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Occupation magazine - Activism
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Palestine`s occupation tourism : Palestinian protesters are often joined by international tourists who see their struggle as an entertaining spectacle
On any given Friday in Bil`in, the local Palestinian protesters are joined by scores of Israeli and international activists, who march determinedly alongside the villagers en route to the separation wall. Everyone knows what to expect once they reach the phalanx of soldiers waiting for them on the other side of the barrier: namely, blood, sweat and teargas, and an hour of each side baiting the other before the crowd is dispersed and hostilities cease for another week.
While the cause of the Bil`in residents is entirely worthy, the tactics employed during the protests are far more questionable. Every week without fail, rocks and other projectiles are hurled towards the soldiers by mask-clad youths, known as shabab, while not a finger is lifted by their fellow demonstrators to stop them. Despite billing the march as `nonviolent resistance`, the organisers do nothing to ensure the event lives up to such criteria, and by taking no action hand to the army on a plate the perfect excuse to fight fire with fire.
Many of the international activists come to the protest in the hope that their presence will make the troops think twice before using violent measures against the Palestinians, under the assumption that foreign witnesses are worth their weight in gold to those taking on the might of the Israel Defence Forces. Groups such as International Solidarity Movementattempt to absolve themselves of any responsibility for the aggression emanating from the Palestinian side, declaring that since the resistance is `Palestinian-led`, they are not going to tell the locals what they can and can`t do in the name of fighting the occupation.
At the same time, many of the internationals present are first-timers in the region, and – rather than coming armed with a nuanced understanding of the intricacies of the conflict – simply wander into the West Bank war zone as though day-trippers taking in the sights of central London. Such a phenomenon was the subject of a feature in this weekend`s Haaretz, in which the full extent of `occupation tourism` was mapped out in all its dubious glory.
One Italian photography student described his trip to Bil`in as being `like a vacation`; another had no idea whether he was standing on the Israeli or Palestinian side of the separation wall. Dr Roy Wagner, an Israeli activist who regularly attends the Bil`in protest in support of the villagers, was disparaging about many of those standing alongside him:
There are those who spend weeks and months in the village and take the political issue seriously, and there are others who, as part of their trip to Israel and Palestine, drop in at Bil`in to see what`s happening... It can also generate antagonism if you feel committed to the struggle and find yourself surrounded by tourists.
Despite his reservations, he stated he would rather such tourists did continue to show up at Bil`in, since they would hopefully leave `more committed to the struggle, and that`s what`s important`. However, given the highly sensitive nature of the anti-wall rallies, as well as the equally high risk of injury to all those within range of the army`s artillery, it seems irresponsible to encourage such visitors to the site without them having undergone full and proper preparatory training beforehand.
The media are provided unfettered access to Bil`in, and have been disseminating footage and reports from the area ever since the protests began in 2005. Likewise, those activists and NGO workers who have been operating in the region for years can be relied upon to update the watching world on the state of play in the village without there being a need for sightseers to treat the march as simply another box to tick on their `been-there, done-that` list of West Bank attractions.
For all the talk of solidarity with the Palestinians and support for their struggle, the true level of commitment would come to light if potential marchers were required by the activist groups to spend a significant amount of time working for the cause behind the scenes before being allowed to attend the demonstration. For all that Bil`in provides far juicier war stories and YouTube clips than sitting behind a desk in Ramallah providing logistical help to the resistance, questions must be asked of those marchers for whom simply attending protests is the sum total of their work in the region.
At the same time, those who come to the protests with the sole intention of seeing the violence for themselves, rather than as part of a wider effort to assist the Palestinians in their quest for freedom, should be discouraged from treating the region as a safari park. Occupation tourism does no favours for the serious and committed activists on either side of the separation wall, and only reinforces the perception that for far too many observers, the conflict is merely an entertaining spectacle, rather than a decades-old matter of life and death.
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