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Top up your tan in Gaza, Israel urges tourists

The Guardian – 4 February 2002

For the holidaymaker in search of a sun-soaked Mediterranean beach away from the crowds, Gush Katif sounds ideal. Or so thinks Israel’s hardline tourism minister, Binyamin Elon.

Last week, as figures revealed a huge drop in the number of visitors to Israel over the past 12 months, Mr Elon was giving his blessing to a new tourism drive at Gush Katif. The local mayor, Avner Shimoni, eagerly anticipating financial support for a planned visitor centre and seafront promenade, said: “I expect we’ll get several hundred thousand shekels.”

There is only one drawback: Gush Katif is an illegal settlement in occupied Palestinian territory and protected by barbed wire fences, armed soldiers, military watchtowers and checkpoints.

Located on the southern shores of the Gaza Strip, Gush Katif has been at the centre of some of the worst violence of the 16-month Palestinian uprising. The presence of its several thousand settlers next to the Palestinian town of Khan Yunis provokes a constant barrage of mortar and sniper fire.

Areas of the settlement had to be evacuated on Thursday after a series of attacks – including a bomb explosion claimed by the militant Islamist group Hamas, and a gun battle between Israeli soldiers and two Palestinian intruders. The gunmen were killed and a foreign worker injured.

The Gaza Strip, a parched area of land roughly 30 miles long and six miles wide that borders Egypt to the south, is home to 7,000 settlers and more than 1m Palestinians. The handful of settlements occupy a quarter of the territory, including almost all of Gaza’s arable land. The rest of the Strip is fenced off from Israel, with the majority of Palestinians housed in refugee camps and living far below the poverty line.

The tourism ministry was unable yesterday to say how many tourists visited Gaza last year. Any foreigners seen there are usually war correspondents.

A spokeswoman said officials would be going to Gush Katif in the next few weeks to make technical assessments of the area. But she added: “We are taking a long-term view in Gaza. Although it may not be attracting visitors at the moment, the situation could be different in a few years’ time.”

The Gush Katif scheme is not unique. Although all the settlements in the occupied territories are regarded as illegal under international law, Mr Elon has been pumping more than £1m into a series of projects in the West Bank since he took over the tourism portfolio in November.

A rabbi and one of the leaders of the settler movement, Mr Elon leads the Moledet party, which campaigns for the expulsion of Palestinians from the occupied territories. Moledet is one of the small rightwing parties whose support Mr Sharon needs if his coalition government is to stay in power. The previous tourism minister, Rehavam Zeevi, also of Moledet, was assassinated in October by Palestinian gunmen.

The new tourist “attractions” in the West Bank include an obscure archaeological site at Susiya, south of Hebron; an aqueduct at Efrat, between Bethlehem and Hebron; and a viewing platform at Elon, close to Jericho. None of the sites is to be found in travel guides to Israel or the occupied territories.

There is also a question mark over how safe it is to visit the areas: an Israeli was shot dead in Susiya last year, and there are regular shooting incidents around Efrat.

The ministry spokeswoman said: “There is still plenty of domestic tourism and we believe there are many Israelis who are interested in these sites.”

But apparently Mr Elon also hopes to attract Jews from abroad. The ministry’s latest advertising campaigns have targeted Jewish publications in the US and Britain, two of the countries with the biggest falls in tourism to Israel.

The ads, urging Jews to show solidarity by visiting Israel, have made light of the intifada rather than playing it down. One invites Jews to “Go out on a limb for Israel” next to a picture of a water-skier.

New attractions

Mr Elon has promised support for more new attractions in the future although he says his hands are tied for the time being by budget constraints agreed before he took office. He has, however, begun packing the ministry with political appointees, mainly from Moledet and the settler movement.

Traditional Israeli tourist destinations, meanwhile, are being overlooked. The authority promoting the Red Sea beach resort of Eilat and the organisation responsible for the country’s nature reserves received comparatively little government support. Sites of Christian pilgrimage inside Israel, such as Tiberias and Nazareth, were equally sidelined.

Uzi Baram, the tourism minister in the former government of Yitzhak Rabin, has warned that Mr Elon’s approach will bring catastrophe. “In my opinion, at this rate, the tourism industry will fall apart in another two months,” he said.

Over the past year the number of tourists visiting the Holy Land has fallen by more than half, according to official figures released last month. There were 1.2m tourists last year compared with 2.7m in 2000.

The collapse of tourism is contributing to Israel’s most serious recession in years. The Association of Incoming Tour Organisers predicted last year that the fall in visitors would cost more than £2bn in lost foreign currency revenue and knock nearly £3bn off gross domestic product.

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