Tourists in Manger Square 311.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Will Israeli tour guides be allowed to lead tours to Bethlehem?
Reports surfaced on Tuesday that the IDF will allow Israeli tour guides to enter the Palestinian Authority, leading groups to Bethlehem and eventually also to Jericho.
The Tourism Ministry has a pilot program in the works that would see 50 licensed guides receive special permits to enter PA-controlled territories despite a prohibition on the entrance of Israelis into the areas in place since the start of the second intifada in late 2000.
An unidentified senior IDF officer told Yediot Aharonot’s Web site that the pilot plan would be approved soon, in light of the improved security situation in Bethlehem.
“We will do it cautiously and responsibly. The arrangement whereby Israeli guides accompany the tourists until they reach Bethlehem and then they are replaced by Palestinian guides may change,” the officer said. “Today, the Palestinian security forces, under the current leadership, are proving that they have the ability to carry out actions that suit their interests. It is clear to all that we will not allow it to take place if we learn of any elements that wish to hinder or sabotage it. We will know to stop [the arrangement] immediately.”
Tourism Ministry spokeswoman Shira Kaveh told The Jerusalem Post that the pilot program has been in the works since the end of 2009 and was currently awaiting approval from security authorities.
“Before the second intifada, Israeli tour guides worked freely in Bethlehem, and we wanted to get back there. [Christian] pilgrims who come here don’t come to see Israel; they come to visit the Holy Land. As far as they are concerned, that includes the Christian holy sites in the West Bank like Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus. A high priority on their itinerary is visiting the Church of the Nativity,” she said.
Kaveh estimated that more than a million tourists and pilgrims visit Bethlehem each year.
“When we first proposed the idea to the tour guides, we received very positive responses. Five hundred guides responded immediately that they wanted to take part in the pilot. In the end we approved 50 people, both guides and drivers, and are now awaiting security authorization so we can go ahead and start,” she said. “The first priority on everybody’s agenda is the guides’ security.”
Not all guides are thrilled with the idea of entering the PA. Ariel Stolar, deputy chairman of the Israel Tour Guides Association, said there are major concerns, particularly concerning security and insurance, that have led the association to come out against the plan.
“When we first head about the pilot project, we were all enthusiastic about it. We remembered that we had enjoyed working in Bethlehem in the past and looked forward to going back, but when we considered the risks involved more carefully, we decided to oppose it,” Stolar said.
“Nobody can guarantee our security. If there is a limitation in place on Israelis entering the Palestinian Authority, it’s there for a reason. The fact that I’m there with a group of tourists doesn’t make it any safer for me,” he said.
Stolar explained that the currant arrangement is for the Israeli guides to lead the groups during their visits to sites in Israel, but when they want to go to Bethlehem they hand over responsibility for the group to a local merchant with whom they have dealing, who takes the tourist to the Church of the Nativity and, on the way, takes them to his gift shop. “The arrangement works well and everybody’s interests are protected,” said Stolar.
The second concern guides have is that while in the PA, they are not insured. “If anything happens to me, my vehicle or my employees, I’m in trouble,” Stolar said.
Another reason the association rejects the plan is that it involves a reciprocal approval for Palestinian tour guides to work in Israel. The Israeli guides are hesitant to give their Palestinian counterparts footing in Israel for fear that they will hurt on their livelihoods.
“Opening the crossings to Israeli tour guides will have a boomerang effect. The Palestinian guides charge a quarter of the prices that Israeli guides do and their working in Israel will negatively effect our business,” said Stolar. “As it is there is no enforcement [of regulations] on Palestinians who work here and many operate unlicensed tour companies that undercut our prices and steal our customers.”
Moreover, said Stolar, “We see part of our job as advocating on behalf
of Israel. Everyday when I go to work, I am an ambassador and try to
represent my country in the best possible way. As a tour guide, I don’t
only talk about history and geography, I also put things into
geopolitical context. Turning that over to Palestinian guides, who
might tell visitors a very different story, is in nobody’s interest.”
The office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the
Territories declined to respond to questions about Israeli tour guides
gaining entrance to Bethlehem.