US advises against non-essential travel to Israel

Old City off limits after dark as State Department toughens restrictions on US government employees, families working in country

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Smoke billows from an area hit by Israeli strikes in Gaza City in the northern Gaza Strip on Sunday, July 20, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Lefteris Pitarakis)
Smoke billows from an area hit by Israeli strikes in Gaza City in the northern Gaza Strip on Sunday, July 20, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Lefteris Pitarakis)

WASHINGTON — The US Department of State issued a new travel warning for US citizens on Monday, advising against non-essential travel to Israel.

The Department of State recommended that US citizens “consider the deferral of non-essential travel to Israel and the West Bank.” It also reaffirmed “the longstanding strong warning to US citizens against any travel to the Gaza Strip,” describing the security environment as “complex.”

“The security environment remains complex in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, and US citizens need to be aware of the risks of travel to these areas because of the current conflict between Hamas and Israel,” it said.

While taking into consideration increased risks from rocket fire and infiltrations from the Palestinian enclave, the government reiterated that it was not evacuating Americans from Israel.

The advisory registered a number of changes to earlier warnings, reflecting the deteriorating security situation in Israel.

The warning confirmed that because of the security situation, the US Embassy in Tel Aviv and its annexes were currently operating at reduced staffing and the Consular Section of the Embassy was providing only emergency consular services, although the US Consulate General in Jerusalem was currently maintaining normal operations.

The warning cautioned travelers against “long-range rockets launched from Gaza” which are capable of targeting major cities. While the Iron Dome has been successful, it stressed there have still been rocket-related casualties. Visitors were advised to familiarize themselves with the IDF Home Front Command’s orders and the locations of nearby shelters.

Monday’s announcement also took into consideration the increased pressure felt by the risk of terror tunnels and other more pinpointed attacks on communities in Israel located near to the Gaza perimeter. The State Department revealed that as a new protocol, both Embassy and Consulate General personnel must receive prior approval before travelling to any points south of “greater Tel Aviv.”

The cautionary notice included a special recommendation to avoid travel to areas of Israel in the vicinity of the Gaza Strip, warning that travelers “may encounter small arms fire, anti-tank weapons, rockets, and mortars launched from inside Gaza toward Israeli cities and towns. These attacks can come with little or no warning.”

The State Department emphasized that it was not evacuating US citizens out of Israel, and that US government-facilitated evacuations occurred only when no safe commercial alternatives exist.

In Gaza, however, the State Department took a more dire tone, advising all US citizens in the coastal area “to depart immediately.” Reiterating that “the Department of State strongly urges US citizens to avoid all travel to the Gaza Strip, which is under the control of Hamas, a foreign terrorist organization,” the warning described the security situation in the area as “dangerous and volatile.”

Warning that regular exchanges of fire occurred between terrorists and IDF troops, the advisory emphasized that “civilians have been caught in the crossfire in the past” while attempts to leave the area through Rafah may be delayed for days or weeks.

“Many US citizens have been unable to exit Gaza or faced lengthy delays in doing so,” the warning noted, adding that “because US citizen employees of the US government are not allowed to enter the Gaza Strip or have contact with Hamas, the ability of consular staff to offer timely assistance to US citizens, including assistance departing Gaza, is extremely limited.”

Recent tensions in Jerusalem following the kidnapping and murder of a Palestinian teenager by Jewish extremists were also evident in the warning, although it was noted that street clashes in Jerusalem “appear to have diminished.” The State Department emphasized that “the clashes and demonstrations have not been anti-American in nature,” but still advised citizens not to enter neighborhoods restricted by the Israel Police and to “avoid any locations that have active clashes ongoing.” The Shuafat neighborhood is off limits to US personnel and their families, as is the Old City – and Independence Park – after dark.

In the West Bank, the US warned that “there have also been an increasing number of violent incidents involving Israeli settlers and Palestinian villagers in the corridor stretching from Ramallah to Nablus, including attacks by Israeli settlers on Palestinian villages in which US citizens have suffered injury or property damage, and attacks by Palestinians on settlements.”

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