Israeli authorities granted some one million visas to vacationers from the West Bank to cross the border during the recent Ramadan holiday. Some had never set foot in Israel before.
TEL AVIV — Tarek and Bassam, ages 18 and 20 respectively, are taking picture after picture of themselves on the beach of Tel Aviv. “And can you also take the full panorama behind me?” one of them asks. Like a million other Palestinians from the West Bank, they were granted visas to visit Israel this year for the end of the monthlong Muslim holiday Ramadan. And they were enjoying every second of it.
Tarek is from Nablus, a city in the northern West Bank. “I haven’t seen the sea since the second Intifada started in September 28, 2000, when I was just a kid. And after that, I never left the West Bank, except once to go and pray in Jerusalem,” he says. “It’s quite a shock being able to walk in the sand, dip your feet in the water and look out the horizon.”
Bassam lives in the refugee camp of Nur Shams, in the Nablus area. He wants to take pictures of the nearby port city of Jaffa to show them to his grandparents, who had to flee the town when the Hebrew state was created in 1948. “It will come as a great shock to them,” he says.
“When I was little, they would talk to me about places that don’t exist anymore. Even the street names are different, and the orange trees have been replaced by luxury buildings, shops and hotels.” He goes on, “I don't really realize where I am because since I was a child the only Israelis I’ve passed in the street were either soldiers in charge of controlling the roadblocks or settlers who attack us on our roads. It's different here, way more relaxed.”
Not all Palestinians allowed to enter the Jewish state go to Tel Aviv. Many of them seize the occasion to visit their families in the villages in Galilee and in the Arab-Israeli towns in the center of the country. But the beaches of the “White City” are among their favorite attractions, and if you get up early, you can even see hundreds of buses patiently waiting to drop off their passengers from the West Bank.
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Palestinians on vacation at the beach in Tel Aviv - Photo: activestills
They are generally families with children, carrying plastic chairs and one or several coolers filled with food. “Life is expensive in Israel. Even middle-class people like us would hardly be able to afford eating in a restaurant,” says Asma, a mother of four and wife to a foreman on the building site of Al-Rawabi, a Palestinian town under construction near Ramallah.
Still, some families do a bit of shopping along the “Tayelet,” the Tel Aviv promenade. Young women haggle over the price of sarongs and large braided hats. Others buy Chinese knick-knacks in a supermarket. They speak Hebrew and do their bargaining by teaming up. One of them explains, “Where we live, in El-Khalil (Hebron), we can’t find any of this. And since we don't know what will happen around this time next year, we’d rather buy now.”
On the lawns adjoining the beaches, Israeli families and Palestinian tourists picnic next to one other but do not speak to each other. In fact, they ignore each other. The Israelis bustle about around their mangals (barbecues) while the Palestinians empty their coolers. Even the children play separately.
This shared experience seemed to go without a hitch, with one exception being an incident in Haifa where two Palestinians where expelled from the beach by municipal police on the grounds that they didn’t have authorization to sunbathe.
“I won't lie to you,” says Shmuel Lidron, owner of a small drink kiosk, “from a purely economic point of view, I prefer Europeans because they spend a lot more. As for Palestinians, they’re happy with just the minimum. An ice cream for the kids, a drink if they’ve run out.” He goes on, “We barely see them, even though they come en masse. Women are dressed in black with their hijab. They go and swim with their clothes on with the children while their husbands chat and smoke their water pipes."
Lidron notes that in the evening, when they go back to the buses, the Palestinian visitors make sure they take all their garbage with them, in the big blue bags they brought. "On that point," he says, "the Israeli and foreign tourists should learn to do the same.”