Israelis absent from World Scout Jamboree in Thailand

SATTAHIP, Thailand — Just three years ago, Israeli and Palestinian boy scouts slept side by side in sleeping bags on the ground in Tiberias.

But that was before the intifada began. This year, it's another story.

At this year's World Scout Jamboree in Thailand, which ended Jan. 14, there were only six Palestinian scouts — who made it thanks to German funds and patronage — and no Israelis.

Despite a year of preparations, the 55 Israeli scouts had to stay home because of the government's security concerns and the organizers' refusal to allow armed Israeli guards to accompany the scouts.

"We could not allow the Israelis to be in the camp with their armed guards," explained Jean Cassaigneau, deputy secretary-general of the World Scouts Movement. "The next day, the Americans would ask to have their arms, and how about protection for the Palestinian delegation? This is supposed to be a peaceful event."

In any case, he noted, "There are two Thai navy ships guarding us from the sea, and Thai soldiers and police are manning the gates."

The World Scouts say they did not even allow participants to use their knives inside the Jamboree site.

But Israel's security services were adamant that the scouts couldn't attend unless Israeli guards accompanied them, Amos Ilani, international commissioner of the Israeli scouts, said by phone from Tel Aviv.

The Israeli group now is trying to recoup from the World Scouts the $22,000 they say they spent on preparations.

"The decision not to allow the delegation to go to Thailand was taken in Israel," said the Israeli consul in Thailand, Ya'akov Dvir. "We inspected the site, and I understood that our security officer was to allow it, under particular conditions. Eventually, the last word came from the security people in Israel. I cannot elaborate on their reasons."

It may have had something to do with the November terrorist attacks in Kenya, in which suicide bombers destroyed an Israeli-owned hotel, killing three Israelis and 10 Kenyans, and missiles barely missed an Israeli passenger plane.

Israel's Foreign Ministry posted travel warnings after the attack. A special section on Thailand urged Israelis to avoid spending much time in hotels, restaurants and tourist sites known to be popular with Israelis, and to tone down their "Israeliness."

Many Israelis — including an Israeli bank that cancelled a planned trip to Thailand for 3,000 employees — took the warnings seriously.

But some saw the scouts' decision as a mistake.

"I think that politically it was not a very wise decision. The fact that the Palestinian delegation is here with the Palestinian flag means they won," said Rabbi Pinchas Gniwisch, a Canadian from the Chabad movement, who was invited by the Thai government to organize Jewish activities at the camp. "The message is clear: 'We scared you, and you're not here.' In the future it could mean you can kick Israelis out everywhere. On the other hand, I can't blame Israeli parents for not wanting to send their kids to the Jamboree these days."

Not everybody agreed with Gniwisch.

"I think that by not coming, the Israeli delegation showed that the threat of terror is real," said Rabbi Joseph Kantor, the head of Chabad in Bangkok. "I see it as a responsible step, but I am quite happy it wasn't me who had to take that decision."

There still were some 50 Jewish scouts at the jamboree from other countries, but the Israelis' absence hurt, Gniwisch said.

"The other day we couldn't even form a minyan to conduct a prayer at the synagogue," said Rabbi Shmulik Guttnick of New York. "Eventually we found a Jewish scout from Pennsylvania who was actually quite enthusiastic to help us out and came to pray with us at the synagogue."

One Israeli scout, Mor Kertes, was angry about the government's decision.

"When I heard we were not going to the jamboree, I started crying. I felt so helpless," Kertes, 18, said by telephone. "We had big hopes we would be able to meet the Palestinian scouts in person. I have been a scout for eight years now, and have never met a Palestinian scout before. It could have been a unique opportunity to show the world that we can talk to each other and do great things together.''