Israel’s ban on Indonesians threatens east Jerusalem travel industry

"My business will suffer and I will have to cut my staff to half."

Tourists entering Jaffa gate in Jerusalem  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Tourists entering Jaffa gate in Jerusalem
Israel’s latest diplomatic tit-for-tat is playing out with the government of Indonesia, with each nation banning the entry of tourists from the other.
Jakarta strongly condemned Israel for its use of force against the Palestinian protesters demonstrating along the Israel-Gaza border during the "Return" Marches—which were held on and subsequent to “Nakba (the catastrophe) Day.” But while the Israelis took umbrage with what Jerusalem insists are false or partially-reported charges, it moved swiftly to reciprocate when the Indonesian government refused entry to Israeli citizens.
Jakarta’s move came in the wake of reports that it was actually considering allowing tourists from the Jewish state to enter Indonesia.                                
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Nahshon confirmed to The Media Line that his government will not remove its ban until Jakarta does the same. 
"We were waiting for certain arrangements and Indonesia didn't deliver," he said. Nachshon explained that so far, Israel’s diplomatic efforts to change the situation have failed. In fact, Indonesian demonstrations back home are singularly anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian, leaving few on Israel’s side with much interest in helping to bring those same people in as tourists.                                                                         
The Israeli ban excludes Indonesian business people and students, who can enter Israel using a special visa which is not applicable for tourists. But lost to the tourism sector will be tens of thousands of Muslims and Christians whose groups come from Indonesia to visit the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem under a special visa.
"My business will suffer and I will have to cut my staff to half," Sana Srouji, the owner of Royal Travel agency told The Media Line.
She stressed that because of the sudden and "unfair" decision she will go through a major financial crisis. "I already have reservations for June and July; I issued the visas and booked the places," she explained. Srouji will have to make refunds to more than 3,000 Indonesian tourists. "We are talking here about twelve people losing their jobs and leaving their families with no income," she explained.
Srouji noted that the unemployment rate in east Jerusalem is very high and the Israeli government’s latest decision will affect mainly the Arab travel agencies as they work with the Indonesian tourists the most. Minimally, Israel will lose the fees collected for visas and boarding passes for fifty-thousand travelers.
For some agencies, the Indonesian market is their bread and butter. Wisam Toumeh, the owner of Gemm travel agency in east Jerusalem confirmed that more than eleven travel agencies there are living off of Indonesian tourism.
"We do tourism, not politics. They have no right to play with our livelihoods, our businesses," he said, urging the Israeli government to take responsibility for its decision that will impact negatively on so many people—mainly Arabs.
"We approached all of the governmental departments that have to do with the decision and they wouldn’t even talk to us," related Toumeh, who is demanding that the government reverse its decision immediately. "My loss will be more than one-half million US dollars.”
The east Jerusalem travel-related businesses—including agencies, bus companies, hotels and freelancers—have called an urgent media event for Sunday to “address their suffering.” According to the event organizers, it will stress how the tiff between Israel and Indonesia will affect the already poor economy in east Jerusalem, increase the unemployment rate even more and destroy established businesses as well as families.
There are no diplomatic relations between Israel and Indonesia, but the two countries maintain good economic ties. In 2015, the Israeli Ministry of Economy reported on a jump in trade between the two countries, estimated at about $500 million annually. Indonesia’s main exports to Israel included raw materials such as plastic, wood, coal, textiles and palm oil.
Ten of thousands of Indonesians visit Israel each year, with numbers growing until now. In 2013, for example, 30,000 Indonesian tourists visited Israel, marking a three-fold increase over 2009.
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