As most Arab countries continue to impose severe travel restrictions on Palestinians, Israel authorities announced this week that tens of thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank territories would be granted permits to visit Israel as tourists by the end of 2011.
This could of course have a positive impact on the Palestinian tourists' views toward Israel. For many years, these children have been taught that most Israelis are bloodthirsty murderers whose only goal in life is to get rid of the Palestinians.
That is basically why both Hamas and Fatah are opposed to such visits. The two parties do not want children participating in summer camps to visit Israel lest they are exposed to good things inside the Jewish state. Hamas and Fatah see these visits as part of efforts to achieve "normalization" between Israelis and Palestinians – something that the two Palestinian parties are strongly opposed to.
Just this week the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Journalists Syndicate in the West Bank issued a strong condemnation against a number of Palestinian journalists who had traveled to Turkey for a meeting with Israeli colleagues.
Some Palestinians pointed out that the Israeli announcement coincided with news that Egypt was continuing to impose strict travel restrictions on Palestinian travelers, including those seeking medical treatment. The Hamas government announced that it has been trying to persuade the Egyptian authorities to fulfill their promise to ease the restrictions, but so far to no avail.
Most of the Arab countries are off-limits to Palestinian tourists who fear for their lives from the repressive regimes.
Another good thing that Israel has also done is to allow Israeli Arab citizens to enter the West Bank freely. Thousands of Israeli Arab citizens have since been shopping in the West Bank and enjoying the comfort of luxury hotels and fancy restaurants.
It would also be a good idea if Israel permitted Palestinians from the West Bank and Israeli Arab citizens to visit the Gaza Strip without, of course, compromising its security. This would help the economy in the Gaza Strip and one hopes have a moderating effect on Palestinians living there. It is not as if anyone expects the residents of the Gaza Strip to wake up one morning and start signing the Israeli national anthem as a result of an improved economy. But at least in the short term, it would create hope for some of the people living there.
When the Israeli Ministry of Defense said that some 60,000 Palestinian tourists would be visiting Israel, almost as twice as many as last year, an official explained that the decision to increase the number of Palestinian tourists to Israel was the result of the improved security in the West Bank and Israel's desire to expose young Palestinians to "another kind of Israel, not only soldiers and settlers."
For many Palestinian children, this means that they would be able to go to a beach for the first time in their lives. It also means that they would be able to visit the Safari zoo in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv.
The West Bank is a very small place with a limited number of tourist sites, especially ones that attract children. This is why there was a sigh of relief among a large number of Palestinians this week after they learned about the new Israeli measure.
One can hope that the day would come when the Palestinians would announce that Israeli Jewish tourists would be able to visit the West Bank or Gaza Strip and feel safe, as was the case in the good old days before the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993.