The forbidden city

Jordanian travel agents offer cheap J'lem deals.

jordanian311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
‘Ramadan tours to Al-Quds: Make your pilgrimage to the holy mosques.” “We offer you a pilgrimage to the sites that were undertaken by Jesus, a trip to the Holy Land, which is open to all citizens of the Kingdom.”
Recently, the tourism market in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has become swamped with deals for Jerusalem tours. There were ads in newspapers, magazines and the Internet offering affordable three and four-day packages to Jerusalem during Ramadan.
After all, the holy city with its sacred mosques and churches is only a short ride away from Jordan’s capital.
It takes about an hour and a half to drive from Amman to Jerusalem via the Allenby Bridge (including inspection by the Border Police), which spells easy and convenient tourism for Jordanian visitors.
To visit Israel from Jordan, you don’t need to take a plane – a short bus ride will do, which reduces the price of the tour considerably. The cost of a three- or four-day package starts from $530, although one agency advertised a three-day tour for $180.
Ibrahim Zumot, manager of the east Jerusalem based Overseas Travel Bureau, says that the city has indeed witnessed an increase in Arab tourists from Jordan and Egypt recently, due to the quiet maintained in the region. “The region has been quiet for some time and nothing has happened, therefore the tourists feel that it’s OK to travel to Jerusalem,” he explains.
However, the Jordanian tour operators who jumped at the opportunity to corner the market soon discovered there was much more to Jerusalem tourism than just booking buses and hotels. Influential Jordanian unions and hard-liners believe that these tours are nothing more than a ploy designed to circumvent a longstanding, unofficial boycott against Israel.
“Some travel agents exploit the religious feelings of our people, especially in these days before Ramadan, and offer package deals to Jerusalem. A phone call to one of these agencies confirmed that they cooperate with Israeli companies. In order to get to Jerusalem, you need to receive a visa from the Israeli Embassy,” the Jordanian Web site wrote.
Although the Hashemite Kingdom is officially connected to Israel through a peace agreement signed in 1994, Jordanian unionists vehemently deny any normalization of relations with the Jewish state and therefore view the tours to Jerusalem as a form of recognition of Israel.
“Obtaining a visa from the Israeli Embassy is tantamount to a recognition of the Zionist entity that bestows legality on the occupation of the holy city,” the president of the Trade Unions Council, Ahmad Armouti, said during the last spate of protests. Last week, demonstrations were held in front of the Jordanian Tourism Ministry, which allegedly supports the tourist flow to Israel. The protesters, who belonged to the National Committee for Resisting Normalization of Ties with Israel, carried signs that called for a ban on all such trips, as they advocate normalization with Israel. Some of the signs quoted the recent ruling of Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, chairman of the International Union for Muslim Scholars and spiritual father of the Al-Jazeera satellite channel, who issued a fatwa condemning the calls to visit Al- Aksa Mosque and Jerusalem under occupation.
“These trips will only legitimize the occupation in Al-Quds [Jerusalem], which is the place of the first qibla [prayer direction] in Islam,” Qaradawi wrote in his ruling.
Those who condemn the tours and visits to Jerusalem also rely on an explicit ban on visiting Jerusalem issued by Ibrahim Qaylani, the former minister of the Wakf in Jordan, and Baba Shanouda III, the head of the Egyptian Copts. Both men ruled that religious tourism to Jerusalem is a form of normalization and that it will not serve the interests of the Palestinian people.
“As long as there is occupation of Al-Quds, Muslims are not permitted to visit the holy city,” Ibrahim Qaylani wrote.
There are also calls to blacklist and boycott those who maintain relations with Israel. Consequently, a lawyer who represents an Israeli firm might lose his membership in the Lawyers’ Union, an owner of an apartment might receive threatening phone calls or emails, so the local newspapers were cautious enough not to name the travel agency in question, probably so that they would not be threatened afterwards.
OPPOSITION TO normalization of ties has been consistent in the Arab world since 1967, which resulted in almost total isolation of Jerusalem and the Arab population in Jerusalem from the larger Arab and Islamic contingent. Even during the Jerusalem – Capital of Arab Culture 2009 event, the city didn’t experience any increase in visits from Arab countries, let alone celebrity Arab singers and performers who were afraid of being accused of normalizing ties with the Jewish state.
This approach comes in sharp contrast to the view of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, in particular President Mahmoud Abbas, who said on more than one occasion that a visit to Jerusalem is an expression of solidarity “with the prisoner and not with the guard.”
Referring to Qaradawi’s ruling, Abbas said, “We serve the religion, we do not use it. They, however, use the religion as they wish.”
The Palestinian Authority did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
Egyptian Minister of Religious Endowments Mahmoud Hamdi Zaqzouq recently supported the PA’s approach, calling on a convergence on Jerusalem by Muslims to strengthen the city’s Islamic identity.
“I say to those who insist on not visiting [Jerusalem] before its liberation: My worst fear is that you will have nothing to visit after Israel realizes its plans in Jerusalem and elsewhere,” he told the London-based pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat.
In 2009 in Jordan, during another wave of interest in tours to Jerusalem, the Palestinian mufti Sheikh Muhammad Hussein, who was probably trying to placate the hard-liners in the Arab world, said, “When on tour, the pilgrims only stay in east Jerusalem, and the State of Israel doesn’t benefit from them; therefore, these tours are not prohibited and only serve the interest of the Palestinian people.”
Judge Taysyr al-Tamimi added that “The visits to Jerusalem only support the heroic people of Jerusalem, who are threatened by the occupation and are subject to expulsion.”
However, all this rhetoric fell on deaf ears. Despite the high status of Jerusalem in Islam and despite the fact that there is hardly a Muslim or an Arab who hasn’t heard of Al-Aksa Mosque, the Arab and Muslim tourism to the city remains limited. According to the Tourism Ministry, the record number of Jordanian visitors to Israel was 16,807 persons in 2008. The following year, only 15,821 Jordanians crossed the border.
Meanwhile, there has been a certain increase in Jordanian visitors since the beginning of this year (7,847 persons from January to June). Naturally, these figures could be substantially higher if there had been a consensus regarding tourism to Jerusalem in Jordanian society.
ALTHOUGH WHAT is being done is allegedly meant to serve their interest, Jerusalem Arabs feel more abandoned and hurt by these developments than happy.
“Our economy really needs all the help and support we can get. Since Jerusalem was cut off from its surroundings by the Israeli wall, our markets are not as active as they used to be. I wish that all Arabs and Muslims would come to visit here,” says Muhammad Said, a vendor who sells nuts and candy near Damascus Gate.
“I have heard of the anti-normalization movement, but they have to understand that they are really boycotting us, their kinsmen, rather than Israel. Israel doesn’t care about these boycotts; the city is filled with foreign tourists. We want our brothers from Jordan and Egypt and other countries to come to visit us,” says Intisar, a student at Al-Quds University.
Travel agent Zumot says he has a hard time understanding what could be wrong with religious tourism.
“The Christians perform pilgrimages in the footsteps of Christ, the Muslims visit the holy mosques. What could be wrong with that?” he asks.
But for now, the majority of Arab tourists who face threats and intimidation at home and the uncertainty of visiting a country that is regarded by most as “the enemy state” choose to explore the holy city virtually, viewing Al-Aksa and the Holy Sepulchre on Google Earth. Despite the geographic proximity and the convenient means of transportation, the geopolitical gaps are still difficult to overcome.