Israel's Accidental Conflict Tourists

Thousands of people who came to Israel on vacation have gotten unexpectedly familiar with its bomb shelters.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Her dad was dead set against her traveling to Israel, warning that the violence in Syria could spill over the border and put her at risk. But Colleen Connolly-Ahern, a professor of communications at Penn State University, shrugged him off. “You see this map, Dad,” she told him. “That’s the Golan Heights up there, and that’s Beersheba down there – where I’m gonna be. It’s very far away.”

Connolly-Ahern landed in Israel last Thursday, arriving in Tel Aviv as the first sirens sounded and rockets were raining down on Beersheba and its environs. She had come to gather information for a textbook she’s writing on international case studies in advertising and public relations. In addition, she had been invited to deliver a lecture at Ben-Gurion University on “green advertising.” Yesterday she was notified that the lecture had been canceled and the University of the Negev closed for yet another day.

So far, she’s experienced three sirens in Tel Aviv and has added miklat (Hebrew for “shelter”) to her tiny but growing lexicon of Hebrew words. Her parents, needless to say, are in a state of panic. “My mom, who didn’t know how to use a computer until now, has learned how to make Skype work so she can easily track me down,” she says.

Connolly-Ahern is among the thousands, if not tens of thousands, of foreigners visiting Israel who have suddenly found themselves in a war zone. Like many other accidental tourists running for cover these days, she acknowledges this isn’t exactly what she signed up for when she purchased her round-trip ticket to Tel Aviv two months ago.

Rod and Sue Briggs, who hail from Northampton, England, arrived in Israel nearly a week before the conflict erupted to visit their daughter, who lives in Tel Aviv, and her Israeli boyfriend. This is their fifth trip to Israel and, as usual, they were looking forward to some respite from the dreary weather back home.

“On Thursday, we were in our daughter’s flat on Ibn Gvirol Street waiting to go out to dinner,” recalls Rod, “when suddenly we heard the alarms. I looked outside and saw people jumping out of cars and running inside. We had no idea what we were supposed to do. We turned on the telly but couldn’t understand a word since everything was in Hebrew, so we just ran down the stairwell with everybody else. Afterward, we went out and had our dinner.”

The following day, after they finished a tour of the Old City of Jerusalem, they were caught off guard yet again.

“We had just entered a pub to have a drink, and once again the sirens went off,” recounts Sue. “It was just the two of us there with these two Swiss girls. One of the Swiss girls was a bit panicky. By now we were experienced, though, so we explained to them in English what they needed to do.”

When the sirens in Tel Aviv sounded last Thursday for the first time in close to 22 years, Claire Mizrahi was attending the wedding of a family friend at the Tel Aviv Marina Hotel.

“Everyone else ran downstairs for shelter,” she recounts. “I stayed put. I wasn’t scared for myself. I was more scared for all the other people, so I asked God to help us all.” Within minutes, she says, the celebrations resumed, as the bride, the groom and their 500 guests came back upstairs and made their way back to the dance floor.

Mizrahi, who visits Israel every year, has not even considered changing her airline ticket in order to return back home to Los Angeles earlier.

“I’m not afraid,” she says. “I’m going to stay just as I planned until next month.”

Neither do the Briggses plan on cutting their visit short. “Actually, we feel a lot calmer being here with our daughter than we would if we were back in England,” says Sue. “It’s all our friends and family back home who are concerned. But if you ask us, we feel a lot more nervous about the drivers here in Tel Aviv than we do about the sirens.”

Connolly-Ahern was meeting with two executives from a marketing research firm on Sunday when the sirens sounded in Tel Aviv yet again. “About 15 minutes into the meeting, they suddenly looked at each other and said the word ‘siren,’” she recalls. “I hadn’t even heard it, I was so focused on what they were saying. We all ran to the storage room, which served as the miklat. Everyone pulled out their cellphones and called their kids to make sure they were okay. Then they started talking about all the files around them that were collecting dust that they should be getting rid of. I got the feeling that after this was is all over, a lot of storage rooms will be cleaned out.”

The military exchange with Hamas has tourists seeing parts of Israel they otherwise might not.Credit: Nir Kafri

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