Video of “Israeli” Tourists in Tunisia Sparks Demonstrations

Demonstrators in downtown Tunis on Saturday June 15, 2019 wave Palestinian flags and march in protest of what they see as the government’s attempts to “normalize” relations with Israel after a video showing “Israeli” tourists in Tunisia was shared widely. Photo by Fadil Aliriza.

Demonstrators marched in downtown Tunis on Saturday afternoon protesting against “normalization” of ties with Israel days after a feature news video purportedly produced by Israeli channel 12 was shared by the Palestinian Quds News Network on its Arabic Facebook page.

The video shows what the narrator calls “Israeli” tourists in Tunisia who had come for the annual pilgrimage to the El Ghriba synagogue in Djerba on May 22, 2019. One of the tourists shown in the 2-minute long video appears to be on a tour bus, wearing a red t-shirt with “Ghriba 2019” printed on it. Speaking in Hebrew, the tourist says “May god bless the soldiers of the Israeli army, according to the Arabic subtitles, to which her fellow bus passengers respond with “Amen!” The same woman says says “Tahya Tounes, Tahya Israel” or “Long Live Tunisia, Long Live Israel.”

A screenshot of the video in allegedly produced by Israeli Channel 12 shared on the Quds News Network’s Facebook page purportedly showing “Israeli” tourists on a tour bus in Tunisia for the annual pilgrimage to Ghriba synagogue. Screenshot by Meshkal news team, June 16, 2019

Meshkal was unable to verify the source of the video, identify those featured in it, or confirm the accuracy of the Arabic subtitles.

Saturday’s march in the capital, which appeared to gather between 200 and 300 protesters, began near the municipal theatre on Habib Bourguiba Avenue around 16:00 and proceeded to the Tourism Ministry at the beginning of the avenue near the iconic clock tower roundabout where demonstrators chanted “Dégage!” or “Get out!” to the minister of tourism René Trabelsi.

Trabelsi, who is the first Jewish minister Tunisia has had in decades, has been the subject of popular criticism including for his advocacy for “normalizing” relations with Israel, a position often associated with “Zionism” in Tunisia. Trabelsi had given an interview to Mosaique FM on May 8, 2014 in which he appeared to advocate developing Tunisia’s trade and sports ties with Israel.

Trabelsi’s post as minister was approved by Tunisia’s parliament, the Assembly of People’s Representatives, on November 12, 2018 in a government reshuffle with 127 votes in favor, 1 abstention, and 25 votes against, according to Marsad Majles, the parliamentary watchdog project of NGO Al Bawsala. According to the vote breakdown, those who voted against Trabelsi included 13 MPs from the Popular Front bloc, nine MPs from the Democratic bloc, and three MPs from the Loyalty to the Nation bloc.

In the video purporting to show Israeli tourists in Tunisia, the narrator says that “a record number of Israelis attended the Djerba festivities this year since the Arab spring that started in 2011,” according to the Arabic subtitles. The video also interviews a woman in Hebrew in what appears to be the city of Djerba, who the subtitles identify as an organizer of Israeli tours to Tunisia. The woman tells the camera that she had initially organized Tunisia trips for those with Tunisian origins but expanded to “Ashkenazi.” The video also shows tourism minister Trabelsi at the Djerba festival in front of journalists asking in French what channel an off-screen interviewer is from, to which the person replies in French “12”. The video then shows someone in a suit behind Trabelsi reaching in front of him to push away a microphone.

In another part of the video, the narrator says their tour guide pointed out to them what he claimed was the house of Abu Jihad in Sidi Bou Said. Abu Jihad is the nom de guerre of the Palestinian leader and Fatah cofounder Khalil al-Wazir. Abu Jihad was assassinated in his home in Tunis on April 16, 1988, reportedly by Israeli intelligence. During that time, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was based in Tunis.

A demonstrator holds a sign in downtown Tunis on Saturday, June 15, 2019. Photo by Meshkal news team.

On Wednesday June 12, 2019, Tunisia’s Interior Ministry released a statement explicitly responding to what it refers to as the video coming from “Israeli Channel 12” in which it says “the ministry categorically denies the entry of any tourist with an Israeli passport to Tunisian territory.” The same official statement also claims that the house shown in the video allegedly belonging to Abu Jihad is not his house but one that is 4 km away from Abu Jihad’s house.

On Saturday’s march in Tunis, protesters waved Palestinian flags, carried photos of political and military leaders from across the Arab world who have confronted Israel, and posters of Tunisia’s tourism minister René Trabelsi that read “René Trabelsi holds Israeli citizenship, and his other citizenship is French…an ethical and constitutional crime.”

“Returning once more to this story of the passport…this is a dangerous discourse” Trabelsi told Mosaique FM in an interview on November 7, 2018 referring to what he said were comments from an MP about his having Israeli nationality. “Absolutely I don’t have any relationship with that nationality. I’m Tunisian and I’m proud of being Tunisian. I love my country and want to work for my country.”

Some of the chants of protesters on Saturday included: “The People Want the Criminalization of Normalization;” “The Tunisian People are not for Sale,” and “Tunisia is its People, not its Government.” The march was publicized on several Facebook groups, including some linked to the UGTT. Pro-union posters and pan-Arabist slogans were also part of Saturday’s march.

Demonstrators in downtown Tunis on Saturday, June 15, 2019. Photo by Meshkal news team.

“The Tunisian people…we reject any person, anyone no matter who they are, whether they are a minister or not a minister, who tries to come and infiltrate the Tunisian people with normalization of any kind whether cultural or touristic or scientific,” Bouali Mbarki, a deputy secretary general of the UGTT told the Beirut-based channel Al Mayadeen in an interview on June 14, 2019. Al Mayadeen is the same TV channel referred to in the Tunisia Interior Ministry’s official statement responding to the video.

The UGTT’s Facebook page also shared photos on Saturday what appeared to be similar preparations for a demonstration of a “day of rage” with support for Palestine in the city of Beja.

While Tunisia does not officially recognize Israel, an Israeli foreign ministry spokesperson speaking to Foreign Policy in 2014 confirmed that Tunisia and Israel had quietly maintained “good working relations” before the 2011 uprising and and that between then and May 2014 Tunisia’s diplomats had cut off relations. In March 2014, Tunisia refused entry to 14 cruise ship passengers holding Israeli citizenship, and lawmakers called on then Minister of Tourism Amel Karboul and Tunisia’s deputy Minister of Interior Ridha Sfar to clarify Tunisia’s position on Israeli nationals.