On April 15, Israeli security forces raided the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, drawing worldwide condemnation as they used violence against Palestinians praying during the holy month of Ramadan. Around the same time, activists opposed to Tunisia having any kind of formal or informal relations with Israel–i.e. ‘normalization’–ramped up a campaign denouncing Tunisian companies that promote and organize travel and tourism between the two countries. Adding to the perceived normalization with Israel was the Tunisian Defense Minister’s attendance at a US-led military coordination group on Ukraine on April 26 in which an Israeli official was also present.
Activists specifically called out two travel agencies: Batouta Voyages & Events which, according to a now-deleted series of online materials, had organized a trip to Palestine set for May 9-20, apparently in coordination with Israeli authorities. The other tour company, “Royal First Travel,” a French company owned by former Tourism Minister René Trabelsi, also posted an advertisement for the upcoming May 18-19 pilgrimage to the El Ghriba Synagogue in Djerba that included air travel from Tel Aviv. After activists criticized the tour companies online and in street actions in downtown Tunis on April 18 and 24, both companies took down their public advertisements, and Batouta representatives told Meshkal they had cancelled their Palestine trip.
“While oppression is rising in the occupied [Palestinian] territories and Al Aqsa [Mosque], travel agencies in Tunisia are becoming specialized in normalization with the Zionist entity by organizing trips and tours…to lands where Palestinians are banned from entering, to discover and take selfies with the Dome of the Rock right where Palestinians have died trying to enter,” Ghassen Ben Khelifa, a member of The Tunisian Campaign to Boycott and Resist Normalization with the Zionist Entity told Meshkal.
History of Discrete Ties
Officially, Tunisia does not have diplomatic relations with Israel, and Tunisian businesses are expected to not trade with Israel. However, journalists and activists have brought to light discrete commercial and tourism links. In March 2021, the investigative website Al-Qatiba published a report showing that the Tunisian company Randa, which manufactures couscous and pasta, was selling its products to Israel via France. At the time, the Tunisian government announced it would open an investigation into the case, according to then-Commerce Minister Mohamed Boussaid in a hearing in Parliament on April 12, 2021. There has not been any indications from the government since then whether such an investigation did indeed take place.
In the summer of 2019, video surfaced of what appeared to be Israeli tourists visiting Tunisia, which prompted street protests in Tunis. According to an investigation by the website Inhiyez in 2019, Tunisian tourism trips to Israeli-controlled and occupied territory are conducted and coordinated by the Interior Ministry, which passes along security data on Tunisian tourists to Israeli authorities. Tunisian tourism trips organized by the “Tunisia Bay Travel” agency back in 2019 crossed the Israeli-controlled border into Palestine in just 15 minutes, suggesting official coordination given that many, especially Palestinians, are long delayed or outright denied such freedom of movement to their own country by Israeli security forces.
Tunisian diplomats reportedly had cordial relations with their Israeli counterparts prior to the 2011 revolution, although such relations were largely concealed from the public. In October 1985, Israel, with assistance from the United States, bombed Hammam Chatt, south of Tunis, killing 50 Palestinians, 18 Tunisians, and wounding more than a hundred others.
Because of incidents suggesting steps towards normalization of relations, for years activists have called for legislation that would criminalize normalization, a proposal the Ennahdha party blocked from including in the 2014 constitution and which many hoped President Kais Saied would follow through on because of his promises to that end.
In a statement posted on April 12 on its Facebook page @BDSTunisia, the Boycott Campaign called on President Kais Saied to “carry out his positions and hold normalizers accountable!” The statement also called on Saied to “issue a legal text criminalizing all forms of normalization with Zionism and its occupying entity.” The statement also noted that activists from the Boycott Campaign had held a meeting with one of Saied’s advisers on the issue of normalization more than two years ago in an attempt to get their message to him. Saied has on numerous occasions likened normalization of Tunisia’s relations with Israel as “high treason,” indicating a position different than that of the Parliament he suspended. Numerous civil society organizations and union groups have also been calling for legislation that criminalizes normalization for years. Still, the Boycott Campaign noted that despite promises from Saied, he has not followed through.
Online and Offline Campaign
In a Facebook post, the Boycott Campaign called on people to participate in what they called an “electronic storm” of spamming the comment sections on Facebook pages of tourism agencies and ministries in protest against normalization flights and the lack of a government response. This campaign extended to what they called “accomplices”: the national air carrier Tunisair, the Ministry of Transportation, and government pages that had yet to weigh in on the issue including the Presidency, the Prime Ministry, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Meshkal did see hundreds of such comments on the various pages, although activists said they were eventually automatically blocked for spamming.
On the evening of April 18 at 19:00, as people were breaking their Ramadan fasts, boycott activists went to the offices of Batouta to spray-paint graffiti on the office building walls with slogans against “normalization.” “Normalization, Grand Treason??” one slogan read; another read “Batouta Agency for Normalization Excursions.”
At 20:37, Batouta’s employees appear to have edited a Facebook post advertising their list of tours that had previously included the Palestine trip but now excluded the Palestine trip.
Tour Companies Decline to Comment
On April 26, Meshkal went to Batouta’s offices to seek clarification on the trip and their opinion on the issue. One employee who did not give their name said they had no Palestine trips planned. When I asked about the Palestine trip previously posted on Batouta’s Facebook page, the employee said they had cancelled it “because we don’t know the itinerary,” adding that they didn’t know how they would manage to get Tunisians into Palestine. However, activists had sent Meshkal screenshots of what appeared to be a detailed itinerary of a trip to Palestine posted by Batouta’s Facebook page that included travel to Muslim, Christian, and Jewish religious sites and monuments in Israeli-controlled areas of Palestine. The itinerary also included a link to Israel’s Health Ministry for Tunisian tourists to coordinate their compliance with Covid-19 PCR testing requirements.
Asked if Batouta had ever organized travel to Palestine before, the employee said this was the first trip. However, again activists sent screenshots that appeared to show a Batouta Facebook post from May 2019 advertising a trip to Palestine and Jordan for November 2019.
I also asked the Batouta employee if they had cancelled the trip due to the graffiti tags outside their office building or the online spamming campaign from activists. At that point, the employee directed Meshkal to ask Batouta’s director but declined to give the director’s name or contact information. The employee pointed the director out to me but said he was busy at that moment and declined to say when he might be available. When I returned to the office an hour later, the director declined to give an interview and closed the door on me.
“These agencies have made tours in the occupied lands of 1948 (i.e. Israel), to Acre, Haifa and Yafa, and later on to Tel Aviv–as if nothing was happening–under the pretext of support and solidarity. Whoever wants to support Palestine can do it from here, not by touring and taking selfies in privileged areas there,” Ben Khelifa of the Boycott Campaign added.
On April 26, Twitter account @Aisha_Mb, who identified herself as “the daughter of the owner of Batouta Voyages” reached out on Twitter “to provide clarifications” before posting what she said was a response from Batouta which ignored the issue and falsely accused me of not identifying myself or Meshkal on our visit to Batouta’s offices. In response to further questions from other Twitter users, @Aisha_Mb indicated that “many tourism agencies do” such trips to Israel “several times a year, we just were the ones attacked for being pro-Israel by organzing this trip, but it is very common.” The Twitter account ignored further requests for comment or confirmation that they are in a position to represent Batouta Voyages.
Marching to Call Government to Action
On April 24, the Boycott Campaign organized a protest march in downtown Tunis in support of Palestine and calling on the government to take measures against the travel agencies involved in linking Tunisia with Israel.
The protest, which gathered about 40 people, started at noon from the Central Bank, passed by the Tourism Ministry and ended in front of the National Theater on Habib Bourguiba avenue. Police forces tried to physically block the protesters from reaching Bourguiba Avenue and confiscate their protest banners, and they also threatened to arrest them. However, protesters broke through the police blockade.
“This is all happening under the eyes of the government. We’ve protested for so long and published so many statements” yet “the state continues to collude with these [travel] agencies,” Ben Khelifa of the Boycott Campaign told Meshkal on the sideline of the march.
“We are essentially asking President Kais Saied to criminalize normalization. We will keep protesting until May 15, which is the Nakba memorial. We have also started a petition that will be distributed later on…This is a long term fight that needs unity and solidarity from everyone. This will not go unnoticed, and we will not be accomliances with the government in this,” Ben Khelifa added.
Defense Minister Sits Across Israeli Official
But instead of the government criminalizing normalization and strictly observing a boycott of Israel, officials seemed to take a step in the opposite direction when, on April 26, Tunisia’s Defense Minister Imed Memmiche participated in a meeting of the Ukraine Defense Consultative Group at the US military base in Ramstein, Germany. A photo from that meeting shows a security official representing Israel sitting across from Memmiche. This official was later identified in the press as Brigadier General Dror Shalom, head of the Israeli Defense Ministry’s Political-Military Bureau.
This news was initially picked up when the Workers Party (formerly the Communist Party of Workers of Tunisia or POCT) issued a statement on April 27 claiming that Memmiche “did not feel any shame to sit with the Israeli minister at the same meeting table at a time when the free people of Tunisia are protesting in solidarity with their brothers in Palestine, calling for criminalization of normalization, and at a time when Palestinians are being attacked ruthlessly in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza under direct instructions from the ‘zionist minister of war.’”
The party’s statement also claimed that the meeting signalled “the demagogic, false nature of President Kais Saied’s statements in his election campaign, in which he considered ‘normalization a high treason,’ which means that today he himself is openly committing this betrayal himself, perpetuating the same behavior that the previous Ennahda-led government and before it the Ben Ali regime.”
The State news agency TAP then picked up the story on April 27, reporting on the Workers Party’s statement of the meeting. The Boycott Campaign also posted a statement on Facebook on April 28 calling the meeting “a dangerous reversal from what President Kais Saied promised the Tunisian people during his election campaign.” The day after, on April 29, over 20 civil society organizations including the National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT), the General Union of Students of Tunisia (UGET) and the Tunisian League of Human Rights (LTDH) also issued a statement condemning the meeting, and echoed earlier statements that condemned Tunisia’s cooperation with NATO in general. In 2015, the United States designated Tunisia as a “Major Non-NATO Ally.”
“We strongly condemn the participation of the Tunisian Minister of Defense in this meeting alongside the Zionist Minister, and consider it a new official step towards normalization with the Zionist enemy,” the civil society statement reads.
So far, there have been no official responses to any of these statements. Asked to speculate why officials and tour companies have not responded, activist and member of a political group calling itself “Resist” Jawaher Channa told Meshkal that politicians’ promises, including those of President Saied, amount to “just words.”
“There is no political will for real change with regard to the Palestinian issue to criminalize normalization, and that’s why we are not seeing any officials respond,” Channa said.