by Birte Mensing
Portraits of Resistance: 2
As there is at the moment no forum in which the end of the Israeli occupation of the OPT is discussed, it is the sum of efforts of individuals and their daily struggle that is defining the context. This series of portraits is going to introduce different characters and their ideas and life committed to ending the occupation.
“One the other side of the hill you see Har Homa, one of the fastest growing settlements of Israeli settlers on the land of Palestinians.” A group of tourists is standing close to the fields where the angel is said to have visited the shepherds when Jesus was born, listening to Baha Hilo, their tour guide for the day. “Every stone here tells a story, most can be connected to the Bible. And to oppression.”
Obstacles to tourism in the West Bank
Not many tourists hear these stories. After reading their home country’s travel advices for the region of Palestine/Israel, tourists from all over the world will most probably think that being in the West Bank is dangerous. The British Embassy urges to be careful all over the region, but gives “advise against all but essential travel 10km either side of Route 60 south of Gush Etzion Junction, including Hebron”. Which is basically the southern West Bank. The German Foreign Ministry urges its citizens to not travel in the West Bank without local knowledge or people who are familiar with the area.
Through such advice, tourists and travelers are made to feel unsure about being in the West Bank. And therefore don’t go to visit it. Thereby, they are prevented from meeting people who live there, to talk to them and be informed about life in the different parts of the West Bank. Baha Hilo was born and raised in Beit Sahour, a small town neighboring Bethlehem. Bethlehem has suffered from a significant decrease of tourists since Israel has built the Separation Wall, but especially in the last years as different news agencies report. According to a press release of the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics on this year’s World Day of Tourism, the 26th of September, in the first half of 2016 “the number of inbound and domestic visits decreased by 5% and 32% respectively compared to the same period in 2015”. According to Bethlehem Mayor Vera Baboun, "a tourist gets into a bus, goes to the Church of the Nativity, and then disappears", as cited on ynetnews.com. The revenue remains in the Israeli economy – bus companies, tour guides and hotels.
Help people understand the systematic oppression
Baha Hilo is tired of ignorant tourists. Therefore, he offers political tours. He started with the Bethlehem area. His tours are not the usual 1.5-hour city walk to the biblical places. He starts with a basic introduction to the situation Palestinians face. History, geography, occupation. Equipped with information, a bus picks up the group to get to see the places talked about: the Wall, a tour through Aida, one of Bethlehem’s refugee camps, the yellow gate at the beginning of Area A that can be closed by the Israeli military. But: “The Wall itself is not the major problem”. It is rather an outcome of what Baha calls the “root cause”: Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people. “Not only since 1967, but since 1948.”
Baha Hilo explains about the dual legal system in the West Bank that enables settlements like Har Homa behind him. (For more information about the dual legal system: PIJ Issue The Dual Legal System)
To Exist is to Resist
Baha Hilo studied anthropology and sociology at Birzeit University in Ramallah. He studied colonialism and racism across the history of the world. And he sees parallels amongst systems of oppression. “Would the Palestinian case be more obvious if we were black?” he asks. In his thinking he was inspired by Dr. Nurit Peled-Elhanan, Professor of Language and Education at the Hebrew University, who worked on the biased representation of Palestinians in Israeli schoolbooks. Baha arrived at the following conclusion: “Our behavior is irrelevant to the fact of oppression. My very existence as Palestinian poses a threat to the supremacy of the group that is in power”. And therefore he does not see resistance to the occupation as a choice. “To exist is to resist”.
“I try to give people a thread to connect everything they know. Everybody who arrives to the region has certain prejudices, a certain framework. And being here, people are likely to struggle fitting all the new information into that picture.” Listening to and talking with Baha, they will learn about the institutionalization of discrimination and the systematic oppression, realizing that all the incidents in daily life fit into the political strategy of “using the Jewish belief as a political instrument of power politics and control”. The elements of control become evident and visible, when walking along the Separation Wall and learning about different legal systems being in place for Palestinians and Israelis (See also: last PIJ issue on The Dual Legal System).
“I knew it was bad, but I didn’t know it was that systematic”, voices one of the participants after the tour. Baha Hilo reached what he aimed for: To create a moment of understanding, that it is not crazy settlers driving forward the settlement expansion, but the Israeli government using the settlements to undermine the Palestinian basis of life.