My Reflections on Safety and Security for Our Trip
It is my great joy and privilege to lead a pilgrimage to Israel and Jordan every year. I also firmly believe it is safe to go. (In fact, it is much safer that going to parts of Los Angeles!) I follow the news from the Middle East every day and have done so for many years. Here are some honest and straightforward reflections for your review.
While there is political tension between some Israelis and Palestinians there is virtually none for Christian visitors, especially Americans, and we only visit Christian sites. Our tour is led by a well known family-owned Catholic company that has been in business in Jerusalem since 1930, and has been treated well by everyone and everywhere for many generations. They also actually own our hotel in Jerusalem, (the Christmas Hotel), which also has had a long established presence in the Christian/American section of Jerusalem called “The American Colony.”
You might remember that years ago and up to around the year 2000, there were many violent incidents in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv from terrorists crossing into Israel from neighboring areas. However, since then, Israel has constructed a long and highly sophisticated electronic sensor chain link fence along their entire border with Palestine. Since the construction of the fence several years ago, there has been almost no incidents at all! The fence has been extraordinarily effective. 95% of the border is a chain link fence, but in some places it is a high solid wall. Their security fence enables us to travel throughout the region with ease. Israel has done an extraordinarily effective job of making their country safe for travel.
Tourism is a profoundly important business for both Israel and Palestine. Both sides have a highly vested interest in making our trip very enjoyable. Last year, tourism was at its highest level in years with great crowds at all the Holy Land sites. People are coming from around the world to visit the Holy Land Sites. We will be going in June so the crowds should be a little smaller, which is good news for us!
A Brief History
All of Israel and Jordan prior to 1947 was actually one country called Palestine and was controlled and governed by Great Britain as authorized by the United Nations under the so-called “UN Mandate.”
In 1947, Great Britain left the area, and a small sliver of land along the Mediterranean coast was declared by Jewish settlers to be the new State of Israel. Their state and its borders were instantly recognized by the United States, and subsequently by the United Nations itself.
The land just east the new State of Israel and just west of the Jordan River remained Palestinian and has been traditionally called the “West Bank” since it is just west of the Jordan River. After the 1967 war, this area was claimed and controlled by Israel. But in 2002, Israel gave semi-autonomous authority in various sections of that West Bank region and even the Gaza strip in the south of Israel that is near Egypt, back to the Palestinians. The administration of the West Bank and Gaza Strip area is now called “The Palestinian Authority.”
Today, regions of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip area are still under the semi-autonomous control of The Palestinian Authority (PA). It has always been the hope of Palestinians that they would establish an independent State in those areas recognized by the United Nations. Peaceful co-existence of the two states of Israel and Palestine, side by side, has also been the long standing policy of the United States, as well as the Vatican.
What both Israel and the PA claim as outstanding issues relate to their each feeling more secure in the other’s presence. To feel more secure, Israel has continued a policy of establishing small settlements of Israeli citizens in West Bank areas. To feel more secure, the PA sometimes does not control some Islamic extremists in areas under PA control who fire short range missiles near the Gaza Strip keeping Israelis in that area on edge. Some other remaining issues are: Israel wants to be recognized as having a basic right to exist and the Palestinians want to make sure that Israel does not claim any more land for settlements in the West bank, and that Israel should even return to its original pre-1967 UN recognized borders (along with some land swaps to improve security). Each side believes that resolving those issues will make each state feel more secure, and are the issues that most of the negotiations are about now.
Recent Good News (fall of 2009)
For several years, the Palestinian Authority, under the direction of Prime Minister, Salaam Fayyad, has embarked on a long term multi-year plan to establish the economic foundations of a modern industrialized state in the West Bank and Gaza. Their focus has been on modernizing the economic and social infrastructure of roads, airports, rapid transit, port facilities, schools, universities, tax-free economic zones, and, of course, more tourism!. They are interested in a stable and peaceful environment for economic and societal growth and to creat jobs for the Palestinian people. This is a wonderful and positive counter force to the destructive forces of Islamic fundamentalists, and the fruitless political demonstrations that have produced no progress at all. Fayaad is nearing retirement but his work has been very succesful.
The Israeli government has cautiously supported this effort. The US, under the last two administrations, has been very supportive. Working together, all these combined efforts promise for the first time a successful future for both sides.
While economic development alone will bring peace, at least it helps jobs and making a living.
2011: The “Arab Spring” in Egypt and across the Middle East
Many Arab states are either dictatorships or autocracies under a thin veneer of democratic institutions. These autocratic leaders give lip service to democracy but all power is really in the hands of very few elite politicians, military leaders, or tribal chieftans. The recent unrest began in early 2011 in Tunisia, when the ruling family began to take on even more power, and away from the military. The military therefore witheld support for the government and the people demonstrated enough to finally remove the corrupt ruling family. IN late 2011, they succesffully conducted free and transparent elections. While an Islamic party won most of the seats in thier parliament, it has promised justice and rule of law for all religions and policial parties in the country. Tunisia, as the first in the “Arab Spring” wants to be a democratic model for the Middle East.
The example of Tunisia has inspired Arab citizens throughout the Middle East to insist on having a bigger say in government affairs. This movement has been called “The Arab Spring.”
Egyptians demonstrated in great numbers soon afterwards when they believed President Mubarak was going to hand leadership to his son, establishing a kind of pharaoh’s dynasty. When the business classes and shopkeepers joined the demonstrators, the military stepped in and removed Mubarak. In other Arab countries, like Bahrain, where there are both Sunni and Shia forms of Islam, citizens of one form of Islam are upset that the other form of Islam will not share power. Recently, Libyans finally removed Khadaffi with tremendous support from US and NATO forces. In general, this is excellent news for the United States, and the prospects for peace in the Middle East, as long as existing treaties with Israel are maintained, and radical Islamic fundamentalist groups do not hijack the legitimate aspirations of people for a more democratic voice. In Egypt, the military is firmly in control of the government and has assured the world of its international treaties with Israel, and that free and fair elections will happen within the year. This process has already begun in late 2011. While again, Islamic groups have won a majority of the seats in Parliament, they have promised religious and political freedom for all.The first job of the winners is to forma new Constitution.
What remains amazing and wonderful is that ALL of the movements of the Arab Spring have been secular uprisings for political and ecomomic freedom and democracy, and have had none of the usual pro-Islamic, or anti-Amaerican, or anti-Israel chants. They have been spontaneous uprisings of mainly young Arab men and women who simply want freedom, democracy, and jobs.
Recently, in late 2011, there have been tensions between a group of Islamic fundamentalists, called Salafists, and the Christian Optic community in Cairo. The governement has been slow to respons so far, but promises better protection in the future. Local moderate Islamic communities have come forward to help as well.
2012 Egyptian elections Update:
In June of 2012 Egyptians freely elected Mohammed Morsi, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, as the interim President of Egypt. By all accounts it was a free and fair election. He has promised to uphold all exisiting treaties, including with Israel, and has pledged to represent and protect all Egyptians, including women and Christians. As a practical step towards this, he has promised to appoint a woman and a Christian as Vice-Presidents. He knows that all eyes are on his ability to walk a fine line between the modern secular Egyptian community and the more traditional Islamic community. He also knows that Egypt must have a robust tourist industry to survive, which means Egypt must be perceived by the world as an orderly society and safe place to travel.
Recently, Morsi tried to adopt more authoritarian rule, but has been met with stiff resistance. If he does not provide for a more robust economy, the people will rise up against him as they did the former President Mubarak. It shows that young arabic people want an economy that promises the possibility of raising a family more than enything else.
LATEST UPDATE 2013
As I predicted, if President Morsi could turn the economy around he would be deposed as was Mubarak. Morsi tried to establish a strict Islamic state under “Sharia Law” which bases all law on the Koran. The economy grew considerably worse with millions more descending into crushing poverty. The people rejected that Islamic rule, and with the help of the military are starting over again. Any leader of Egypt must provide for the economic well-being of the people, or else will be turned out like Mubarak and Morsi already.
Syria has been a major conduit of Iranian funds and resources to both Hezbollah, a radical Islamic anti-Israel group in southern Lebanon, and Hamas, a radical Islamic anti-Israel group in the Gaza Strip. Both groups have caused many problems for Israel and the United States. If the Syrian governement falls, and all indicators seem to say it will soon, that will represent a signiifcant imporvement for the prospects of peace in the Middle East. The US government recently called for the fall of the Syrian government. Even their long time ally, Turkey, as well as the Arab League, a group of Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia, have pulled away their support for the Syrian governement. While there is some concern about a post-Syrian government’s attitude towards Christians, the Iranian loss of an ally is very helpful. While important, this Syrian uprising is not directly related to our trip. We do not go to areas affected by Syria.
Latest update 2013
The Syrian situation has become much more violent and the opposition parties now include more and more terrorist groups hostile to the US. These groups are setting up “Shrisa Law enclaves” in areas that they control. However, the status of the Assad government was greatly enhanced by the somewhat confused US response over the use of Chemical weapons. Assad has now become a partner with the United States in the program of weapons destruction, thereby guaranteeing his remaining in power for some time.
Again, while important, this Syrian uprising is not directly related to our trip. We do not go to areas affected by Syria.
The multi-year effort of the Palestinian Prime Minister, Salaam Fayyad, to build the infrastructure of a new United Nations recognized Palestinian State has produced remarkably good results. This is a program focused entirely on jobs and not politics. They have repeated the example of Israel itself, which in the 1930’s and 1940’s embarked on a similar plan to build the infrastructure of a modern state prior to thier own appeal to the United Nations and the world community in 1948 to become recognized as a state.
However, for several years, the Palestinian community has been sharply divided. There are those in the West Bank, led by a moderate political party called Fatah, and the those in the Gaza Strip, which is led by a radical and violent anti-Israel political party called Hamas, which the US categorizes as a terrorist organization. In years past Hamas launched short range missiles just across the border into Israeli farmlands. Now they seek peace because they want internationally recognized statehood. However, even Hamas cannot control all of the radical groups within the Gaza Strip.
Recently, both Fatah and Hamas signed an agreement to work together to present all Palestinian people as peacefully united and working simply for statehood. However, most observers believe they will never really work well together for long. Hamas itself has divided into several factions opposed to each other. Generally, most Palestinian people have a very strong desitre to present a mature, responsible, productive, industrious, and peaceful community, so that the United Nations Security Council will recognize a new Palestinian State. The US has signalled it will oppose statehood because of the presence of Hamas, which it considers a terrorist organization, and our insistence that all factions of Hamas recognize Israel’s right to exist. Therefore, the PA will appeal to the United Nations General Assembly which can grant the PA the lower level “non-member statehood” status. Because of the world’s attention is focused on how responsibly Palestine conducts its afairs right now, this might be the most stable and peaceful time to visit Israel ever.
While there might be violent clashes on the news, most observers believe that the vast majority of Palestinians are tired of these demonstrations and Syrian meddling and just want to go to work and raise thier famiies in peace.
In November of 2012, Fatah prepared to go to the UN to upgrade the status of Palestinains to “NON-MEMEBER STATE” (which is the same status as the Vatican). This is a good thing! It is the next step to full statehood. I am glad the initiative worked and the UN overwhelmingly voted to upgrade thier status.
If Palestine eventually achieves full statehood, that will fulfill the “Two-State” solution to this troubled area; one state for Israel and one state for Palestine. That willl seriously undercut the desire of Hamas, which runs the Gaza strip, and only wants a “one-state” solution; all Palestine and no Israel!
They launched missiles aginst Israel in November or 2012 for the purpose of upstaging the FATAH iniative at the UN, but it did not work. The UN voted for the Palestinian initiative partly as a rebuke to HAMAS.
the recent collapse of talks in 2014 was not a surprise to anyone in the Middle East, and really does not change anything. Both sides want to be seen as promoting peace anyway, so this summer should be peaceful.
What is the significance of Turkey?
Turkey has recently evolved from an autocratic, militaristic, and secular state to a more democratic state, but one that is still strongly guided by Islam. Fortunately, the government still safeguards the political rights of all citizens and thier religious freedom. For many years, Egypt and Saudi Arabia were the leaders of the Islamic world. Turkey now wants to sees itself as the best example of a modern Islamic democratic state and want to be the leader of the Islamic world.
One way of establishing leadership in the Islamic world is to challenge Israel. Turkey used to have excellent relations with Israel, but has recently used various events to challenge Israel.
For example, Israel reserves the right to inspect all ships that sail to the Gaza Strip to ensure the ships are not smuggling weapons, missiles, and explosives to Islamic radicals. Some ships try to “crash” the Israeli blockade but have been met with Israeli commando raids that commandeer the ship. After they are inspected, they are allowed to sail to Gaza. The UN International Court has upheld Israel’s right to do this, but Turkey is still sending ships to challenge the Israeli blockcade. This rise in tension between Turkey and Israel is dissappointing and something the US monitors closely. However, Turkey’s actions are largely for internal Turkish political credibility and enhancing its standing among arabs in the Islamic world. I do not believe it will be really effective. Arab people really only just want jobs right now, not politics.
What is the significance of Iran?
The relationship between Iran and Israel will be in the news a lot in the next few years. Here is some background information to help you understand what is happening. It will not affect our trip at all.
You might know that Islam is divided into two major groups, Sunni Moslems and Shia Moslems. Almost all Arabic countries are Sunni Moslems, except Iran, which is almost entirely Shia. The Shia Moslems tend to be the most radical; therefore, most Arabic nations are actively opposed to Iranian influence. Iran supports all of the Radical Fundamentalist Islamic groups in the Middle East that want to destabilize Israel, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Iran has also embarked on an ambitious plan to gain nuclear weapons. It is clear that the entire free world, the Arabic world, and the UN are united against this possibility. Fortunately for us, the recent elections in Iran proved to be corrupt and so there is widespread dissatisfaction by ordinary Iranians with the current regime. Therefore, Iran’s preoccupation with its very serious internal issues has kept it from causing problems for Israel. That is very good news!
Recently, in early 2012, there have been many media reports about the possibility of an Israeli or American military attack on the Iranian nuclear sites. I do not believe that will happen. It is possible that most of the rhetoric from Israel is designed to prod other nations to increase thier economic sanctions against Iran.
I believe that both Israel and the US are actually counting on the imminent collapse of the Syrian regime, which would be a severe humilation to Iran and a loss of Iran’s only ally in the region. In addition, the success of Israeli and US covert operations against the nuclear sites has been very helpful, and does not inflame the Iranian people as a military strike could. The Iranians, like most Middle Eastern countries, like to make loud, bold, and threatening statements every now and then, which generate mostly yawns from everyone else.
Iran, and every nuclear power, including the US and Russia, understand that nuclear weapons are not really weapons at all, and are never meant to actually ever be used. They exist only for political purposes, e.g. to deter attack, intimidate others, or most often, to enhance prestige. They are useless as actual weapons since they invite an inevitable and unpreventable similar response. The reason the UN and the United States oppose the Iranian program is not their threat of actual use but that it will inspire a very costly arms race in nearby countries. Recently, Iran has granted access to UN agencies for inspection of several of their nuclear sites. This issue is just unrelated to our trip.
In summary, while the Middle East will be in the news aa lot this year, the real story is the rise of democratic movements in country after country, with little or no focus on Israel. The dying throes of autocratic regimes like Syria and Iran will try to foment trouble that is specifically designed to be displayed on television for maximum impact in the US and Europe, but are actually finding less and less interest among Arab peoples. The forces of peace and democracy are on the rise.
2014 Latest News: Israel & Hamas War, and the ISIS Conflict
What Israelis and Palestinians want is simple. Israelis want to feel safe from attack and Palestinians want a sovereign state.
However, the Palestinian territories are divided geographically, politically and militarily in two. The West Bank is the largest area and, as the name suggests, is on the western bank of the Jordan River. The Gaza Strip, also as its name suggests, is a small narrow strip of land in southern Israel along the Egyptian border. The West Bank is still under the authority of Israel, but years ago Israel ceded various levels of control to locally elected Palestinian leaders. Israel completely left the Gaza strip in 2006 but it subsequently came under Hamas control, a political and military group that the US has declared a terrorist organization.
In the summer of 2014 Hamas launched a series of rocket attacks that mostly fell in the empty desert areas of southern Israel. The few that headed toward towns were all struck down by the Israeli missile defense system, which was 100% effective. This was the third time Hamas started a conflict in the last 10 years. However something new occurred this time. The most important Arab nations of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan sided with Israel against Hamas! For a fuller discussion about why that happened, please see my website DaveHeney.com and my article “Is this the last Hamas-Israeli Conflict ever?” Most Arab nations are turning against radical Islamic extremists. That is very good news!
All of Islam is divided into two main groups; the Sunni Muslims, who follow only the written traditions of Mohammed, and the Shia Muslims, who follow the rulings of religious clergy.
ISIS stands for the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.” ISIS leaders are radical Sunni Islamic extremists seeking to install a Sunni Islamic state in the whole Middle East and to wipe out all Shia Muslims, which is much of Iraq and Syria, and all of Iran, and eventually even all non-Muslims anywhere, which is why the President considers them a US threat. However, Saudi Arabia historically has been the leader of all Sunni Muslims, so ISIS represents a real threat to them as well for Sunni Muslim leadership.
Fortunately, most Middle Eastern nations now and all European nations are motivated and mobilized to counter ISIS under US leadership. That is also very good news! After several months of indecision, the US has finally moved to help lead that effort. In the next few months we will see ISIS preoccupied with the onslaught of coalition efforts to end it, which will leave them little ability to strike outside where they are now.
All of this will occur far from where we are traveling next year so it will not affect us in our pilgrimage. Our travel agency monitors events closely and will always keep us appraised of events as needed for our safety.
Why I chose George’s International Travel Agency
Choosing a travel company is important when travelling to the Middle East. I believe it is always best to use a local and Catholic and family-owned company that is headquartered both in Israel and Jordan and that has been in business in those countries for a very long time. George’s International is the San Diego branch office of the George Garabedian Company (GGC) which was founded in Jerusalem in 1930. The Middle East is a culture founded on personal relationships so I am glad to see that our company has stood the test of time and is a trusted enterprise by everyone, Christians, Jews, and Moslems.
GGC organized a series of educational trips to the Middle East for priests of the Los Angeles Archdiocese for many years. I joined them on my first trip in 1995. I knew then that they would be the company that I would trust for any future trips I might plan.
Steve Gureghian is the manager of the San Diego office of GGC and he is the person with whom we make the arrangements for our trip. You will see his name and contact information on our brochure. I especially appreciate that GGC owns the travel agency that we use not only in Israel but also in Jordan. They even own our hotel in Jerusalem and also own the busses on which we will travel. Having all these elements organized under the ownership of one company greatly simplifies and streamlines all our arrangements.
Please feel free to view all the other information at this site and please feel free to contact me if you have questions at all about our trip.
(I cannot wait to go again this year!)