Palestinian Hosts Jewish Tourists – at His Own Risk

By Anna Rudnitsky/TPS • 27 February, 2019/TPS
Courtesy the “Meeting Point” NGO

A resident of the Palestinian village of Battir and the Israeli NGO “Meeting Point”, which organizes tours to Judea and Samaria for Russian-speaking Israelis, work together to bring Jewish tourists to the remnants of the Beitar Fortress from Bar Kochba period that is situated inside the Palestinian village.

As our group of 10 Russian-speaking Israelis walks from the Israeli community of Har Gilo, where we parked our cars, towards the village of Battir, six kilometers west of Bethlehem, through a picturesque rocky valley, we meet dozens of Palestinians: a group of schoolchildren from Hebron; a group of youth from Qalqilya; and another large group of all ages from Bethlehem equipped with portable grills for a barbeque and carrying bags of food.

Everyone is in a good mood this bright morning, and we exchange cheerful greetings in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. “How are you? – Beseder, toda – Where are you from? – Yerushalayim – And I am from Hebron,” a typical dialogue goes.

Whenever any of the Palestinians spots a kippah on the head of one of the men in our group, however, the mood inevitably changes. The men frown and get suspicious and concurrently interested; girls either get frightened and seek to stand behind a man, or giggle in embarrassment. Khaled, our guide from Battir, looks unmoved, but says, “Our folks are nice, but it’s enough if just one gets in a bad mood for us to get in trouble. Let’s move on.”

The reason for this tourist boom around Battir is the UNESCO decision of three years ago to grant the village and the surrounding valley the status of a World Heritage Site. With UNESCO’s financial support and the Battir administration’s active participation, the village has been steadily developing its tourist potential: it now boasts several souvenir shops (featuring, among other things, maps of Israel labeled “Palestine”), apartments for rent, and a new café.

Ancient agriculture, however, is not the only attraction in Battir. Inside the village, there are remnants of the Jewish fortress Beitar (which gave the name to the Palestinian village), from the times of the Bar Kochba revolt. These ruins were always known among the locals as the “Jewish ruins” (‘Khirbet el-Yahud’ in Arabic). Since the tourist boom, however, the name has changed. The sign showing the way to the site of the fortress now says simply, “Khirbet Battir“, without mentioning the Jews. The archaeological site itself, which includes remains of the fortress, a mikveh (Jewish ritual bath), and a winepress, looks more like a dump of plastic bottles and junk food refuse.

As we pass through the village to the “Jewish ruins”, megaphones from the mosque call out the words of the morning prayers to the people in the streets. Inside the village, Khaled has asked the men in our group to take off their kippahs or cover them under some other headgear. Khaled is solely responsible for our safety here: the village administration is aware of his activity of welcoming Jewish tourists, essentially turning a blind eye, but does not encourage it in any way. Khaled welcomes us into his home, too, where he treats us to tea and bread with home-made olive oil and zaatar. “It smells of an old house, the one my aunt had in Ukraine,” one of the participants of our group notices.

Khaled is not a co-existence activist – he is just a nice 52-year old guy who earns his living as a laborer in Jerusalem construction sites and recalls nostalgically the times before the Oslo accords when there were no fences between the Jews and the Arabs here.

Anya Antopolsky, a resident of the Nokdim settlement in Gush Etzion and co-founder of the “Meeting Point”, is ideologically motivated. She met Khaled several years ago, as she was looking for contacts with Palestinian neighbors. Since then, she has been organizing a tour to the village of Battir and the ruins of Beitar at least once a year. She would like to see the number of Jewish tourists to Battir reaching hundreds and even thousands – not just for the sake of the archaeological site, but also to set an example of neighborly relations between Jews and Palestinians.

“Part of Battir belongs to Area C, which means it is actually Israeli territory,” Antopolsky clarifies.  “However, Battir residents hardly ever see any Jews. But if Jews begin to visit the Beitar archaeological site by the thousands, we’ll get accustomed to each other. Given that Battir has been historically friendly to Israel, there is a chance here to create a precedent of mutually beneficial collaborations based on tourism. Israelis will benefit by getting to know a traditional Palestinian village, Battir residents will earn some additional income, and the Beitar Fortress ruins will be transformed from a garbage dump into an important historical and tourist site.”