Al-Ahram Weekly – 14 February 2002
Israeli Tourism Minister Benni Elon has been warned by the Shin Bet security service of a Palestinian plot to murder him, according to a report on Israeli radio last week. The Shin Bet has urged Elon, who has been in the job since November, to move out of his West Bank settlement home.
He inherited the portfolio from Rahavam Zeevi, who was killed by gunmen from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in October in retaliation for the assassination of the group’s leader, Abu Ali Mustafa.
The elevation of two successive tourism ministers to the top of the Palestinian militants’ hit list has nothing to do with the ministry’s influence on the course of the Intifada — which is marginal, at best.
Rather, the explanation is to be found in the political allegiance of both men. Their Moledet party openly campaigns for the expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza.
Last week Elon, a diminutive political figure compared with Zeevi, tried to beef up his image with a new publicity drive reiterating the party’s call for the “transfer” of Palestinians.
When pressed by journalists, Elon claimed that the policy was simply about encouraging Palestinian migration to Jordan and Egypt through government incentive schemes.
But when addressing his main constituency — the hard-line settlers — he offered a different interpretation, suggesting instead that Palestinians could be persuaded to migrate by making their lives unbearable under Israeli occupation.
In an interview with the settlers’ newspaper Nekuda last month, he went further, arguing that by withdrawing services and civil rights the country’s one million Arab citizens could be encouraged to leave, too. “For example, I’ll close the universities to you, I’ll make your life difficult until you want to leave,” he said. [WRONG – check original story]
Israel’s succession of coalition governments has a history of offering public spending ministries like housing and education to right-wing and religious parties to buy their support.
But the inclusion of an unapologetically racist party in the government is starting to redraw the boundaries of what is acceptable in public debate, particularly as the impression takes hold among Israelis that the Intifada is not likely to end soon.
An early sign has been a flurry of posters and bumper stickers, unrelated to the Moledet campaign, bearing the slogan “No Arabs — No terror attacks.” In a country where every fifth citizen is Palestinian, the campaign is intentionally inflammatory. Last week, the government’s chief legal officer banned the slogan, saying it was an incitement to racism.
Elon, meanwhile, is making the most of his cabinet role. He has packed the Tourism Ministry with Moledet officials and is now redirecting ministry money to the illegal settlements, home to 200,000 Israelis.
Most of this year’s budget has already been allocated, but Elon has found an initial $1.7 million to spend on a series of dubious tourist “attractions” in the West Bank. They 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.
In the past few weeks, he has also given his blessing to a visitor centre and seafront promenade at the Gush Katif bloc of settlements in the Gaza Strip.
Gush Katif is one of the most dangerous places in the occupied territories. The presence of its few thousand privileged settlers next to the large and besieged Palestinian town of Khan Yunis has often provoked barrages of mortar and sniper fire.
In contrast, traditional tourist attractions have been overlooked. The organisation promoting the once-popular Red Sea beach resort of Eilat received only $13,500 last year, while a group responsible for the country’s nature reserves received the even smaller sum of $3,300. Sites of Christian pilgrimage like Tiberias and Nazareth were equally sidelined.
Although there is almost no tourism worth mentioning at the settlement sites, a ministry spokeswoman said: “We have to view things in the long term. Many of these sites will be of interest to tourists in years to come if we start to develop them now.”
Figures published last month show the almost total collapse of tourism to Israel: 1.2 million people visited in 2001 compared with 2.7 million the year before. The majority of the tourists are likely to have been Jews visiting relatives.
Uzi Baram, tourism minister in Yitzhak Rabin’s government, has warned that Elon’s approach will bring catastrophe. “In my opinion, at this rate, the tourism industry will fall apart in another two months,” he said.
But while Elon is determined to use his seat in the cabinet to give the settlers a helping hand, a new survey suggests they are hardly in need of it. The Tel-Aviv-based Adva Centre, which concerns itself with issues of equality and inequality in Israeli society, has reported huge discrimination during the 1990s in favour of the settlements — despite their being illegal under international law — over towns inside the Green Line (the pre- 1967 border).
This, say the authors of the Adva Centre report, was true even when benefits such as additional military spending on bypass roads and extensive tax breaks were excluded from the calculations.
For example, the per capita municipal spending on each settler was approximately $1,200 a year, compared with $850 spent on the inhabitants of Jewish towns in Israel. Inhabitants of Arab towns received the even smaller sum of $540, less than half that allocated to settlers.
Similarly, the rate of housing construction in the West Bank and Gaza was 63 per cent higher than in Israel proper, even though Israeli governments were committed to a freeze on settlement expansion throughout most of the nineties.
The government has also subsidised settlement housing by an average of 50 per cent, compared with only 25 per cent for public housing projects within the Green Line.
Such financial indulgence of the settlements may become harder for other Israelis to swallow in the coming months if the country’s economic downturn, the worst in years, continues.
Unemployment has hit a record high, despite the closure policy in the occupied territories that has prevented tens of thousands of Palestinians from working inside Israel. Experts are predicting much worse to come.
Al-Ahram Weekly – 14 February 2002