Travel Security in Israel
A travel survival kit
Remember, the situation in this area is constantly changing, so check for travel warnings etc with your foreign affairs department (or state department etc) prior to planning and again prior to departure. Australians can check with DFAT.
Also, be aware that visa regulations are constantly changing so check with an Israeli embassy/consulate. Currently, I also advise tourists en route to Israel to keep a close eye on developments in both Israel AND Iran before arriving, as the hatred and potential for conflict between these two countries presently resembles a pressure cooker. If Iran ever detonates a nuclear weapon, or conflict between Israel and any other Middle Eastern country escalates into war, then I strongly advise that all tourists in this area and in any other part of the Middle East to immediately evacuate.
Israel has admittedly had a bad international profile when it comes to danger from within the country. Stories of bombings and shootings, demonstrations and uprisings are common enough through the images of the electronic media. As a result, many would-be visitors keep away from Israel. The reality, as in the case of most media manufactured perceptions, is somewhat different.
Israel is nevertheless a very security-conscious and essentially safe country to travel in and you have more chance of being hit by a bus then being blown up in one. Either way the prospect is not attractive for an unsuspecting traveler. There is not a lot you can do to avoid random acts of terrorism, but you can stack the odds in your favour by keeping a few pointers in mind.
Urban buses, bus stations and markets are popular spots for intended bombing missions. Keep your time spent in or around them as short as possible. Walk in preference to taking an urban bus. Security is generally good at interurban bus stations, but it is next to impossible to monitor markets and city bus stops. Some urban stops in Jerusalem are patrolled, however, by volunteer security brigades.
Be alert for suspicious people around you and avoid congested places. Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda Market is a magnet for shoppers and lovers of markets, but it was bombed once in 1997 killing 16 and injuring 170 people, and a suicide bombing attempt made in November 1998 injured 20 bystanders.
Keep away from developing hotspots and move on quickly out of harms way if you accidentally come across a demonstration. Incidents of this nature are more likely to happen in West Bank towns such as Hebron or Ramallah. Tourists are not deliberately targeted, but you may get caught up in any ensuring crossfire if things get nasty.
In order to avoid the scrupulous attention of the IDF (Israeli Defense Force), do not do silly things like wearing Palestinian keffiyas in obviously Jewish areas (you really shouldn't be wearing one anyway in this area, even if you are of Palestinian heritage but don't live there). Never leave luggage or bags unattended anywhere: it is likely to be declared a 'hefetz hashud' - suspicious object - and will be blown up by security personnel. Conversely, do not wear a kippa or other Jewish items of clothing in the West Bank.
From a tourists point of view, it's hard to ignore the security measures that are in place. However, this measures are almost universally welcomed among the Israeli population. They have saved countless lives.
Vehicles that are suspiciously parked are towed away and blown up, or sometimes even blown up on the spot - if you're asked to move on from a street, this is probably the reason why. If anyone at all asks you to move on or to 'get out of here' - do so as quickly as possible, regardless of who they appear to be. Abandoned parcels, packaging and luggage are also blown up. Markets, streets and public facilities are instantly closed at even the vaguest rumour of a threat. People and their belongings are often scrutinized by officials. If you go to a bus terminal, a rail station, an airport, a shopping centre, a supermarket, a museum, a fast-food outlet owned by an American company, a government building, a car park, or absolutely anyplace that could possibly be a terrorist target, you will have your bags searched, and maybe X-Rayed (if you have a film camera, keep all of your films in a special X-Ray safe bag you get purchase from most camera shops - this should protect your film if you and your belongings are X-Rayed). You may also be checked with a metal detector, and you might even be subject to a body search. You will also notice that there are countless roadblocks all over the place, and often in the strangest places, but particularly on highways. You may also be grilled about itinerary and purpose of travel by IDF soldiers. This should go without saying, but under no circumstances refuse to co-operate with the police or the IDF. It's simply more trouble than it's worth, and their word is the law.
Western tourists in particular will find these measures very difficult to understand and accept, as those from the west are fortunate enough to be able to go about their everyday business without being harassed by authorities. The tragedy is the fact these western-style liberties do not exist in this part of the world. Do not refuse to co-operate with the IDF. You will be arrested and probably deported. American tourists, in particular, may find these measures frustrating and intrusive, while others will probably cause a scene. Please, don't do either. Residents of these areas have gotten use to them and view them as mundane. Maybe tourists ought to, too.
Just keep this in mind next time you are undergoing a rather invasive security check: these extreme security measures have thwarted countless terrorist attacks. Until the situation improves, things aren't going to be relaxed in a hurry.
Boys, Girls and Guns
Israel is still technically at war with more than a few of its fellow Middle Eastern countries. This, in addition to being enmeshed in battling Palestinian terrorist groups and struggling to contain the sporadically violent extremist factions within its own society, means that wherever you go you'll see armed soldiers. Bus stations, in particular, are filled with soldiers in olive green uniforms either arriving home on leave or heading off back to base. Having an occasion to ask, "Excuse me, could you move your gun so I can sit down there", is an accepted part of bus travel. Don't make an issue of it - just pretend not to even notice it (unless, as just mentioned, you need to sit down and the gun is in the way, but remember to be polite) - it's more trouble than it's worth. Do not stare at or take photographs of IDF soldiers. Do not take photographs of or loiter around military installations. But do pretend not to notice them. Otherwise, the IDF may view you with suspicion!
What takes more getting used to is the prepubescent appearance of some of the soldiers. Unlike most standing armies, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) is a citizens' army made up of draftees - both men and women - plucked from civilian life at age 18, fresh from high school. With the conscripts out of adolescence, it's an army were fatigues are supplemented by RayBans, and M16 rifles double as crucial fashion accessories. Nor is it always necessary to wear a uniform to carry a gun. Any soldier who loses their weapon (though rarely are women assigned to the weapon-carrying infantry units) is liable to seven years imprisonment, therefore off-duty, jeans and T-Shirt clad soldiers sometimes haul their rifles around if there's no secure place to leave them. People from the Lonely Planet organization once spotted two young men attempting to groove on a Jerusalem dance floor encumbered with machine guns slung across their backs - although this may have had a lot more to do with narcissism then security.
The initial spell of compulsory service in the IDF stretches for 3 years in the case of men and 18 months in the case of women. Once this has been completed, every male is assigned to a reserve unit to which they are recalled for about 30 days service each year, until the age of 35. Single women are also liable to reserve service up until the age of 34, but in practice they're exempted once they're about 25 years old. Presumably once a person hits their mid-30's they're assumed to have finally grown out of teenage things such as guns.
How safe is it?
Stability has never been a strong point in Israel. In his book "Return to the Desert", Author David Praill estimates that over the last 4000 years the parcel of land now know as Israel "has suffered an invasion or undesired incursion once every 40 years". However, with both Egypt and Jordan committed to peace and ongoing talks with Syria, the present situation is as favourable to tourism as it has been almost any time in this century or the previous one.
Israel is not nearly as dangerous as the accumulated impact of suicide bombing and assassination headlines might suggest. The violence, which indisputably does afflict the country, has almost exclusively involved the local population, and popular tourist areas have almost never been targeted. The Palestinians are in no way hostile to foreign visitors (although they may be a little cool to anybody blatantly Jewish), and, especially outside of Jerusalem, you'll find them courteous and welcoming. The vast majority of people are just trying to get on with their lives. It's only an extremely small percentage of people that make things difficult for everyone else (and they're mainly politicians).
The Israeli Stamp Stigma
Israel is, of course, the venue for that popular Middle Eastern game, the passport Shuffle, which involves getting in and out of the country, but avoiding being stamped with any incriminating evidence to tell that you were there. This game was devised because those countries that refuse to recognize Israel (including Lebanon, Syria and the Gulf States) refuse to allow anyone across their borders whose passport is "marred" by evidence of a visit to the Jewish state.
Never, ever, get your Passport stamped with an Israeli stamp. Israeli immigration officials will, if asked, stamp only your entry permit and not your passport. This is fine in you are flying both into and out of Israel, but if crossing by land into either Egypt or Jordan, the Arab immigration officers are generally not so obliging and their entry stamps will be a dead giveaway - although some wily travelers have gotten away with stamps on a separate piece of paper, especially at the Allenby River crossing into Jordan.
Forget entering Syria or Lebanon after Israel, even if you have separately stamped sheets from Israel and Jordan. More Syrian immigration officials are requiring evidence of legal entry into Jordan, and replacement passports issued in Jordan now raise suspicion.
These procedures regularly change, with some countries accepting tourists with Israeli stamps in them, while previously tolerant countries will suddenly change their policies with no fanfare or reason. The easiest thing to do, if you plan on touring other Middle Eastern and Gulf state countries, is to visit Israel last.
Traveling in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank
Forget even thinking about traveling into these areas. With the present instability involving the Government of Palestine, in addition to the death of Yassar Arafat, this area is strictly off limits to travelers as everything threatens to explode.
Don't let all of this put you off travelling into and around Israel. Israel is truly a remarkable place and a delight for any archaeologist, historian or photographer. To paraphrase the popular Lonely Planet organization, simply keep your wits about you, add a healthy sprinkle of common sense and enjoy your stay safely!
Overall, keep your wits about you, sprinkle them with a healthy dose of common sense and enjoy your stay - safely.
The Australian Embassy in Israel is located at 37 Shaul Ha Melekh Ave, Tel Aviv, Israel.
Some of the information in this document is courtesy Lonely Planet Publications. The rest of it is from the prior travel adventures that the webmaster has has the (mis)fortune to experience.
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