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Authentic Palestine: Solidarity Tourism in the Hebron District
By Sandrine Bert Geith
Hebron is one of the most significant cities in the West Bank, situated only 35 kilometres to the south of Jerusalem. Throughout history, Hebron has been at the crossroads of the traditional communication routes between the north and the south and a necessary transit point for caravans and pilgrims. Today, however, the Hebron district is isolated and largely untouched by the tourism industry. Foreign visitors to Hebron City consist mainly of solidarity movement members or individuals who wish to assess the consequences of the Israeli occupation and colonisation. The district as a whole is generally bypassed by visitors.
Nevertheless, the Hebron district bears cultural, architectural, and natural value. Traditional houses, small forts and towers as well as holy sites from the three monotheistic religions are distributed along the historical trade routes and have marked the landscape for thousands of years. More than one-third of the 300 archaeological sites listed in Palestine are situated in this region. The tells (hills) of Beth Zur, Qila, and Ma’in have known successive occupations since the Bronze Age. The synagogue of Samu’ and the Byzantine site of Ain Al-Mamoudiyya testify to religious traditions practiced before the Islamic period. A visit to the Roman villa of Khirbet Al-Kaum and the castles of Al-Burj and Al-Karmel make a very impressive excursion for tourists. Spending time in the villages of the district allows one to come into contact with the traditional Palestinian way of life and an amazing diversity of landscapes. Although the mountainous central area contains the well-known villages such as Halhoul, Rabud, Beit Ummar, and Surif, a tour of the fertile western edge - the villages of Deir Samit, Beit Mirsim and Al-Burj - is highly recommended. In the south, the villages of Al-Karmel, Ad-Dahiriyya, and Yatta are characteristic of a transitional landscape, between mountains and desert.
In recent years, several projects have focused on the responsible and sustainable development of the tourism sector in Hebron. The main objective is to welcome foreign visitors who wish to explore the area’s cultural heritage, thus contributing to economic development and interaction with local communities. Visitors can be accommodated in families and are thus able to experience the famous hospitality offered by the people of Hebron, many of whom have studied English or French and have a genuine spirit of respect and a desire for exchange with visitors.
In order to experience the authentic Palestine, visitors are encouraged to have a local guide to accompany them through the region. Excursions to sites of interest and traditional villages will offer an opportunity to learn about and witness local customs and meet with people from various organisations who work for human rights or sustainable development. In addition to traditional handicrafts workshops, factories - such as the last remaining factory in Palestine that produces the traditional kaffiyeh - have become an essential component of every visit to the district. Special attention should be given to fair trade standards and the promotion of local production. Tourists and pilgrims are encouraged to stay longer in the region and benefit from thematic programmes, such as workshops in traditional handicrafts or hiking tours to biblical sites.
The success of these initiatives depends on the awareness of the local population of its own heritage and the need to preserve it. For the past few years, several local institutions have been living up to this mission. The Hebron-France Association for Cultural Exchanges (HFACE) is one example that has mainly focused on the lesser-known villages in the district.
In addition to training local guides, HFACE also works in schools to promote the protection of heritage and the environment, in cooperation with the Ministry of Education. The Palestinian authorities and institutions, such as the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee and Riwaq, are engaged in the rehabilitation of archaeological sites and the restoration of the old city of Hebron, as well as buildings and entire quarters in traditional villages.
Progressively, the people of Hebron are retaking possession of their own history and striving to overcome ignorance and stereotypes that are mistakenly associated with this attractive region.
Sandrine Bert Geith is an archaeologist from Switzerland. She is currently coordinating the Solidarity Tourism project of the Hebron-France Association for Cultural Exchanges (HFACE) and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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