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President Donald Trump’s public recognition last week of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel touched off a firestorm of controversy that continues to have repercussions across the Middle East and possibly beyond. In the Middle East, one person’s cause for celebration can be seen by someone else as a full-on affront, nowhere more so than in the city that has holy significance for three major world religions. Underscoring the volatility of the situation, in the same statement in which he recognized Jerusalem as the capital, Trump said the city “must remain a place where Jews pray at the Western Wall, where Christians walk the Stations of the Cross, and where Muslims worship at Al-Aqsa Mosque,” while calling for calm. Which begs the question, how calm is it really? And if you are planning to go to Israel now or over the holidays, it is safe to do so?
Let’s consider both what has happened and what hasn’t happened in the days following Trump’s headline-grabbing proclamation. Palestinians declared there would be three “days of rage.” On Friday rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip toward the southern Israeli town of Sderot, where at least one exploded in a residential area. Although no one was hurt (two people suffered shock) the Israeli military responded by targeting Hamas sites in Gaza. Troublingly, on Sunday a Palestinian stabbed an Israeli security guard in broad daylight at Jerusalem’s busy Central Bus Station, severely wounding him. Over the weekend the Israeli military destroyed an underground “attack tunnel” stretching from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory and Hamas, with which Israel has already fought three wars and one as recently as 2014, has threatened retaliation.
Against this backdrop of heightened tensions and uptick in violence, the US State Department issued a Worldwide Caution to Americans traveling overseas, advised against visiting Jerusalem’s Old City — one of the most iconic places in Jerusalem — as well as the West Bank, and basically barred its own staffers from visiting the Old City.
According to Calcalist, an Israeli business news site, some business delegations from China and Japan have canceled or postponed visits citing safety concerns. So what happens if you go anyway? The truth is that hundreds of thousands of Jews and Muslims are going about their daily lives in the city as they always would. And it’s worth recalling that all the main holy sites in Jerusalem are under heavy security surveillance anyway, and that every big hotel and virtually every major cultural site in Jerusalem has security round the clock. Ellen Shapiro, the North American Director for Public Relations for Israel’s Ministry of Tourism, says that “in terms of cancellations of tours and travel through agencies, I have not heard of anything to date.”
True, saber-rattling and threat-issuing comes with the territory in this part of the world and political pronouncements do carry a risk of escalation. That’s probably why in his announcement Trump also very deliberately referenced the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, which called for the United States to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem —American presidents until Trump have issued waivers since then, which has kept the embassy in the same location, in Tel Aviv. But giving one of the most important embassies in the world a brand new address is not something that can be done overnight, and may in fact take years. It’s perhaps the widespread recognition of this — as in fact there will be no material changes on the ground for a while — that for now it’s pretty much business as usual in Jerusalem. Underlying the absence of an overall meltdown may be the realization that when all is said and done, a lot of people from many diverse faiths and nationalities pretty much have no choice but to share the same relatively small space and try however improbably to get along.
Asaf Liberman, a noted Israeli journalist, seems to echo that sentiment: “I would say that most of the Israelis hear about the security tension merely on the news, and we are surprised that people abroad are thinking that our country is in a war zone. There are areas of tension—the West Bank, along the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem—but most Israelis do not live there and are living their lives peacefully,” he says.
Indeed, chances are good that Gaza and the West Bank (and East Jerusalem for that matter) are not high on your Holy Land must-visit list. But is there still a risk of lone wolf-style attacks in central Jerusalem? Yes, as the stabbing at the bus station demonstrates, and when in public spaces it pays to be aware of your surroundings at all times.
In labyrinthine Jerusalem it’s seldom a good idea to wander off alone without a guide or good friend to accompany you in case your phone fails you and you get disoriented. The rocket fire reported Monday from Gaza toward Israel, which may have been connected to tensions over Jerusalem, and consequent Israeli retaliation may not be the last we hear of it. Bottom line is, follow the news and make your travel decisions accordingly.
If you are planning a general trip to Israel now, I would proceed, but if you’re planning to visit Jerusalem specifically, you might want to spend more time in other places like Tel Aviv or Eilat while the situation plays itself out. Before you consider cancelling anything, remember that unpredictability is part of Israel’s DNA — but that’s also what makes every day here feel like a bit of living history.
Feature photo of Qubbat al-Sakhrah (Dome of the Rock) at Al Aqsa Mosque Compound in Jerusalem on December 06, 2017. Photo by Mahmoud Ibrahim/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
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