he tour guide is pointing out the windows of our van at the nondescript road ahead.[1]

“We’re on the Green Line. Once we cross this intersection, we’ll be on the other side.”

The Green Line refers to the division of Jerusalem that was demarcated in the 1949 armistice agreement, with West Jerusalem as part of the newly established state of Israel and East Jerusalem under Jordanian occupation (Montefiore 2011).[2] In the war of 1967, the Israeli government unilaterally annexed Palestinian land in and around Jerusalem.[3] Though the Green Line has remained the internationally recognized de facto border, the municipal boundaries of Israeli Jerusalem extend past its route. On the ground, there is nothing to indicate this boundary. West Jerusalem smoothly bleeds into East Jerusalem.

Crossing the Green Line

The dynamics of visibility and invisibility are crucial to the context of Israel/Palestine. Adi Kuntsman and Rebecca Stein have argued that Israel’s military occupation is simultaneously spectacularly visible and absent from view, a form of a public secret: “something that is known but cannot be articulated within the terms of governing social norms” (2015: 15). Public secrecy “aims to account for the normative Israeli fantasy of a missing occupation… as if the Israeli state violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip did not spill into everyday life in Jewish Israeli cities, as if Israeli democracy was not undercut by its concurrent military rule” (Kuntsman and Stein 2015: 15). Similarly, Gil Hochberg has emphasized that the key organizing principle of the Israeli visual field is concealment, one manifestation of which is how “Israel has managed to keep Palestinians almost completely invisible to Israeli eyes even as Israelis travel through the West Bank” through the system of walls, checkpoints, roadblocks, and separate road systems (2015: 18).  

Beyond invisibilizing the military occupation for Israelis, these visual dynamics have a particular performative power for international tourists in Jerusalem. As a state still in formation and contestation, Israel is constituted through ongoing processes of making and unmaking that are especially fraught. What is seen or unseen by tourists in Jerusalem plays an important role in the construction of geopolitical imaginaries of Israel/Palestine.[4] Though tourist understandings of Jerusalem are largely fixated on the sacred geographies of the Abrahamic religions, the long history of competing claims to the city has resulted in its highly charged nature as political symbol and lived reality. The multiple and disputed meanings of Jerusalem are largely overlooked in mainstream tourist practices and discourses.[5] Instead, they produce a singular imaginary of Jerusalem as the unified, eternal capital of the Jewish state of Israel, a strategic narration that normalizes what is seen by tourists in the present.

If mainstream tourism helps to produce the conditions of invisibility, then alternative tourism works to confront these imaginaries by exposing and contesting the infrastructure of unseeing on which the dominant imaginary of Jerusalem operates. The notion of “unseeing” comes from China Miéville’s work of speculative fiction, The City & The City, in which two cities occupy the same physical space but the “citizens of each city are trained from infancy to unsee the other city and its residents, to not acknowledge even to themselves the existence of half the people and half the buildings that they walk past in the street” (Ehrenreich, 2016: 146). Unseeing is a practice that upholds public secrecy, as Israelis must know the Palestinian city is there in order to unsee it.

In the complex, layered landscape of Jerusalem, such practices of unseeing are crystallized into an infrastructure. According to Brian Larkin, infrastructures are “things and also the relation between things,” an “architecture for circulation” that provides “the undergirding of modern societies” and generates “the ambient environment of everyday life” (2013: 328-329). For Michelle Murphy (2013), infrastructures are “the spatially and temporally expansive ways that practices are sedimented into and structure the world.” Infrastructures enable the movement of both the material and the immaterial. As an infrastructure, unseeing moves Palestinians out of the frame of vision while simultaneously disseminating discourses of Jerusalem as the unified, eternal capital of Israel. It naturalizes the Israeli settler imaginary in the landscape itself, making it appear fixed and matter-of-fact.

Understanding unseeing as an infrastructure reframes the conflict in Jerusalem, exposing the less spectacular forms of violence that sustain Israeli settler colonialism. As Larkin notes, “all visibility is situated and what is background for one person is a daily object of concern for another” (2013: 336). How is unseeing mobilized for international tourists in Jerusalem? To what ends? Hochberg argues that Israeli visual practices function not only to make Palestinians invisible but also to “render the very process of erasure invisible as well” (2015: 18). It is precisely this concealment of the process that gives the infrastructure of unseeing such performative power in Jerusalem, supporting the circulation of dominant Israeli imaginaries of the city and enrolling international tourists into the public secret.

On a broader geopolitical scale, the dominant imaginary is that of unified “greater Jerusalem,” the uncontested capital of a sovereign Jewish nation-state residing within a legitimate international border. This imaginary is in part premised on the illusion provided by the Wall that cuts through the city. Dominant Israeli discourse presents it as a barrier built for security purposes and on the geopolitical boundary between two sovereign entities. In actuality, the Wall snakes back and forth across the Green Line in order to annex “as much land and as few Palestinians as possible.” Not just a concrete infrastructure of separation, the Wall also functions as a particular mode of unseeing. It provides the illusion of Israel and Palestine as two “ordinary, territorially defined nation states,” disguising what Eyal Weizman calls “the violent reality of a shifting colonial frontier” (2007: 179). The infrastructure of unseeing works to obscure that the Israeli regime operates on both sides of this border (see Azoulay and Ophir 2013).

The Wall

At the municipal scale, the “greater Jerusalem” imaginary is premised upon an even more insidious mode of unseeing. In the decades following the war of 1967, the narrative of Jerusalem’s “reunification” became solidified as Israel declared it its capital and sought to transform the physical landscape accordingly, at the expense of the indigenous Palestinian population. Israeli tourist materials and international guidebooks refer to East Jerusalem mainly to direct visitors to sites of Christian significance, away from populated areas. In this imaginary, geopolitical boundaries are obfuscated as East Jerusalem is presented as an extension of the holy landscape of the Old City. Left unseen are the Palestinian neighborhoods that face municipal neglect of transportation, health, and education infrastructures, in addition to the ongoing violence of land expropriation and house demolitions.[6]

East Jerusalem

The tension between what most tourists see and what is happening on the ground is especially stark in the Old City. Despite being less than one square kilometer, it is a palimpsest of thousands of years of pilgrimages, crusades, and simmering religious tensions that has sedimented into a seemingly absolute, eternal holy landscape. Mainstream tourism narratives normalize a Judeo-Christian imaginary of Jerusalem as the enduring capital of Israel while ignoring its Muslim heritage beyond the hyper-visible “Temple Mount.” This imaginary also conflates the religious and political dimensions of the symbolic landscape so that the Judeo-Christian significance is moved beyond the biblical landscape into the space of modern Israel. These narratives work to cover over the multiple and disputed dimensions of Jerusalem, erasing Palestinian claims to the city as both political symbol and lived reality.

This constructed visibility makes the dominant Israeli imaginary seem unselective and matter-of-fact, but alternative tourism challenges it by shedding light on what is concealed: it makes Palestinian Al-Quds visible to the tourist gaze.[7] While most tour routes enter the Old City from the Jewish-Israeli side and bypass the Muslim Quarter altogether, the alternative tour brings participants through Damascus Gate to destabilize this dominant framing. While mainstream narratives of Jerusalem may acknowledge the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” it is largely invoked as being a problem of somewhere else—that is, of the West Bank, on the other side of the so-called “separation wall.” The alternative tour denaturalizes this imaginary by contextualizing Al-Quds in relation to the Palestinian population of the West Bank, revealing how Palestine is fragmented by the Israeli geopolitical imaginary. This is further emphasized in how tourists are made to see the enclave settlements of Orthodox Zionists in a militarized effort to assert control over the Muslim Quarter. Despite mainstream attempts to fix Jerusalem as a specific place of Jewish sanctity and Israeli nationalism, the alternative tour reveals how the spatial narratives of much of the Old City are Muslim and Palestinian.

Alternative tourism also denaturalizes the absolute sanctity of the Western Wall. While mainstream tours present the Western Wall in an ahistorical narrative of a holy site, the alternative tour addresses how the plaza was created—Palestinian residents of the densely populated Moroccan Quarter were evicted and their houses destroyed when Israeli forces took control of the Old City in the 1967 war. “This has been edited out of the collective memory of the nation,” the tour guide says. The infrastructure of unseeing works to fill tourists’ frame of vision with the Jewish-Israeli imaginary. Whether through concealment or active erasure, the process of unseeing is itself obscured for tourists in the complex landscape of the Old City. Alternative tourism reveals how the infrastructure of unseeing insidiously furthers the Israeli project of occupation.

The Western Wall plaza

At stake in thinking about Jerusalem as an infrastructural conflict is exposing how infrastructures in both registers—the physical and the social—are linked in enacting the violence of settler colonialism. Infrastructures participate actively in “processes through which power asymmetries are articulated and enacted” (Salamanca, 2016: 65). This is made evident in the case of East Jerusalem, as its Palestinian neighborhoods are neglected while its settlements are supported by the municipality and the Israeli state. These forms of violence operate in tandem with the infrastructure of unseeing and the uneven dynamics of visibility, which are crucial to the temporality of the contestation over Jerusalem. Examining the deliberate mechanisms of unseeing uncovers the latent violence that upholds Israeli settler colonialism and provides the conditions for the episodic bursts of spectacular violence. It also illuminates the temporal relationship between indigenous Palestinians and the Israeli state in a way that precludes justification of Israel as an exceptional case, as is often done.[8]

Throughout Israel/Palestine, uneven temporal and spatial infrastructures establish the conditions of distributed reproduction—how “some aspects of life are supported while others are abandoned” (Murphy 2013). The infrastructural conditions of the present prioritize settler “capacities to live intergenerationally” over those of indigenous Palestinians, all while insisting on its legitimacy (Murphy 2013). Making visible this infrastructure of unseeing, then, is merely a step in addressing this injustice. Seeing Jerusalem as an infrastructural conflict challenges the sedimented settler imaginaries, providing more ways to think about transformation and respond to their violence. 


Azoulay, A and Ophir A (2013) The one-state condition: Occupation and democracy in Israel/Palestine. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Ehrenreich, B (2016) The way to the spring: Life and death in Palestine. New York: Penguin Press.
Hochberg, GZ (2015) Visual occupations: Violence and visibility in a conflict zone. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Kelly, JL (2016) “Asymmetrical itineraries: Militarism, tourism, and solidarity in occupied Palestine.” American Quarterly 68(3): 723-745.
Kelner, S (2010) Tours that bind: Diaspora, pilgrimage, and Israeli birthright tourism. New York: New York University Press.
Kuntsman, A and Stein RL (2015) Digital militarism: Israel’s occupation in the social media age. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Larkin, B (2013) “The politics and poetics of infrastructure.” Annual Review of Anthropology 42: 327-343.
Montefiore SS (2011) Jerusalem: The biography. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Murphy, M (2013) “Distributed reproduction, chemical violence, and latency.” Scholar & Feminist Online 11(3).
Salamanca, OJ (2016) “Assembling the fabric of life: When settler colonialism becomes development.” Journal of Palestine Studies 45(4): 64-80.
Simpson, A (2014) Mohawk interruptus: Political life across the borders of settler states. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Solnit, R (2007) Storming the gates of paradise: Landscapes for politics. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Weizman, E (2007) Hollow land: Israel’s architecture of occupation. London and New York: Verso.

[1] The following photographs and observations were taken in Jerusalem in August 2016.[2] The 1948 conflict is referred to as the “War of Independence” in Israeli discourse, but for Palestinians, it is known as the nakba (the catastrophe) because around 750,000 Palestinians were expelled and became refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, and surrounding Arab countries.[3] In addition to the capture of the Golan from Syria and the Sinai and Gaza from Egypt, Israel seized the West Bank from Jordan and implemented a military occupation that continues to this day. While these territories are often treated separately from discussions of Jerusalem, this disjuncture itself contributes to the entrenchment of the violence of Israeli settler colonialism and military occupation—as the linked events of the U.S. embassy’s move to Jerusalem and the IDF killings of Gazans in the Great March of Return show.[4] In this piece, I am speaking of international, primarily non-Jewish tourists that comprise an external, global audience for these state-making processes, though tourism to Israel also has a more overt function in the case of birthright tourism, which works to mobilize diasporic Jewish engagement with the Israeli state and foster a sense of national identification (Kelner, 2010).[5] By “mainstream” practices and discourses, I am referring to those of major Israeli and international (European or American) tour companies that reiterate and reinforce the narratives of the Israeli state, often despite declaring their “apolitical” agendas. The necessarily broad designation of “mainstream” points to a broad range of tourists from a variety of backgrounds and social positions, against which more specific forms of “alternative” tourists can be described.[6] Of course, spaces of Palestinian lived experience are not solely structured by settler colonial violence, control, and occupation; they are also intimate sites of persistence and political transformation.[7] By “alternative tourism,” I am referring to tours that provide counter-hegemonic narratives and focus on the contested politics of space in Israel/Palestine. While it has been understood as forms of activist-oriented tourism or solidarity tourism (see Kelly, 2016), I apply the term more generally to include organizations such as Green Olive Tours, which considers itself a social enterprise agency. In this conception, alternative tourists are those who come to the contested territories to deliberately “go beyond” standard mass tourism experiences. They are fewer in number and “typically already sensitized to some degree to the Palestinian situation.”[8] For example, Audra Simpson has emphasized that Mohawk border crossers have a temporal relationship with the settler regimes of the United States and Canada, so the geopolitical boundary of the border “actually transgresses them” (2014: 124). Similarly, of the 1846 “Mexican-American War,” Rebecca Solnit writes that some Latinx reference this war “when they say, ‘We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us’” (2007: 76).