OECD and Israel’s “tourist” colonization of Syria’s Golan

Israeli tourists visit an abandoned army post from the 1967 war in the occupied Golan Heights. (Moti Milrod/MaanImages)

On 20 and 21 October, the 86th session of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) tourism committee was held in Jerusalem. Leading up to the conference, there was conjecture on how the member countries in attendance would handle Israel’s tourism policies regarding the occupied territories: the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, Gaza Strip and the Syrian Golan Heights.

The Palestine Liberation Organization called on countries to boycott the meeting, saying that it served to condone Israel’s illegal annexation of Jerusalem. The Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee also called on the OECD to relocate the conference.

After failing to be accepted into the OECD in 1994 and 2000, Israel became a member of the international organization in May 2010. Membership to the OECD is considered a mark of prestige, as it is restricted only to developed democracies, making it known as an “exclusive club.”

Israel’s ascension into the OECD has stirred debate over whether or not Israel’s policies regarding the territories it occupies prevent it from meeting the OECD’s allegedly high standards for membership. However, the OECD asserts it can see beyond Israel’s occupation policies and simply focus on the country’s economy.

In the Alternative Information Center’s publication “Israel and the OECD,” economist Shir Hever points out that this distinction is dubious because while internationally-accepted borders date to before the June 1967 War, Israel actually controls much more land. “Israeli statistics render it impossible to get an accurate view of the Israeli economy excluding the occupied territories, as the illegal settlements are included in every piece of data,” Hever writes.

While Israel collects data on Israeli citizens living in settlements built on occupied land, it ignores Palestinians living in those same territories. Hever writes that “By excluding almost four million Palestinian subjects of Israeli occupation from the statistics, Israel creates a distorted and unrealistic image of its economy. It masks the stark inequality in income and in standards of living; it masks the deep poverty of large segments of the population.”

Thus, the OECD has accepted an economic profile of Israel that is deceptive as it portrays the country as possessing a standard of economic welfare and equality that does not exist. “[Joining the OECD] was part of a strategy adopted by Israel in 1990 to use the Oslo process as leverage to become more integrated and positively viewed in the international community,” writes Hever.


Earlier this month, Israel’s minister of tourism, Stas Misezhnikov, claimed that the OECD had recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by agreeing to hold the tourism conference there. Angel Gurria, Secretary-General of the OECD, publicly corrected this assertion, and reproached Misezhnikov for making it, stating that the claims were “factually incorrect and quite unacceptable.”

Gurria’s comment revealed the crucial contradiction in the OECD’s association with Israel. It may have slapped Israel on the wrist for Misezhnikov’s bold claim, but meanwhile it is entering into a collaborative and supportive relationship that will no doubt serve to expand Israel’s tourism activities in occupied areas.

While the OECD may have been able to convince itself that it is possible to separate Israel’s tourism industry and economy from its occupation policies, Israel knows how crucial it is to do quite the opposite. Misezhnikov’s claim reflects that Israel sees tourism as playing a pivotal role in suppressing the country’s controversial and highly politicized character.

The website of Israel’s Ministry of Tourism spotlights the many natural as well as historic and religious sites that are unique to Israel. Moreover, it unapologetically promotes regions and attractions that are laden with political controversy.

For example, the site touts the Bedouin community as a tourist attraction, boasting their great hospitality and authentic lifestyle in the face of the sixth demolition of al-Arakib, the Bedouin village in the Negev.

In similar fashion, the tourism website features the occupied Golan Heights as a “geographic region” of Israel, and describes its stunning scenery, archaeological sites and many environmental tourism features.

Golan Heights

The Golan Heights was captured and occupied by Israel during the June 1967 War. It was annexed in 1981, in violation of international law, UN Security Council resolutions and Israel’s treaty arrangements with Syria as well as the 1978 Camp David Accords. There are currently 21,000 Syrian nationals and 19,083 Jewish settlers living in the Golan Heights, according to the Golan for Development group and Foundation for Middle East Peace, respectively.

As a tourist in the Golan Heights, I was shown the various layers of historical rule of the land — from the Greek to the Roman, Mamluk and Ottoman Empires. Ancient ruins scattered throughout the Golan Heights are neatly connected by roads, signs and directions provided by the Israel Nature and Parks Authorities. However, on my way from one ancient ruin to the next, I also saw the remains of other buildings — “ruins” that appeared to be of more recent creation.

These are the remnants of some of the 134 Arab villages that were destroyed by Israel during and after the 1967 war, and are left with no commentary and no explanation. By expunging the recent traces of Syrian identity to the land, Israel entrenches its control over the Golan Heights.

According to Dr. Taiseer Maray, the General Director of Golan for Development, a nonprofit organization located in the Syrian village of Majdal Shams, Israel has employed various tactics in an effort to erase the Syrian historical and national identity in the Golan Heights.

There are five surviving Syrian villages that comprise five percent of the Golan Heights, the area that was not confiscated by Israel in 1967. These Syrian villages remain steadfast in their resistance to Israeli domination.

Israel adopted the Golan Heights Law in 1981, extending Israeli civil administration to the territory. This replaced the harsh military rule that had governed the region since it was occupied in 1967. Maray says that “Military government was very strict and tried to break us from the beginning but the outcome was the opposite. People united with each other and started resisting.”

According to Maray, in the 1980s there were many clashes between Syrian nationals and the Israeli army, reaching a peak in 1982 when villagers held a six-month strike after Israel demanded Syrians become Israeli citizens.

In the last five years, Israel has adopted a new strategy to break Syrian will for independence: allowing more Syrian businesses to develop for tourism. In this way, Israel hopes to make Syrians less interested in resisting the occupation, and more interested in making a profit.

For example, five years ago it was nearly impossible for any Syrian national living in the Golan Heights to obtain a permit to rent rooms to tourists. Now, Israel has permitted enough business development so that there is a hotel in Majdal Shams, and there is currently a master plan for tourism being developed.

“It’s one of the ways to make us assimilate in Israeli society; by making life easier, they hope to make us busy with business and not think about resisting Israel,” Maray said. “In this way they hope we will forget our historical and national identity.”

Founded in 1991, Golan for Development aims to counter this push for assimilation through dispersing information and through alternative tourism and educational forums.

“Israel tries to present the Golan Heights as part of Israel and we try to present the reality of the occupation,” Maray said.

Meanwhile, Israel’s attempts to normalize the occupation and annexation of East Jerusalem through the conference were frustrated. Norway, Spain, Britain and Turkey all refused to participate in the Jerusalem meeting. This sanction signals that the reasoning behind boycotting Israeli institutions — whether they are overtly political or not — has begun to supplant the tired rhetoric that tries to sell engagement as a means to peace.

Charlotte Silver is a litigation assistant at the American Civil Liberties Union, Immigrant Rights Project and was active in the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement at Stanford. She lives in San Francisco and can be reached at charlottesilver A T gmail D O T com.