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Visitors are scrambling to leave Israel and Gaza as the fighting rages

Passengers wait in a queue, to enter a flight to Israel, at the Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport in Athens, Greece, Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023.
Thanassis Stavrakis
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AP
Passengers wait in a queue, to enter a flight to Israel, at the Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport in Athens, Greece, Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023.

Airlines and governments around the world were rushing to get visitors trapped by the raging conflict in Israel and the Gaza Strip back home as the U.S. warns any future travelers to the area to rethink their plans.

The fighting started almost a week ago after Hamas launched a surprise attack into Israel, killing 1,300 Israelis and taking some 150 hostages — some of whom are believed to be Americans.

Israel has retaliated with intense airstrikes into the Gaza Strip, cutting off access to food, water and fuel for the 2.3 million residents there. Palestinian officials say at least 1,400 people were killed, an estimated 60% are women and children, and hundreds of thousands of others have been displaced.

The death and destruction of this latest conflict has forced many airlines to cancel flights to Tel Aviv, preventing foreign visitors in Gaza and Israel from returning home and disrupting Israel's travel industry.

Tourism is a steady share of Israel's economy, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. In 2019, it directly accounted for 2.6% of the country's GDP and 3.8% of total employment. With COVID-19, it dropped substantially as borders closed. As of 2023, the country was still struggling to fully reboundfrom pre-pandemic levels.

Flights out of Israel remain disrupted

Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport, the country's largest and busiest, says it is still working as planned. Flights into Israel are still being allowed as Israelis return home.

But flying out of Israel is proving more difficult, with a substantial number of flights canceled in and out of Tel Aviv, according to Flightradar24.

Delta says it is canceling all flights to Tel Aviv through Oct. 31. American Airlines has suspended operations to and from Tel Aviv through Dec. 4. United has also canceled direct flights.

Other nations have stepped in to find ways to get their citizens out.

Brazil's government is getting six planes to repatriate its some 20,000 citizens who live in Israel, the West Bank or Gaza and want to leave.

The U.K.'s Foreign Office said it is arranging flights for Britons stuck in Israel, with the first flight out scheduled for Thursday.

Brazilians who were caught in the latest Israel-Palestinian war arrive to their home country after the Brazilian Air Force sent a plane for them in Brasilia, Brazil, Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023.
Eraldo Peres / AP
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AP
Brazilians who were caught in the latest Israel-Palestinian war arrive to their home country after the Brazilian Air Force sent a plane for them in Brasilia, Brazil, on Wednesday.

Americans remain trapped in Israel and Gaza

A senior U.S. official told NPR that it's working to get approximately 400-600 U.S. citizens out of Gaza. Roughly 100 of them have contacted the embassy for help to leave.

Wafaa Abuzayda is trapped in Gaza with her husband and her 1-year-old son and is pleading with the U.S. Embassy for help. The 30-year-old grew up in Gaza but moved to the U.S. seven years ago.

She told NPR's Morning Edition's Leila Fadel that they were visiting for just two weeks. Now it's unclear when they will be able to leave.

"We changed our tickets like three to four times ... and then we decided to come to Gaza at this time," she said. "And our short vacation just turned into a nightmare."

She said they are running out of milk and diapers.

She added, "And in the meantime they keep posting stuff about the U.S. citizens in Israel. Every five minutes they keep reminding the people in Israel to get out of Israel."

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters earlier this week that there are "viable ground routes" for Americans if they wanted to leave Israel that way.

However, there are limited hours for some border crossings, according to Israel's Ministry of Tourism. The agency is providing assistance to those who need it and is operating a hotline via WhatsApp for tourists to stay informedas the situation in Israel evolved.

Kirby said the Biden administration is exploring a range of other options to assist Americans who want to leave, but didn't elaborate.

The U.S. State Departmentissued a new warning for Americans traveling to Israel, urging potential tourists to reconsider a trip there.

The agency also issued a "reconsider travel" alert for the West Bank and a "do not travel" alert for Gaza.

Some Israeli travel agencies are trying to help visitors find a way out of the country.

Tourist Israel, one of the nation's largest, announced it was offering free transportation to and from the south of Israel for anyone who needs a ride starting on Sunday, Oct. 15. They are also offering shuttle rides to Jordan for a fee.

Questions remain on the impact to Israel's travel sector

A photo taken on October 11, 2023 shows the empty Mount of Olives touristic site overlooking Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock, as the ferocious war between Israel and Hamas.
Ahmad Gharabli / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
A photo taken Wednesday shows the empty Mount of Olives touristic site overlooking Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock, as the war between Israel and Hamas wages.

It's still too early to determine what the impact on Israel's tourism industry will be, Noa Bauer, an executive at Taglit-Birthright Israel, told NPR.

Birthright Israel offers a free 10-day trip to Israel for young adults of Jewish heritage.

The strength of the bonds formed during such trips was made clear when the conflict broke out last week, Bauer said.

"We've had 850,000 alumni that are calling their Israeli friends and anyone they know in Israel asking them how they are, if they can help them, what they need," Bauer said.

Birthright had no trips on the ground at the time the war broke out, Bauer said.

Israel has gone through wars and other brief conflicts in the past, and Birthright Israel has never stopped trips, she said, although they were paused amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I think that this is different than anything we've experienced in the past," she said of the latest conflict. "It's very unclear how long this will take."

But, she promised, they will be back.

"I can assure you that we're going to have participants back dancing and having a great time in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv," she said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.