Johann-Dietrich Woerner. Credit: ESA

JERUSALEM — The European Space Agency advised its personnel to decide individually whether to attend this year’s International Astronautical Congress, being held here, based on their sense of security risks and said none would suffer penalties if they canceled their plans.

In the advisory, sent to the agency’s division chiefs, ESA Director General Johann-Dietrich Woerner also said those who decided to attend had no need to worry about insurance implications in the event of an issue during their stay.

IAC organizers said they have some 2,500 delegates to the meeting, substantially fewer than the attendees at last year’s conference in Toronto. A perusal of the speaker list suggests many decided on relatively short notice not to attend. Whether the large percentage of the no-shows was due to the outbreak of violence between Palestinians and Israelis in recent days could not be determined.

Woerner’s memorandum was interpreted by many here as a suggestion that ESA employees should think twice before boarding planes to Jerusalem.

In an interview, Woerner – who is attending, as are many of ESA’s directors – denied that this was his intention.

“I said I would back them whatever their decision was,” Woerner said. “If they decided not to attend, we would reimburse their costs. If they decided to attend, I wanted to assure them on insurance matters. I also told them I planned to attend.”

Several companies sending employees here have advised them to stick to their hotels and to the organized conference circuit of events and not to stray even into Jerusalem’s Old City.

An Israeli industry official expressed surprise at the reaction, but said that certain precautions are nonetheless necessary now that were not necessary several weeks ago.

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.