The Limits of ‘Protest Tourism’ in the Israeli-Occupied West Bank

(By “Jill Saunders”)

“Jill Saunders”, a pseudonym, frequently attends the weekly demonstrations in the Palestinian village of Nabi Saleh. In this reflective piece, “Jill” questions the very idea of ‘protest tourism’ in the West Bank.

The wind from the open window blows dusty air across my face as our minibus winds down the roads from Beir Zeit to Nabi Saleh. I lose myself in the view of hills and valleys filled with olive trees coupled with the backdrop of Israeli settlements.

“They throw rocks today?” I’m jostled back into the moment by a question from Hakim, our driver. I hesitate to respond.

“Every Friday, they throw rocks. Are there problems today?” he asks, eyes peering at me from the rearview mirror. 

“…I don’t know,” I stammer, looking down at my knees.

“Why you go?” he presses, still glaring at me in the mirror.

“We have friends there; we are visiting friends.” I gesture to the two girls crammed beside me in the backseat.

“They throw rocks today?”

Satisfied, Hakim nods to me while raising his bushy eyebrows slightly. I shift my gaze to the window once more and quickly lose myself again in the twist and turns of our vehicle.

In the background, I hear my friends and Hakim talking about America, laughing about the best districts of New York, a topic Hakim is strangely well versed on. Normal conversation is refreshing. But, as we drift past checkpoints, soldier outposts and Israeli flags, the conversation shifts again to the occupation, to Israel. Normal conversation is too often a casualty of the occupation.

Arriving in Nabi Saleh, I gesture for Hakim to stop. As he slows down, he demands I save his phone number and call him when we wish to leave. A familiar demand, I oblige, jotting his number in my worn-out journal amongst the dozens of other drivers who have demanded the same.

Waving goodbye, we begin our walk up the hill and into the village. Passing houses decorated with various types of tear gas canisters and shells, we walk in silence towards Martyr Square. Our silence is heavy. It nestles into my chest as a familiar anxiety settles into my mind.

Waiting for the crowd to gather for the demonstration, we sit away from the men already gathered. Soaked in sweat and silence, I begin to speak: “Why am I here?”

Surprised by my internal thoughts becoming spoken words, I sputter angrily, “This isn’t my story.”

Since my first experience at these demonstrations, I have struggled with this concept, that this isn’t my story. I think back to the notion of ‘protest tourists’, referenced by Seth Freedam in his article on the subject of foreigners attending demonstrations in Palestine published by the Guardian in 2010. These ‘protest tourists’, he says come to these demonstrations unarmed with previous knowledge of the conflict and participate “as they are day-trippers taking in the sights of central London.” This concept of demonstration tourism leaves a bad taste in my mouth as I wonder about my own motivations.

Defensively, my mind clings to the fact that I live here, amongst the Palestinians. My skin gets goosebumps across checkpoints, my sleep is interrupted by the choir of F-16s that fly overhead, and my heart lives in my throat as the sonic booms ring out through the city. But, do these limited experiences of the occupation, I wonder to myself, grant me the needed legitimacy to attend these demonstrations in good conscience?

Seeking refuge from my own mind, I turn the question to my friends Madeline and Jenny, “Why do you come here?” Silence lingers as I watch them digest my question under the hot Palestinian sun.

Madeline is first to speak. “I often feel my level of involvement in the resistance here is inadequate. This isn’t my story, I know. But, what else can I do to show my support to the Palestinian people?” Continuing, she says less confidently, “I don’t know. I don’t know why I continue to come here. But I do know that the cause becomes more real to me when it is personal, when I can see the people here taking a stand for their freedom.”

Still questioning myself, I ask, “But what about the idea of ‘protest tourism’, I mean, is that what we are doing? And if we aren’t, if we are really here to support the Palestinian resistance movement, do we really have more integrity than those tourists who come in with their cameras for an adrenaline rush and a story to tell their friends back home?” 

Madeline’s face furrows as she pushes her sunglasses up onto the crock of her nose. “I don’t know,” she says. “I mean, I come here knowing my own bias, about how I’m seen. And it feels…” she hesitates “Well, it feels uneasy.”

Jenny, who has, until now, remained quiet steps in, “So what if we are ‘protest tourists’?” she says, making air quotes with her hands. “I mean, we come in here and no matter what our intentions are, it’s worth something to be here.”

We sit together in silence, Jenny’s statement hanging over our heads. 

Jenny continues, “You have to start somewhere. Maybe you come here first as a protest tourist looking for a rush but, I don’t think that is what’s important. What’s important is the transformative moments that happen afterwards.”

“So what if we are ‘protest tourists’?”

I think about her last statement and wonder about my own involvement in the demonstrations. I try to recall my own transformative moment from potential protest tourist to informed supporter. My mind shifts again to my own legs running, feet hitting the ground hard and fast as my mind repeats the tear-gas survival mantra of, “Look up, look up.”

I am jolted back to the conversation when Jenny says, “I don’t think the first act, your first time here should be diminished because you may not have it all worked out in your mind why you are here.” 

Behind us, young children begin throwing rocks into the distance, laughing with one another. The anticipation in the air sticks to my nostrils as the warm breeze pricks my skin. 

Madeline, with a shaky voice says, “I come here for the kids. Look at them.” We crane our necks backwards to watch the children in the distance. “I don’t know what I am doing for the greater cause of resisting the occupation. Maybe nothing, maybe something. I don’t know.” Taking a deep breath in, she continues, “But I am here, resisting and trying to show these children that I am with them.” 

Relinquishing to her words, I feel my muscles begin to relax, my breath becoming slower. I turn to face Madeline as she continues, “But at the end of the day, I get to go home. I get to walk away from this.” She takes a deep breath, “And they don’t.” 

Silently, we all nod in agreement. Madeline, standing up to put her bag on her back says, “And it’s scary.” With that proclamation of vulnerability, we stand and begin walking towards the chanting crowd that has formed.

“All names have been changed for the protection of those mentioned.”

Jill Saunders” is a pseudonym. The woman behind “Jill” is a Canadian-born teacher who has spent the last three years working in the Middle East. She combines her background in conflict resolution and human rights with her experiences working in the MENA region. Through her writing, she seeks to bring to light the individual narratives that are often overshadowed by conflict.

Mirrored from Your Middle East

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

Press TV: “West Bank, Gaza rallies mark Prisoners’ Day”