The Taglit-Birthright Israel organization briefly ordered operators organizing tours for thousands of young Diaspora Jews to freeze visits to areas near the Gaza Strip over security fears, drawing angry denunciations from area officials Monday.
The organization, which offers young Diaspora Jews their first visit to Israel for free, said the decision to restrict tours on Sunday was made in light of a series of security incidents in recent days, as tensions on the volatile Gaza border briefly spiked.
Groups were told that they were no longer permitted to travel or participate in activities south of Route 35 and west of Route 40, two highways that skirt the Palestinian enclave by several miles, Birthright head of safety and security Daniel Greenberg wrote in an email to trip organizers.
“Any site or guest house/hotel in this geographic range is off limits to activities and lodging,” he wrote.
Four rockets were fired at Israel from Gaza over the weekend, the first volley in several weeks.
Also Saturday, Israeli forces shot dead a number of armed Palestinians on the border, preventing a suspected infiltration attempt.
There have been several infiltration attempts over the past three weeks, which the Hamas terror group has blamed on “rebellious youth” angry over the humanitarian situation in the Strip.
While tensions on the Gaza border rose over the weekend, the area has remained relatively calm over the last several months, and it was unclear why Birthright chose now to ban trips near the enclave.
Responding to criticism, the group said the freeze was only for a single day and by Monday tours had returned to normal. “On Sunday, we halted the arrival of Birthright Israel groups to area surrounding Gaza for 24 hours due to a heightened security situation,” it said. But as of Monday morning “we have returned to normal operating procedure. Birthright participants’ safety is always the top priority and we take precautions whenever necessary. All of our itineraries are approved on a daily basis with Israeli security authorities and tens of thousands of Birthright participants visited the area surrounding Gaza in the past year and will continue to do so.”
The Kibbutz Movement, which represents some of the Israeli villages closest to the Gaza border, had released a statement earlier Monday calling on Birthright to “immediately reverse” the decision.
“I expect an organization that lionizes Zionist values to prove that commitment in deeds,” he said.
“Don’t abandon the Gaza periphery,” he wrote, “but rather strengthen it. Don’t stop the project’s activities in the periphery; increase them.”
“This is a problematic message that broadcasts fear and weakness to thousands of young Jews in the Diaspora. This is not the face of Zionism or its values,” he added.