Tour of Northern Israel and the West Bank – a personal account

Destroyed Palestinian village of Lubya, to obscure which the “South Africa Forest” was planted by the JNF. Photo: Zochrot

JVL Introduction

It’s important that Labour party members and trade unionists should have first-hand experience of the realities in Israel-Palestine. Not for profit tour company Travel2Palestine was set up to facilitate just this.

In the wake of Labour’s enthusiastic commitment to Palestine at last month’s conference, such tours  help those who go on them to think about questions such as: Racism and the Israeli state? Apartheid? What do Palestinians living as citizens within the Israel’s borders think of Israel?

5 Day Tour of Northern Israel and the West Bank: 24-29th June 2018

Monash Kessler reports

In June this year my wife, Berit, and I went on a political tour of Israel with Travel2Palestine.

This particular trip was a new venture for the organisation, as it focused on the situation of the Palestinians living within Israel, although we also visited the Golan Heights and the northern West Bank.

There were 16 people on this trip plus organisers. We stayed in two small and excellent Arab boutique hotels in Nazareth. All trips were organised in a coach hired by the tour company from an Arab bus company.

Here follows a brief outline of our tour which I can highly recommend.

Day One

We are on the first day of our tour. This is life-changing tour. Had a mindboggling talk from Jonathan Cook, an ex Guardian journalist, living in Nazareth, who is married to a Palestinian woman and has two young children, about Israeli laws on citizenship and nationalities.

In theory everyone has equal citizenship in Israel and you do not see any obvious signs of discrimination or what could be termed petty Apartheid. But in practice your rights are governed by your Nationality and being Palestinian means your rights in crucial matters such as ownership of land, residence and travel are very restricted and controlled by the Israeli state. It does make the apartheid system in South Africa from where I come, sound very crude and rudimentary.

Then to a destroyed and hidden Palestinian town nearby. Now just a fenced off area, covered by earth and trees, with no sign of previous habitation. Very shocking. Evidently, one of 530 Arab towns destroyed and ransacked by the Israeli army. Quite distressing and humiliating.

Very interesting to hear about the internal politics of Nazareth, how the Israeli government is severely restricting the growth of the Palestinian community whilst trying to encourage Jews to settle there to maintain control over the area.

It seems that the Israel state has to micro manage the Palestinian community. It owns almost the land within Israel, including the land confiscated from the Palestinians. Most of these were made to flee prior and during 1948 War. These included Palestinians displaced within Israel who were not able to present documents of ownership when inspected by Israeli officials. Thus the state is able to ensure that that it maintains the Jewish identity of Israel and curbs and restricts what it considers to be the so-called “demographic threat” to the Jewish state.

Day 2

It’s quite an exacting tour, both in terms of the heat and schedule and content. But today went to a Jewish/Palestinian co-op producing olive oil etc which gave a more positive slant on things.

Also went to Jaffa and given a walking tour of Jaffa by Sami Abu Sheehada, a leading activist in the (Arab) Balad Party and a former member of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality council representing Jaffa. He gave an informative but depressing history of the previously great Palestinian port, now turned into a suburb of thriving Tel Aviv.


Day 3

In the occupied Golan Heights, blistering hot. Amazing views over the valley between the Heights and Syria as well as Lebanon. Met with Dr Nizar Ayoub, director of Al-Marsad, an Arab Human rights Centre in the Golan Heights and Wael Tarabieh. Again Druze and Syrian Arabs cleansed from the area and the few remaining Arabs herded into tiny, enclosed villages. They have no official status, so very difficult to travel abroad.

On the way back we walked on the waters of Lake Tiberius….

Day 4

In the West Bank. Long drive on small Palestinian roads with signs from the Israeli authorities barring Jewish Israelis from travelling on them and warning them that it is dangerous for them! (Some roads,  the better ones, are reserved for Israelis only). Arrived in a small Palestinian town, Qalqilya, totally fenced off by gigantic walls. The wall runs through the farms of the Palestinian farmers and, in order to get to their fields, they need to get permits from Israel. They enter through a special gate which is only open for twenty minutes in the morning and twenty minutes in the afternoon. If you do not keep to the regulations you can have your permits revoked.

We were met by the Governor of PLO province of Qalqilya, Rafea Rawajbeh, and treated like celebrities, with photographers pouring all over us. We were ushered in to a grand meeting room where the Governor addressed us with an Arabic translator together with a number of local dignitaries such as the local Head of Commerce etc.

We were then escorted around this small town with the mayoral car and local police.

We were taken to the local coffee factory and were met by the owner, Nasar Helal, and very generously given lots of free bags of coffee. The coffee, I must add, was excellent and Berit is going to explore the possibility of an upmarket delicatessen chain, Cajsa Warg, importing it into Sweden!

And then en route to Jenin we stopped at ancient Greek Orthodox church where Jesus was meant to have cured the lepers. It is meant to be the third(?) oldest church in the world and is very beautiful. But it is tucked away in a small Palestinian village and we got stuck going through some tiny streets and needed a young Arab tractor driver to help us through the maze of streets.

This visit to the church is the reason we were meant to give to the Israeli authorities for visiting the West Bank and on leaving the West Bank we were taken to a siding and asked to leave the bus and hand in our passports. They then checked that we knew our names and matched us to our passport photographs. They asked the Muslim young woman wearing a headscarf in the group, why she wanted to visit a church!

Because of the lengthy visit to the Governor as an important delegation from the UK and being stuck up alleyways trying to visit an obscure church, we were delayed by almost three hours getting to the Freedom Theatre in Jenin. Had a very late lunch prepared for us by their chef and given a very brief and bloody history of Jenin with the refugee settlement being bulldozed by Israeli army tractors and turned to rubble in 2002.

Showed us a very moving film focussing on children (early teenagers) who use the theatre to improve their lives. The girls wanted to have some independence and develop careers. One boy said he had wanted to become a martyr but now that he enjoyed being with the theatre he realised that it was better to resist alive.

Thursday evening, dinner with Haneen Zoabi, an Israeli Arab MP in the Israeli parliament. Evidently, she is the most hated woman in Israel. She has been suspended from the parliament countless times for incitement and there is now a move to exclude her altogether.

We arrive at her favourite restaurant in Nazareth and the proprietor is most unfriendly and she is not there. He says we do not have a booking and thinks we are too large a group and are too loud, although there are no other diners in the restaurant. We wonder if we booked the wrong restaurant, as there is another restaurant in Nazareth with the same name.

We show him a screen shot of the booking and then Haneen arrives and everything turns to normal. She is a youngish (in her thirties), an ex-teacher, Arab woman who advocates for an Israeli/Palestine state that is neutral and treats everyone as equal. That’s considered to be a treasonable offence in Israel!

Day 5

We are absolutely exhausted from having to be on the go all the time and from the heat and trying to get our head around the complexities of the Israeli situation.

Off to Haifa where we are to meet two Israeli politicians on the left. We were warned that the Israeli left parties are not what they seem to be. Thus the Labour party is probably the most right wing labour party in the West, has no links with the trade unions and supports the Occupation.

We are meeting with Ayman Odeh, the leader of Hadash, formerly the Communist Party but now a far left coalition of Jewish and Palestinian politicians as well as Dov Khenin, a Jewish member of Hadash and an elected Member of the Knesset. Ayman Odeh, is also leader of the Joint List, the coalition of the Arab parties formed to avoid the blockade on parties with small percentage of votes, specifically the three or four tiny Arab parties. He has been interrogated many times by Shin Bet, the Israeli security service and was witnessed being shot in the head by a sponge tipped bullet by an Israeli army officer.

We were first addressed by the leader of the party in Hebrew with a translator. He said he was in love with Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who was assassinated following the Oslo peace process. He said he was willing to work with any Jewish party which would support peace and equality for Palestinians.

Dov Khenin, gave us an analysis of current Israeli politics which focused on Netanyahu and Trump wanting to start a nuclear war with Iran. He argued that the Israeli public were more left wing than the parties leading the Israeli government when it came to economic issues, but when it came to national security they supported the right.

After that we went to an organisation that provides advocacy for Palestinians, Adalah, who are trying to fight discrimination in the courts. They have a long data base of discriminatory laws. They have recently just lost a case of trying to prevent the Israelis from evicting Arab Bedouins from a settlement which the army originally set up for them and forced them to move to. Israel now wants to create a new Jewish settlement there and have told them to move to another place. They argued that they were given this land by the army and therefore they had a right to remain there (although they had never received any services from the state). However, the courts maintained that the army could now overturn its original decision. They were nevertheless given more time to demolish their own houses and move to a new area designated for them.

After that we were meant to have walking tour of Haifa. We had a lovely guide, Yoav Haiawi, who was very enthusiastic but we were so tired that the tour had to be cut a little short. I could have strangled anyone who prolonged the agony by asking him questions!

We then went to our Airbnb in Haifa to collapse on our bed as we were staying a further 5 days in Israel, whilst the rest of the tour party were taken to see the beautiful Baha’i temple and its gardens.

Monash Kessler

For more information on the tours contact:

For more on the destruction of Lubya see Natasha Roth’s moving article from 02 May 2015 S. African Jews in Lubya: We’re here to acknowledge the Nakba

Comments (1)

  • Mike Scott says:

    This is remarkably similar to my expereience a few years ago with a different travel company!

    I can’t emphasise how important it is for both us and the Palestinians for everyone who can, to go and see for themselves. For the Palestinians, it shows they’re not forgotten and that some Jews are on their side and for us, it gives a depth of understanding that can only come from seeing things with your own eyes.

    And as I always make a point of saying when talking about my trip, the most astonishing thing was that no-one said anything antisemitic to me or anyone else in the group, the whole time we were in Israel and the West Bank. What I was told, over and over again, was that “we’ve got nothing against Jews – we lived together with them for hundreds of years. Our problem is with Zionists!”

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