Last week my tour company, MEJDI, received a tour group from Washington DC. The group members are all part of the same Jewish congregation, and are here on a trip lead by their rabbi, who was inspired by our narratives-based approach to tourism. This morning we took the tour group to the Mount of Olives for a view of the Old City of Jerusalem, and spoke to them about the political and religious narratives of the city. While the tourists were wandering around and taking pictures, a policeman with another woman in civilian clothing approached our Palestinian tour guide, asked for his identity card and tourism license, and arrested him.
Each of our groups has two guides, one Palestinian and one Israeli. Almost all of our Palestinian guides come from East Jerusalem, because of the severe shortage of permits for Palestinian guides based in the West Bank. This guide, who for security reasons will be called “HJ,” is a resident of Bethlehem, and is the first West Bank guide we hired to lead our groups in Israel, in tandem with an Israeli Jewish guide.
HJ is a good friend of mine and, apart from being a fully licensed tour guide, is also a dedicated peace activist, who has been interested in MEJDI’s alternative tourism initiative for a while. He called me last week to let me know he finally received a permit to work in Israel, and would therefore be able to work with MEJDI. Friendship aside, I double-checked HJ’s permit and legal status and then hired him for the current tour.
When the police saw HJ’s green identity card (ID’s issued by Israel are color-coded; Israeli citizens get blue IDs, Palestinians get green ones), they were visibly overcome by excitement and a big smile appeared on their faces. They behaved like they made a big catch. They ignored the fact that HJ had a travel permit and a license to work in Israel. I actually heard them say:”Even if he can work in Israel, he couldn’t possibly be a licensed tour guide.” HJ’s tour guiding license was also disregarded.
I tried to explain to the officers that HJ was legal and can work in Israel according to my understanding of the permit. I even called HJ’s lawyer who assured me of the same. But by then, the officers were more interested in their next arrest: Myself.
The police officers decided to arrest me for hiring HJ. I was accused of employing an illegal alien. I tried to reason with the officers but I was speaking to deaf ears. There seemed to be no hope in explaining anything. We were both asked to turn off our phones and not to make any phone calls to anyone, including lawyers. We were also told to stop talking to each other.
Fortunately, because we have two tour guides for each tour, our group was able to continue their tour with the Israeli guide, without major disturbances.
We were promptly asked to sign a paper which indicates that we were not beaten up at the time of our arrest, and we were whisked away to the police station in East Jerusalem, where we waited for about an hour as they processed our arrest. Eventually they took HJ to the interrogation room. In less than five minutes the interrogator stormed out of the interrogation room enraged and began yelling at the arresting officer: “He is legal, why did you arrest them? Release them now.” I was rather relived to have finally met an Israeli police officer who knew how to read a permit issued by the Israeli authorities.
Before leaving the police station, we were both given our IDs’ back, but HJ’s magnetic card was missing. Every West Bank Palestinian that wants to obtain a working permit must also apply for a magnetic ID card from the Israeli Civil Administration in the West Bank. When we asked the police officer about it, he said that he lost the card. He shrugged off our request for a statement stating that he lost the card so HJ can apply for a new one without major delays and interrogations. He told us to go away and not to cause any problems if we don’t want to get ourselves into trouble. We knew we had to leave.
This incident puts me in a difficult situation. What do I do next? Do I still hire HJ and possibly other West Bank guides despite the danger of police harassment? Or do I let this incident induce me to boycott Palestinian tour guides?
As a businessman, I cannot allow such situations to happen again to any of my tour groups. It affects the professionalism of my business. But at the same time I cannot let discriminatory police officers win this battle. Is lawful and respectful treatment of Palestinians too much to ask for? Are Palestinians guilty until proven innocent?
In our business, we refuse to let the conflict generate more hatred or propaganda by or against any side. That is why we have both Israelis and Palestinians accompany the group for the entirety of each trip. Our groups meet with Israeli and Palestinian politicians, activists, and artists alike. We hope these tours generate more supporters for peace. We will find ways to overcome the new challenges while keeping to a high professional level, and we will continue to implement this mission regardless of the hostile environment around us.