• FEATURES \ Oct 24, 2005
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    Humour and hospitality go with the Territories
Humour and hospitality go with the Territories Although the modern brick block wearing this vast portrait of the late Yasser Arafat presides over the square of a town all but empty of tourists, its souvenir shop is open. One of the magnets for sale in the the Bethlehem Peace Centre bears the word 'Palestine' beneath a photograph of green graffiti on a wall. Later, someone who reads Arabic better than I do will look at this, smile, and explain that the words are a slogan supporting Hamas. It is difficult to be a tourist in Palestine without one's irony detector making anguished grinding noises.

The Gaza Strip is closed to all visitors bar journalists, diplomats and NGO workers, but the West Bank is accessible to anyone willing to put up with the same inconveniences endured by the Palestinians living there: checkpoints, roadblocks, vehicle searches.

Olive Co-Operative, a British tourism and fair-trade company, runs visits to the Occupied Territories, organising meetings with Palestinian and Israeli activist groups, touring the safely accessible areas of the West Bank and dropping in on Israeli nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu - who, released after 18 years in jail, now receives visitors at St George's cathedral in East Jerusalem.

Potential tourists have two principal concerns here. The first is whether or not holidaying in a war zone is really the done thing. I've never met a Palestinian (or an Israeli, for that matter) who objects; quite the opposite. If a Palestinian state is ever going to work, it will have to pay for itself; those whose sympathies lie in that direction could make no greater gesture of solidarity than booking a holiday and spending money there.

The other worry is personal safety. There is, after all, a war on here, and neither side has much respect for the heritage sites. The Church of the Nativity was besieged by the Israeli army for 39 days in 2002. In March this year two Israeli soldiers were wounded by Palestinian gunmen at a security post near the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, final resting place of Abraham and a site holy to Jews and Muslims.

Yet another irony of the Palestinian Territories is that they - the grim open-air prison of Gaza aside - often feel less scary than Israel. The violence visited upon Israel by Palestinian militants tends to be sudden and random, which is why it is impossible to enjoy, for example, the peerless iced coffee in West Jerusalem's Cafe Hillel free of worry about another patron wearing an unseasonably heavy coat.

On the West Bank, it is usually possible to see trouble coming at sufficient distance that you can get out of its way - Israel's assaults on Palestinians, while frequently disproportionate, tend to be fairly predictable as regards location. Any tourist injured by violence in Palestine is unlucky, or foolish.

I did have reservations about joining the tour - mainly over the possibility of being bored to death. Depressingly few people manage to express a partisan interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without resorting to the shrill, dogmatic hectoring which prompted Colonel Sir Ronald Storrs, British Governor of Jerusalem in the 1920s, to declare: 'I am not for either, but for both. Two hours of Arab grievances drive me into the synagogue, while after an intense course of Zionist propaganda, I am prepared to embrace Islam.'

The dismal state of Bethlehem's economy is immediately obvious - from the joy of the first taxi driver past the Israeli checkpoint at spotting a foreign visitor and from his desperation as he tries to stop at three souvenir shops, owned by friends or family, en route. On arrival at the hotel where I'm meeting the tour, he won't let me out of the taxi until I've accepted his business card and made a solemn promise that if I am seized with a sudden desire to own quantities of unpleasant holy tat, he'll be the first guy I call.

The hotel - the Three Kings in Bethlehem - is a rendezvous, not a terminus. Tonight, we're being parked with locals. Myself and one of the four others on this tour are billeted with a young Christian family.

The man of the house flicks with compulsive speed between channels on the vast satellite television in the living room, and speaks almost as quickly. Like most Palestinians, he talks about what dominates their lives - the uncountable, petty, vindictive restrictions imposed upon them by Israel - but has an endearing ability to be funny about it. 'I love movies,' he says, 'but it's hard to see any here. So once I applied for a pass to go to Jerusalem to worship, because I'm Christian. I went to Jerusalem, and went to the Cineplex, and worshipped every day for a week.'

The following morning, the five of us on the tour and Olive Co-Op's Sarah Irving gather for a day trip to Hebron. To my relief, there's no element of consciousness-raising about the drive down, not even while we change vehicles - the licence plates on the minibus we left Beit Sahour in would not be allowed past the Israeli checkpoint before Hebron - at a sprawling makeshift bus station/market/taxi rank at about the halfway point. The paying punters on the tour seem motivated more by curiosity than ideology. Sarah, though a veteran activist - she once had a hip broken by an Israeli soldier at the Erez border crossing into Gaza - has spent enough time here to understand that the realities of Israel's occupation speak for themselves.

'Most people we bring aren't zealots,' she explains as our yellow Mercedes limousine heads for Hebron at the unnecessary speed favoured by taxi drivers throughout the Middle East. 'Interestingly, 30 to 50 per cent of the people who've come on our tours have been Jewish, and it's sometimes a bit strange for them. I think my equivalent would be finding out that everything the Daily Mail said was true.'

Hebron's downtown is an eerie inversion of what it should be - the closer we venture to the centre of town, the quieter it gets. Hebron's heart used to be a classic Arab souk: hundreds of tiny shops huddled along narrow alleyways leading to the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Today just a few persistent, optimistic traders survive - a couple selling rugs and keffiyeh scarves, another offering excellent handmade Turkish delight.

The shopkeepers moved out when the Jewish settlers, and the Israeli soldiers, moved in; Hebron's famous glass-blowers now trade from shops on a road outside town, and the foundation layers of the thick dust coating their merchandise date, at a guess, from around 2000, the beginning of the current intifada.

The entrance to the deserted market is dominated by an Israeli army position - one soldier tells me, with the weary air of someone who'd rather be, say, anywhere else at all, that 3,000 of his comrades are guarding Hebron's 700-odd Jewish settlers. These Zionist flag-bearers are asserting their claim on Hebron with a peculiar campaign of vandalism. Many of the green shutters on the abandoned shops have been gloatingly daubed with the Star of David.

In Jerusalem, Sarah steers us through the Old City. Before the current intifada began, shoals of tourists made it difficult to move in these lanes. The hardcore - pilgrims and backpackers - are trickling back, but it's still possible to wander at will in and out of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the reputed site of the Crucifixion, and shopkeepers of all denominations are still underemployed enough that they'll provide copious servings of tea and their entire life story in response to the merest flicker of interest.

Of all the ironies of tourism here, this is the most crushing: the circumstances that have put so many people off mean there's never been a better time to go.