Arnie WeissmannBETHLEHEM, West Bank -- Here, it's impossible to get away from news coverage about last week's flotilla incident. Televisions are on in every shop and restaurant, and they can be watched through open doors of residences. All show the video from the chaotic scene on the ship, or commentators, or government officials talking. It's nonstop.

But on the day of the raid, there was little that seemed outside the norm on the streets of West Bank cities I visited. Going through Israeli checkpoints did not take particularly long, and the souk in Nabulus, which was a major center of resistance and violence during the second intifada, did not feel particularly tense to me.

I'm staying in Bethlehem, and when I returned that evening, I went for a walk. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had declared a three-day period of mourning, and as a result, most of the stores were closed. But I did notice something different from the night before: Around the corner from my hotel were about 10 Palestinian Preventive Service commandos in blotchy-blue nighttime camouflage, holding assault rifles.

The Preventive Service is an elite group, called in to put down trouble quickly, and it occurred to me that their very presence was a preventive measure. The night passed without incident.

The next day, I walked through the alleys of Old Jerusalem and saw that about 70% of the shops and shacks were compliant with the order to close for the mourning period. But there were still enough shops and stalls open that tourists could spend some time shopping for souvenirs or having a cool drink to counter the current heat wave in Palestine. When I returned to my hotel about 10 p.m., I noticed that food stores, from small grocery shops to ice cream parlors, were open for business. I later found out that stores only need be closed during the day.

I'm in Bethlehem to attend a Palestinian investment conference focused, in part, on travel. I had arranged to interview former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in advance of the conference, where he was to speak the next day.

Among his current projects is to lead the Quartet group, which works to jump-start the Middle East peace process (it's funded by the U.K., U.S., Russia and the U.N.) On the terrace outside his hotel room at the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem, I asked him for the Quartet's position on the flotilla incident.

"It's a terrible tragedy, and obviously there's got to be the fullest possible investigation," he told me. "What shouldn't happen is that we derail the search for peace.

"And with respect to Gaza, for a long time I've advocated for a different policy there. I'd like to see ... indirect talks, which are carrying on at this moment, be turned into full-blown negotiations."

The handful of Americans I spoke to at the conference had all received email from loved ones, expressing concern they might be in harm's way. That suggests that people who have booked or are planning trips to the area are having second thoughts.

I share Mr. Blair's hope that this tragedy doesn't derail hopes for peace. Further, I hope it doesn't derail anyone's travel plans to Israel or the West Bank.

Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter
This column appeared in the June 7 issue of Travel Weekly.


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