Blockaded by Israel and Egypt, impoverished and subject to Islamic strictures, the Gaza Strip isn’t on the itinerary of most of the world’s tourists, but that hasn’t deterred Gaza City from producing a map highlighting local "must sees."
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The map, which debuted this week, is the brainchild of students and lecturers at the Geography Department of the city’s University College of Applied Sciences (UCAS). Besides documenting its archaeological and tourist sites, the map includes practical information such as hospitals and government buildings. Funded by the Bank of Palestine, the English-language map is handed out free of charge.
"We decided to give Gaza its due," Amir Shurrab, a lecturer at UCAS's Information Technology Department and head of Midad, the company that implemented the mapping project, told The Media Line. "Gaza is the world's fourth-most-ancient city. This project was our dream and aspiration, which we finally realized."
Gaza boasts unique archeological sites dating back millennia. The tomb of Prophet Muhammad's grandfather Hashem and the recently unearthed Hellenistic site of Tel Al-Rafah near the Egyptian border, where 1,300 silver coins were discovered, are only some of the city's highlights.
Shurrab said there are enough tourists in the city, and plenty more
visiting political activists to justify creating the map. Until now, the
only tool available for them to navigate the city was a printout from
Google Maps, which he said isn’t detailed enough.
Others involved in the project admitted that ideology played no less of a
role than practicality. Jamal Al-Khodary, UCAS's chairman, told Al-Quds
daily that the idea of a tourist map could be considered a luxury, but
that in fact the initiative was "a challenge to the blockade and the
aggression, portraying a bright image for Gaza and Palestine."
Sari Bashi, director of Gisha, an Israeli non-government organization
seeking to increase freedom of movement to and from the Gaza Strip, said
only the most dedicated and determined travelers would stand a chance
of ever entering Gaza. In fact, an ordinary tourist -- the kind that
wants to explore sites and lie on the beach -- can’t enter at all.
Subject to a blockade since the Islamic fundamentalist movement Hamas
seized control in 2007, the enclave has only two border crossings: the
Rafah Crossing with Egypt and the Erez Crossing with Israel. There is
neither an airport nor a seaport in operation.
"It's difficult to enter through Egypt because its policy is in flux
right now, and a visa is required to enter Egypt," Bashi told The Media
To enter from the Israeli side, one must show the Israeli army that he
is either a journalist, an employee of an international aid
organization, a diplomat or a foreigner with family in Gaza, she said.
"I'm not aware of people who applied for the express purpose of tourism
and were allowed to enter,” said Bashi, although she admitted that
Israel has loosened restrictions in the past year.
But Nabeela Maliha, an archeology expert working for Gaza's Tourism
Ministry, said the Israeli blockade created a new and unique form of
tourism: solidarity tourism.
"Groups, mostly from Europe and East Asia, come in through Egypt to
identify with the people of Gaza," Maliha told The Media Line. Its
superb weather and beautiful Mediterranean beaches would make Gaza an
attractive tourist destination under normal circumstances, but Israel
stunted Gaza's tourist potential, she said.
"The occupation is the number one reason. Tourism requires control of your borders in land, sea and air. We have none of that."
Maliha added that Gaza's security instability as well as the
unwillingness of international organizations such as United Nations
Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to cooperate
with Gaza's Hamas government harmed tourism, too.
"The Hamas government is under siege, so tourism is pushed to the bottom
of the priority list," she said. "The money in the budget is spent on
food, health, education and construction projects."
As international activists scrambled to board boats headed for Gaza in
defiance of the Israeli-imposed naval blockade, Hamas Prime Minister
Ismail Haniyeh declared on Sunday that Gaza had succeeded in vanquishing
the blockade through international development projects and government
"We have overcome years of cruel blockade through our steadfastness and
sacrifice, and today we show that our people are greater than the
blockade and greater than the occupation," Haniyeh said at the
cornerstone ceremony of a new park and stadium in the Gaza Strip refugee
camp of Nuseirat.
Maliha denied that foreigners feared Gaza for internal reasons, although
they certainly had good reason to. In April, Italian peace activist
Vittorio Arrigoni was abducted in Gaza and brutally executed by an
extremist Islamic group. In March 2007, BBC correspondent Alan Johnston
was kidnapped in Gaza by the Army of Islam, another extremist group, and
held in captivity for nearly four months.
Tourism sites have also been targeted by local fundamentalists. The
Crazy Water Park, opened on May 2010 to serve Gaza's upper class, was
burned to the ground four months later. The park had been shut down by
the Hamas government in August because it allowed men and women to mix.