When people think of travelling to Israel the question of safety and security always comes up. The truth of the matter is the reality is very different to what many people assume.
What comes to mind when you hear the word Israel? Terrorism? Gaza? The West Bank? A war torn wasteland that has been tearing itself apart since before Christ was even born? How about a country filled with religious extremists of all faiths all going head to head in one giant free for all Ultimate Fighting Championship? That’s fair enough I suppose. The media feeds the Western world a very specific and negative picture of Israel – and in fact the middle east in general – and so it is hardly surprising that most people have a skewed idea of what the country is like.
Of course it doesn’t really help that Israel is surrounded by the – at the moment at least – active conflict zones of Syria and Iraq, and the other political hotbed countries of Turkey, Jordan and Egypt that most people just ignorantly assume are consumed by conflict as well. Well, they’re all the same region, right? They must all be the same.
Then there are still many countries that do not recognise Israel as its own independent state, and the thorny issue of Palestine that is so convoluted and so confusing that I openly hold my hands up and admit I don’t have a strong enough grasp of the politics to fully understand what the hell is going on. Hell, even the US doesn’t recognise parts of Israel as being Israel! I know the Golan heights borders Syria and puts on a light show of Jericho surface to surface missiles from time to time but you can’t just denounce an entire section of the country … oh, wait.
This whole thing gives me a headache.
Let’s face it, the Israel and Palestine issue is an ongoing one and is not going to be sorted out any time soon.
So before I flew out to Israel I was bombarded with the usual ‘it’s not safe to travel there’ nonsense. I’ve heard it all before of course. I’ve travelled to some of the worlds supposedly most dangerous countries and spent a lot of time in the middle east so I’m used to my mother freaking out and acting as if I’m happily skipping off to join in an actual one man firefight. I’m used to friends and acquaintances finding out where I am going and passing judgement on me ranging from ‘I’m so brave’ to ‘I’m totally off my nut and should be sectioned for my own safety’.
And as usual they are all wrong.
So let’s talk about the security issue.
I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect when I landed in Ben Gurion airport, apart from the fact that I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be a bombed out wasteland. But one thing I did know is that security would be heavy and that I would be in absolutely no danger at all.
Israel is a place that has had a lot of conflict both in the past and relatively recently. The tension is still there in some sense, in some areas more than others, and there is always a chance that tensions will rise again at any time and open conflict resume between Israel and Palestine. Then of course there is always the risk of a terrorist attack anywhere at any time, just as there are anywhere else in the world.
But that does not make it dangerous to travel there now.
You have to separate the politics from the reality of life for the average citizen. Whilst the media concentrates on isolated incidents in the West Bank and Gaza, life in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and many other places in Israel carries on as normal. People haggle in the markets, they go shopping, relax with friends in coffee shops, enjoy the nightlife and go about their daily business. Life goes on.
Does that mean that the security situation should be ignored? Of course not. It just has to be looked at with an analytical eye.
Israel is extremely security conscious, so much so its airport is infamous amongst travellers and there is a constant security presence almost everywhere you go, from armed guards to airport style security in shopping malls. Israel even has an Iron Dome missile defence system putting up an invisible shield around the country that most travellers are completely oblivious to.
This familiarity with conflict and security has of course had an effect on the average person too, there is a palpable feeling of toughness about the Israeli people. These are a people that are used to conflict, who are used to hiding in bomb shelters and are respectful of the need for heavy security.
But that in and of itself is not a bad thing. I get why the idea of the need for such security may scare some people. I do, but that fear is totally unfounded.
The security is there to keep everyone safe, and that is exactly what it does! The Israeli government take a very sensible approach to the risk of terrorism and armed conflict. They keep security high but for the most part extremely subtle. The most important thing they do in the face of conflict? They simply carry on as normal and act as if everything is fine.
Because that is exactly what it is.
Carrying on as normal in the face of terrorism or armed conflict is the right thing to do. Israel takes a very sensible approach of high security and low reaction, and what that has led to – unlike the knee jerk panic to security issues that many Western countries take – is a relatively stable tourism industry that does not get decimated every time there is an incident. Life goes on as normal, and that is exactly how it should be.
So what is normal in Israel?
Normal is safe, it really is that simple.
Of course there is a feeling of tension in some parts that in part comes from having lived through numerous and sustained conflicts, but is also based very much on religion. Israel is not simply Jewish, it is also Christian, Muslim, Greek Orthodox, Armenian and a variety of faith groups. There is a heavy mix of religions and faiths in Israel and this does lead to some tension, especially in Jerusalem where there is a prevailing attitude on every single side of absolute rightness. This isn’t the case all over Israel though, there is a definite hard attitude to Jerusalem that isn’t present elsewhere such as Tel Aviv, which feels almost as if someone built a city around a hippy commune and forgot to tell them they were in Israel.
But this is simply a unique part of Israeli culture. It is not a bad thing in and of itself and to some extent helps you understand the national psych, but what it isn’t is dangerous.
At the time of writing there are no government warnings at all advising against travel in Israel, with the exception of Gaza and the border regions of Lebanon and Syria, for obvious reasons, the rest of Israel is perfectly fine. The official advice is that it is safe, but just be aware.
Of course it is always a good idea to keep an eye on the situation and check government warnings frequently and if necessary act accordingly, but in general terms there is absolutely no need to worry despite what the media tells you.
Israel was a place that felt completely safe. People could – with reasonable common sense precautions of course – walk around pretty much anywhere day or night. The infamous Tel Aviv nightlife was relaxed and easy going and even quite family orientated up to a certain point with young children actively joining in the social gatherings. For those staying up later the rest of the party continues until the early hours of the morning and there was never really a question of facing any trouble walking home alone.
Even the ever present security wasn’t as obtrusive nor as hard line as a lot of people assume. Soldiers aren’t some alien race to be feared, they are there to protect you. They are people just trying to do a job and can even pretty friendly people.
See, security isn’t anything to be feared, and even soldiers and guards need a hug!
Does this mean that there is never any risk in Israel? Of course not. That would be a ridiculous statement to make. There is always a risk everywhere. In fact at the time of writing this there was another despicable and cowardly terrorist attack in Jerusalem that killed 4 Israeli soldiers, using similar tactics to those that targeted Christmas markets in Europe.
But one isolated incident, even when counted with previous incidents, does not make a country unsafe. Throughout my time in Jerusalem and Israel I did not for one second feel unsafe, I saw no danger and was in no danger, and I would happily return time and time again.
Do your research, look at the real situation and make an informed decision on whether you want to travel to Israel or not, don’t just listen to the media and pander to scaremongering.
Tourism is a unifying constant in the region as a whole, it is one of the few industries that countries in the region are fully cooperative on, and has taken huge and almost devastating hits in recent years, especially in the surrounding countries of Egypt and Turkey. This is having a huge negative impact on the economies and stabilization of the whole region. Increased tourism could have the opposite effect.
So if you are dreaming of travel to Israel then go! See for yourself what an amazing and enigmatic place Israel is, see what life is like on the ground, meet the people on both sides of the conflict and understand the perspectives from both sides. Go and make your own judgments on how much – or more accurately how little – the sporadic violence and tension in one small part of the region (a part where tourists would not be allowed to go anyway) is having on the rest of the country.
If more people visited Israel and tried to understand both Israeli and Palestinian perspectives, if more people saw that ordinary citizens were just trying to live a happy and peaceful life, then maybe this would go a long way to dispelling some of the negative stereotypes and fear that people have about visiting the country.
If more people did that, if less people listened to the sensationalist media, then the increased tourism wouldn’t just be a boon for Israel, it would have a significantly positive affect on the region as a whole.
So do your research, act within your own comfort levels of what you deem is safe, but don’t dismiss Israel as a destination. Don’t let unfounded fear stop you from visiting one of the most fascinating and surprising countries in the Middle East.
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This article was written in partnership with iTravelJerusalem and TBEX. The views and opinions expressed are entirely the authors own based on personal experiences when travelling and are honest and factual without any bias.