Do Political Considerations Influence Israel's List of Travel Warnings?

Judging by the government's travel warnings, it's considered dangerous for Israelis to travel to a quarter of the world's countries

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Police officers patrol on the beach of Sousse, Tunisia, June 28, 2015.
Police officers patrol on the beach of Sousse, Tunisia, June 28, 2015.Credit: Abdeljalil Bounhar/AP
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

The Israel Counter Terrorism Bureau currently lists 46 destinations worldwide that are dangerous for Israelis to visit. Why are London and Paris, which have been struck by numerous terror attacks, not on the list? And how many of us actually heed the warnings?

Dov Kalman is frustrated. The Thai Tourism Bureau’s representative in Israel gets annoyed when asked if Krabi Province in southern Thailand is dangerous for tourists. “It’s the friendliest place in the world,” says Kalman. “There’s no difference between there and Phuket, or Bangkok. Millions of Israelis have been to Krabi over the past decade. Nothing has ever happened there, but still a travel warning has been hovering over southern Thailand, and Krabi in particular, for many years.”

On its page of travel advisories, the Israel Counter Terrorism Bureau says of Krabi: “Very high concrete threat. Due to violent clashes between the Muslim population and the regime, in southern Thailand there is a serious and ongoing threat to the safety of visitors, including Israelis, in this region. Therefore, the bureau recommends that Israelis avoid visiting/staying in southern Thailand and that they be extra vigilant in Bangkok, especially on Khao San Road.”

Scary stuff. There is no travel warning for other parts of Thailand north of Krabi. Says the generally mild-mannered Kalman: “I’m not a security official and I don’t know what information the Counter Terrorism Bureau has. They don’t reveal their sources of information. But this seems very weird to me.”

The Counter Terrorism Bureau periodically publishes a list of the countries on which there are posted travel warnings. These warnings are just a recommendation. People are free to travel wherever they choose – except to those countries defined as enemy states and which Israelis are forbidden to enter. Nonetheless, the travel warnings are of importance and have a wide-ranging impact.

Between Thailand and Jerusalem

Forty-six destinations are currently on the list of travel warnings on the bureau’s website. Roughly speaking, it is considered dangerous for Israeli tourists to travel to a quarter of the countries in the world. But these aren’t necessarily the countries where widely covered terror attacks have taken place recently. London, Paris, Nice, Manchester and Berlin do not appear on the list. All the warnings relate to Africa (19 countries), Central Asia and South Asia. Not a single European country is on the list (not counting the Republic of Chechnya and Azerbaijan). Nor will you find any place in North America or South America listed, even though there have been plenty of terror attacks there too.

The warnings are divided into four categories of severity: The mildest is for an ongoing potential or occasional threat; next comes a concrete basic threat, and the bureau recommends not visiting that country; third is a high concrete threat; and the top level is a very high concrete threat, meaning one should avoid going to that country and, if there, leave immediately.

Kalman is not the only one baffled by the logic of the Israeli travel warnings and the information used to make them. A few weeks ago the governor of Turkey’s Antalya province came to Israel to promote tourism in that region. The Israel Counter Terrorism Bureau advises against visits to Turkey and urges travelers to leave there as soon as possible. This is a “high concrete threat.” When asked about this, the Anatalya governor winced, then conferred in a whisper for several minutes with the Turkish ambassador to Israel, Kamal Okem, who finally answered: “You are invited to ask the Israeli government why it doesn’t lift the travel warning. We don’t think there is any place for it in relations between friendly countries.”

Railay Beach, Krabi Province, Thailand: Israelis told to stay away.Credit: VnGrijl

Tour guide: 'List doesn’t make much sense'

Sefi Ben-Yosef is a veteran tour guide who organizes trips to exotic locations, some of which appear on the bureau’s travel warning list. “The bureau has never explained how it works and what guides its judgments,” he says. “It’s always ‘There are considerations that can’t be revealed so as not to expose the Israeli James Bond.’ I’m afraid the reality is a lot less impressive. The list doesn’t make much sense. In my mind, traveling to Paris, London or Brussels is just as dangerous as traveling to the Philippines. An Israeli tourist who doesn’t know if he’ll return from Jerusalem in one piece is issued a travel warning about a tranquil beach in Thailand. If they want us to take the warnings seriously, they should explain how they arrive at them.”

Ben-Yosef says he’s yet to meet a traveler who canceled his plans because of a travel warning. “They’ve been issuing warnings for years. It’s like crying wolf. You can’t distinguish between genuine warnings and baseless ones. It feels like there’s this organization that was created to scare people, but the problem is that this kind of intimidation is no longer effective. We have a number of outdated, self-perpetuating bureaucracies here, and the Counter Terrorism Bureau is one of them.”

Tour guide Sefi Ben-Yosef.Credit: Ran Oren

Filtering out the noise

Yossi Adler has been the head of the intelligence department in the Counter Terrorism Bureau of the Prime Minister’s Office for the past year. Before this appointment, he served in the IDF Intelligence Corps and was deputy chief of the research department in Military Intelligence. He chooses his words carefully: “The bureau’s job is to synchronize and coordinate the information from the entire intelligence community – the Mossad, the Shin Bet, Military Intelligence, and others – regarding terror. The bureau is a source of authority and order, and the travel warnings are the culmination of a lengthy, professional, in-depth and exhaustive process. In many ways, we represent the responsible adult; while others represent economic or other interests, we have a single interest: the safety and security of Israeli citizens.”

Adler says that the travel warnings are issued with maximum caution and restraint. He says the decisions are made on the basis of real information, and not on the basis of guesses or hunches. “There’s a lot of background noise,” he says, “but the decisions about the warnings are made in a completely focused way.”

Asked about specific countries such as Turkey, Thailand and the Philippines (where the travel warning applies to Mindanao Island only), Adler says these places are currently under the bureau’s magnifying glass, and that based on the information it has, the warnings to these countries may in fact be raised to a higher level rather than lowered.

A lot of people say the travel warnings are just a form of self-protection by the official institutions, so nobody can accuse them if something happens.

“That’s not true,” says Adler. “If it were, the easiest thing to do would be to issue another 20 travel warnings and then sit back and relax. We exercise maximum restraint and don’t act rashly. There are places where there is an ongoing threat, and therefore it’s hard to ease back and lower the threat level. This is the case in Turkey, for instance. There are burning embers there that could ignite. We’ve devoted many hours of discussion to that country in the past weeks, and the decision on the warning is unequivocal.”

Why isn’t there a travel warning to any Western European country?

“On an average day, 150 to 250 people around the world are killed in terror attacks. The few events in Europe grab the media’s attention, but we take other things into account: the seriousness of the threat, the scope of the threat, is there anarchy or an orderly government in place? What level of control do the terrorists have? In Africa, this is at a much higher level than in Europe. There you’re not looking at just a single underground cell. In Europe the ability to monitor an event is high, while in Africa it’s close to nil.”

Adler says the decisions are purely professional, based on intelligence information. “Even those who try to exert political pressure on us to change or ease warnings admire our firm stance. There are no outside interests at work here,” he insists, adding that “we have more intelligence to rely on” regarding neighboring countries.

Who is your target audience?

“We’re aiming at any Israeli who is planning a trip abroad. A lot of people contact us because of the warnings, asking for clarifications, and we have a dialogue with them. Sometimes people expect us to give them a ‘pass’ and tell them it’s fine to travel to their selected destination. Others have canceled their travel plans after talking with us, or changed their itinerary.”

Adler says the main problem is the bureau’s inability to elaborate on its sources or on the information it has received. “If we could, the public would understand us better.” He says the bureau aims to strike a delicate balance with the travel warnings that is thoughtful and responsible. “When we state something clearly, it has a strong effect,” he says.

The reciprocity principle

Professor Yoel Mansfeld, head of the Center for Tourism, Pilgrimage and Recreation Research at the University of Haifa, has conducted three studies (together with Dr. Aliza Jonas) for the Counter Terrorism Bureau examining the public’s reaction to the travel warnings. “Seventy percent of the respondents to a questionnaire given to them at the gate at Ben-Gurion Airport said they believe the travel warnings,” he says. “But only 30 percent said they adjust their behavior in accordance with the warnings. They are mindful of the warnings, but don’t feel obligated to act on them.”

Mansfeld explains that for governments around the world, travel warnings serve a double purpose. They publish them as a public service in the hope it will help keep travelers safe, but the hope is also that it will spare them having to mount a complex rescue mission. He says it’s not a matter of self-protection since the government does not relieve itself of responsibility for its citizens who travel abroad.

Sometimes warning deters terror

Mansfeld says there’s a constant dilemma between the desire to explain the risk level and having to be careful not to expose intelligence sources. Also, some warnings are issued continuously for years and often nothing happens in those places. Adler says this is because the terrorists are aware of the warnings and change targets. In such cases, the warnings actually solve the problem.

Disputing the assertion that the list is based purely on intelligence considerations, Mansfeld says political influences also play a part. “It’s a significant consideration that can largely determine whether or not to issue a warning. How to phrase it so as not to anger the other side? How does it mesh with diplomatic and economic needs?”

Professor Yoel Mansfeld.Credit: Shlomo Shoham

Mansfeld explains that the tourism world works on the reciprocity principle – tourists from both countries need to be offered equal conditions, and the same goes for visas and travel warnings. “If we issue a travel warning to Ukraine or India, they’ll pay us back in kind, and the economic and tourism damage could be major. Six months after the 2008 Mumbai terror attack, warnings were issued around the world that applied to all of India. It’s a huge subcontinent. As a result, tourism across the country fell by 60 percent. Only after the warnings were canceled did tourism return to its previous volume. The Counter Terrorism Bureau in Israel also tries now to issue regional warnings rather than warnings that apply to entire countries.”

Mansfeld says the Americans do things differently. They don’t bother with political sensitivity or reciprocity. For example, for a long time they’ve been issuing a travel warning to Israel, which details the danger of visiting East Jerusalem and the West Bank. When I asked Adler whether he would issue a travel warning about Israel if he were representing another country, he just smiled and declined to answer the question.

The U.S. State Department publishes travel warnings differently than Israel does. The Americans divide their warnings into two types – Travel Warning and Travel Alert. The former is a list of countries where the security or political situation has been unstable for a long time and thus American tourists or businesspeople could be in danger. The latter is used for short-term alerts and arise from specific situations that adversely affect security in the country, such as a violent election campaign.

A quick review of the American list shows that it includes many of the same countries that appear on the Israeli list, but also other countries like Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Ukraine and Honduras. And also unlike the Israeli list, the American list also includes a warning about all European countries.

Regarding Israel, the regular travel warning states:

“The Department of State warns U.S. citizens against all travel to the Gaza Strip and urges those present to depart. The security situation remains complex in Israel and the West Bank and can change quickly depending on the political environment, recent events, and particular geographic location. U.S. citizens should exercise caution and remain aware of their surroundings when traveling to areas where there are heightened tensions and security risks. The Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority both make considerable efforts to ensure security, particularly in areas where foreigners frequently travel.”

Holiday celebrations in Sinai

Twice a year, before Passover and Rosh Hashana, the bureau publishes an overall picture of the terror risks. This warning includes a specific discussion of the situation in Sinai. Currently, Sinai is under “a very high concrete threat.” Last Passover, in an unprecedented move, the Taba border crossing was closed due to severe warnings about potential terror attacks.

Adler says that 15 to 20 people are killed in Sinai on average each week. “A lot of Israelis don’t understand that combat is raging in Sinai. There is endless violent activity there. You can’t distinguish between regions in Sinai because the distances are short, just dozens of kilometers. Acting other than the way we did concerning Sinai would have been irresponsible.”

Writer and journalist Tzur Shezaf, who occasionally leads tours in Sinai, calls this “excessive paranoia.” He says the warnings are too extreme. “The Counter Terrorism Bureau is a body that speaks in a patronizing tone, as if it alone has all the wisdom and knowledge. This is the wrong approach. This is not the way to talk to a group of people who are mostly very well-acquainted with Sinai. The warnings are sweeping and sometimes published for 10 years in a row with no change. On Passover, it reached the height of absurdity. They closed the Taba crossing, but at the same time they opened Highway 10 all along the border with Egypt.”

Shezaf says that 99 percent of the intelligence information is available online today, and that “the bureau is sitting on that 1 percent that is hidden from the eyes of travelers and makes decisions based on that. That 1 percent becomes mass hysteria. And even if they are totally professional and know everything, what is their authority? They can go ahead and issue warnings, but running a media campaign and closing a border is going way overboard. They’ve become an advertising firm. It seems like they want to punish the public that isn’t being obedient enough.”

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