JERUSALEM (AP) — Prince William began his visit to Israel on Tuesday with an emotional tour of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, a soccer game with Arab and Jewish youth and an introduction to Tel Aviv’s vibrant start-up scene.
The prince is the first member of the British royal family to pay an official visit to Israel. Though the trip is being billed as non-political, the prince is meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and visiting sites at the heart of the century-old conflict.
He started off the day with a visit to Yad Vashem, where he met with two survivors who escaped Nazi Germany for the safety of Britain.
“It has been a profoundly moving experience to visit Yad Vashem today,” the prince wrote in the memorial’s guestbook. “It is almost impossible to comprehend this appalling event in history. Every name, photograph and memory recorded here is a tragic reminder of the unimaginable human cost of the Holocaust and of the immense loss suffered by the Jewish people.”
Most Read Nation & World Stories
He noted with pride that his great-grandmother had been recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations, the highest honor Israel grants to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Princess Alice hid three members of the Cohen family in her palace in Athens during the Nazi occupation of Greece in World War II. Thanks to her efforts, the Cohen family survived and today lives in France.
The princess died in 1969, and in 1988 her remains were brought to Jerusalem. Prince William plans to visit her gravesite later in the week as part of his tour of Jerusalem landmarks.
Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev, who guided the Duke of Cambridge through the museum’s exhibitions detailing Nazi Germany’s genocide of 6 million Jews during World War II, said the prince was visibly moved as he stopped to inquire about various elements of the Holocaust.
“The theme that repeated itself throughout the entire visit was his wondering of what kind of deep hatred could have driven people to commit such horrific acts,” Shalev told The Associated Press. “He kept saying: ‘How did they get to such a place?’ … He really identified with the victims.”
The hour-and-a-half visit included a ceremony in which he placed a wreath on a concrete slab containing the ashes of Holocaust victims and a brief meeting with a pair of survivors from the Kindertransport, a rescue effort for some 12,000 children who were sent from Germany to Britain on the eve of World War II.
Henry Foner, who was fostered by a Jewish family in Swansea, Wales, and later served overseas for the British Army, said it was like a fairy tale for a refugee child like himself to meet a member of the royal family eight decades after the country rescued him.
“I’m very grateful to Britain because it saved my life, it’s as simple as that,” said Foner, 86. “It was as if he knew us, he knew the background and he made us feel so at home. It’s as if you had met a friend you hadn’t seen in a while.”
Three decades of British rule between the two world wars helped establish some of the fault lines of today’s Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Britain’s withdrawal in 1948 led to the eventual establishment of Israel and Jordan, where the prince kicked off the five-day Mideast tour on Sunday.
For the 36-year-old William, second in line to the throne, it marks a high-profile visit that could burnish his international credentials.
After Yad Vashem, he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara, accompanied by descendants of the Cohen family Princess Alice had saved. An Associated Press journalist was prevented from covering the meeting after Israeli security agents questioned him about his religion and ethnic background.
Later, President Reuven Rivlin told the prince about his childhood in Jerusalem living under the British mandate and asked him to deliver a “message of peace” to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whom the prince will meet later in the week.
The Palestinians are also eager to welcome the prince, hoping his visit will give them a boost as they struggle with a Trump administration they consider biased toward Israel.
The prince will try to deftly dodge politics as he later visits east Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war and annexed in a move not internationally recognized. Israel considers east Jerusalem, home to holy sites sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims, as an inseparable part of its capital. The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as their future capital.
Ahead of the visit, the prince caused a stir in Israel when the royal itinerary described east Jerusalem, including the Old City, as part of the “Occupied Palestinian Territories.”
The prince presented Rivlin, an avid football fan, with a jersey of his favorite Premier League team, Liverpool, and expressed how eager he was to dive into his first visit to the Holy Land.
“I’m really looking forward to getting to meet as many Israelis as possible and understand Israeli history and Israeli culture,” the prince said. “I’m very much looking forward to really absorbing and understanding the different issues.”
William then departed for coastal Tel Aviv to attend a soccer match of young Jewish and Arab players run by the Peres Peace Center.
Wearing a light blue shirt, dark blue pants and blue Nike sneakers with a yellow logo, the prince scored two out of three penalty kicks against a 13-year-old goalkeeper. He then met the mayor of Tel Aviv and together they hit the beach, where the prince chatted up tanned volleyball players.
The prince wrapped up the busy day with a reception held by the British ambassador that included demonstrations by Israeli tech startups and which was attended by Israeli celebrities, politicians and other public figures.
“In the past century the people of the Middle East have suffered great sadness and loss. Never has hope and reconciliation been more needed,” he told the crowd, after wishing everyone a good evening, in Hebrew.
Follow Heller at www.twitter.com/aronhellerap