Travel in the Holy Land a No Go

According to the US State Department’s travel warning for Israel, West Bank and Gaza  travelers to the Holy Land can be greet not with signs of peace but further travel restrictions.

In June 2009, the Israeli government began selectively limiting certain travelers to either the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza, or to Israel and Jerusalem. To date, the Israeli government has not provided information about which categories of travelers can expect to be subject to these restrictions. Nonetheless, Israeli border officials at Ben Gurion Airport began requiring certain travelers to sign a form that states s/he is not allowed to enter territories controlled by the Palestinian Authority unless s/he obtains advance authorization from the Israeli “Territory Actions Coordinator,” and that violating this restriction may result in the traveler being deported from Israel and barred from entry for up to 10 years.

On August 22, 2009, Time thought it fitting to release this story. (Must have been a slow news day what with the Obamas on vacation et. al.) But by and large this story failed to make a blip on the news radio; even one of my contacts in Palestine didn’t know this law was in effect.

While Israeli officials will not specify who they consider to be “certain travelers,” the Time story indicates that those currently facing the most difficulty are foreign nationals of Palestinian descent. However, such vague generalizations could encompass anyone they feel is not sympathetic to their cause including humanitarian groups that already face a difficult struggle trying to provide assistance in this region.

When I was invited to join a contingent of evangelical journalists on a press tour of Israel in January 2007, traveling throughout Israel was already somewhat problematic. Gaza was deemed off limits as was much of the West Bank. Also, the Dome of the Rock was closed to all non-Muslim visitors.

During our half-day of free time, I was permitted entry into Bethlehem even though my passport now contained an Israeli stamp and I was not part of a pre-approved tour group. Our Israeli guide could not accompany us because, with very few exceptions, Israelis cannot venture into Palestine and Palestinians cannot enter Israel.

While I crossed into Bethlehem with ease, upon my return back to Jerusalem I was greeted by a sea of people trying to cross the border. After going through a rather intense screening process, I was finally permitted to leave Bethlehem. Many in that crowd were not so lucky.

Such is the daily life for a Palestinian, whose everyday existence is dictated by the presence of guarded checkpoints throughout the West Bank and the 25-high concrete wall that separates Bethlehem from Israel. These security measures, which were put in place to protect Israel from terrorists, has served in fact to further divide this war-torn region. People lost their livelihood because they could get to their place of employment. Farmers whose land is on one side of the wall and their home on the other can no longer tend to their crops. When someone needs advanced medical care, they cannot leave Palestine to seek out a specialist. And the stories go on ad infinitum.

Christian retailers based in Palestine face difficulties selling their materials outside of the region. Some traditional crafts such as olive wood carving, which has been passed down within families since the 4th century, when monks introduced the art to the Holy Land, could disappear unless visitors begin frequenting Bethlehem again.

The ongoing drop in tourism has led to staggering unemployment of at least 55 percent. Actions such as the blockage of humanitarian aid into Gaza and the demolition of homes make the hopes of an economic recovery for these regions seem unlikely at best.

Not to worry. I’m sure Israeli government-authorized Christian caravans will continue to include stopovers to select commercialized West Bank spots like Qumran and the Dead Sea, as well as bus rides into Bethlehem. So tourists can still pick up a few trinkets to remind them how blessed they are to get to partake in these pre-packaged pilgrimages that offer a Barney Bible version of the Holy Land. These spiritual safaris provide safe and sanitized expeditions that enable the faithful to follow in the very steps of their Lord and Savior without actually touching their Palestinian brothers and sisters.

While Jesus extended agape to all, if he came back to life, I suspect he would demand an end to such a mockery of his mission. Maybe I’ve just been reading the wrong non-red-lettered version of the Bible, but the Jesus of Nazareth that I follow showed solidarity with the poor and oppressed. So when will Christ followers follow the lead of Religious Right icon Ronald Reagan and demand that the oppressors “tear down this wall?”

Becky Garrison is a satirist/storyteller whose most recent book is Roger Williams’s Little Book of Virtues (Wipf & Stock, March 2020). Also, she edited Love, Always: Partners of Trans People on Intimacy, Challenge and Resilience (Transgress Press, 2015). Her six books include 2006’s Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church (PW, starred review).