Package holiday industry & illicit economy of Israel’s settlements
Photo: Open cast coal mining in section of Cerrejon Mine
Tainted Tourism: International Tourism and Israel’s Illicit Settlement Economy in Palestinian and Syrian Territories
European and North American tourism companies regularly visit sites in Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory (OPT) and occupied Syrian Golan. A new report by GLAN and the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) reveals how industry leaders in the tourism sector are misleadingly marketing OPT sites as being in Israel. The result is that these companies are unwittingly benefiting from Israel’s illicit settlement economy in occupied Palestinian and Syrian territories and the serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law they perpetrate. In misrepresenting the status of these locations, the tour operators are opening themselves up to legal and reputational risk.
The report explains the ways in which package tourism companies are implicated in the settlement economy, calls on tour operators to remove settlement sites from their itineraries and to halt deceptive marketing practices, and urges the home states of tour operators to prohibit business dealings that benefit from Israel’s illicit settlement economy, and to prevent the false advertisement of illegal settlement sites.
Package Tourism: An Illicit Economy
Package holidays make up about a third of incoming tourism to Israel, according to the Israeli Ministry of Tourism — a booming industry that brought 4.55 million visitors in 2019 alone. The vast majority of package tours include locations beyond Israel’s internationally recognised borders, such as Jerusalem’s Old City, as well as archaeological sites in the occupied Palestinian territory (OPT). Many tours also include stops at sites that are part of Israel’s illegal settlements in the OPT and occupied Golan, and administered by the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority. Such are therefore part of the broader settlement enterprise, the maintenance of which entails some of the most serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law as well as the right to self-determination of people and the prohibition on the use of force to acquire territory.
While Israel continues to generate revenue from sites located in Palestinian territory, Israeli policies restrict trade, access, and movement into and out of the OPT. Israel’s illicit settlement economy deprives the Palestinian and Syrian economies respectively of vast sums — approximately $2 billion annually in the case of Palestine, which was estimated to be utilising only about 1.66% of its potential for international tourism by the World Bank. This is an exemplary case of de-development of the Palestinian economy, but also of its cultural and social life due to Israel’s exclusive control over scores of Palestinian cultural heritage sites, for example, throughout the Jordan Valley.
By taking customers to illegal settlements and failing to be transparent about their status under international law, these companies are supporting Israel’s illicit economy in the settlements. That economy is underpinned by serious continuous violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. Israeli settlements have caused widespread dispossession and displacement and are source of systemic and ongoing human rights violations suffered by Palestinian communities that are likely to amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity under international criminal law. The economy of the settlements is central to Israel’s sovereign claims over the Golan and OPT respectively, through a combination of measures to bring about their de jure and de facto annexation, contrary to the position of virtually all states and international organisations. The flagrant denial of the as well as the law on self-determination of people and the use of interstate force arguably entail an obligation to end the occupation for Israel and third parties.
.While Israel’s incoming tour operators and the international tour groups they lead move freely, all Palestinians in the OPT are confined to enclaves, with restricted access to their land, natural resources, and basic services such as healthcare and education. Consumers deserve to know that their travel on Israeli led tours will be sustaining these structural forms of harms.
The listed companies are also exposing themselves to legal and reputational risk by misrepresenting the destination and characteristics of these tours. Customers who purchase package tours from the profiled companies will be unable to access the correct travel advisories, as they won’t know they’re travelling outside of Israel. They may also fail to secure the correct travel insurance. In Europe, misled customers could file complaints against tour operators under EU consumer protection laws.Tour operators may also find themselves listed on the UN database on business activities in Israeli settlements for their involvement in the maintenance of settlements.
Misrepresentation by Companies
GLAN and SOMO analysed online marketing materials from roughly 100 tour operators across 10 jurisdictions over the course of the past two years. We found that a majority of companies take their customers to at least two settlement sites in the OPT, and some also offer visits to sites located in the occupied Syrian Golan. All investigated companies misrepresent parts of their itineraries,for example by misrepresenting the location of sites in East Jerusalem and Bethlehem (both OPT) or the occupied Golan (Syria) as being part of Israel.
The companies whose itineraries are profiled in the report include:
Viajes Catai (Spain)
Insight Vacations (Ireland)
Kensington Tours (Canada)
TUI Group (Europe)
For example, Globus offers tour options such as ‘Israel Escape’ and ‘Fascinating Israel’, accompanied by maps showing the West Bank and Golan as part of Israel:
Similarly, TUI’s branch in Belgium sells an eight-day tour called ‘Back to the beginning: Israel’, which includes visits to the occupied Syrian Goal Heights (presented as part of Israel) and sites in occupied East Jerusalem and the Palestinian city of Bethlehem:
The report is part of GLAN’s work to promote accountability for international business links with illicit economies in occupied territories that cause harm on a large scale to Palestinian, Syrian and Sahrawi rights. Yet, significant shortcomings remain in the way that state and business actors, including procurers and financial institutions, understand and heed the high level risks of contributing and benefiting from immitigable and large-scale harm to human rights in such business environments.
Our report with AlHaq, Business and Human Rights in Occupied Territory, is the first systematic review of businesses and home-states’ obligations in relation to such business environments. We also made a submission to the UN, with the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), in the context of its establishment of a database of companies active in Israel’s settlements, in which we offer expert advice on a robust normative framework and methodology for this soft-powers enforcement mechanism.
International digital tourism platforms operating in Israel’s illicit economy in the OPT have been a focal point of the work of several human rights organisations, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Who Profits. Some of these businesses have since been included in the UN database.