conflict rarely shown to you by the mainstream media. Experiencing it first hand is definitely worth it and most likely changes your opinions on the situation you may have held beforehand.
It is recommended that you join one of the so-called alternative tourist groups for a guided tour through the city. This will help to keep you safe, and offer you a lot of information on the situation of the city, will make you meet with Palestinians who are affected first hand by the occupation and give you in depth insight into the situation.
Be prepared for a potentially very humiliating experience before boarding your flight on your way out of Israel. The officers are well trained and they most likely will see it written in your face that you have visited Palestine. Your luggage will be searched in detail, and the extremely interesting information handbooks you picked up on the way will not help your case. Put on some nice underwear as you might be body searched. But at least you know you will be able to leave the place whatever happens, most likely with your reading material (which for some reason I was always allowed to keep) and an experience that no one can take from you anymore.