Israeli Buses Invade Bethlehem
By: Fadi Abu Saada
Published Thursday, October 4, 2012
The internationally beloved city of Bethlehem should provide much needed tourism revenue to Palestine. However, Israeli tour-guide companies enter the territories without restriction, while their Palestinian counterparts are not allowed to travel
Bethlehem - Because Bethlehem is an international tourist destination, particularly for Christian pilgrims coming from all corners of the world, Palestinian tourism companies should be enjoying good business.
However, the ancient city is being invaded by buses belonging to Egged, the Israeli public transport provider, which transport tourists from 1948 occupied Palestine.
Palestinian tourist companies are not allowed to cross the Green Line, even to pick up pilgrims and tourists.
This has raised the ire of Bethlehem’s residents, who are asking who allowed these Israeli companies to enter their city while Palestinian tourist agencies are barred from operating inside 1948 territory.
Geryes Qumsieh, spokesperson for the Palestinian tourism ministry, admitted that Israeli buses are in fact taking the place of Palestinian companies. But, he added, that “we have no authority to stop them.”
“This is not something that is being coordinated in any way with the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism, which has no say over whether Israeli buses can enter or not,” he explained.
Qumsieh insisted that such policies should be reciprocal, whereby Palestinian companies and tourist guides would be allowed to operate within 1948 Palestine, just as Israeli buses and guides enter areas under Palestine Authority (PA) control without any conditions or restrictions.
“This points to a lack of respect on the part of Israel for agreements it signed on this particular issue with the PA,” he continued.
But, according the Qumsieh, the tourism ministry does see some benefit from the entry of Israeli guides and buses to PA-controlled areas in that it counters Israeli propaganda that Bethlehem is unsafe and going there is a dangerous undertaking.
Khalil Rashmawi, president of the Association of Bus Companies in the Southern West Bank, says that this issue “goes back to 2000, when Palestinian buses were permitted to enter Israel, before the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada and the siege that the occupation forces imposed on Bethlehem and the Palestinian territories in general.”
He confirmed that according to the Oslo Accords, both sides agreed “to operate on the basis of reciprocity in matters related to tourism, whereby tourists are able to move between Israel and the Palestinian territories without any obstacles.”
“This was to be followed by the entry of all Palestinian companies to the other side without obstruction, and this is the basis upon which we established Shepherd’s Field Tourism Company in 1999, which suffered terrible losses after the outbreak of the second intifada,” he continued.
“But,” he added, “in 2010, the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism invited Israeli and foreign tourist bus drivers and guides to Bethlehem to show them that the city was safe.”
According to Rashmawi, “this goodwill gesture toward the Israelis” led to a 10 percent decline in Palestinian companies’ business.
Rashmawi says that they attempted to contact individuals in the tourism ministry, asking to take the issue up with the Israelis, but the the response was that this matter is “political and requires negotiations with the Israeli side to resolve it. However, the political process and negotiations are frozen at the moment.”
Michel Awad, who runs the Angels Travel and Tourism Company, insisted on reciprocity: “Just as Israeli buses are allowed to enter, Palestinians should be permitted to operate inside Israel.”
He added that the Palestinian tourism sector has suffered tremendous losses since the outbreak of the second intifada 12 years ago, forcing many companies to close down or lay off many of their workers. “Pressure must be brought to bear on behalf of the Palestinian companies,” he demanded.
It appears that there will be no solution to the problem in the near future. Meanwhile, Israeli buses will roam the streets of Bethlehem unrestricted. The excuse of course is that they are transporting Western tourists, who in turn are desperately needed in this holy city because they are a key source of income for many residents.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.