NETANYA, Israel (Aug. 16)
For visitors to Israel this summer, the disengagement from the Gaza Strip is proving hard to ignore. “Everybody’s orange,” laughs Rebecca Kaminski, from Berlin, referring to the color adopted by the anti-disengagement activists. “I’m on the blue side, I guess.”
Sitting on the beach in Netanya, the 22-year-old is working on her already impressive tan with a group of girlfriends, all students at a six-week summer ulpan, or Hebrew-language immersion course, in Kibbutz Mishmar Hasharon.
They have not been deterred from visiting Israel in the midst of its exit from the Gaza settlements and parts of the West Bank, despite political debates as heated as the August sunshine.
Then there are the soaring tensions between the disengagement plan’s supporters and opponents, clashes between settler activists and the police, and the threat of increasing Palestinian terror as the security services focus on the evacuation over the next few weeks.
But Kaminski is thrilled to be here right now. “It’s exciting. We’re in the middle of a country that the whole world is watching. It’s historic.”
Her friend Sharon Asscher, 20, from Amsterdam, was not about to let the idea of trouble thwart her visit here. “I haven’t come to Israel for five years because of the intifada and I missed it,” she says.
Alona Van t’Hoog, 25, from The Hague in Holland, is also a firm supporter of disengagement. “I knew that of course it was going to be a hard time, but I have faith in the State of Israel and the army so I thought it would be OK.”
Sitting next to them on the sand, Melis Taragano, from Turkey, is less enthusiastic. “It’s going to be bad for the Israeli people, I think, because here it’s going to be one big terror,” says the 18-year-old. “And Jews fighting Jews is going to be worse.”
Tourism in Israel has yet to return to pre-intifada levels, with native Israelis still the dominant presence on beaches and boardwalks. But visitors are slowly returning as the threat of repeated suicide bombings fades. And with terror on the rise around the world, some vacationers reckon they may as well take their chances in Israel as anywhere else.
“They thought New York City was safe in 2001, and terrorists are blowing up London now, so is anywhere safe?” asks 30-year-old Marquis Cross from Baton Rouge, La., biting into a huge hamburger alongside his cousin James Yage at the Tel Aviv pub Mike’s Place, itself the site of a 2002 suicide bombing that killed three people.
Non-Jewish tourists, the pair have visited Jerusalem and taken in the Tel Aviv beaches, with the Dead Sea still to come. “These are nice people. This is a fun city,” says Yage, 35, shaking more ketchup onto his fries.
And as for the political situation, “they’ve been going through these problems for years, and it seems pretty calm now,” he adds in his Tennessee drawl.
“It’s pretty interesting, but I don’t have much of a view so I just turn on the sports,” admits Cross sheepishly.
The dramatic television scenes of orange-clad settlers battling Israeli police and soldiers are also being ignored by retirees Samuel and Jutta Rosenblat, from Boca Raton, Fla.
They are visiting the resort town of Herzliya along with numerous members of their extended family, as they have for many years. Undeterred by terror in the past, they see no reason why the disengagement — which they both support — should put them off this year.
“A lot of people in Florida are afraid to come every year because of the suicide bombings,” says 82-year-old Jutta. “It’s important to show that we’re not afraid and we have to support Israel.”
Her 83-year-old husband, a Holocaust survivor who was in five different concentration camps, agrees that showing faith in the Jewish state is vital. “If we had had Israel before the war, then not so many Jews would have been killed,” he says. “We would have had somewhere to go.”
The disengagement has also provided an unexpected bonus to the tourism industry, especially in the southern parts of the country. Although most Israelis may be avoiding vacationing in the coastal region around Gaza, with the military imposing many restrictions on travel, journalists have flocked to the area.
Thousands of foreign journalists and TV crews have snapped up every room in the vicinity, with kibbutzim close to Gaza renting out not only their bed-and-breakfast accommodations but all available spaces in their dining rooms, schools and community centers.