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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Israel-Hamas war brings tensions to Europe: What travelers need to know

Protesters light flares and wave flags during an unauthorized pro-Palestinian demonstration at the Place de la République in Paris last week.

By Ceylan Yeginsu

As the war between Hamas and Israel intensifies in the Middle East, tensions are spilling over into Europe, where demonstrations and terrorist attacks are causing disruptions for locals and visitors alike.

Last week, monuments and government buildings across Europe were lit up in blue and white — a show of solidarity with Israel after the assault by Hamas on Oct. 7 that killed at least 1,400 Israeli civilians. Within days, tens of thousands of pro-Palestinian protesters were marching across European cities to protest the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip that followed. A deadly explosion at a hospital in Gaza on Tuesday, which left Palestinians and Israelis trading blame, has threatened further unrest.

Local authorities have ramped up security as clashes erupted over last weekend in London, Paris, Madrid and Rome. In France, security threats have forced the evacuation of sites such as the Louvre Museum, along with several airports.

Security experts say that although it is still broadly safe to travel to Europe, it is important to be aware of demonstrations and show vigilance toward any perceived threat.

Here’s what to know about the disruptions.

Where are people protesting?

Since Oct. 13, when a former Hamas leader declared “a day of rage,” tens of thousands of people across Europe have gathered to call for an end to Israeli military action in Gaza, prompting some countries such as France and Germany to ban pro-Palestinian demonstrations. One of the biggest protests was held in London, where clashes with police led to the arrest of 15 people. Another pro-Palestinian demonstration is planned for noon Saturday at London’s Marble Arch.

Further rallies in support of Palestinians are likely across Europe through late this month, according to Crisis24, a security risk and crisis management consultancy group.

After the hospital blast in Gaza on Tuesday, protesters in Istanbul stormed the Israeli Consulate, throwing fireworks toward the building and burning Israeli flags. In the city of Malatya, in east-central Turkey, a group of demonstrators tried to enter a U.S. military base. And Wednesday, protesters gathered outside the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul, demanding its closure.

The U.S. Embassy in Ankara said large demonstrations related to events in Israel and Gaza are expected throughout Turkey for the next several weeks. “Any gathering, even those intended to be peaceful, could escalate and turn violent,” the embassy said in a security alert published Wednesday. “Protest activity may result in enhanced police presence, road closures, and traffic disruptions.”

On Tuesday, Israel’s National Security Council issued a warning against travel to Turkey and Morocco, citing fears that Israeli travelers might be targeted. It urged all Israeli citizens in Turkey to leave as soon as possible.

“We always recommend that our clients avoid public demonstrations and protests, as these can get out of control quickly,” said Randy Haight, director of global response and protective operations at FocusPoint International, a U.S.-based travel risk management firm.

Is there a threat of terrorism?

Two terrorist attacks were carried out in France and Belgium recently, causing both countries to raise their terrorist threat alert to the maximum level.

In northern France on Oct. 13, one teacher was killed and several people were injured after a knife-wielding man attacked a school in what French officials described as an “Islamist terror attack.” On Monday, during a Belgium-Sweden Euro 2024 qualifier soccer match in Brussels, a man gunned down two Swedish nationals in what authorities called “an act of terrorism.” The game was suspended and fans were held in the stadium. The attacker was later shot by police.

“While the authorities have not identified any link between the Israel-Hamas conflict and attacks in Europe, the highly emotive and divisive nature of the conflict could engender additional attacks in coming weeks,” said James Wood, a security director at International SOS, a health and security risk management firm.

“Reports also indicate hate crimes have increased globally since the conflict began,” he added.

Tourist sites and transport hubs in France have received multiple bomb threats this week, causing tourists to evacuate the Louvre Museum and the Palace of Versailles. On Wednesday, eight French airports were evacuated after receiving threats. The sites have since reopened.

Are there any travel advisories in place?

Before traveling to Europe, visitors should check the State Department’s website for the latest guidance on the specific country they are visiting. Currently, for most European countries, including Britain, France, Belgium, Germany and Spain, the department has issued a Level 2 advisory, urging U.S. citizens to “exercise increased caution” because of terrorism threats and civil unrest.

As of Wednesday, the terrorist threat alert in France remains at its highest level. The threat level in Belgium has since been lowered to Level 3.

What steps can I take to mitigate some of the risks while traveling?

It is difficult to predict the trajectory of the war and any associated incidents that might occur in Europe, Wood said. But individuals can take some practical steps to reduce exposure to potential events:

— Anticipate heightened security in urban centers, particularly around tourist hot spots, key government areas and public transport hubs in the coming weeks.

— Be alert to suspicious behavior or items, and report anything unusual to authorities.

— Be prepared for security alerts or hoaxes that may trigger short-notice evacuation of public locations, which can cause disruption.

— Follow all directives issued by authorities and do not act on the basis of unverified information.

— Check with local authorities for the details of planned demonstrations. Anticipate disruptions, and plan your trip accordingly.

— Expect a heightened police presence, and leave an area at the first sign of unrest.

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