Why has Lonely Planet – publisher of the popular travel guidebooks – erased Israel’s occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights?
Following the 1967 War, 66 percent of the Syrian Golan – a land mass slightly smaller than Greater London – has been militarily occupied by Israel.
Its mountainous terrain, forests and rivers means that it is an area of stunning natural beauty, home to a variety of wildlife, including a species of wolf found only in the region. As such, it is no surprise that the Golan has attracted vast numbers of Israeli tourists since its occupation.
Indeed, the Golan has long been promoted by the Israeli government and tourism industry that market it as “Northern Israel,” even referring to it as the “Israeli Texas” due to its size. In 1968, just one year after the occupation, the region received 150,000 visitors. By 2005 this figure had reached approximately 1.5 million people.
Consequently, tourism represents a major part of the Israeli settlement economy in the Golan. Promoted activities include hiking, camping, biking, horse riding, wine tasting and fruit picking, among many others. Visitors can choose from a range of accommodation on travel websites that includes “rural guesthouses,” boutique hotels, log cabins, bed and breakfasts and camping sites. Such activities and accommodation are almost all found in settlements or are owned by settlers.
Promoting tourism in settlements
International law makes it clear that the Golan is not part of Israel and that Israeli settlements are illegal. However, given their continued expansion and Israel’s efforts to cement its hold on the Golan, it is not surprising that the government and tourism industry market the Golan as “Northern Israel” and promote tourism activities in Israeli settlements.
International travel companies such as Lonely Planet, Booking.com and Airbnb – among others – also misleadingly describe the Golan as part of Israel and promote accommodation and tourism in illegal Israeli settlements.
When Al-Marsad, a human rights group in the occupied Golan, came across the Lonely Planet website last year, it was shocked to discover that Majdal Shams, the largest of the five remaining Syrian villages in the territory, was categorized as being in Israel.
Al-Marsad obtained a copy of the guidebook – Israel & the Palestinian Territories – and found that the misrepresentation of the Golan was even worse. The Golan features in a shared chapter with the Upper Galilee region of Israel – “Upper Galilee & Golan” – that provides just two paragraphs on its history and no contemporary information about its occupation by Israel.
It does not explain that the United Nations Security Council has condemned Israel’s unilateral annexation of the Golan in 1981 as an illegal act under international law, a position reaffirmed by the UN General Assembly each year. Further, there is no mention of the human rights violations suffered by the remaining native Syrian population, and that there are at least 23,000 Israeli settlers living in 34 illegal settlements.
On the contrary, many of the recommended activities and places to eat and stay provided in the chapter and on the website are located in these illegal Israeli settlements, or as Lonely Planet describes them: “small, middle-class communities.”
One such suggested activity is skiing on Mount Hermon – “Israel’s only ski station” – following which visitors could stay in Neve Ativ, described as the “closest thing Israel has to a Swiss Alpine village.”
Although potential visitors are kindly warned by Lonely Planet that in Neve Ativ “[bed and breakfast] prices rise in winter because of heating costs,” there is no mention that Neve Ativ is an illegal Israeli settlement built on the ruins of the Syrian village of Jubata al-Zeit.
Jubata al-Zeit fell victim to the development of Mount Hermon, an early project in the Golan after the Israeli occupation began. Following advice from Israel’s Nature Reserves Authority in January 1968 – just six months after the 1967 War – that the mountain’s snow makes it “a unique site for the citizens of Israel,” a new government body, the Hermon Authority, was established under military jurisdiction and plans initiated for the development of a ski resort.
This involved the destruction of Jubata al-Zeit, the main Syrian village on the mountain’s slopes, whose at least 1,500 residents were forcibly transferred and forbidden from returning after the village was designated a closed military zone.
340 villages and farms destroyed
Ultimately, Jubata al-Zeit would number among the 340 Syrian villages and farms in the Golan destroyed by Israel following the 1967 occupation. These would be replaced by Israeli settlements, often using the same stones from the destroyed villages and farms. But this is not mentioned by Lonely Planet.
Al-Marsad wrote to Lonely Planet to express its concern and was very disappointed by the company’s response. Lonely Planet’s explanation for its coverage of the Golan is inconsistent and it would not commit to making simple changes to address these issues.
Regarding its omission of basic facts about the Israeli occupation of the Golan, Lonely Planet said that it that had provided “relevant information in the introduction to the Golan Heights section to inform travelers’ decisions, but to give further detailed political or historical analysis wouldn’t be appropriate for a travel guidebook.” However, this information is provided for the section of the guidebook on the West Bank – explicitly stating that it is under military occupation – which calls into question why Lonely Planet treats the Golan differently.
Lonely Planet attempts to justify on its website categorizing the Golan as being in Israel by stating that “since the Golan is annexed by Israel and travelers can pass freely within this region, while they cannot pass from Syria to the Golan, it makes more sense from a traveler’s perspective to categorize the destination with Israel on our website.”
The United Nations Security Council recently reminded states to “distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967.” Despite this clear message that the Golan is not part of Israel, many international travel companies such as Lonely Planet fail to make this distinction.
Given the illegality of Israeli settlements in the Golan under international human rights and humanitarian law, international travel companies that promote accommodation and tourism in illegal Israeli settlements for their own profit are – as a corollary – either involved in or indirectly facilitating activities that result in the violation of fundamental human rights.
Until Lonely Planet recognizes its responsibilities, many travelers to the region will continue to be misinformed about the Golan and the reality of its occupation by Israel.
Al-Marsad is a human rights organization based in Majdal Shams, occupied Syrian Golan Heights. It is the only human rights organization operating in the region.