Interview: A guide for visiting Palestine

Every day, Fred Schlomka’s Green Olive tour company picks up a car full of Jerusalem tourists and guides them through the Separation Wall into the Palestinian West Bank, visiting refugee camps, social enterprises and – in what’s been seen by some as a controversial move – settler communities.

Having joined one of these tours earlier this year, I recently interviewed Fred to find out first hand why he set up Green Olive Tours, and what he sees for the future of Palestine.

1. So, where did the idea for Green Olive Tours come from?

I launched Green Olive Tours in 2007. For many years I had been organizing specialized tours for two Israeli organizations that I worked for, Mosaic Communities and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. These tours were aimed at activists and researchers who came to Israel/Palestine to further their understanding of the political issues here and experience the events on the ground.

I decided to offer these types of tours to a broader public, and include cultural experiences and some more conventional tourist activities. The blend of experiences serves the general tourist public and enables them to go home with a more rounded view of our country.

2. And why was it important to you to set up Green Olive Tours?

Most tour companies offer a ‘Disneyland’ view of the country, from a Jewish or Christian perspective, often excluding information, experiences, and sites that conflict with their worldview. Green Olive Tours tries to offer a more comprehensive experience while gently advocating for a more humanistic and democratic perspective.

The tours serve as a bridge between my political and professional work. Through traveling the West Bank almost every day I am able to monitor the situation and stay in touch with my contacts. Through offering tourists the opportunity to benefit from my experienced guides’ knowledge, and witness the impact of the Occupation, they often are motivated to become politically active when they return home. Some return as volunteers in the organizations we introduce them to.

3. Is it important for tourists to visit the West Bank?

It is extremely important. Most Israeli tour companies offer only limited opportunities to visit the West Bank, often telling their clients that it is too dangerous. However there are many important religious and historical sites in the West Bank, and hospitable Palestinians who are eager to tell their stories. No visit to the Holy Land is complete without at least several days visiting the West Bank.

4. What’s been the hardest part of setting up and running Green Olive Tours?

Lack of capital. We are a ‘bootstrap’ operation and completely self-funded. If there was access to capital then the business could grow faster. However growing in an organic fashion has its benefits. When we make mistakes it is less costly.

Another issue is marketing. All the major tour companies that conduct day-trips have full access to the residents of tourist hotels. Our brochures and flyers are rejected by the mainstream hotels for political reasons, and we are restricted to marketing through the smaller and Arab-owned hotels.

5. What do you think is the main thing that people on your tours get from the experience?

They see the reality of life in the West Bank and Israel, and are provided with enough information to make up their own minds about the issues. People-to-people contact is also much appreciated by our clients. On most of the tours they are able to meet Palestinians and Israelis, have conversations, and often to have lunch with a family.

6. You have recently launched a ‘Meet the Settlers’ tour. Why did you decide to run this tour? Has that been controversial?

The tour was started to give visitors the opportunity to hear from the settlers themselves about their philosophy and reasons for living in the West Bank. Some Israeli and Palestinian activists are critical of this tour. Since the settler/guide receives a fee, they feel that the tour is actually supporting the settlement enterprise.

However on balance I think that it is more important to educate tourists about the settlements than to worry about a few dollars ending up in the hands of a settler.

7. What are your hopes for the future of Israel and Palestine?

My hope is that we all can find a way to live together within a democratic framework. However the present trends of settlement expansion and lack of negotiations does not bode well for the immediate future.

I believe that any possibility for the ‘classic’ two-state solution is over. The idea is a fantasy that the settlers will be removed from the West Bank and a largely Jewish-free state is formed in the West Bank and Gaza. Reality must sink in. There are now over 600,000 Israelis living in the Occupied Territories. I think the best we can hope for is a Palestinian state that allows most of the settlers to remain under Palestinian sovereignty. This will preserve the national aspirations of Palestinians, and the integrity of the state of Israel.  Of course if Israelis are permitted to live in Palestine then Palestinians should also be permitted to live in Israel.

Perhaps a solution like the European Union may emerge – a Three-State Solution, which would put a third government on top of the two states, with a hard external border but a soft internal border.

Thanks to Fred Schlomka and the Green Olive Tours team for this interview. You can find out more about the Green Olive story at www.toursinenglish.com

Separation, Settlements and Guerilla Graffiti: The West Bank in Pictures

With construction beginning in 2003, the Israeli authorities erected the 8m concrete wall with incredible speed. It’s aim, they say, is to help stop Palestinian suicide bombings on Israeli soil. Since then, the number of attacks has declined by more than 90%.

Banksy at the Bethlehem Checkpoint

However, the wall makes life for many Palestinians even more difficult. For a start, Palestinians cannot get through the checkpoints and onto the other side of the wall without a permit, and permits are very difficult to come by. If you have a job on the Israeli side, and you have kids, it can be easier, but your permit will still only last 3 months, meaning that people have to withstand constant questioning and bureaucracy in order to go about the simple business of getting to work.

Wall Graffeti

Separation

What’s worse for many however is the fact that the wall separates them from family and friends. I met one woman – Sarah – who used to live next door to her aunt, but now the wall travels along what was once the fence between their homes. Sarah is now only able to get a permit to travel across the border to see her family-member once a year.

Annexed Olive Groves

The wall also habitually separates Palestinians from their land. These olive groves have been split in two by the wall, with a substantial portion annexed into the Israeli side.

In this case, the diversion from the ‘Green Line‘ is due to the fact that Rachel’s tomb happens to be several hundred yards into the Palestinian territory. Rather than stick to these UN agreed boundries, Israeli authorities simply built the wall into Palestinian land, annexing the tomb and the olive groves around it.  The farmers have not received compensation.

Refugees

Aida refugee camp is just within the boundaries of the wall on the outskirts of Bethlehem. It homes around 5000 Palestinians, most descended from the original 800 or so that fled to the UN led camp in the 1948 “war of independence”.

All in all, around a million Palestinians fled their homes in what is now Israel, and most have resettled in the West Bank, where they now number at around 2 million.

The boys school in Aida Refugee Camp

Aida isn’t what you might imagine from a refugee camp. There are buildings, streets, schools and community centres holding theatre classes and dance workshops for kids.

One organisation in particular, Al Rowwad, does some amazing work teaching young people photography, theatre and journalism – it aims to help Palestinians tell their story to the world’s media.

Still, the walls are covered in bullet holes and barbed wire. Not sure anyone would choose to live here.

Resistance

Banksy – Separation Wall Graffiti

The wall has become a canvas for political graffiti, communicating messages of peace, anger, hope and despair. Banksy set the trend, coming out here a couple of times over the past few years, usually with a crew of 4-5 other graffiti artists

This one (above)  is one of his. Some argue that this trend is a bad thing, as it somehow trivialises people’s traumas and injustices.

Separation Wall Graffiti

For others, it is an essential way means of protest for Palestinians; taking this symbol of oppression and, somehow, making it their own.

Settlements

Meanwhile, Israeli authorities continue to build towns (‘settlements’) and roads on the Palestinian side of the wall.

Palestinians are not allowed to travel on many of the Israeli built roads or enter the settlements, which are most often populated with ultra-orthodox Jews from America and Eastern Europe who see this land as their own, as promised by Abraham in the Torah and captured by Israel in the 1967 ‘six day war’.

Israeli roads and settlements

Settlements continue to be built at an incredible pace, despite pleas from the international community, including America, to freeze this activity in order to give the peace process a chance of success. It seems like a peculiar brand of craziness (not to mention a double injustice) to go to the trouble of building a mammoth barricade between these two peoples, only to continue colonising the land on the other side.

Five Tips for Travelling Solo

Just this morning I received the following text:

Kim, I have swine flu. I’m not going to be able to make it to Paris because a) I feel like death and b) I’m not allowed to be around people…so sorry! x

Of course, my first thought is; poor Clare! My second (slightly selfish) thought is; hmm…probably best not to be sharing a hotel room with the dreaded swine flu. And my third is; ok…so does this mean I go to Paris on my own?

I’ve always thought of travelling alone as a necessary rite of passage. Yes, the idea of it can be a bit daunting. After all, it isn’t often in our busy lives that we end up forcing ourselves to spend a few days, or a week, or even months with no friends or family around. Add into the mix an unknown place, an unknown language, and a whole variety of unforeseen challenges that inevitably land at your feet when travelling, and you start to see why for lots of people, going it alone is thought to be completely out of the question.

But ask anyone who has spent any time abroad with only their wits, their credit card and the phone number for the British embassy as backup, and they’ll tell you that they’re a better person for the experience.  There is a complete sense of freedom that comes from knowing that wherever you are and whatever is happening, you can rely on yourself and actually have a bloody good time in the process. Plus, if you’re single, you don’t have to rely on ‘finding someone to go one holiday with’ in order to go to the places on your travel hit list.

But that was then. To be honest, having had a bit of a crap year all round – one that’s left me a little bit bruised, I can’t say I feel as confident as I used to about jetting off on my own with only my own thoughts for company. As many a travel writer has pointed out, the problem with travelling alone is that you have to take yourself with you, and if you’re head is not in the best of places then that’s a prospect that might seem pretty terrifying.

However, I also know that if I get myself onto the eurostar, proving to myself that I can rely on myself in a foreign city will probably be one of the most empowering and rejuvenating things I could do.  So I’m going to give it a shot. Drawing on my past experience, these are the tips I’m repeating to myself so I actually enjoy it.

1. Remember, you’re never actually alone

Unless you’re on in the middle of a polar ice cap, it is highly unlikely that there won’t be people close by to remind you that you’re never actually on your own. In fact, I’ve often found that the challenge for lone travellers is more likely to be getting some time to yourself than finding someone to hang out with. Something about being on your own makes you way more approachable to other backpackers/hotel guests/cute guys in the same cafe; and I’ve always found I’ve made more new friends on my lone-travel trips than on group efforts.

However, if you do find yourself getting a bit lonely, or just fancy some company, there are some easy ways to scratch the itch. Signing up for organised tours is a pretty safe bet, while group activities are even better – think group treks, cooking workshops, language classes. And if none of that takes your fancy, always remember that if you really need to you can contact friends and family by text, phone or email any time you like.

For me though, the best way of overcoming any pangs for company is simply by talking to everyone. I mean it. People in the place you’re staying, the waiters and shop assistants, people on the street to ask directions, people in same bus queue. Who cares if your French / Thai / Japanese is a bit shaky. You only need to learn a few words and phrases to make a connection with someone, and you get so much more out of the experience as a result. And if you really don’t know any of the language…

2. Smile

People are more likely to warm to you and want to help you if you look friendly, even if you are babbling in broken English making wild hand gestures to try and make yourself understood.

Smiling also comes in useful when things go horribly wrong; it’s an instant reminder to relax and remember that there is never a problem than can’t be solved.

3. Research the cool cafes

One of the first things I do when in a new place is find a few cafes that can become my home from home – where I can eat, drink, read, blog or just hang out and people watch for hours on end. Let’s face it, spending a whole day and night on your own traversing the sights of a new place can be pretty knackering, and it makes me feel much more relaxed in a new city knowing there are a few spots I can just camp out in regardless of where I am or what time it is. For me, this makes me feel like less of an outsider and helps me make the city my own. On a related topic…

4. Embrace dinnertime

Most lone travellers will tell you that dinnertime can be the hardest time to be on your own in a city. You’re usually busy all day in the bustling town enjoying the sites and travelling from A to B, happily sitting in cafes in bars where no one bats an eyelid as you sit on your own and enjoy a good book. But when the sun goes down something switches. Suddenly all the restaurants and cafes are packed with couples and groups. And waiters aren’t quite so welcoming when they realise they’ll be giving you a table for two but getting half the sales (and half the tip). And out of nowhere, you become acutely aware you’re on your own.

The trick here is to embrace the experience. So what if you’re dining alone? This is your holiday and your evening. So indulge yourself. Eat what you like, where you like. Take your favourite book or your journal and save the best bits to enjoy over dinner. Order your favourite wine. Ignore any snotty waiters trying to usher you into a side table by the kitchen and sit where you want to. Take a deep breath. Enjoy every mouthful of your food. Eavesdrop on conversations (this can be even more fun if you don’t know the language).  Spend as long as you like – there’s no need to rush if you don’t want to. Do something that will give you a buzz, like making a list of ambitions for yourself, or places you want to visit in the next ten years. Or just do nothing, remembering how brave you are sitting in this restaurant far from home, and soak up the atmosphere. Which leads us onto…

5. Get outside

Do not, under any circumstances, sit in your room pondering the map and worrying the big bad city outside. Yes, be prepared. Yes, make at least a vague plan for how you’re going to spend your day. But if you need to consult your guidebook or your map, do it sitting in a Parisian/Argentinean/Californian cafe, not from the edge of your hotel bed.  There is nothing in that room you haven’t seen before and there’s a whole world of experiences outside that you might be telling your grandkids about.