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#StolenHomes: Israeli Tourism and/as Military Occupation in Historical Perspective
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#StolenHomes:
Israeli Tourism and/as Military Occupation in Historical Perspective

In the winter of 2016, the Israeli left-wing blogosphere broke the news that the so-called sharing economy had come to the occupied Palestinian territories. “Fancy a vacation with breathtaking views of the Holy Land? Airbnb will let you rent out luxurious cottages atop barren hilltops, making no mention of the fact that they are in settlements on occupied land.”1 Anti-occupation activists in the United States seized on the coverage, and a boycott campaign soon gathered steam online, taking aim at the complicity of the global housing network in the occupation project (“Say no to stolen homes!”). For most Jewish Israelis, the Airbnb revelation failed either to surprise or to excite. In a country that has moved ever rightward over the last two decades, the normalization of Jewish settlements is widely supported, as are expansionist ideologies and militant nationalism once relegated largely to the country’s political margins. In the last few years, by extension, the Israeli demand for leisure opportunities in Jewish settlements in the Palestinian West Bank has grown markedly. Settler entrepreneurs and families seeking extra income increasingly court both Israeli and international tourists with the promise of serene landscapes, wine tasting, and spacious accommodations at reduced prices.2 Thousands of Israeli Jews now enjoy their Passover holiday in Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories. It need hardly be remarked that these itineraries are enabled by all they occlude: namely, signs of Palestinian living and Israeli military rule that cannot be rebranded in tourist terms. On the Airbnb website, this vanishing act is rebranded through the neoliberal language of “sharing,” with colonial logics figured as free market generosity.

But none of this is particularly new. Rather, the interplay between tourism and military occupation has a considerable legacy in Israel, functioning as yet another illustration of the postcolonial axiom that the histories of colonialism and colonial violence are intimately entangled with the history of leisure travel—an axiom we trace to the scholarly project innauguarated by Edward [End Page 545] Said in Orientalism (1978). From the onset of the Zionist project in Palestine in the late nineteenth century, acts of Palestinian dispossession and Jewish territorial nationalism took refuge in tourist rhetoric and travelers’ acts: through the deployment of the depopulating language of the picturesque; through the ways that hiking practices laid claim to territory; through consumptive practices in Bedouin villages, by which Palestine’s Arab population was figured as a cultural but not political resource.3 This same entanglement of tourism and colonialism subtends the history of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. From the occupation’s beginning, Israeli tourist practices functioned as cultural companions to, and alibis for, the more repressive work of military rule.

The flow of Jewish Israeli tourists into the Palestinian territories begins in the aftermath of the Israeli victory in the 1967 war, resulting in the occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula. This cultural phenomenon would continue for two decades, cut short only by the outbreak of the first Palestinian uprising in 1987.4 These were decades prior to the Israeli state imposition of the territorial obstacles that now define and constrain the built environment of military occupation, for example, checkpoints and the separation barrier, and prior to state-imposed restrictions on the mobility of Israeli passport holders through occupied territories. During these decades, in the absence of territorial and legal obstacles, thousands of Israeli Jews toured the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip with a variety of itineraries, touristic aims, and consumer desires: religious pilgrimages, picturesque hikes, authentic Arab culture, and affordable dining. For some of these Israeli tourists, travel to the territories was an integral part of the political project of laying claim to “Greater Israel.” But far greater numbers framed their tourist desires in less explicitly political terms, taking pleasure in landscapes and cultural encounters they had enjoyed prior to 1948 and the range of consumer goods and services available in the West Bank and Gaza Strip—from auto-repair shops to supermarkets—at a fraction of Israeli prices.5

In what follows, I...