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Holy Land travelers persist amid recent violence

Walt Wiley has been to Israel about 40 times.

He’s walked along the Sea of Galilee, gazed at the ancient fortification of Masada, traversed the streets of Jerusalem, and made the pilgrimage to Bethlehem. Wiley leads about two tour groups each year to the Holy Land with his organization Winning With Encouragement, a nonprofit Christian ministry based in Charlotte.

But a recent spike in violence in the middle east has made travel a bit more difficult, Wiley said.

The decades-old conflict between Israel and the Palestinians flared in recent weeks, with Hamas rocket-fire from Gaza into Israel and Israeli airstrikes into Gaza.

A ceasefire was reached on Wednesday, though the calm was viewed with skepticism by many. The attacks killed both civilians and militants.

But the outbreaks do not stop Wiley from visiting the area. He returned from his latest trek to Israel three weeks ago and experienced no trouble. “(Violence) has always been an issue in that area,” he said.

However, Wiley said people in his tour groups sometimes do express concerns about their safety before making the more than 6,000-mile trip from Charlotte to Israel.

“With Palestine having control of Bethlehem, it’s not as easy to travel to Bethlehem,” Wiley said. “And it’s more difficult recruiting people (to go) because one issue that’s on people’s minds is security.”

His advice to those scheduling trips to Israel is to work with locals when planning an itinerary. He also said to stay away from conflict areas like the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

“A lot of (people’s fear) is perception,” Wiley said. “They get a feeling that everyone in Israel is wearing a helmet and living in a bomb shelter.”

Scott Willms, tour director at Christian Tours in Maiden, returned from his ninth trip to Israel on Nov. 1. Willms agreed with Wiley and said several of his travelers in the past have feared for their safety in the country. Some even pulled out of trips at the last minute, he said.

“They’re not blind to the fact that there may be potential unrest in the area,” said Willms, who typically escorts 35 travelers each journey.

Michelle Mohr, spokeswoman with US Airways in Charlotte, said the airline is still seeing a high demand of people traveling to Israel.

“We have seen continued demand for travel on our daily nonstop flight from our Philadelphia hub to Tel Aviv despite recent events,” she said.

Christian Tours and Winning With Encouragement each have upcoming trips planned to the Holy Land in the spring, near Easter.

“The Biblical significance of the land is what draws me,” Willms said. “I was as excited to go on the ninth trip as I was the first.”

Penland: 704-358-6043; Twitter @BrittanyPenland
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