image Rockets target countries. Terror aims at individuals. Photo: Flash90

More Peace, Less Security

 Travel Advisories – Who Issues Them, What Are The Issues

By Amir Oren

That old maxim, Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum, has been slightly modified to reflect part of the new realities for Israelis in the countries around them. The old and perhaps eternal meaning is the essence of deterrence – those who yearn for peace must prepare for war, lest they be overwhelmed by the less peaceful. But for holders of Israeli passports, there is another interpretation – whenever diplomacy opens up new venues for travel, risk soon follows.

Earlier this week the National Security Staff in the Prime Minister’s Office issued its periodic travel advisories. These are not binding. There are laws regarding travel to enemy countries – Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen – and the offenders can be prosecuted, with some exemptions, such as those granted by the Finance Ministry to commerce with Iraq, mostly having to do with the Kurd region. This is a potentially criminal endeavor, with intelligence overtones. The travel advisories, however, deal with the individual’s safety and security, a matter for one’s own consideration, though here too there is a Government-level concern for a fate worse than death – an abduction leading to demands for ransom in the form of prisoner exchange.

But just as much as the authorities cannot prevent one from committing suicide, they can go only so far in blocking passage to forbidden provinces. All they can do is warn away the innocents and publish the sort of disclaimers insurance companies throw at their customers, putting sole responsibility on their private shoulders if they go to war zones or take part in extreme sports.

The National Security Staff, tasked with co-ordinating various Ministries and encompassing the Counter-Terror Staff set up by Prime Minister Golda Meir after the Munich Olympics Massacre, is not the only organization issuing travel advisories to Israelis. There is also the Foreign Ministry, more sensitive to diplomatic delicacies and aware of the reciprocal nature of such pronouncements, as some governments take offence at being branded negligent in safeguarding visitors and retaliate by declaring Israel out-of-bounds.

A further complication, this year, has been the Corona crisis. Some governments bar their citizens from visiting certain locations, or make life miserable upon returning from them. It is surely confusing for whoever tries to traverse the maze of specific decrees and recommendations, which change over time.

For Israel, there is further irony. The list of perilous places for its citizens reflects the consequences of both its progress towards acceptance in the Middle East and its continued conflicts.

A major common denominator (not the only one, as Daesh is also mentioned) is of course Iran. There is an ever growing account of scores to settle between Tel Aviv – HQ for the IDF, Military Intelligence, Air Force, Navy and MOSSAD – and Tehran. The maritime domain has recently been revealed to host mutual strikes against commercial shipping, apparently none intended to sink or kill. If so, it is in line with most of the action on the Israeli-Iranian front, where care is usually taken to avoid crossing a certain threshold of visibility and accountability.

Usually, but not always, especially when there is political credit to be gained from a spectacular operation, and so starting late last year, following the assassination of Nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Israel’s National Security added to the general advisory concerning Iranian attacks a specific mention of aveging Fakhrizadeh’s death.

In the updated Spring edition of the advisories this has been expanded to cite the detonation of an explosive device near Israel’s New Delhi Embassy on January 29. “In our assessment, Iran will in the near future try to attack Israeli targets,” the NatSec Staff wrote. “High-probability sites for such strikes are countries with proximity to Iran, such as Georgia, Azerbaijan, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Bahrain and the Kurdish Region in Iraq, as well as Mideast countries Israelis frequent, such as Turkey, Jordan and Egypt”.

The irony is quite obvious. Because Israel has normalised its relations with the U.A.E and Bahrain, and is known for its ties with the Georgians, the Azeris and the Kurds, there is both an incentive for Iran to ignore their sovereignty when attacking Israeli targets and an opportunity to find more such targets, with the influx of Israeli travellers. Thus, the more diplomacy succeeds, the less secure it becomes to reap its benefits.

This also holds true for Israel’s next-door neighbours, whose peace treaties and strategic connections with Israel are its most important strategic assets (in addition, of course, to its military might, Nuclear deterrence and American friendship). The IDF and the defense budget have been helped enormously by the 1979 and 1994 accords. Individual Israelis, less so, as they do not always feel welcome in Cairo and Amman, where Hamas, Hezbollah or Daesh offshoots may conspire to kill or abduct them.

Egypt, for instance, is marked “Level 3 – Basic Concrete Threat, Avoid Visit”. Sounds ominous, but not as much as the advisory for the Egyptian territory adjacent to Elath and a favourite rest and recreation location. “Egypyt (Sinai Peninsula) – Level 1, Very High Concrete Threat, Avoid Travel, If In-District Leave At Once”.

The warning, contrary to the travel, is perhaps in avoidable, if there is information to this effect. It is the government’s Level 1 duty to its citizens, to use the advisories’ scale, and also a Level 3 precaution by officials in possession of this information, because if a lethal attack takes place, an inquiry will be held and heads could roll.

There is no particular threat to Egyptians and Jordanians visiting Israel, but for various reasons neither regimes nor civic societies in these peace partners of Israel encourage their compatriots to visit Haifa, Tel Aviv and West Jerusalem. There is no symmetry in motives, but the results are similar.

Israel’s status as a suject of travel advisories issued by others, and not only as their dispenser, is not limited to its Arab neighbours. For example, the British Foreign and Colonial Office “advises against all travel to Gaza, the Sheba’a Farms and Ghajjar and within 500 meters the border with Lebanon (‘the Blue Line’) east of Metula” – Israel’s northernmost town – “including the northern edge of the town”.  This, in the Galillee. As for the Golan, the advisory applies “east of Route 98 along the Syrian border”.

For Americans, the warning is a mixture of Level 3 (“reconsider travel”) due to COVID-19 and Level 2 (“exercise increased caution”) because of terrorism and civil unrest, plus Level 4 (“do not travel”) regarding Gaza for both sets of reasons.

No matter on what side of the issue Israel finds itself, there is no simple formula for reconciling complacency and caution. It all comes down to common sense.