The closure of Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport for several hours Tuesday because Hamas rockets had targeted it forced BBYO to cancel its Israeli tour for two groups of teenagers who had already arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport.
“When we became aware that Hamas was targeting the airport, we were not sure whether our groups could arrive in Israel because they would be coming in on a connecting flight from Europe,” explained Matt Grossman, BBYO’s CEO. “Had they gone, they might have been stranded in Europe.”
As a result, he said, the decision was made to delay the two trips – a 21-day tour and a 28-day tour — for 59 youngsters in the ninth through 12th grades.
“We had the out-of-town kids spend the night at hotels in New York [with chaperones] with the hope they could go the next day,” Grossman said.
That did not happen and he said that should “peace breaks out tomorrow and the airport is secure, we might offer them something or they may wish to go on another trip.”
In fact, Ben Gurion Airport was the target of two Hamas rockets Wednesday morning, both of which were intercepted and blown up by Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system, according to media reports.
Carly Lundy Schacknies, BBYO’s marketing and communications manager, said the organization would now offer the teens the option of choosing a domestic trip or one to Europe.
“We provide trips to 15 countries around the world, so there are other options for them to provide a meaningful experience even if they can’t unfortunately be in Israel,” she said.
Grossman stressed that BBYO believes it is “safe to be in Israel — it was the airport that was the problem. In fact, we have 325 kids on the ground there now and they are having a fun time.”
Because of the Hamas rocket fire, he said the itinerary of the youngsters there now was modified to “keep them out of urban areas or those targeted by Hamas. We are keeping them mostly in the north – in the Galilee.”
In addition, BBYO notified all of their parents of the adjusted itinerary and received several e-mails of appreciation. One parent, Laureen Sills of Malibu, Ca., wrote: “What a lot of work you have all done to rearrange everything. Wow, thank you to all of you for taking good care of our kids.”
The parent of a child who had been on the canceled trip, Dr. William Schlesinger of Roslyn, L.I., said he believes BBYO made the right decision in canceling the trip and that his daughter now plans to take a BBYO trip to Europe.
Meanwhile, Taglit-Birthright Israel posted a notice on its Website today (7-9) that said the organization was “monitoring closely the situation” and that “the safety and well-being of participants [in Israel] is our ‘primary’ concern.”
“At this point, none of the current 3,500 plus participants in Israel have left trips earlier than planned,” it said. “Monitoring closely the situation, we constantly implement the most stringent and comprehensive security measures, far exceeding that of the Israel Security Authority guidelines. We have a well-deserved reputation for being cautious and conservative, a reputation that we have earned in the 14 years of our program and take [it] extremely seriously. No effort or expense is spared as it relates to the security of our participants.”
It added that all Birthright participants have been asked to call home within the next 24 hours.
United Synagogue Youth Israel Pilgrimage sent e-mails to parents telling them that the programs their children are on in Israel have been modified. An e-mail to one group of parents said the youngsters would be kept indoors instead of outdoors when they travel to southern Israel, and that a planned visit to an archeological dig had been moved to July 30.
Haim Gutin, Israel’s tourism commissioner for North and South America, said that aside from a private group of 20 people who canceled their trip to Israel yesterday, there have been no other group cancelations.
“We’ve been in touch with tour operators and travel agents and we have not heard of any cancelations,” he said. “That does not mean that new reservations won’t be affected, but we are not seeing cancelations as we have in the past” during other wars in Israel.
The war comes at a time when Israel was on pace to set a record year for tourism, Gutin noted.
“A lot of groups couldn’t even find a room in a hotel in Israel,” he said. “Right now everything is operating normally and life continues as usual in Israel. People are on the streets in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv – and life in the north is normal. It is in the south were things are problematic.”
Ilana Apelboim, chief operations officer of IsramWorld, the largest tour operator in the U.S. to Israel, said no groups have canceled but that eight to 10 people canceled trips to Israel that were scheduled for this week. And she said that of 47 people slated to fly there this weekend, only two have canceled.
She noted that people who have trips scheduled in coming weeks have called in recent days.
“We can understand their concern, but if they are not leaving immediately, we ask them to take a wait and see approach,” Apelboim said.
In a conference call today arranged by the Israel Project, Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the U.S., said the Iron Dome system has been 90 percent effective and that of 40 rockets it has destroyed in the last two days, 20 were intercepted in the last 24 hours.
“There is a debate in Israel over whether to escalate the conflict in response to an escalation from Hamas,” he said. “A week before this operation, [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu broadcast to Hamas his reluctance to escalate. …
“There is no end in site and Israel is calling up 40,000 reservists for a possible ground operation. That would be in Hamas’ interest because its influence in the region has declined dramatically … and its economy in Gaza is abysmal. Hamas believes that if it can drag Israel into a ground operation, Israel would not succeed in uprooting it and Hamas would gain support in the Arab world.”
Ido Aharoni, Israel’s consul general in New York, told a conference call organized by UJA-Federation of New York that Israel’s goal in this conflict is the “restoration of stability and calm in the Gaza Strip.”
“Some voices are calling for the complete destruction of Hamas,” he said. “The Israeli cabinet made a decision to inflict harm on Hamas’ infrastructure. And even those who refer to the need to actually go in there, are not talking about reoccupying the Gaza Strip long-term. That would have huge ramifications politically and economically.”
Oren noted that Hamas “is willing to pay a very high price to restore its legitimacy in the Arab world. … They see this as a win-win. If this [war] continues with Hamas firing 70 to 80 rockets a day and Israel firing 100, they look as though they are standing up to Israel. And if they drag Israel into a ground war, they will say Israel is guilty of war crimes.”
Despite Hamas’ more than 400 rocket attacks on Israel over the past three weeks, Oren observed that there is “no indication the United States or other members of the Quartet [Russia, the European Union and the United Nations] are willing to rescind their recognition of the Palestinian unity government.”