The Etzel Museum, near the Charles Clore beach in Tel Aviv, assembles many pieces of history related to the Arab Israeli conflict, including the conquest of Jaffa. The band of Palestinian youth who had arrived yesterday to the beach in Tel Aviv and sat on the Museum’s stairs had no idea.” This is the first time in my life that I’m in Tel Aviv”, says Ligal Atchi, 24, who came to town with a few friends from Ramallah for a fun day. “I’ve always dreamt about Tel Aviv’s beach, which I have seen in pictures and on the map. When I arrived here this morning, I was dazzled by the beauty of the city”.
Atchi works in an aluminum factory near Beit Horon. Two weeks ago, he applied for a tourism entry visa at the Civil Administration, on the occasion of Ramadan. He is one of a million Palestinians who were – and will be – granted entry visas to Israel as tourists, on the occasion of the Month of Ramadan. Thousands of them have already filled yesterday the beaches of the First Hebrew City.
Lifeguards on the beach have been advised of the guests who are about to flood the beach in the coming weeks. They are heard through the loudspeakers on the Charles Clore beach, shouting in Arabic at the bathers who have strayed away from the safety delineation. “They are undisciplined – says one lifeguard – some of them are very excited about bathing in the sea for the first time, but they don’t know the rules and the dangers of the sea”.
“For me it’s like being abroad”, admits Mohamed Adana, a 20 year old student from the Ramallah District who cannot hide his enthusiasm about visiting the Holy Land. “I want to go to Paris and Berlin, but the word is that Tel Aviv falls short of no European city. It’s my first time here. We only strolled on the beach this time around, but next time I’d like to tour Jaffa as well”.
According to data provided by COGAT (Coordinator of the Government’s Activities in the Territories) 100,000 Palestinians have been granted entry visas so far, and they are visiting their families on the western side of the Green Line or going to pray in the Al Aqsa Mosque. It is expected that, However, the greatest bulk of visitors is expected on Eid el-Fitr, at the end of Ramadan, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are due to flock to the beaches and clubs of Tel Aviv, to make merry and spend money over here rather than in Palestinian cities.
“The procedure is simple”, explains Yusuf from Nablus: “You apply to the Palestinian DCO (District Coordination Office) which passes it on to the Israeli side, where it is usually approved. The whole thing takes 24 hours, sometimes less, depending on how long you want to stay in Israel. We see this as something positive. Palestinians who usually identify Israelis as soldiers or settlers enter Israel and get acquainted with other aspects of the Jews.
It opens their mind and changes the thinking on both sides. Why is that? Because the Jews also meet for the first time Palestinians from the West Bank, and find out that they are basically people who quite resemble them”.
“Come Eid el-Fitr, you won’t recognize your beaches”, promises Rabi’a, 19, from Nablus. “I believe about half a million Palestinians will come to the beaches of Tel Aviv and Jaffa, and they will “conquer” the town’s pubs and clubs. We’re going to have a lot of fun”, he adds and laughs.
But Karim from Ramallah, an older man, has already used the entry permit for other purposes. “I don’t intend to use my visa to go to the sea side or for entertainment”, he explains. “”I am a working man. So far I’ve been with my family to Jerusalem, and I went to pray in Al Aqsa. It was really a cool and quicker at the border crossing. It gives a good feeling when both the Jewish side and the Palestinian side try to make it easier for us on Ramadan.”
Yusuf from Nablus believes it is in Israel’s best interest to let in as many Palestinian tourists as possible. “I estimate the revenues at approximately one billion Shekels, flowing into Israel from the PA through these visitors. Just as Israelis travel to Europe and spend a lot of money there, so many Palestinians see their visit in Israel as their annual vacation. A Palestinian family traveling through Israel, going to the beach, drinks colas and buys popsicles and food for the children, can spend in two-three days a thousand Shekels and even more. I don’t understand Israel. It should have opened these crossings throughout the year for Palestinians who don’t make problems. Beyond financial revenues, it’s also about a sense of coexistence, reconciliation and openness between the two peoples”.
But some actually frown upon the easy spending of Palestinian tourists in Israel. “I own a restaurant and I am amazed that my shop remains empty during Ramadan”, says a disappointed Karim, whose restaurant stands near Arafat Square in the heart of Ramallah. “If at the end of the holiday season I only have 8000 Shekels left for me, then it’s a really bad situation. In this period I am supposed to cover my all-year losses, but you can see Ramallah and other Palestinian cities suddenly emptying up. While I stare at the shawarmeh spinning around in my restaurant, they spend their money in Israel instead of strengthening the local market. Many of them prefer to buy in the malls of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem things that they could get for half the price here in Ramallah, but they get a feeling of freedom and of being almost abroad, so they have this urge to shop”.
And then there’s Mahmoud, a resident of Hebron whose is denied entry. He is one of the few who were not issued permits to visit Israel. “It’s really irritating”, he admits, “I did some foolish stuff back when I was a kid, and now they won’t let me in. All my friends are going to town in Jaffa and Tel Aviv, and I’ll have to settle for the things they’ll bring me from over there”.
Mahmoud will find solace in local festivities, for lack of an alternative: “On the other hand, who needs Tel Aviv? We’ve got cafes that stay open until the wee hours of the night, clubs where you can smoke the narguile and play billiard, and even dances. You can have fun anywhere.”
Most of the Palestinian tourists who have experienced an Israeli vacation are already planning their next break – another fun day at the beaches of Tel Aviv or at the markets of Jaffa. “What I saw today, man, that was some experience”, says Mariub Ashi, 25, who lives in a small village between Ramallah and Jerusalem, shortly after coming out of the water. “I loved everything here – the food, the sea, the air, even the beautiful girls roaming the beach. Inch Allah, I’ll come again tomorrow, but tonight I need to return to my village by 10 PM, because that’s what it says on my Israeli visa”.