Ahead of High Holidays, Israel warns travelers of kidnapping threat

In its annual guidelines, National Security Council says Iran and Hamas are seeking to snatch Israelis at home and abroad

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Basij paramilitary force members march during the annual pro-Palestinian Al-Quds, or Jerusalem, Day rally as they cover their faces in the style of Palestinian and Lebanese terrorists in Tehran, Iran, April 29, 2022. (AP/Vahid Salemi)
File: Basij paramilitary force members march during the annual pro-Palestinian Al-Quds, or Jerusalem, Day rally as they cover their faces in the style of Palestinian and Lebanese terrorists in Tehran, Iran, April 29, 2022. (AP/Vahid Salemi)

Israel issued an updated set of travel warnings on Thursday ahead of September’s Jewish High Holidays, placing a particular emphasis on the threat of kidnapping by Iranian-backed groups abroad and by Hamas.

The warnings, put out by the the National Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Bureau, indicated that Iranian forces and their proxies are continuing their efforts to contact Israelis abroad under the guise of businessmen in order to kidnap them. Jews and Israelis in countries bordering Iran, or in Africa or the Mediterranean Basin, face a particular threat from Iranian operatives, said the directive.

The NSC also issued a warning that Iran-linked Hamas is trying to target Israelis abroad and that Israeli intelligence agencies managed to thwart such an attack in an unidentified foreign country, Channel 12 reported.

Several Iranian plots have been uncovered over the past year. In July, Azeri security forces arrested a 23-year-old Afghan national on suspicion of planning an attack on Israel’s embassy in Baku. Israel pointed to Iran in the plot.

The month before, Cypriot intelligence services revealed they had foiled an Iranian plot against Jews and Israelis. In March, Greek police arrested two Pakistani nationals who were allegedly planning mass-casualty terrorist attacks against a Jewish restaurant and Chabad House in Athens.

In November of last year, Georgian security officials revealed they had foiled a recent attempt by the extraterritorial arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the Quds Force, to kill a prominent Israeli-Georgian living in the capital Tbilisi.

The attempt followed other Iranian plots to harm Israelis in the region. In June of 2022, Turkey and Israel foiled a plan to attack Israelis in Istanbul.

An image taken from security camera footage at an airport believed to show and Iranian agent (C) monitoring Israeli tourists in Turkey in July 2022 (Screen capture/Channel 12)

Within Israel, the NSC’s 2023 warning said, Palestinian terror groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad are eager to kidnap Israelis for use as bargaining chips. They also may seek to kidnap Israelis abroad, according to the warning, which noted that indirect negotiations for the return of Israelis held in Gaza have reached an impasse.

Soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin were killed during Israel’s 2014 invasion of the Gaza Strip, and their remains are in the hands of Gaza’s Islamist Hamas rulers — although the terror group has never confirmed their deaths.

Hamas is also thought to be holding two Israeli civilians who entered the coastal enclave of their own accord in 2014 and 2015, respectively — Avera Mengistu, a Jew of Ethiopian origin, and Hisham Al-Sayed, a Bedouin Muslim.

Palestinian Hamas supporters take part in a festival in Nablus to support Palestinian terror groups in Gaza and the West Bank, May 11, 2023. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

Various attempts to release them in exchange for Palestinian prisoners have failed in recent years.

Last year, Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh said that if Israel does not come to a prisoner accord with the terror group, the organization will kidnap more Israelis. “We have four prisoners, and if Israel is not convinced by that, then we will add to our stash,” Haniyeh said at the time in comments circulated in official Hamas media.

Israel added in its warning this week that there is an elevated threat in Sweden and Denmark in the wake of recent Quran-burning incidents there.

The NSC also warned of the threat of attacks from antisemitic far-right elements in the US and in Europe around the High Holidays.

Israeli tourists at New Moon Camp in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt on April 5, 2021. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

Many Israelis head to the Sinai Peninsula over the holidays and Israel warned tourists to stay at known sites protected by security forces, and not to travel into the interior of the peninsula. Members of the Islamic State and other jihadist groups in the Sinai have carried out a series of deadly attacks against Egyptian forces and civilians since the 2011 uprising against President Hosni Mubarak.

In the wake of the kidnapping in Iraq earlier this year of Israeli researcher Elizabeth Tsurkov, Israel reiterated the total ban on traveling to enemy countries.

The travel warning focused only on terrorist threats, and did not mention war zones like Ukraine, where thousands of Israelis head every year on Rosh Hashana to pray in Uman.

Israel regularly issues travel warnings ahead of the High Holidays and Passover, both of which are peak travel periods for Israelis.

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