September 30, 2010 - 12:00am

The Dutch advertising watchdog has criticized Israel for publishing "misleading" information on its tourism website that blurs the borders between Israel and occupied Arab territories.

The Advertising Code Committee says in a nonbinding ruling that material distributed by the Dutch branch of the Israeli National Tourism Board does not "clearly show where the border lies between what is internationally recognized as Israeli territory and 'disputed' areas."

Pro-Palestinian activists complained that the maps gave the impression that parts of the Palestinian West Bank and East Jerusalem are in Israel, as well as the Golan Heights captured from Syria.

The ruling, which can be appealed, has no immediate practical effect, and the committee cannot compel the Israeli tourism board to withdraw the ads. But it contributes to the international criticism of Israel's occupation at a time when it is in peace negotiations with the Palestinians over the future status of the territories.

Earlier this month, a group of mayors from Israel canceled a trip to the Netherlands after objections were raised that the delegation included mayors of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Phon van den Biesen, a lawyer representing the activists, said Thursday that Israel should change its advertising material based on the ruling. He said the Israeli material was promoting towns in occupied territories such as Bethlehem as part of Israel.

"It is like inviting your friends to a party at your home while in fact you are inviting them to your neighbor's home who was not involved in the invitation," Van den Biesen said.

In Jerusalem, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor rejected the criticism.

"If you want to make a political reading of tourism campaigns, or just commercial advertisements, you'll always find ambiguities," he said. "The situation is ambiguous, and anybody who has basic knowledge of the situation here knows that is part of the problem, which is why we need a political peace treaty that would put an end to ambiguity as much as possible."

He also noted that advertising a place as being in "the land of Israel" is a biblical geographic term, and not a political statement.

It is not the first time Israel's attempts to lure tourists has fallen foul of advertising standards authorities.

Last year, a British advertising watchdog said an Israeli tourism poster could not be displayed because it suggested the West Bank and Gaza Strip are part of Israel.

The Western-backed Palestinian Authority rules over most Palestinian cities and towns in the West Bank, but Israeli forces retain overall control.

Israel seized the West Bank - a strip of hilly territory wedged between Israel and Jordan -- from Jordan during the Six Day War in 1967. Palestinians want the territory, as well as east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip as their future independent state.

Parts of the West Bank are considered the biblical heartland of the Jews, particularly Hebron, where the devout believe that the prophet Abraham settled and where he was buried with his wife Sarah.


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