Letter from EO President James Ridgway 10/16/15
Rarely in our 42-year history has EO seen the situation in the Middle East peaceful. Since the early 1990’s, we have seen two Gulf Wars, a wave of terrorism, 9/11, 2nd Intifada, 2ndLebanon War, the Gaza War, Arab Spring, Egyptian Revolution, Operation Pillar of Defense, and the Third Gaza War. Few of these came with warning, but throughout all of these events, the safety of our guests was our priority, and no pilgrim was harmed in Israel or the West Bank during any of these events.
Recently a wave of protests and stabbings has occurred in Israel and the West Bank just following the Jewish Succot holiday (Feast of Tabernacles). In recent years this period on the calendar has become a flash point for increased tension between Palestinian Moslems and Israelis. Last year, there was a high profile kidnapping and murder of three Israeli youth and the subsequent murder of a Arab youth by Jewish extremists which led to a wave of protests and some violence. Tensions tend to boil over during this specific period because of restrictions placed on entrance to the Temple Mount, large number of Jews which converge on Jerusalem for the holiday as required by Old Testament law, and an annual large, very pro-Israel gathering of evangelical Christians from around the world. The combination of the three events tends to be distorted in Palestinian social media and information channels that Israel is trying to change the status quo on the Temple Mount which triggers "defense" of Temple Mount through protests and violence directed at the Jewish community. Of course, there are many other underlying issues in a very complex society like Jerusalem, but this period tends to historically be a flashpoint in the calendar.
We are closely monitoring the situation with our staff and guides on the ground in Israel. Also, we will carefully monitor the US State Departments warnings or advisories for the countries we operate in. Currently, there is no State Department travel warning or alert to Egypt or Jordan, and the travel warning for Israel (in place for more than 15 years and basically unchanged since 2007) relates to many aspects of travel that do not apply to an organized tour group and the locations that we visit. It has not been updated since February 2015. If it is not deemed safe to travel to Israel, Egypt, or Jordan, then we will cease travel. If certain areas are to be avoided, we will avoid those areas. No tourist has been targeted or injured in the latest violence. Tourism is critical to the economy of both societies and more importantly to the Palestinians.
Currently we have 221 guests and 3 staff in the Holy Land now and 11 guests in Egypt. Almost all of our guests are in the Galilee currently and touring is progressing normally. We have had over 230 other guests visit Israel -- including myself -- since the beginning of October. Those groups visited all of the sites on their itineraries including Bethlehem normally. There is a very strong police presence in an around Jerusalem and security is the top priority for the Jerusalem municipality.
In Jerusalem, we are daily monitoring the Mt. of Olives overlook and parts of the Via Dolorosa in the Muslim Quarter which could be sensitive areas. Our tours do not visit the Old City areas of the Damascus Gate area and the area around the Lions' Gate. Visits to the Bethlehem area in the West Bank are continuing as normal. We are evaluating visits deep inside the West Bank to Samaria and Nablus on an ongoing basis. These visits are rare on our itineraries and if deemed unsafe by the guide and myself we will substitute other Biblical sites. All other visits on our itineraries are proceeding normally and are being enjoyed by our pilgrims.
Finally, communication is critical in these situations. We have three paid staff in Israel to exclusively assist our guests, and four more staff from our team traveling to Israel beginning next week. Our Lakeland office is manned virtually around the clock in crisis situation, maintaining close contact not only with guests and staff on location, but also with concerned family in the USA.
Please keep the peoples of that region in your prayers. Ongoing updates from our groups currently in the Holy Land will be found here on http://www.eoupdate.com/.