fly-in, pro-palestinian activist
Israeli pro-Palestinian activists at Ben-Gurion International Airport on July 8, 2011. Photo by Ilan Assayag
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More than 60,000 Palestinians are expected to visit Israel as tourists by the end of 2011, at least twice as many as last year, a defense official said.

Israel is planning to double the number of permits issued to Palestinians this year, due to the improved security in the West Bank, the source said. However, if the situation deteriorates in September following the Palestinians' UN bid for statehood, it will be harder to issue permits, he said.

The permits are not usually issued to individuals or families, but mainly to schools and summer camps wishing to take children to visit beaches and mixed Jewish-Arab cities in Israel.

In 2010 28,000 Palestinians were given permits to visit Israel. The permits are granted specifically for touring, as opposed to other permits given for employment, medical treatment or prisoner visitation.

During the first six months of 2011 the IDF's Civil Administration issued 31,000 permits, more than in the whole of last year, and expects to issue at least 20,000 more for the summer holiday.

"We want Palestinians, especially young ones, to see another kind of Israeli, not only soldiers and settlers. Anything that can help them blow off steam and relax. Perhaps instead of demonstrating in September they'll go to the beach," the source said.

Most of the Palestinians visit Arab and mixed towns such as Haifa, Jaffa and Acre, among other things, because of their beaches.

"For many of these youngsters, this is the first visit to the beach," says an Israeli guide of West Bank groups.

Another popular destination is the Ramat Gan Safari, which has prepared Arab-language tours to accommodate the numerous Palestinian visitors.

"They see things differently from Israeli children. They've never seen wild animals like those in the safari," says Adam Yakobi, one of the safari guides who works with Palestinian groups.

"In addition to ecologic explanations, we try to convey a message of coexistence, between animals and human beings, and among people as well. Politics does not come into it. It's a completely different atmosphere and they're engrossed in looking at the animals," he said.