By Larisa Manescu
Typical incentives for visiting other nations include pleasure, business, or a simple desire for foreign exploration. Travelers may be seeking a necessary escape from their routine lifestyles, required to attend conferences or meetings in distant cities, or eager to learn more about the multiplicity of cultures outside of their own. Once arrived in any destination, cultural and political education naturally presents itself: one observes the typical dress, behavior, and traditions, becomes accustomed to the specific laws of that nation (especially if they’re shockingly distinctive), and perhaps discusses the political nature and history of the country with open, talkative locals.
However, certain travel experiences can extend beyond all those, through a concept called “justice tourism.” This term represents a type of alternative tourism that holds the main goal of promoting cultural exchange through one-on-one interaction, increasing revenue for the local area, and both political and historical education. This concept may seem like it is commonly applied already; for instance, when visiting Italy for a study abroad program, students may live with host families (fulfilling the cultural exchange), provide money to the local government through daily purchases, and visit important historical sites, such as the Vatican City, the Coliseum, and the half-buried city of Pompeii. However, the key difference lies in the location in which justice tourism is presently most promoted, an area that exhibits one of the current worst violations of human rights in the world: the West Bank occupation.
Most governments, including those of the West and Israel, warn not to venture into the West Bank. The living situation in the area is not perceived accurately by the outside world, with the idea that violence, danger, and scheming are prowling around every corner. John Pilger, an award-winning freelance investigative journalist and documentary producer, attempts to dispel the circulating propaganda (exposed by mainstream media sources) about the occupied areas in the third chapter, “The Last Taboo,” of his book Freedom Next Time.
He reveals, “To most Israelis…the occupied West Bank, is terra incognita, a breeding ground for terrorism and Islamic extremism.” This view is also held by outsiders and used as justification for why Israeli officials hold the right to supervise and monitor the area. But, as Pilger later explains, the West Bank represents a place “in which ordinary people…are denied basic personal and economic freedoms, justice and dignity; in which they are terrorized by the world’s best-equipped soldiers and by unseen bureaucrats.”
Wrapped up in the desensitizing politics of a long-standing Israeli and Palestinian conflict, citizens of other nations cannot gain a full understanding of the workings of the area from news sources, which often act as filters to the reality of the situation. To have the truth explicitly bared to them, tourists are recommended to participate in West Bank tours, which help them “better understand the conflict, and deliberately go ‘beyond’ the standard pilgrimage or mainstream tourist trip to Israel.”
A company named Green Olive Tours provides both Israeli and Palestinian tour guides who offer extended trips into the West Bank. Tourists are given a hands-on approach by being allowed to sit and have meaningful conversation with both Israeli and Palestinian settlers, who are exceedingly willing to offer an accurate glimpse into their world in exchange for valuable information from the outside world. The company’s mission statement explains that it offers “analysis and commentary based on: human rights, cultural self determination, the right to political self determination, the right to live in safety, the right to political freedom, and the right to a home.”
As a video describing the purposes behind the tours explains, “to understand is to see.” An American tourist in the video offers her appreciation of such an eye-opening and less-advertised experience: “Most of the tours you do…are only one side… I did that one when I was thirteen, you know, a very Zionist tour, and I think it’s important to see both sides.”
Founded in 2007, Green Olive Tours is a relatively new company, with alternative tourism becoming increasingly popular in the tourism industry. However, the pioneer group that established the very idea of creating a reciprocal connection between the outside world and Palestinian culture and politics was the Alternative Tourism Group (ATG), a non-profit organization founded in 1995 which offers similar experiences as Green Olive Tours.
Critics of ATG have insisted that it circulates Palestinian propaganda by regularly misrepresenting Israeli intentions and actions. This is certainty not the motive, as the organization’s underlying purpose is to go beyond the pointing-fingers game the media so frequently plays with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and launch tours that substantially explain contemporary Palestinian culture and political realities, knowledge that many Palestinians (speaking through the official ATG website) felt “did not find adequate expression in.” Investigating and exposing a neglected side of an issue is not a method of encouraging biased propaganda, but a manner by which truth is discovered.