Especially if you’re flying El Al, be ready for more-intense airport security than normal, both going and coming. Before being reaching the check-in counter, you’ll go through a preliminary security line and be asked about your reasons for the trip and your travel history in the Middle East. Once you’ve answered, don’t be surprised if another staffer asks you more questions, or the same ones, all over again.
Ask about your guide(s) background in advance and make sure you are comfortable with it. One of my three guides was American, and while he was terrifically well-informed, I would rather have had an Israeli-born or –raised guide than a non-native. Also, both of my other guides had not just served but fought in the military, one in the ‘67 war and one ‘73. To me their age and experience were huge pluses, giving their stories about the recent history of the country and its people a real heft. For comparison it would have been great to have done some touring as well with a guide in his or her 20s or 30s. Next time!
It is not a given that your hotel room will have it, for free or otherwise, nor is it a given that it will work, even if you pay extra for it. Make sure you know your hotel’s situation beforehand, and make sure the hotel knows having good WiFi in room is important to you, if it is.
Six times I checked into hotels and four times it took 15 minutes or longer. Slow procedures and/or the lines that resulted were the cause. Check-ins seemed to require reception staff an inordinate amount of time looking at computer screens, calling up various files and consulting among themselves. Expect efficiency in many places here, but not necessarily at your hotel’s front desk.
In ten days I felt nervous only for a few seconds, when a young soldier standing about five feet away from me at the Western Wall dropped his machine gun. The loud clatter on the stone pavement brought everyone in the vicinity to an immediate, sharp silence. Otherwise, except for soldiers at major tourist sites (either posted on guard or visiting as part of their military training) and at West Bank checkpoints (more like toll booths than anything else), security was noticeably low-key—at least to a tourist’s eye. There are plenty of security cameras being monitored behind the scenes, one is told and one assumes, but I noticed only a few.
You can easily go to Tel Aviv for a long weekend and have the kind of trip you would have in many beach cities, with nothing much but sun and fun on—good restaurants, a few museums, maybe a little shopping—on the menu. Nothing wrong with that. But if you are going to “do” the country, not just that city, then before you land do try to bone up on the Bible and on Israel’s history, from way (way) back to right now. Your tour guides will speak of Elijah and Abraham, King David and King Herod as if they saw them at dinner last night. You will encounter repeated references to periods ranging from pre-Exodus to British Mandate; I could barely follow them, and that was with a timeline in my hands. Discussion of the modern wars—including Arab-Israeli (1948), Six Day (1967), Yom Kippur (1973)—and border moves and partitioning (as when Jordan controlled East Jerusalem from 1948 to 1967) is going to come up daily, if not hourly, when you are talking seriously about the country. To begin to grasp the complexities, if not the subtleties, being communicated, you need to know the basic outline of who lived where and when, and who controlled what and for how long. The stories and competing interests of those who lived here in history and those who want to live here today—in these too Israel is unmatched.
West Bank and Gaza
It’s important to understand as well the status of the two entities that were part of Israel (in recent history) until the 1993 Oslo Accords but that now together form the Palestinian Territories. While it is possible to visit Gaza, which has been under the control of the militant political party Hamas since 2006, because of its lack of reliable infrastructure and the potential for conflict, it is generally not advisable to do so. As for the West Bank—which is under varying degrees of separate and shared control by the Palestinian Authority and Israel—despite its status as being, depending on your point of view, an occupied territory or a disputed territory, you can enter it with no restrictions beyond having to pass through security checkpoints. Many tourists will visit its major sites, which include Bethlehem, Jericho and Masada, as day trips from Jerusalem, or will drive through it while on their way to the Galilee.
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