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Wednesday, 6 February, 2002, 09:34 GMT
Israel pushes tourism on occupied land
Palestinians wave flag at Israeli police
Gush Katif has sun, sea, sand and violence
By the BBC's Caroline Hawley

Controversial investments in new tourist sites in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip will continue, Israel says.

Officials say around 7 million shekels - roughly $1.5m - will be spent on several sites, among them the Roman-era Herodion near Bethlehem and an ancient aqueduct close to the Jewish settlement of Efrat in the West Bank, as well as the existing beach-side settlement block of Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip.

It's not just Israel. Everywhere you go today you have some kind of a risk

Tourism official Daniela Aharoni

Opposition MPs have condemned the investments, with one asking mockingly if the tourists will also be given military training in how to deal with ambushes and roadside bombs.

Others are concerned about the political implications of new Jewish developments on occupied Palestinian land.

The plans also coincide with a dramatic fall in visitor numbers to Israel and the region in general during the 16-month-old Palestinian uprising.

Map of Israel

But it seems that neither bullets nor bombs - nor international law - can deter Israel's tourism ministry planners from trying to entice visitors to the West Bank and Gaza.

"It's true that today we are facing a few problems in those areas, but you develop for the future not for immediate results," a tourism ministry official, Daniela Aharoni, said.

"What we're doing is preparing the infrastructure for those sites to be ready for years to come."

Tourists' outlook had changed, she said. "Today in the whole world, no-one knows for sure that he'll be safe.

"It's not just Israel. Everywhere you go today you have some kind of a risk."

Tourism Minister Benny Elon at the Mount of Olives
Minister Elon's plans have been described as "a symbol of the far right's expansionist ideas"

Ms Aharoni says all Israeli buses travelling in the West Bank and Gaza are now bullet-proofed for protection but there could be no guarantees.

"The ministry of tourism is not a security company.

"We can't guarantee that nothing will happen, that you'll be 100% safe.

"We never do that even in good times. God only knows what can happen."

Jewish settlers have been a regular target of Palestinian gunmen, and many people believe that tourists going to Israeli-developed sites would be little safer.

But the issue is much deeper than one of security.

People didn't go to Bosnia, or to Vietnam when it was at war, and they won't come to the West Bank and Gaza in big numbers either

Former finance minister Avraham Shohat

The tourism ministry is currently headed by Benny Elon, a rabbi from the extreme right Moledet party.

One prominent opponent of the proposals has described them as "a symbol of the far right's expansionist ideas."

'Military experience'

"I think it's a very bad joke," says Avshalom Vilan of the left-wing Meretz party who does not believe more than 100 people would take part in what he sarcastically calls "this special military experience".

"On the other hand, there are 1.5 million tourists who refused to come to Israel last year because of the political and military situation," he said.

"I have a better idea - to try to achieve peace to bring them."

This is part of Palestine where we're trying to build our state

Bethlehem resident

A former finance minister from the Labour party, Avraham Shohat, is also adamantly opposed to the new investments.

"I don't think people look for tension on their holiday," he said.

"People didn't go to Bosnia, or to Vietnam when it was at war, and they won't come to the West Bank and Gaza in big numbers either."


Mr Shohat who favours "giving up most of the area" to the Palestinians says the new investments, though "relatively small" in financial terms, are still misguided and wrong.

Tourists at the Dead Sea
Critics doubt that tourists who visit the Dead Sea would want to go to Gaza
"It's ridiculous," said Max Dayan, who works with tourists at the King David hotel in Jerusalem.

"The Palestinians today have a lot of guns. I'm certainly not going to drink coffee in Gush Katif. I'll stick to taking people around Israel in the borders it had before 1967."

Palestinians have also condemned the new investments.

"This is part of Palestine where we're trying to build our state," said one Bethlehem resident.

"They should keep their investments inside Israel. This won't help bring peace."

See also:

20 Oct 01 | Business
Tourism crisis in spotlight
16 Nov 00 | UK
After the war, the holiday
29 Jul 01 | Middle East
Arabs to discuss boycott of Israel
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