Palestinian Ahmad Nader Alfararja always picks up the tourists when they come to stay at his home. While the 25-year-old is a very hospitable host, there are more practical reasons for this particular service. He lives in Deheisheh (near Bethlehem), where the streets literally have no name. “Locals know them by the names of the families who live there or by the villages they originally came from, before they were displaced in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war,” he says. He pauses for a second. “Running Airbnbs in a refugee camp is not easy.”
Ahmad is one of a growing number of Palestinians in West Bank refugee camps who are listing rooms on the accommodation-sharing website, offering adventurous tourists a experience like no other in the Holy Land.
“My goal is to show foreigners how we live in Palestinian refugee camps, show the reality of this conflict from a completely alternative viewpoint,” the happy-go-lucky host says. “I initially rented out a separate apartment, but now we’re hosting in a room at our family home. The guests enjoy staying with us more and love my mother’s cooking,” he says, smiling. (Ahmad lives with his parents and two sisters, renting out a room with an en-suite bathroom.)
After first advertising the room on Airbnb this summer, his page already boasts dozens of enthusiastic reviews. “If you want to get a real authentic experience of living behind the wall you should stay in Ahmad’s place,” wrote one young tourist from the Czech Republic, adding, “Definitely the best part of our vacation in Israel.” And Italian tourist Roberta Micagli, 48, tells Haaretz that “staying at Airbnbs in Palestinian refugee camps is a very rewarding experience — but definitely not for everyone.”
She admits that her mom was “quite worried” when she heard that Roberta was planning to vacation in Deheisheh. “You need to be a flexible, adaptable traveler, interested in the social aspects of the trip,” she advises.
Bringing a whole new meaning to the word “camping,” these Airbnb sites are part of the West Bank’s growing “conflict tourism” industry. Popular destinations include British street artist Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel in neighboring Bethlehem; the heavily graffitied separation barrier that divides Israel and much of the West Bank; and political tours around the contested city of Hebron (including one such tour by Ahmad himself).
Ahmad spent several years away from his birthplace studying public relations and marketing in St. Petersburg, Russia, and those skills are in evidence as he entertains guests in the pleasant backyard of his home. Yet that positive and entrepreneurial spirit is in stark contrast to the widespread sense of fatalism you can find on the streets of this crowded, impoverished camp, where unemployed youngsters hang around, smoking and idling.
According to the UN Relief and Works Agency, Deheisheh was established in 1949 for Arab refugees fleeing 45 villages west of Jerusalem and Hebron. Today, it’s a heavily built-up town that is home to about 15,000 Palestinians. Posters celebrating Palestinian shahids (martyrs) and graffiti hailing the refugees’ right of return to their historic homelands — ironically, some are painted by Europeans volunteering at the camp’s nongovernmental organizations — are visible reminders that this is no regular tourist destination.
Another sign that you’re not in Kansas anymore? At night, stray dogs can be heard barking loudly and fighting in the streets. Local Palestinians claim that settlers collect the canines and dump them in Palestinian areas during clandestine visits.
‘We invite the world to us’
Ahmad was not the first Palestinian in the refugee camp to advertise a room on Airbnb. That honor goes to Ibrahem Fararja, a 42-year-old Palestinian nurse who lives at the very top of Deheisheh and works at St. Joseph’s Hospital in East Jerusalem.
“When I put my extra room on Airbnb some three years ago, I was the only pioneer in the camp,” he tells Haaretz, sitting in the living room of his top-floor apartment. “Now, sometimes I think I should get an extra apartment to expand the business,” he say, eager to speak to Haaretz in order to gain more exposure.
Within this small community people jokingly call him “The Airbnb King” (his brother, Bassam, rents out a room in his ground-floor apartment in the same block). Asked how he first thought up the idea, Ibrahem repeats the punch line used on his Airbnb page: “Because we can’t travel the world, we like to invite the world to our house.” Airbnb hosts in other Palestinian refugee camps have picked up on that slogan, alluding to the travel restrictions and lengthy bureaucracy in order to obtain travel or exit visas.
Some 2 million people are estimated to stay at an Airbnb-listed site around the world every night, so the hosts may struggle to meet demand if the world does decide to take them up on that offer. For now, about 10 hosts are offering rooms in refugee camps in the northern, central and southern West Bank: One is at the entrance to Balata (near Nablus), which with 30,000 residents is the largest refugee camp in the West Bank. Deheisheh itself has as many as five listings, three of which are very active.
Aida, another refugee camp in Bethlehem, also has rooms on offer. When Haaretz visited the camp, two disoriented Dutch tourists with scant knowledge of Israeli-Palestinian relations described being questioned at length at the Allenby border crossing from Jordan, the Israeli security officials at pains to understand why they had booked themselves into such an unusual place.
Al Aroub, a smaller refugee camp off the beaten track on Route 60, between Jerusalem and Hebron, also offers one room on Airbnb. However, like the site in Balata, it does not seem to get many bookings. “That’s really a bit far-off for it to pick up, and it’s between Area B and C, under Israeli control, with frequent clashes taking place,” says Ibrahem, referring to two of the West Bank’s three areas that were created following the Oslo Accords in 1993 (only Area A is, theoretically, under full Palestinian control).
Ibrahem says that when he first checked Airbnb’s listings in the West Bank, “they could only really be found in big Palestinian cities and some Israeli settlements,” referring to the dozens of places in the occupied land where Airbnb does not specify if they are run by Israelis or Palestinians. “Sometimes, people get to Deheisheh thinking they are in Israel,” he laughs.
“In the beginning, I thought nobody would come,” he recounts, his three kids running restlessly around the apartment. “Today, in busy months, only a few days are free — partly because travelers often overstay their bookings. Once, an American woman came for 10 days and she would never leave the house. In the end, we had no choice but to claim we had another booking to get rid of her.”
With unemployment rates so high locally, the Airbnb gig has turned out to be a great part-time occupation for Ibrahem’s wife, Aya, a 29-year-old accounting graduate from Bethlehem. Ibrahem has no problem admitting that, like pretty much everyone else on Airbnb, he is also doing it for the money. “As much as it is a socially and culturally enriching experience for both travelers and hosts, in this kind of place a little extra income can make a world of difference,” he says.
However, that mentality may put him and other hosts at odds with those in the Palestinian community who are vehemently against Airbnb. Almost exactly a year ago, the website announced it would no longer be listing rooms in the Israeli settlements — but later backtracked on that policy. Last week, on the anniversary of that initial decision, over 140 Palestinian NGOs in the West Bank said they would refuse to accept any funds from the room-letting organization, writing in a press statement: “Airbnb, your funds are tainted by your complicity in perpetuating the illegal occupation of Palestinian lands.” Asked about the furor, both Ahmad and Ibrahem shrug off the matter.
The refugee camps at Deheisheh, Al Aroub and Aida are widely recognized as spearheading the Palestinian struggle against Israel in the West Bank, with Deheisheh residents keen to boast that the first intifada actually started there in 1980 — a full seven years before the violent uprising officially began. But despite still-frequent night raids by the Israeli army to the camps, the general downturn in violence across the West Bank in recent years means more and more tourists are ready to cross the Green Line — including, apparently, some Israelis. “When Israelis send me inquiries on the website, I always say: ‘You are most welcome, just don’t bring your kippa,’” says Ahmad.
‘Where are the tents?’
Ibrahem always arranges to meet his guests under the image of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat that dominates the entrance to Deheisheh. “You know, you were lucky to find a free night at my apartment — it’s always really busy,” he frequently tells his guests. His car then climbs up through a maze of steep alleys, local kids playing ball games in the narrow streets making way for him.
Ibrahem says he can feel really drained after a long night shift at the hospital (for which he must renew his Israeli work permit every six months). But he will still take guests for his signature tour of Deheisheh — starting from his own rooftop, the view stretching over the entire camp and further north to Jerusalem.
It’s a strangely impressive vista, albeit one that will often prompt baffled visitors to ask: “But where are the tents?” Today, over 70 years after the Nakba (“Catastrophe” in Arabic, which is how the Palestinians refer to the establishment of Israel), little is left as a visible reminder of why Deheisheh is still called a refugee camp.
“In the very beginning, refugees lived in caves, then in tents and small UNRWA housing units, but soon enough they began building their own houses,” Ibrahem explains. He tells his guests that the UN agency, which runs services in the camp, does not do a good job. “I send my kids to a private school in Bethlehem instead of the local UNRWA one, even if it’s expensive,” he says.
The UN garbage collection site on the main Bethlehem-Hebron road that runs alongside the camp is spray-painted with Stars of David, which UNRWA does not clean off. After walking past it, Ibrahem next brings his group to a turnstile that used to be the one and only entrance to the refugee camp during the first intifada.
However, the undoubted highlight of the tour is the street graffiti paying homage to the late Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali. His refugee character Handala is always portrayed from behind but “will turn around and show his face when Palestine is free,” explains Ibrahem, quoting the local legend.
Making a point to show that Palestinian history has not been forgotten, Ibrahem regularly stops kids around the camp, asking them what village they come from. They all respond immediately. On Haaretz’s visit, three say “We are from Ajjur,” referring to the Palestinian village about 25 kilometers northwest of Hebron that is now the site of no fewer than five Israeli towns. Ahmad, meanwhile, avoids making any positive predictions about the right of return with guests. “We cannot even enter Jerusalem — how can we go back to our villages?” he tells Haaretz.
Yet Ibrahem also tells his guests that, one way or another, Israelis and Palestinians will have to coexist. “Once, I was trekking on a hill nearby with some of my guests and we bumped into a group of Israeli soldiers,” he recalls, looking amused. “One of them immediately recognized me and came forward to greet me warmly: He had come to my Airbnb before making aliyah from Canada and joining the army.”