Enter Israel

FOR MONTHS, all but the hardiest tourists have stayed away from Yemen, for fear of kidnapping. But suddenly, the country has an influx of tourists from an unlikely source: Israel. As many as four groups are said to have visited Yemen in the space of two weeks.

Ostensibly, the tourists’ purpose is to meet relatives, particularly in Raydah (70km from Sana’a), which is home to eight Jewish families, comprising around 60 people. However, the "sightseeing" itinerary has also included the offices of high-ranking Yemeni officials, with varying results. One group enjoyed refreshments at the home of the parliamentary speaker but, when the nature of their visit became clear, they were ordered to wipe the video footage of their encounter - and leave.

The visits are the brainchild of Moshe Hananel, whose company, Galilee Tours, claims to have "pioneered" Israeli tourism to Egypt, Jordan and Morocco, though they fit into a wider pattern of Israeli attempts to contrive situations which might imply Yemeni recognition of Israel.

There was a farcical episode in February when the Israeli ambassador in Amman repeatedly tried to phone the Yemeni ambassador to arrange a meeting between the prime ministers of both countries - only to find that his Yemeni counterpart was permanently unavailable. In March the Israeli airline, El Al, asked permission to use Yemeni airspace for its flights to the Far East but this was refused.

Various propaganda stunts have also tried to give the impression that normalisation of relations is imminent. Last December there were rumours of Israeli investment flooding into Yemen - strongly denied by Sana’a. And earlier this month, at a banquet in New York, President Ali Abdullah Salih appears to have been "set up" for an encounter with the Israeli ambassador to the UN in front of the cameras - again implying normalisation.

The background to all this, according to the Yemeni foreign minister, is that Yemen is under pressure from the United States "and some Arab parties" to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. It is presumably no coincidence that the first batch of Israeli tourists arrived on March 27, at a critical stage in the Middle East peace process, and just as President Salih was beginning an official visit to North America.

At a half-hour meeting between Bill Clinton and Salih in the White House, the American president praised Yemen’s more relaxed attitude to Israeli tourists. In doing so, Clinton seems to have been unaware of his own State Department’s advice which discourages Americans from visiting Yemen because of the risk of kidnapping.

Belatedly, the Israeli Foreign Ministry also realised that if any of its citizens happened to be kidnapped in Yemen there would be a major problem, not least because of the absence of diplomatic representation. It has now advised Israelis to avoid visiting Yemen "before there are more fitting security arrangements".

The aim of these shenanigans is plainly to open a few more cracks in the Arab stance towards Israel, and there are two reasons for regarding Yemen as susceptible to pressure. The first is that it badly needs help and support from the United States. Salih, when he went to the White House, was looking for favours from Clinton and Clinton, in turn, was looking for favours from Salih.

The second is the extent of family ties between Yemen and Israel. Although the total Jewish community in Yemen numbers no more than 600 people, it was once much larger. Between 1949 and 1950, around 43,000 Yemeni Jews were airlifted to Israel in "Operation Flying Carpet". Over the years there have been numerous exchange visits in both directions - though Yemen, deliberately, has no official record of any of them. The issue has always been one of documentation: Israeli passports, or others with an Israeli stamp, are not allowed.

Despite uproar from large sections of the opposition in Yemen, there is no evidence that official policy has changed. Claims that the 12 tourists who arrived on March 27 used Israeli passports to enter the country (as opposed to carrying them in their bags) have not been confirmed; they are said to have presented American and British passports on arrival at their hotel. They are reported to have been issued with transit visas by the Yemeni mission at the UN.

None of the 46 tourists so far has come directly from Israel: one group arrived on a flight from Ethiopia, and others from Jordan and Germany.

All this falls within the usual range of technical devices for travel to and from Israel while formally maintaining a boycott. The Israeli media, for reasons of their own, have been happy to represent it as a turning point. And Yemen, without any real effort, has ingratiated itself with Washington.