Occupied Palestine. Promoting Tourism in the Settlements

Israeli settlers have gotten into the habit of playing host to visiting tourists. But this facade of hospitality conceals a political goal: prettify the image of the colonies and the occupation.

Har Brakha, a settlement near Nablus, with a “tourist” vocation thanks to couchsurfing
עדירל/Wikipedia Commons

Mount Gerizim is a peaceful spot, still a bit wild, covered with greenery and flowers brimming with sunshine, an ideal place to stay for a “couch surfer”. Ophir needs no convincing “Just look at that view! A ‘true gift’ with which he is proud to astonish the transient guests who have been succeeding one another in his living room at Har Brakha for nearly a year now.

His profile on the free hosting website couchsurfing.com suggests a tantalising atmosphere: Pink Floyd, spirituality and Nature. But what Ophir fails to note is that Har Brakha —Hebrew for ‘the Mount of Blessings’—is an Israeli colony in the north of the West Bank. An illegal location under international law.

And yet this should not be seen as a deliberate attempt at concealment, for like all the colonists of his generation, it was Ophir’s choice to live here, determined by a ‘childhood dream’ in pursuance of ‘this land of Samaria, promised the Jews in the Bible.’ Why bother to specify something considered so natural? On the contrary, it was a very definite intention that prompted him to enrol on couchsurfing.com as a host; ‘I have a message for the world, show that everything is fine here, we live in peace.

The holiday of your dreams on the edge of a vineyard

At first glance, Har Brakha is prosperous indeed, nestling at an altitude of 880 metres, behind its security fence. Inside the colony, time seems to be standing still. On the roads, cars are few and far between, but many children can be seen walking alone, after school. We are a far cry from the hustle and bustle of Nablus down below, dusty and chaotic stronghold of the second Intifada (2000-2006). Ophir strides across his mountainside vineyard, stretching as far as the eye can see. Part of it is tended by Christian Evangelists who have attached themselves to the Har Braha Jews.

Ophir, at the top of the hill on which the Har Brakha colony is located. In the distance, a Palestinian village.
© Annabelle Martella

“My dad grew potatoes in the USA. One day he realised that they didn’t grow potatoes in the Bible, but they grew vines to make wine. And so he came and settled here.” Nate explains. And when he says “here” he means “Israel.”

In the streets of the colony and amidst the grapevines it is hard to realise that Har Brakha came into existence beyond the Green Line — border of the Hebrew State as established in 1949. The only scar left by history is a military observation post, a relic of the army’s occupation of this land in 1982 before turning it over to the first members of this religious community. Today, nearly 2,000 people live at Har Brakha. On the occupied West Bank, the number of settlers has tripled since the nineties, now totalling 420,000, exclusive of East Jerusalem.

But that’s not that profane history that Ophir likes tell his guests. He’s professional tourist guide and he is confident in his method and the story he tells. “People come here and we have a good time, we drink wine, I introduce them to the people who live in the area and they can feel how peaceable it is.”

“Yes, it’s legal”

Judging by the comments from users of couchsurfing.com, the formula is effective. “I learned a lot during my stay, I’ll certainly be thinking about it for a long time,” or else : “I was glad to have you show me what life is like in the colonies.” Cisco, who had never visited a colony, concluded, on his return at Romania : “There it’s possible to have a simple family life, what more can a person want?”

One hundred kilometres to the south, in the Kfar Adumim colony, Yonadav, an eighteen year-old, registered his family on couchsurfing.com for the coming summer. Like Ophir’s, his home attracts many tourists. On the edge of the desert, not far from Jerusalem, the spot also has a Biblical dimension.

It is not so much peace as what they have to say that motives Yonadav and his family: “Most of the time, people only know one history and they have a bad image of Israel. “While this wasn’t their original motivation for opening their home to couch surfers, “it enables us offer the other version, especially to people who have travelled in the Palestinian territories,” he admits. A secondary school student, he has never yet been abroad. His version of things occupies the single line which opens his description: I live in a settlement, no it’s not dangerous, and yes, it’s legal.” In short, a carbon copy of the government’s rhetoric. He updated his online profile a little over a month ago after hosting a couple of couch surfers who thought he lived in an Arab village.

Vines of Har Brakha Hill, cultivated by the settlers.
© Annabelle Martella

A weird experience due to the ambivalent referencing on couchsurfing.com. When you type “Westbank” into the search bar, Palestinian and coloniser hosts appear all mixed up, with no particular mention of those living in a colony. The result is the same when searching for Judea and Samaria, the Biblical names which correspond to the administrative designation used by Israeli authorities when referring to the West Bank areas populated by a Jewish majority on the West Bank, exclusive of East Jerusalem. Because of this schizophrenic referencing and unless one studies the 23,864 small ads1, it is impossible to know how many lodgings are referenced in the colonies.

To get some idea as close as possible to the reality, we can select only Hebrew-speaking hosts, targeting zones that are sufficiently wide apart to avoid overlapping. Thus one finds 47 hosts in Ariel, 323 in Modin Illit or 518 in Alfei Menashe. As for the Golan Heights, which are part of the territories occupied by Israel as defined ny UN Security Council Resolution No. 24, we find 231 hosts.

Singled out by Amnesty

But these UN resolutions and other international condemnations which designate the colonies as one of the chief obstacles preventing the resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict seem not to affect the experience of these travellers in any way. On Yonadav’s profile and many others, the comments merely praise their sense of hospitality, their culinary skills or the beauty of the landscapes. The implication is that couch-surfing in the colonies is just like anywhere else. “Nobody gives a damn” Ophir assures us. “We drink wine and the landscape is friendly. That’s all that matters.” His only bad experience never got began the virtual stage. “She never came, because when she realised it was in what she called ‘The West Bank’, she wrote to me that in Geneva people say ‘blablabla, and what you’re doing is evil’ and he laughed. “OK, in Geneva they say that, but then there’s God. I choose God.”

But can tourism in the colonies be just ordinary tourism? For Amnesty International and many other NGOs, the answer is no. In a vitriolic report published last January this human rights association denounced the activities of Booking.com, Airbnb, Expedia and TripAdvisor for their offers in the colonies, accused of“ listing places to stay or things to do in illegal Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.” They are promoting these listings, and profiting from them.’ Basically, these companies are accused of making the situation appear normal. In November, Airbnb withdrew all its rental offers in the occupied parts of the West Bank but in April it backed off and reposted some 200 under threat of lawsuits from Israel and the US.

View from Har Brakha Hill over the Palestinian village of Iraq Burin, “a terrorist landmark” for Ophir.
© Anna Mutelet

Henceforth, the company promises, Airbnb will no longer derive any profits from its activities in the region.” The platform Couchsurfing.com, which has over four million users, provides its services free of charge, except for so-called “verified” members who pay a lump sum and who include a number of colonists. Not to mention the fact that no warning accompanies the pages advertising accommodations in the occupied zone.

Tourism in the colonies has strategic importance for Israel which received overall nearly four million visitors in 2018, an all-time high. What with government subsidies, the programs it finances and special status areas, the State has invested enormous sums in the West Bank over the past few years. In May came one last nudge! The government has promised 20% subsidies to businessmen prepared to build or extend their hotels in “Judea and Samaria.”

The Efrat Council head welcomed the move in The Jerusalem Post: “Tourists are Israel’s best global ambassadors in the promotion of Zionism and in the struggle against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. . . The objective: They will see that there is not war here every day and that there is no apartheid. Like on Couchsurfing?

1Editor’s note. These figures are those of early August 2019.