In the Face of War, Some Americans Brave Trip to Israel

Ellen Orlanski wasn't going to let war stop her from flying to Israel to see her daughter.

Instead, Orlanski, a teacher from Queens, N.Y., heeded the advice of the Israeli government about going on with life as usual and boarded an El Al flight Tuesday at JFK airport in New York City. Destination: Tel Aviv.

While her medical student daughter studied for final exams at her university in Jerusalem, Orlanski said she'd help by doing "domestic kinds of things" like cooking and cleaning the dorm room.

“There are so many reasons” to go to Israel, Orlanski said. “It’s a different lifestyle. It’s still a rat race, it’s just a slower rat race. I’m going where I can’t see work.”

As thousands of Americans and other foreigners continued to evacuate from the heart of the Mideast war zone in Lebanon, others like Orlanski headed to Israel Tuesday, determined not to let the fighting thwart their plans.

The sunny El Al Israel Airlines terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport was fairly empty Tuesday. But some travelers kept their reservations on the daily 11:50 a.m. EDT direct flight to Tel Aviv.

Though most of El Al passengers were Israelis ending a stateside stay and going home, a smattering of Americans were venturing to Israel for a summer getaway.

Orlanski planned to take the 10-hour flight, then do the hourlong drive to Jerusalem by taxi. She didn't seem too concerned about the volatile situation in the region, which so far has not crept south into either Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.

"I'm not worried," said Orlanski after she checked her bags with her husband, Maurice, at her side. "Jerusalem right now is quiet." Her normally laid-back daughter was a little jittery, however, telling her mom to leave the airport immediately after arriving and getting her luggage.

The fighting erupted last week after Hezbollah guerrillas crossed into Israel, killed eight soldiers and captured another two. Israel already had been fighting Hamas-linked militants in the Gaza Strip following the capture of another Israeli soldier on June 25.

The Israeli government has urged those in Tel Aviv and other cities to the south of the border with Lebanon to go about their business as usual and not let Hezbollah frighten them.

The militant group Hezbollah has warned that it has long-range missiles that could strike Tel Aviv and other points south, and has pounded northern Israeli towns like Haifa and Nahariya. Meanwhile, the Israeli army has launched a major attack on Hezbollah strongholds in Beirut, including the airport and Hezbollah's headquarters.

As the violence has spread, cruise ships and military helicopters have been steadily transporting those wanting to get out of Lebanon since Sunday, taking most of the evacuees to the island country of Cyprus across the Mediterranean Sea.

El Al officials acknowledged they'd had some cancellations, but said there were more people traveling than not on their direct flights to Tel Aviv.

"Because of the situation, some people postponed their flight," said Willie Licht, the airline's ground operation manager for North America. "On the contrary, we have people advancing their return, wanting to be with family."

He said the usual passenger breakdown of Israelis versus Americans was 50-50 and "that hasn't changed."

But the scene at Kennedy International suggested otherwise Tuesday morning, with few Americans waiting in El Al's check-in line. One married couple from New York said they'd visited Israel 10 years ago and were returning for spiritual and religious reasons.

"We are Christian. We go to the holy city," said Ming Lin, 49, referring to Jerusalem. He said he wasn't too flustered about the war.

"I think it's OK," he ventured, before his wife, Amy Lin, 50, ushered him to the ticket counter so they could check their bags.

El Al prides itself on its tight security. Passengers are surveyed closely three times: while they're checking in, at the airport's gate security and again at the flight's individual gate, according to Isaac Yeffet, the airline's former security chief.

"The system we built is so effective," he said. "The airline wasn't built for the security, the security was built for the airline."

He said the airline relies on highly qualified employees who are trained extensively in security and will be let go on the spot if they fail the random spot-checks. El Al also uses air marshals.

"They behave like passengers," he said. "You have a carry-on. They have a carry-on. You can not identify them. ... Somebody who's suspicious but has no weapons or explosives, we know where to seat him."

If a passenger checking in is acting shiftily during the question-and-answer screening, El Al officials will take the person to a hidden room for more questioning and a luggage search, according to Yeffet.

The airline normally asks its passengers to arrive about three hours prior to the flight departure time, he said, but some will cut it closer and come two hours in advance.

Laurie Kasdan, 47, of Bergen County, N.J., arrived at JFK more than two hours ahead of time with her parents and 9-year-old son in tow. The family was going to visit her teenaged twins, who are on a camp program in Israel and have been moved south by bus.

Israelis like Yariv Inbar, 33, of Haifa — a seaside town embroiled in the battle that has all but shut down — didn't know what they'd find when they returned home.

The computer school Inbar manages has been closed, and his wife and 4-year-old twins already moved to safer ground: a friend's place in the south, he said.

"Right now, I'm OK because my family are in a good place," said Inbar, who was in the U.S. on business. "But I was very afraid because the missiles were very close to our home. They say they have missiles to Tel Aviv."

Yeffet said travelers to Tel Aviv shouldn't panic too much because in the event of a rocket strike on the beachfront city, they will be warned via siren to take shelter — though they'll likely only have "minutes" to run for cover.

"It's enough. People will know exactly where to go," he said.

Yeffet is so confident about the government's capability to protect its people, in fact, that his 10-year-old granddaughter remains in Israel after leaving the States a little more than a week ago for a visit. He worries about her, he said, but she is enjoying her trip.

"You have to be careful," he said. "But she is very, very happy there."

• A brief history of the Lebanese-Israeli conflict.

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FOX News' Christina Cuesta contributed to this report.