Israeli tour guides visit Bethlehem after 10-year absence

Top IDF officer calls pilot program ‘deeply significant,’ but guide group is highly critical.

Bethlehem 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Bethlehem 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Twenty-five Israeli tour guides visited Bethlehem on Monday as guests of the Palestinian Authority Tourism Ministry, on a refresher tour to prepare for their return to leading tour groups there.
For the first time since the 2000 intifada, Israeli tour guides will be allowed to enter and lead groups of pilgrims and tourists in Bethlehem and Jericho, as part of a new pilot project arranged by the Israeli and Palestinian tourism ministries and the IDF’s Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria.
Jewish Israeli citizens have been banned from entering the PA by order of the IDF. The pilot came about following requests by tourism industry professionals and tourists to allow their Israeli guides to continue leading their groups when they traveled to the West Bank. Until now, the Israeli guides would relinquish their groups at the Rachel Crossing and meet up with them again when they returned from their visit to the PA-controlled destinations.
Responding to the Tourism Ministry’s request to allow the guides to enter the PA area, the civil administration agreed to allow 25 guides and 25 bus drivers to cross over with their groups as a trial before allowing others to do the same.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post from a restaurant in the Bethlehem suburb of Beit Sahur, Israeli tour guide Micky Choresh said he felt safe and welcome and that he looked forward to returning soon.
“The Palestinian officials who are escorting us are going out of their way to make sure we feel comfortable and safe. Everywhere we go we are accompanied by two police vehicles, and there is a uniformed policeman on every street,” said Choresh.
According to Choresh, the tour started in the morning with a security briefing on the Israeli side, in which participants were instructed to keep to the authorized trail and were given emergency phone numbers to contact if the need arose. The officers also instructed them on the crossing regulations and stressed that they would have to return to Israeli territory by 11 p.m. at the latest.
Choresh said guards on both sides of the crossing had a list of authorized tour guides and drivers, and only those on the list would be allowed to cross.
The group spent the morning visiting tourist attractions like the Solomon Pools and the Church of the Nativity, and was to return to Jerusalem in the afternoon.
“I think this is a great initiative that will help in restoring good relations. Tourists represent important financial income for the Palestinians, and I don’t think anyone here will oppose it. This is not Gaza,” said Choresh.
In an interview with Army Radio, civil administration head Brig.-Gen. Yoav Mordechai said the decision to allow the 50 Israelis to enter Bethlehem was “a significant statement.”
“It is part of a series of let-ups and trustbuilding measures that we are promoting in Judea and Samaria in coordination with the PA and its security forces, which are constantly improving,” said Mordechai. “In my opinion, letting 50 Israelis into Bethlehem – and starting next week, also to Jericho – without the IDF escorting them is a deeply meaningful signal. The vision is to one day allow Israeli citizens to enter Area A cities. We started with this as an experimental pilot.”
Tourism Minister Stas Meseznikov praised the tour guides’ response to participating in the pilot, and the cooperation with the PA.
“I see great importance in the tour guiding in Bethlehem, which will facilitate an increase in the scope of the tour guides’ work, allow for top-level guiding for tourists, an increase in cooperation with the Palestinian Authority and, of no less importance, an improvement in the international image of Israel and the Holy Land as a safe destination for tourists,” he said.
“I hope that this pilot program will receive cooperation from all the various entities and will generate an increase in tourism activities in the near future,” he added.
However, Israel Tour Guides Association chairman Yossi Weiss said the association sharply opposed the move.
“We don’t want another Gilad Schalit on our hands,” said Weiss. “As far as I know, the IDF hasn’t removed the ban on Israelis entering Area A, and I didn’t know tour guides were an exception.”
Weiss said the Tourism Ministry was taking a great risk at the tour guides’ expense and that the guides who visited the West Bank cities were not covered by insurance and were not protected from attacks.
He also criticized the move on economic grounds, saying it only served the Palestinian economic interest and would actually harm Israeli tour guides because the Palestinians would expect reciprocal permits for their guides to work in Israel.
“I’m worried about Palestinian tour guides, with their own ideology and their own historic narrative, leading groups of tourists in Israel. It is a disservice to the country to let them spread their agenda to tourists,” said Weiss.