Noshing on traditional Chanukah jelly doughnuts and grasping Israeli and Jordanian flags, 14 youngsters from Amman were among the first Jordanian tourists to visit Israel on Monday.
The children, ages 7 to 14, were invited to Israel to take part in the Festigal, a two-day music festival celebrated annually in Haifa on Chanukah.
After making their way across the newly opened northern border crossing between Israel and Jordan, the Sheikh Hussein Bridge in the Beit She’an Valley, the Jordanians were greeted by 20 Jewish and Arab teens from the Haifa area bearing flowers and singing “Heveinu Shalom Aleichem.”
One of the Jordanian children, 9-year-old William Shimali, had a few words to say in Hebrew to his Israeli counterparts:
“All the children my age want to live in peace, without war. I say happy holiday on Chanukah, Merry Christmas, thanks and God bless,” he said.
Another child named Donna, 10, credited the leaders of Israel and Jordan for affording her the chance to visit Israel.
“Thanks to (Prime Minister Yitzhak) Rabin and (Jordanian King) Hussein, it was arranged for us to come today and to meet our friends beyond the border. May God be with this peace agreement. We hope to have a long-standing relationship with the children of Israel,” she said.
As part of their two-day visit, the children were greeted by Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna and attended a Chanukah party at a local high school.
But the high point was definitely the Festigal, in which top Israeli entertainers perform before thousands of local schoolchildren.
During the festival’s finale, the Jordanian children joined Israelis singers in a moving rendition of “I Believe,” a song about the fruits of peace.
Israeli-Jordanian cooperation was also in evidence in the south of the country on Monday, when a dozen Jordanians, most of them businessman, entered Eilat from the nearby Jordanian city of Aqaba.
They were received by Eilat Mayor Gabi Kadosh, municipal officials and by schoolchildren bearing Jordanian and Israeli flags.
The visitors, most of whom were in the tourism industry, said they were moved by the warm reception. They said they were happy to be among the first Jordanian tourists to visit Israel since the two countries singed a peace treaty in late October.
While they said they came to Israel to sightsee, some noted they were also looking into possible business ventures.
Among them were Aqaba-based travel agent Ali Elhendawi. Making his second visit to Israel – the first was made on his foreign passport – he said he was discussing the possibility of a joint Jordanian-Israeli venture with the owner of Eilat’s Petra Hotel.
“I’d like to set up a Bedouin tent near the hotel,” Elhendawi said. “There would be Arab music, Arab food.”
He noted that “within a short time, perhaps within a few months, Israel will have visitors from the Gulf States, and they will want to find something familiar.”