Tourists scramble to leave Jerusalem as Israel readies for long war

Most international carriers have halted flights to Ben Gurion Airport

Tourists in Israel struggle to return home

Tourists in Israel struggle to return home
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In a narrow restaurant, tucked into a corner of the Christian Quarter in Old Jerusalem, a group of British retirees huddle around a table, frantically discussing their dwindling options.

“Do we go east?” one asks, suggesting the group of 12 try to find a way to Jordan.

“Can we?” another one counters. “Are the land crossings open?”

Hamas’s attack over the weekend, which left more than 1,300 killed and scores more wounded and kidnapped, has triggered a significant Israeli response that is only likely to intensify in the coming days.

More than 1,300 Palestinians have been killed in unrelenting aerial bombardments of the Gaza Strip as the Israeli military prepares for an expected ground invasion.

The war has made international air carriers wary, with the US Federal Aviation Administration urging airlines to use caution when flying through Israeli airspace.

The vast majority, including the major US airlines, have cancelled or postponed flights to Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport.

In Europe, Air France and British Airways, along with several others, have also suspended operations to Israel, leaving thousands of people in limbo.

“The options have diminished,” said David Gunn, who led the British retirees on a tour of Israel.

“We're getting a bit stressed and of course we all stayed longer in hotels, which we didn't budget for,” he said, speaking to The National before Britain and several other European countries announced special flights to evacuate their citizens from Israel.

The group was originally booked on an easyJet flight last Sunday that was cancelled. Since then they say it has been difficult to find a viable option as the situation is constantly changing.

“We're told not to go to Haifa, just to go east or else fly El Al but I looked up El Al flights to London, it will be two weeks to get a seat,” Mr Gunn said.

For Sophie Turfus, one of the few members of the group who is still working, the extended stay has put a strain on her job back home in the UK.

“I'm worried about my work,” Ms Turfus said. “I have had lots of online meetings today and yesterday, I really need to get out.”

Ms Turfus, a university lecturer, said she has students who are relying on her to finish their Bachelor of Science projects and she can only help so much remotely.

While the land crossings between Israel and Jordan have for the most part remained open, lines have been long and hours of operations altered. There is also no guarantee of making it across, which for the group is not all that appealing. As a result, they remain, like so many in the country, on edge waiting to see what happens next.

Walid Dajani manages the Imperial Hotel near the Tower of David in the Old City. He has lost all his bookings for October because of cancellations, but is still looking after 20 guests, most of whom are trying to figure out ways to leave.

The 78-year-old, whose family has run the hotel since 1949, said on top of making sure his guests are being looked after, he is trying to help them find alternative routes home.

"I'm trying, you know. For example, this morning, I have some American guests, who are stuck," Mr Dajani told The National. 'Since two days, they've been trying on their computer, they have a reservation and then they don't have a reservation, so I worked out with them and I hope they will succeed to go to Jordan and pick a flight from there."

Mr Dajani said an added challenge is that most of his staff live in the West Bank and have been unable to cross into Jerusalem to work since Israel declared war. He is relying on his family to help run the hotel and make sure that the stranded travellers are as comfortable as possible.

Updated: October 12, 2023, 5:23 PM