AFP — Small groups of Jewish pilgrims arrived Friday at Africa’s oldest synagogue in Tunisia for an annual gathering, this year taking place under heavy security amid controversy over visits by Israelis.

Police and soldiers deployed along the main road to the Ghriba on the island of Djerba, with checkpoints set up to search vehicles.

Several dozen pilgrims reached the El Ghriba Synagogue at around midday to say prayers, light candles and leave votive eggs in a cave at the back of the synagogue.

The organizers hope to receive 2,000 people during the three-day event which ends on Sunday, a representative of the small Jewish community in Ghriba, Perez Trabelsi, told AFP.

It takes place this year amid controversy surrounding the authorization of Tunisian entry permits to Israeli visitors, which Trabelsi said had had a negative impact.

The El-Ghriba Synagogue on the island of Djerba, Tunisia, the focal point of an annual Jewish pilgrimage (photo credit: upyernoz/Wikimedia commons/File)

The El-Ghriba Synagogue on the island of Djerba, Tunisia, the focal point of an annual Jewish pilgrimage (photo credit: upyernoz/Wikimedia commons/File)

“People are afraid, and have cancelled their visit, including some people coming from France who have relatives in Israel. They cancelled their plans because they couldn’t come together,” he said.

A group of Tunisian politicians has argued that the deputy interior minister for security, Ridha Sfar, was effectively promoting “normalization” with the Jewish state by allowing Israelis to visit Tunisia.

Like most other countries in the Arab world, the North African nation does not recognize Israel, primarily out of solidarity with Palestinian demands for a state of their own.

Sfar and Tourism Minister Amel Karboul were the target of unsuccessful censure motions on May 9 that were withdrawn only shortly before MPs in the Islamist-dominated parliament were to vote on them.

Isaac Weinberg, an Israeli shopkeeper attending this year’s pilgrimage, said Tunisia should make a distinction between Israel and its citizens.

“Why punish me for what my state has done?” he asked.

Karboul has openly supported the entry of tourists regardless of nationality, to boost a key sector of the Tunisian economy battered by the turbulence following its 2011 revolution.

Security fears

Beginning 33 days after the start of the Jewish Passover festival, the Ghriba pilgrimage used to attract up to 8,000 pilgrims and tourists.

But attendance slumped after a suicide attack claimed by Al-Qaeda killed 21 people in April 2002, most of them German tourists.

Following the attack, and before the revolution that toppled long-time strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the annual event attracted around 3,000 visitors on average.

Since the 2011 uprising, Tunisia has been rocked by Islamist violence and a secession of political upheavals, further reducing the number of people taking part in the pilgrimage to just a few hundred in 2012 and 2013.

But the resignation in January of the Islamist-led coalition government, which handed power to an interim administration of independents under a deal to end months of political deadlock and pave the way for fresh elections, has helped restore Tunisia’s image.

“Before I came every year, but this is the first time since the revolution,” said Rachele Guetta, a Jewish woman originally from Libya, who has lived in Italy since she was forced out of the country in 1967.

“They told me it was dangerous, but that’s not true. It’s wonderful here, as long as this lasts.”

Security fears, however, continue to hold people back, including the wife of Moshe Giat, an Israeli originally from Yemen.

“I came via Paris with my wife. But so many people told us Tunisia was dangerous that she stayed there,” he said, adding that the authorities granted him an entry permit on arrival.

The annual pilgrimage to Ghriba is central to the traditions of Tunisia’s historic Jewish community, which today numbers around 1,500, compared to an estimated 100,000 when the country gained independence from France in 1956.

According to legend, the synagogue was founded in 586 BC by Jews fleeing the destruction of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem.