Updated 6:08 p.m. ET July 22,2014
As airlines around the world are canceling flights to Israel in light of a rocket attack near the country’s main international airport, the Birthright Israel program is carrying on with its mission of sending Jewish youth on free ten-day trips to the country.
Still, nearly a third of people scheduled to join upcoming trips have cancelled their plans since the conflict in Gaza has escalated, according to the organization. Some 2,600 people are currently in Israel on Birthright trips, according to the group, and more than 22,000 have participated over the course of the summer. Only 10 participants have returned early during the past few weeks, though some who recently came back from trips say they would have been unlikely to go given the current environment.
“There would be no way I would want to go on a trip now,” says Heather Paley, who returned to the U.S. from a Birthright trip just as the conflict began to intensify. “It’s a really small country, and I realized when they mentioned places that were being attacked, I was at those places.”
More than 600 people have died in the fighting as of Tuesday, Reuters reports, the vast majority of them Palestinian. One of the Israeli soldiers killed in the conflict was Max Steinberg, a Los Angeles native who enlisted in the Israeli Defense Forces after visiting the country on a Birthright trip.
A Birthright spokesperson, Pamela Fertel Weinstein, says the organization is monitoring the situation in coordination with the Israel Ministry of Education, the Israeli Defense Forces, and other law enforcement organizations. She says that Birthright has maintained a strong safety record as conflicts involving Israel have ebbed and flowed, which she attributed to being “cautious and conservative.”
For all travelers in Israel, including Birthright participants, the cancellations of flights to by American and European carriers may hinder their ability to leave the country. On July 22, the Federal Aviation Administration banned U.S. airlines from flying to Israel for a 24-hour period, and the order could be extended. Several European carriers have cancelled their flights as well. Nonetheless, Weinstein says that the program works with a variety of airlines and hotels to ensure that nobody is left without assistance and lodging in the event of cancellations or delays.
Other tourists are left up to their own devices. Julia May, who cut short a three-week educational program to Israel this month after seeing rockets from the beach, says she was torn between the opposing perspectives of her American friends who thought she was “crazy” to stay in the country and the positive mindset in Israel.
“Even when you’re just a visitor you get this mentality ‘yeah, I can stay through this,'” she says. “But even if you feel safe, you know you’re still in a war zone.”