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Tourism versus Terrorism - The Ornery American


Tourism versus Terrorism
By Peter Salamé July 2, 2004

I mean it. There's never been a better time to visit Israel/Palestine. The weather's great, the people are friendly, there's so much to see and do and it's no more expensive than a jaunt down to Disneyworld.

What's that you say? Dangerous? Well why would you think that? Could it have something to do with the continuous reports of extremist violence brought to you by both domestic and international newsmedia? According to your favorite mainstream magazines, TV, and internet sources, all that ever happens in the Middle East is war.

It's a fiction, folks, and this fiction is seriously ruining things for both Israeli and Palestinian alike. So much of their local economies rely on the promise of steady tourism that many storeowners are getting antsy, desperate, debt-ridden, and eventually going bankrupt. Still, packing up to move isn't an option. After all, the Israeli went through hell to get to where they are today, and Arabs aren't going to close their family stores no matter how much they're losing, because without property, job opportunities, and the ability to travel, there's not much left to do besides throw rocks or bombs.

Obviously, all you have to do to get a glimpse of the perceived danger in Israel/Palestine is turn on the TV or pick up a paper. There you can read about the recent military action in Gaza or bus bombings in Jerusalem. A sorely needed rebuttal to these ubiquitous stories comes from the men on the street in Tel Aviv and Ramallah. Aaron, a young, hip Israeli, said to me--

"You go back to the US and tell people it is not like that here. F*** their media, f*** their news. Israel is a good place. It is not fighting in the streets." The sentiment was echoed, albeit somewhat less vociferously, by one of many Arab-American expatriates in the heart of Ramallah. He said-- "We need people to come here to see what it is like, to see how the occupation hurts us, but also to just hang out and chill. We do have nightlife here you know."

It's kind of hard to hang out in the West Bank when lots of (particularly old and crotchety) Israeli think of it in the same way scared Americans think of Israel, a place of danger and constant fighting. No one I met over the past few weeks was more consumed by this mindset than the security guard at Ben-Gurion airport who was conducting mandatory interrogations on the 3am shift, 2 hours before our bargain flight home to New York. As soon as I mentioned Ramallah, (it's best not to lie) my companion and I received red stickers of doom on our bags and the searching and questioning stepped up its pace. In a routine that had to be rehearsed, the guard launched into hysterics-- "Why you want to come to Israel! You don't even speak Hebrew! You could be killed! You go to Palestinian Authority, they kill you! What are you doing here! You know it's not safe!"

We schooled her. We schooled her like Tony Hawk on your kid brother. My companion started laughing and replied, "I'm from DC, and he used to live in Philly. We feel safe in Israel. There is no crime, no one trying to mug us, no place where we're challenged because of our skin color, no gangs. You're lucky to have grown up here, you don't know what it's like living in a US inner city. Israel is a beautiful country, and besides, this week's incident was in Gaza, hundreds of miles away from where we were touring." Then, wielding media paranoia as she would a mighty broadsword of ultimate persuasion, she added-- "Besides, didn't you hear about the Montgomery County sniper? That's where I'm from."

After that, we got the airport interrogation lite version. Our bags were picked apart, but not with scissors, and when I walked out of the individual search area bowlegged and clutching my buttocks, it was just as a joke to put one over on my companion. The guards laughed too. They didn't even notice the drug references on my written itinerary, and didn't even check our souvenirs thoroughly enough to find the hand-made 'Peace and Justice for Palestine' crochet wall hangings.

So why is it like this? Where's this culture of paranoia and fear coming from? How does biased, sensationalist news gain the authority to preclude personal investigation of controversial issues? Is religion to blame? Money and greed? I'll tell you this for sure-- The negativity is NOT coming from the youth of Israel. It's coming from transplanted New Yorkers. Israeli teens and young adults who've grown up in not-so-religious families amidst the free and open atmosphere of Kibbutzim or the major cities tend to be pretty swell people. Young Israel knows how to party, and they know how to protest. No one likes the mandatory military and military reserve service, but it helps them see war as it really is, a rotten schnitzel no matter how you bread it. When they serve though, there are always a few nasty soldiers around who are gung-ho and ready to go antagonize the Arabs and stir up corresponding militants on the other side. For some reason, every one of these manly-man, get-them-before-they-get-us, rifle-slingers I've ever met, (more than a few, over the years) seems to have just a tinge of Brooklyn in their voice. Ok, not just a tinge, I'll say it straight out. The biggest jerks in the Israeli military are from New York, and they're messing things up for ordinary Israeli kids who DO NOT want to kill anyone or be attacked themselves.

A veteran of the 1982 Lebanon invasion I talked to at length in Tel-Aviv said-- "Our government is hijacked by a minority of hawks who don't know what it's like to live here. [Because they spend all their time in New York?] If we had stayed in Lebanon, hundreds more soldiers would have died. We pulled out, and nothing terrible came to pass. It was a smart move. Now I am very afraid. If the hawks in the government and military launch an air strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, Iran will certainly fight back with everything they have. You cannot just kill, even preemptively, and expect things to come out ok. We pray for peace."

It's the same deal with the Palestinians too, a small group of fanatics have hijacked a generally peaceful people, and any leaders that emerge to talk peace are swiftly imprisoned or assassinated. For the record, no one on any side likes Arafat. Only the US and international community gives him legitimacy and that's got to stop.

People who live violent lives get paranoid. You plot against others, and you see danger to yourself, coming from all sides. Jerusalem is a hotbed of religious fanatics all packed into a tight little area. It's almost strange that they haven't up and killed each other yet. Maybe because they're all convinced that in 2012 a messiah will come and do it for them? Lothar, a Dutch Christian in the old city believes this.

One of the 'Model of the Third Temple' gentlemen, a perennial New Yorker, tells travelers that the Temple will be sent down from heaven to crush the Moslem holy sites flat. And never mind about the hardcore East Jerusalem Muslims who deem it necessary to say prayers each time they defecate, I'm sure they plan the worst for unbelievers whose toilets remain unsanctified. Such is the curse of exclusive religion. Jerusalem has three exclusive religions, and within each one various sects divide people further. Cursory examination: Jerusalem = old religious whackos. Tel Aviv; Eilat; Haifa = young and fun with a burgeoning homosexual community. In a saner world, Jerusalem would not be the holiest of these cities.

The Jewish quarter in Jerusalem boasts spraypaint and propaganda stickers placed over Arabic street names. It's also pretty easy to find shops touting right-wing propaganda espousing the strength of the Israeli military. Some people might call it just plain rude and unnecessary. To me, however, it's another sign of organized religion's drive to dominate the media, government, and souls of the innocent and unwilling. This is an out in the open issue in Israel, and it's far more important to Israeli youth than continuing the war. Israel might've done all right with policies of oppression and preemption to win the 6-day War and Yom Kippur War, but times have changed and these tactics will destroy it as surely as any army. Not to get too carried away with the politics of the situation, but the same fear that's keeping tourists away from enjoying a fun time snorkeling in Eilat or the great shopping, food, and tobacco in Ramallah also leads to the violent bombing incidents you've all heard about in the news. You see people as enemies rather than fellow humans with families, and you launch that rocket without hesitation. But if it's in a place where your grandma shops to get bargains, you might think twice. The same goes for changing the minds of all the dipwad Americans who've ever said--"I know how to solve the Middle East conflict, let's just drop a nuke on 'em all!" Once you've been there, that joke goes from acceptable to abhorrent.

It's up to you to solve the problem and make peace happen. Go to Israel, visit Palestine, take a vacation, meet people. 100,000 more tourists a year will do more for the process than any rhetoric our governments can muster. Dig that funky shwarma.

Copyright © 2004 by Peter Salamé

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