In São Paulo, Israel promotes tourism in Palestine while hiding its occupation of that land

Israeli government's stand at Latin America's largest tourism fair doesn't mention war or Palestinian territories

Translated by: Ana Paula Rocha

Brasil de Fato | São Paulo |
Dolphin reef in Eilat, Israel, one of the country's tourist destinations - Dafna Tal / Ministério do Turismo de Israel

Paradise beaches, pilgrimages to holy sites, modern and cosmopolitan cities: these are some of the attractions offered by the Israeli Ministry of Tourism at a stand shared with nine travel agencies at WTM Latin America, the region's largest tourism fair, which took place between Monday (15) and Wednesday (17) at Expo Center Norte in the city of São Paulo.

On the stand, Israel is presented without any mention of its military offensive against the Gaza Strip, responsible for the massacre of the Palestinian population. The death toll exceeded 33,000 Palestinians – about 70% women and children – with more than 8,000 people missing under the rubble. Estimates say 35% of the buildings were destroyed and almost all Gaza inhabitants – over two million people – were forced to leave their homes. 

On Israel’s tourist map distributed by the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, the Gaza Strip appears with hatches, without any info about the territory. "The map of Gaza is absurd: it's crossed out, presented as a non-territory, a non-place," points out Shajar Goldwaser, a Jewish activist with a degree in international relations, a member of the Jewish Voices for Liberation collective and a supporter of the Palestinian cause.

Touristic map of Israel presented by the Israeli government during an event in São Paulo / Israel's Ministry of Tourism

Goldwaser points out that an important aspect to highlight about Israel’s tourism promotion "is the erasure of the ongoing apartheid, through strategies of invisibilization."

"When you are in Israeli territory, according to the 1948 UN definition, which does not include Gaza, the West Bank and the Golan Heights, you see a typical European society, [with] modern buildings. Israel likes to present itself as a modern nation where Palestinian ancestry has been erased."

On the tourist map of Israel, the regions it occupies are not clearly identified. The text only states that different colors identify areas A, B and C according to the 1993 Oslo Agreement without specifying what each one represents. "The Israeli colonial project is not to make this distinction between the territories," points out Goldwaser. 

In the agreement, Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) foresaw an end to the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and West Jerusalem, which didn't happen, turning the occupied territories into an archipelago where the islands would be Palestinian land, surrounded by illegal Israeli settlements.

Areas A, indicated on the map, are exclusively urban and controlled both civilian and militarily by the Palestinian National Authority. Areas B are rural areas surrounding the city, under Palestinian civilian control and Israeli military control. Areas C have no presence of the Palestinian Authority (PA), either civilian or military – this is where around 60% of the West Bank territory is located. 

Israel's moves during the Oslo period have strengthened its colonial presence in the West Bank, with the growth of settlements: according to the latest figures from 2020, there are 451,700 settlers in the West Bank and 229,377 in East Jerusalem. The map below shows the right division of the West Bank into areas A, B and C.


Map of the West Bank: Palestinian Areas A (green) and B (dark red). Area C (pink) Israeli / Wikimedia commons / WikiCommons

West Bank

In the occupied Palestinian territory of the West Bank, illegal violence by Israeli settlers is a daily reality, with more than 500 people murdered and thousands arrested since the Hamas attack in October last year.

This occupied Palestinian territory is home to important tourist sites such as Bethlehem, Jericho and the Dead Sea. The travel packages offered to Israel do not mention the territorial segregation of these territories by Israeli troops. In fact, there is no mention of the word "Palestine".

"In the West Bank, there is a segregated road infrastructure, spatial and racial segregation. Buses can pass through tourist sites without visiting the West Bank: they don’t cross any village or see any Palestinian. The same goes for Jericho and Hebron, where Abraham's tomb is located. There's a system of segregated roads that take you to Abraham's tomb without you seeing a single Palestinian," says Goldwaser.

On the tourist map distributed by the Israeli government, the city of Hebron is spelled Hevron, as in Hebrew, and there is no mention of the region's Arabic name, Al Halil. As a tourist attraction in Hebron, the map highlights the Tomb of the Patriarchs (Cave of Makhpela), but there is no reference to the Mosque of Abraham (Ibrahim Mosque).

The settlements near Hebron are home to some of the most radicalized Jewish settlers on Palestinian land. The Abraham Mosque was the stage of one of the most famous violent episodes against the Arab population.

February this year marked the 30th anniversary of the massacre carried out by a Jewish settler against Muslims praying in the Mosque of Abraham, which killed 29 people and wounded over 100 Palestinians. The victims were hit by rifle shots fired by the Israeli military doctor Baruch Goldstein. Born in the US, Baruch Goldstein emigrated to Israel in 1983 and lived in the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba, on the outskirts of Hebron.

"This is very common to show the Israeli narrative of the historiography they promote, which isn't real but is the official story. These are places that receive a lot of international tourists, but they don't show the Palestinian identity. There's a way of hiding it," Goldwaser points out.

Religious tourism

Religious tourism, aimed at pilgrims who want to visit sacred places, is the flagship offered by Israeli companies to the Brazilian public, focusing mainly on Catholics and evangelicals. This route has been exploited by far-right populist leaders in Latin America, such as former president Jair Bolsonaro (Liberal Party), Argentinian president Javier Milei and the governor of São Paulo, Tarcísio de Freitas (Republicans Party).

"Most Brazilian tourists who go to Israel seek religious tourism. Now, we're working the other way around, attracting tourists not just from Israel but from the international Jewish community to the state of São Paulo, as well as tourists from the Muslim community," Roberto de Lucena, São Paulo Secretary of Tourism, told Brasil de Fato.

Pastor of the evangelical Pentecostal church O Brasil Para Cristo, and author of the book Fé, Trabalho e Esperança (“Faith, Work and Hope”, in a rough translation), Lucena replicates the ideas of São Paulo’s governor in support of Israel, without criticizing the massacre against the Palestinian population.

"I had to come here to hug you and say that our prayers and hearts are with Israel. The absolute majority of Brazilian people love Israel. For 12 years I was a member of the National Congress and my years there were dedicated to Israel. Today I am in the state government. Governor Tarcísio de Freitas has just returned from Israel and he loves Israel too."

The São Paulo governor made an official five-day visit to Israel in March, where he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli President Isaac Herzog and Defense Minister Israel Katz. Tarcísio also visited the headquarters of Israeli Aerospace Industries, a civil and military aviation and electronics technology development company.

On his return to Brazil, Freitas attended the LAAD Security & Defense fair for police forces, armed forces, authorities and professionals from the security and defense sectors, which was also attended by Israeli representatives.

Andressa Oliveira Soares, the campaigns coordinator for Latin America for the Palestinian National Committee of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, says that "the state of São Paulo has shown deep complicity with Israel regarding the recent events".

"The São Paulo government has a directive to support Israel. Therefore, we can only protest, put political pressure on parliamentarians. We send letters to the Secretary of Tourism, but we know that the directive is to support Israel," she says.

Since the beginning of the massacre in the Gaza Strip, BDS has been campaigning for airlines to stop flying to Israeli territory. Soares points out that tourism in occupied areas is part of the Israeli strategy to control these regions.

"We need to discuss the impact of tourism and profiting from an occupation. Religious issues and tourism are used to restate the message that illegally occupied land belongs to Israel. It's about using this [idea] to control the narrative and infiltrate into territory."

The BDS movement was born during the campaign against apartheid in South Africa. Based on this experience, Andressa points out that the Israeli government's practices have the same characteristics as segregation based on race.

"We understand this issue as a form of propaganda that the State of Israel uses to show itself as a balanced, structured, technological and advanced country, while the rest are barbarians. That’s the dehumanization that underpins apartheid and shows international negligence in supporting Israel."

For Shajar Goldwaser, the image that Israel seeks to show through religious tourism is that of a country "defending Christian values, a Western bastion in the Middle East.” "There's a lot of this subjectivity: that Israel would be a new great Western crusade and the neo-Pentecostals have this vision of Israel as the guardian of the sacred sites of Christianity, even though it is a Jewish nation."

Andressa Soares points out that religious tourism is mainly linked to the rise of Christian Zionism and has been used as a strategy by conservative and reactionary politicians to win over this electorate.

"There is a series of misconceptions, a political interest behind [political] leaders who spread false information about what happens in Israel and who create confusion between the biblical people of Israel and the State of Israel."

In an article for Brasil de Fato, Fernando Broncoli, a professor of Geopolitics at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, points out that far-right groups have been using religious aspects to create an "imaginary Israel" for political and electoral purposes.

Brancoli classifies this discourse as "Christian Zionism", marked by a political and religious stance that advocates Israel's military strength and territorial expansion. These ideas are rooted in the belief that Israel not only plays a central role in biblical prophecies, "but must also be protected and strengthened as a bastion of the Judeo-Christian faith."

"Many advocates of Christian Zionism see Israel's security and prosperity as intrinsically linked to the fulfillment of divine promises and, consequently, believe that supporting Israel is an extension of their faith and religious mission. This stance has influenced political decisions, international alliances and the way certain groups in Brazil perceive and interact with the geopolitical scenario in the Middle East," argues Brancoli.

Edited by: Rodrigo Durão Coelho