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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Israel still draws US travelers; Lebanon's a no-go

By VERENA DOBNIK
Associated Press Writer

August 15, 2006, 11:02 PM EDT

NEW YORK -- Even Hezbollah missiles couldn't keep Hilda Goodman and her husband from going forward with a trip to Israel they planned 13 years ago _ when their grandson was born.

For his bar mitzvah in October, the Miami couple plan to be in Jerusalem.

Since hostilities in Israel and Lebanon started in July, Americans looking at the Middle East as a travel destination have had to answer a pressing question: to go or not to go. Tens of thousands canceled flights, but at least as many others are proceeding with travel to Israel _ including tourists, college students, devout Jews and some Christians.

Across the border in Lebanon, despite a tense cease-fire this week, travel is practically impossible except using side roads _ until now at the risk of one's life.

"We planned our trip to Israel 13 years ago. And we're going on the belief that things will work out," said Goodman, adding that she knows dozens of other Americans going to Israel for the Jewish holidays of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah this fall.

"People who really want to go to Israel for spiritual reasons don't cancel," said Batia Plotch, an Israeli-raised Manhattan trip organizer whose siblings live in northern Israel. She speaks with her relatives regularly, but has no plans to go there any time soon.

Hundreds of college-age Americans also are heading to the region, or are already there.

"I'd never been to Israel before. But I have no sense of impending doom here _ I jog every morning and feel completely safe," said Carolyn Judge, a 28-year-old from the Chicago area who is of Catholic heritage.

She arrived three weeks ago with 46 other Americans to attend medical school at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in the peaceful southern city of Beer-Sheva. The group had postponed its late July flight to Tel Aviv from Newark, N.J., for several days because of the Hezbollah attacks.

At Tel Aviv University, more than 170 students enrolled for the academic year that starts this fall. About 20 Americans originally planning to attend classes there have canceled so far, according to Olivia Blechner, director of academic affairs at the Israel's Consulate General in New York.

And more than 500 college-age students who belong to the Lubavitch Orthodox Jewish movement will attend a dozen yeshivas in Israel starting next month.

"If we were not to go, the message we would be sending is one of despair," said rabbinical student Levi Schectman, 22, of Milwaukee, who will study at the Chabad Lubavitch Mayanot Yeshiva in Jerusalem. "The fact that we're going strengthens the people who have to live through this; it boosts their spirits."

The American University in Beirut, which usually hosts about 250 American students, "is not sure we can expect any at all," said spokeswoman Ada Porter. "The current condition of the infrastructure in Lebanon will make it very difficult for anyone to reach the university."

For many, fear was the strongest factor in their travel decisions.

Of the more than 40,000 monthly U.S. visitors to Israel, as many as 35 percent canceled their trips in the month after the violence started in July, said Ari Sommer, Israel's tourism commissioner for North and South America.

Yitzchak Ariel, a Brooklyn doctor, his wife and two young children finally decided to go in early October for a joyous Jewish holiday, the harvest feast of Sukkot. Ariel convinced his wife by telling her that going to Israel "is just as safe as riding the subway in New York, with the possible terrorist threats here."

And the American Jewish Congress is planning four-day, three-night trips "to show our solidarity with the people of Israel." Departing from both New York and Los Angeles as soon as travel arrangements are made in the next few weeks, the groups will head to northern Israel _ a lush landscape now defaced by Katyusha rockets fired from Hezbollah positions in Lebanon.

Many other Americans "are waiting to see what happens," Sommer said.

Christian groups that planned Holy Land pilgrimages later this year are holding off _ with promises that they won't have to pay any flight or hotel penalties should they decide to not go, Sommer said. If they do travel, their itineraries will omit a standard tourist stop, the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel, which has been under fire.

To help the decimated tourism industry there, the Galilee Spirit project offers Americans the chance to reserve nights in hotels and bed-and-breakfasts, which have lost about $2 million a day. But guests don't have to give a date for using the accommodations.

Commercial air travel to Lebanon, where Hezbollah is based, is impossible _ at least, via the usual flight into Beirut. The city's airport was bombed by Israelis trying to cut supply arteries to Hezbollah, which the U.S. government lists as a terrorist organization.

On the Expedia travel Web site, queries for Beirut are answered with three bold-faced words: "Destination Currently Unavailable." And the U.S. State Department warns Americans not to travel there.

Any trip there amounts to Russian roulette on wheels: A flight to Amman, Jordan, or Damascus, Syria, then a cab or car ride over side roads to Beirut, bypassing highways and other major roads and bridges that were destroyed in aerial attacks.

"It's a total risk. Any moving thing could be a target," said Jack Stepanian, who owns the Panorama travel agency in New York. He said the trip costs "a fortune," with the cab ride from the Syrian border to Beirut alone adding up to as much as $400.

Misfortune, while prompting some travelers to cancel, is inspiring other Americans to not only visit the Middle East _ but to move there.

This summer, hundreds of American Jews are immigrating to Israel as part of a push for settlement sponsored by the private organization Nefesh B'Nefesh _ Hebrew for From Soul to Soul.

The organization's Web site urges American Jews to "live the dream."

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On the Net:

U.S. State Department Travel Warnings: http://travel.state.gov

Copyright 2006 Newsday Inc.

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