SHILO - The archaeological attraction situated just west of the Israeli settlement of Shiloh draws about 60,000 visitors a year, the vast majority of them evangelical Christians known to ascribe great importance to places mentioned in the Bible. Shiloh is identified in the Old Testament as the site of the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant – the main center of worship for the ancient Israelites before the First Temple was built in Jerusalem.
There are excavations at the site, a gift shop where locally made olive oil and wine can be purchased, and a giant lookout tower that houses an audio-visual center and small museum.
Visitors who rely on the official guides and explanations can’t help but come away feeling inspired by the Jews who returned to these parts to reclaim a swath of land possessing such great historical and religious significance.
But that’s because they will likely not hear the less savory side of the story: The part about the Palestinians who had to be evicted from their lands so this place could be turned into a tourist attraction.
A group of local and foreign journalists visiting Tel Shiloh recently had the rare opportunity to stand at the site and hear an alternative narrative. It was presented not by the official settler guides, but instead by local Palestinians and representatives of human rights groups.
They learned, for example, that the settlement of Shiloh, established in 1978, was later expanded to include Palestinian farmlands that contained the ancient ruins – not a top fact that settlers here like to brag about.
They also heard how 10 new settlements had been set up near Shiloh since then, and how thousands of acres of Palestinian land had been confiscated in order to enable their construction.
Basher Muammar, a resident of the adjacent village of Qaryut, told them how Palestinians are banned from using a nearby road that passes close to the archaeological site and, as a result, must take an 18-kilometer (11 mile) detour to travel a distance of 1 kilometer from their homes to reach this point.
“We have become so isolated that people are leaving the village,” he says. “Many are selling their land and homes and moving to Ramallah.”
The press tour was organized by Amnesty International, ahead of the launch of a new campaign aimed at getting online travel and booking companies to stop featuring Israeli-run tourism destinations in the occupied territories on their websites. (The new campaign is a spin-off of one launched more than 18 months ago to mark the 50th anniversary of the Israeli occupation.)
“By listing hotels, bed and breakfasts, and tourist attractions like this one here, these companies are complicit in human rights violations carried out against Palestinians living around these settlements,” Laith Abu Zeyad, a regional campaigner for the human rights organization, told the group.
The campaign, titled Destination: Occupation, targets the largest international online travel and booking companies: Airbnb, Booking.com, Expedia and TripAdvisor. Last November, Airbnb announced that it planned to remove around 200 listings in Israeli settlements from its website. As of this week, though, it had yet to implement its new policy.
As part of the new campaign, Amnesty International is releasing a report on Wednesday with figures on the number of Israeli settlement listings on the websites of each of the four companies.
It also includes case studies of how Israeli tourism initiatives in the occupied territories are impacting nearby Palestinian villages, including those located near Shiloh.
The report notes that Airbnb did not extend its new policy to East Jerusalem, where it still has about 100 listings – “even though this, too, is occupied territory.” The online property rental company has not explained why it made this exception.
It found that Booking.com lists 45 Israeli-owned hotels and rentals, Expedia lists nine and TripAdvisor lists more than 70 different attractions (including the archaeological site at Tel Shiloh), tours, restaurants, cafés, hotels and rental apartments in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
“All four companies claim to operate under high ethical values and respect for the rule of law,” says the report. “However, none of these standards appears to influence the companies’ decisions in relation to settlement listings. In doing business with settlements, all four companies are contributing to, and profiting from, the maintenance, development and expansion of illegal settlements, which amount to war crimes under international law.”
The report notes that the promotion of Israeli settlements as tourist destinations “also has the effect of ‘normalizing’ and legitimizing to the public what is recognized under international law as an illegal situation.”
According to the report, the companies often mislead tourists by not mentioning on their websites that specific destinations are located beyond Israel’s internationally recognized borders, and in some cases even refer to them as being located in Israel.
Minister Gilad Erdan said he had instructed the Strategic Affairs Ministry to examine the possibility of banning Amnesty personnel from entering and staying in Israel, saying the organization was promoting an anti-Semitic campaign. Erdan further said that he had approached the finance minister weeks ago with a request to end the organization's tax benefits.
Forced evictions on tourism grounds
Israel has allocated considerable resources in recent years to developing and expanding tourism in the settlements. According to the report, there are “political and ideological” reasons for these investments.
“Settler groups supported by the Israeli government emphasize the Jewish people’s historic connections to the region,” it says. “Israel has constructed many of its settlements close to archaeological sites to make the link between the modern State of Israel and its Jewish history explicit. At the same time, Israel downplays and ignores the significance of non-Jewish periods at archaeological and historic sites.”
The report states that the government will sometimes designate locations as tourist sites in order to justify the takeover of Palestinian land. “This has resulted in forced evictions as well as restrictions on the ability of Palestinian residents to establish or expand their homes or use land for agricultural purposes,” it says.
All four online tourism companies have listings in Kfar Adumim – a settlement located some 10 kilometers east of Jerusalem. TripAdvisor also lists a national park, museum, desert tour and Bible-themed attraction nearby. “The development and expansion of the settlement and these attractions has had a harmful impact on numerous human rights of the neighboring Palestinian Bedouin community of Khan al-Ahmar, who have lost access to grazing land, have been under pressure to leave the area for years and are threatened with the imminent demolition of their home,” the report says.
Kfar Adumim is one of five examples of settlements cited in the report that are promoted by the online booking and travel companies.
Susya is another. Airbnb lists one property in this settlement, located in the South Hebron Hills, while TripAdvisor lists a winery there along with an archaeological site and visitor attraction. “Israel forcibly evicted the Palestinian residents of Khirbet Susiya to make way for the visitor attraction,” the report says, “and the construction of the settlement resulted in them losing access to farmland.”
In Hebron, a Palestinian city with a small Jewish settlement in its midst, TripAdvisor lists both a guided tour and museum run by settlers, while Airbnb lists one property. “Hebron’s settlements are a main driver of a wide range of human rights violations suffered by the Palestinian population of the city,” the report says.
It also notes that TripAdvisor prominently features and operates as a booking agent for the City of David – a popular tourist attraction located in Silwan, a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem. The site is managed by Elad, an organization dedicated to “Judaizing” the Arab part of the city.
“Hundreds of Palestinian residents are threatened with forced eviction, as Elad plans to expand the City of David to include residences for more settlers,” the report says. “Human rights that have been violated include the rights to adequate housing and to an adequate standard of living.”
As the report was being written, Airbnb still listed five properties in Shiloh and surrounding settlements in the northern part of the West Bank. Booking.com listed one, and TripAdvisor listed the archaeological site as well as tour guides who specialize in the region.
“The establishment and expansion of these settlements has had a harmful impact on the human rights of residents of neighboring Palestinian villages Qaryut and Jalud,” the report says. “Residents have lost access to farmland and the main road leading to their home. They often come under attack from settlers.” Indeed, a 38-year-old Palestinian man was killed in clashes with settlers in the area this past weekend.
Amnesty International notes that it provided all four companies with the opportunity to respond to its findings and answer a series of questions. Two companies, Airbnb and TripAdvisor, did not reply at all. Expedia said in its response, quoted in the report: “Expedia Group is committed to providing transparency to our customers when traveling to disputed territories globally, and we appreciate Amnesty International bringing its concerns on this complex issue to our attention. In the Occupied Palestinian Territories, we identify these accommodations as ‘Israeli Settlement’ located in Palestinian territory.
“We are currently reviewing the transparency of our display not only in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, but as well as other disputed territories globally to ensure that travelers have the information necessary to make the travel decisions that best suit their needs,” it added.
Booking.com said in its response that there are no “clearly defined and applicable laws or sanctions” that prevent it from advertising properties in the settlements. “Everything we do in terms of how we display information on Booking.com is focused on the customer and always in accordance with applicable law,” it said.
“Our geographic labeling of properties gives full transparency to customers about where an accommodation is located, and we continuously update and optimize this information. By marking properties concerned as being in ‘Israeli settlements,’ we provide transparency to anybody looking (or not looking) for accommodations in these territories,” it added.
Amnesty International called Airbnb’s announcement that it would no longer list properties in West Bank settlements “welcome, but only a first step.”
“The company must implement this announcement, it must reflect its commitment in a revised public policy, and it must redress the harm it has contributed to. Airbnb must also extend its commitment to Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem,” it said.
Mapping out the narrative
Emek Shaveh, an Israeli anti-occupation organization founded and run by a group of archaeologists, has been engaged in a legal battle in recent years aimed at blocking settler attempts to undertake further expansion of Tel Shiloh. As a result of two separate petitions it has filed (along with local Palestinians and another Israeli human rights organization), plans to build a new 11,0000-square-meter tourism complex at the site have been temporarily frozen.
Accusing the settlers of using Tel Shiloh for political purposes, Emek Shaveh CEO Yonatan Mizrahi says implementation of the plan would have caused great damage to a unique archaeological site.
Roaming around the grounds of Tel Shiloh when we visited were some local and foreign tourists: A small Christian evangelical group from South Korea; a few dozen boys participating in a pre-military gap year program; and three Orthodox Jews speaking American-accented English.
Outside the gift shop, Mizrahi points to a large map of the Binyamin region where Shiloh is located. Settler-operated tourist sites dominate the map, as do the adjacent settlements. The Palestinian towns and villages appear as small, faded dots – even though most of them are much larger and more populous than the settlements.
“This map says a lot about what kind of story is being told here,” notes Mizrahi wryly.
This article was amended on January 30. The original stated that Palestinians were "evicted from their homes" to make way for a tourist site at Tel Shiloh, rather than "their lands."
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