Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov said on Monday that the strict enforcement of Israel's immigration laws by the Interior Ministry has gravely affected incoming tourism during the high season.
In a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Misezhnikov said that police action against illegal dwellers, as well as the restriction of foreign nationals' mobility into and from the West Bank, have damaged Israel's international standing. He asked the prime minister to raise the issue in the next cabinet meeting.
"The tourism industry is one of the most profitable sectors of Israel's economy," Misezhnikov wrote. "It fulfils the main tenets of the government's economic strategy: lowering unemployment and increasing foreign investment."
Last week, Haaretz revealed that Israel has recently toughened the entry of foreign nationals into the country if they have family, work, business or academic ties in the West Bank, and restricts their movements to "the Palestinian Authority only."
According to Misezhnikov, the new policy "puts obstacles for foreign nationals who have business and family ties in the West Bank, or just want to visit the region. Evidently, this policy damages Israel's image and reduces the number of tourists, as for many of them traveling to holy sites in the West Bank is an indispensable part of their visit."
Tourism Ministry figures show that three million tourists visited Israel in 2008, contributing NIS 25 billion to the economy. Also, they have contributed to the creation of 90,000 new jobs, especially in provincial areas.
"Unfortunately, while the Tourism Ministry takes measures to facilitate incoming tourism, the Interior Ministry foils them," the minister said.
In his letter, Misezhnikov also criticized a "high profile" police raid of the Tel Aviv Sheraton Hotel, in a bid to arrest illegal dwellers, which he claimed had unnecessarily disrupted tourists staying at the hotel.
"The raid, that was carried out in the middle of the day and lasted about four hours, created a uncalled-for fuss and has surely had bearing on Israel's image as a developed, tourist-friendly country," he said.
Attorney Oded Feller of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel said that "the harassment of tourists who wish to visit Israel and the West Bank, while channeling towering resources to the deportation of refugees and job seekers, is not a substitute for policy."
The Interior Ministry in turn rejected Misezhnikov's accusations on Monday.
"THe ministry has not toughened the enforcement of the immigration law," it said in a statement. "No deicision has been made on a new immigration policy."
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