Easter is once again upon us. Typically, this means a day or two off work, quality time with the family and, for large numbers, a special opportunity to reflect on their faith and their values.
For some people, not all devout Christian believers by any means, Easter is also the perfect time to visit the place where it all began. The booming “Holy Lands” travel industry offers numerous packages, variously offering holidays of “culture and wonder”, “epic quests” and “once in a lifetime, fully-escorted tours”.
With the marketing-speak turned up to ten, the holiday booking sites boast of how the traveller will be visiting “a sacred land forged over centuries”, “a country where the most spiritually significant sites of Judaism, Islam and Christianity converge”.
Fine, and I for one see the worth of these journeys. Travel broadens the mind and - in some cases - deepens our faith. But we also need to read the small print.
Amnesty recently published a major report showing how the big four leading tourism sites - Airbnb, TripAdvisor, Expedia and Booking.com - are listing hundreds of rooms, activities and attractions in Israeli settlements built on occupied Palestinian territory. You wouldn’t necessarily realise it, when, for instance, you reserve a hotel or apartment in the West Bank’s Kfar Adumim - close to “Genesis Land” where visitors can ride camels and eat a meal in a Bedouin-style tent in the desert with actors dressed as Biblical characters - but you would be booking a holiday in an Israeli settlement, illegal under international law. Tourist experiences aside, in Kfar Adumim the Bedouin communities themselves have been driven off their land by the Israeli military authorities.
Again, any holiday-maker planning a visit to the City of David National Park in East Jerusalem may not appreciate that their trip to this place of dense archaeological interest means they’re financing a site whose development by Israeli settlers is fuelling ongoing human right violations against Palestinians in the adjacent village of Silwan. The area is earmarked for rapid development, with plans to build a massive visitor complex and even a cable car to the Old City. Meanwhile, 1,500 Palestinian residents of the al-Bustan area of Silwan are at ever-increasing risk of forced eviction.
With the Israeli government supporting tourism as a means to consolidate the settlements (and companies like TripAdvisor eagerly marketing holidays there), let us not forget that the settlements are entirely illegal under international law, condemned by the UN and almost every country around the world, including our own. The settlements are swallowing up Palestinian land and are meanwhile a key driving force behind the 52-year-long occupation’s host of human rights violations against Palestinians.
The figures are startling: since 1967, more than 600,000 Israeli settlers have been encouraged (via subsidies, tax incentives and low-cost utilities) to move into some 250 fortified enclaves on 1,000 square kilometres of land from which more than 50,000 Palestinian homes and structures have been bulldozed.
Following Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-election, there is every prospect that these settlements will now expand even further, with the destruction of still more Palestinian homes and livelihoods. And the gloss and allure of tourism will help obscure - and entrench - this injustice.
With Airbnb recently in the news for back-tracking on a promise to discontinue its listing of some 200 rentals and attractions in the West Bank, some Easter travellers may be newly aware of what travel to the Holy Lands can mean.
Easter is a time of self-awareness, reflection and renewal. We should all avoid supporting Israel’s discriminatory and deeply exploitative settlement policy.