Ancient Times. Around 1800 BC, Abraham is believed to have led his nomadic tribe from Mesopotamia to what is now Israel and the Palestinian Territories, then known as Canaan. His descendants were forced to relocate to Egypt because of drought and crop failure but, according to the Bible, Moses led them back in about 1250 BC. Conflicts with the Canaanites and Philistines pushed the Israelites to abandon their loose tribal system and unify under King Saul (1050–1010 BC) and his successors, King David, and King Solomon, builder of the First Temple in Jerusalem.
After Solomon’s reign (965–928 BC), two rival entities came into being: the Kingdom of Israel in what is now the northern West Bank and the Galilee; and the southern Kingdom of Judah, with its capital at Jerusalem. After Sargon II of Assyria (r 722–705 BC) destroyed the Kingdom of Israel in 720 BC, the 10 tribes who made up the northern Kingdom of Israel disappeared from the historical record.
The Babylonians captured Jerusalem in 586 BC, destroying the First Temple and exiling the people of Judah to Babylonia (now Iraq). Fifty years later Cyrus II, king of Persia, defeated Babylon and allowed the Jews to return to the Land of Israel. The returning Jews immediately set about constructing the Second Temple, consecrated in 516 BC.
Greeks & Maccabees, Romans & Christians. Greek rule over the Land of Israel began in the late 4th century BC. When the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes banned Temple sacrifices, Shabbat and circumcision, the Jews, led by Judah Maccabee, revolted. Using guerrilla tactics, they captured Jerusalem and rededicated the Temple – an event celebrated by the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.
The Maccabees also established the Hasmonean dynasty, but infighting made it easy for Rome to take over in 63 BC. At times the Romans ruled the Roman province of Judaea directly through a procurator – the most famous of whom was Pontius Pilate – but they preferred a strong client ruler like Herod the Great (r 37–4 BC), whose major construction projects included expanding the Temple.
The 1st century AD was a time of tremendous upheaval in Judea, not least between about 28 and 30 AD, when it’s believed Jesus of Nazareth carried out his ministry. In the years following Jesus’ crucifixion, which some experts believe took place in AD 33, Jews who believed him to be the Messiah and those who didn’t often worshipped side by side. But around the time the Gospels were written (late 1st century CE), theological and political disagreements emerged and the two communities diverged.
Long-simmering tensions in Judaea exploded in AD 66, when the Jews launched the Great Jewish Revolt (the First Jewish–Roman War) against the Romans. Four years later, Titus, the future emperor, crushed the rebels and laid waste to the Second Temple. The mountaintop Jewish stronghold of Masada fell in AD 73, putting an end to even nominal Jewish sovereignty for almost 2000 years.
With the Temple destroyed and the elaborate animal sacrifices prescribed in the Torah suspended, Jewish religious life was thrown into a state of limbo. In an effort to adapt to the new circumstances, Jewish sages set about reorienting Judaism towards prayer and synagogue worship.
After another failed Jewish revolt, the Bar Kochba Rebellion (AD 132–35), the triumphant Romans – in an attempt to erase Jews’ connection to the country – renamed Jerusalem ‘Aelia Capitolina’ and the province of Judaea ‘Syria Palaestina’.
Muslims & Crusaders. Islam and the Arabs arrived in Palestine in AD 638 – just six years after the death of the Prophet Mohammed – when Caliph Omar (Umar), the second of the Prophet Mohammed’s successors, accepted the surrender of Jerusalem. Jews were again permitted to settle in Jerusalem and Christian shrines, including those established by Helena (Constantine the Great’s mother) were preserved.
Omar’s successors built Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount (known to Muslims as Al-Haram ash-Sharif), believed to be the site of Mohammed’s Night Journey (Mi’raj) to behold the celestial glories of heaven.
Christian pilgrimage to the holy sites in Jerusalem was blocked in 1071 by the Seljuk Turks. In response, in 1095 Pope Urban II issued a call for a crusade to restore the site of Jesus’ Passion to Christianity. By the time the Crusades began, the Seljuks had been displaced by the Fatimid dynasty, which was quite happy to allow the old pilgrimage routes to reopen. But it was too late. In 1099 the Crusaders overwhelmed Jerusalem’s defenses and massacred its Muslims and Jews.
In 1187 the celebrated Kurdish-Muslim general Saladin (Salah ad-Din) defeated a Crusader army at the Horns of Hattin in Galilee (near Arbel) and took Jerusalem. The final Crusaders left the Middle East with the fall of Acre in 1291.
Ottomans, Zionists & British. The Ottoman Turks captured Palestine in 1516, and two decades later Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (r 1520–66) built the present massive walls around Jerusalem’s Old City. For most of the 400 years of Ottoman rule, Palestine was a backwater run by pashas more concerned with capricious tax collection than good governance.
While a small numbers of Jews had remained in Palestine continuously since Roman times, and pious Jews had been immigrating whenever political conditions permitted, organized Zionist immigration to agricultural settlements didn’t begin until 1882, sparked by pogroms in Russia. For slightly different reasons, Jews from Yemen began arriving the same year. But until after WWI, the vast majority of Palestine’s Jews belonged to the old-line Orthodox community, most of it uninterested in Zionism, and lived in Judaism’s four holy cities: Hebron, Tsfat (Safed), Tiberias and Jerusalem, which has had a Jewish majority since about 1850.
In November 1917 the British government issued the Balfour Declaration, which stated that ‘His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish People’. The next month, British forces under General Edmund Allenby captured Jerusalem.
After the end of WWI Jews resumed immigration to Palestine, this time to territory controlled by a British mandate – approved by the League of Nations – that was friendly, modernizing and competent. Among the Jewish immigrants were young, idealistic socialists, many of whom established kibbutzim (communal settlements) on marginal land purchased from absentee Arab landlords, sometimes displacing Arab peasant farmers. In the 1930s they were joined by refugees from Nazi Germany.
The anti-Zionist Arab Revolt (1936–39), aimed both at Jews and British forces, was suppressed by the Mandatory government with considerable violence. However, it convinced the British – who, in case of war with Germany, would surely need Arab oil and political goodwill – to severely limit Jewish immigration to Palestine. Just as the Jews of Europe were becoming increasingly desperate to flee Hitler (Jews were allowed to leave Germany until late 1941, provided they could find a country to take them), the doors of Palestine slammed shut.
Independence & Catastrophe. By 1947 the British government, exhausted by WWII and tired of both Arab and Jewish violence in Palestine, turned the problem over to the two-year-old UN. In a moment of rare agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1947, the UN General Assembly voted in favour of partitioning Palestine into two independent states – one Jewish, the other Arab – with Jerusalem under a ‘special international regime’. Palestinian Jews accepted the plan in principle, but Palestinian Arabs, and nearby Arab countries, rejected it. Arab bands immediately began attacking Jewish targets, beginning the 1948 Arab–Israeli War.
As soon as the British left, at midnight on 14 May 1948, two things happened: the Jews proclaimed the establishment of an independent Jewish state, and the armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq invaded Palestine. But to the Arab states’ – and the world’s surprise – the 650,000 Palestinian Jews were not ‘thrown into the sea’ but rather took control of 77% of Mandatory Palestine (the Partition Plan had offered them 56%), though without Jerusalem’s Old City. Jordan occupied (and annexed) the West Bank and East Jerusalem, expelling the residents of the Old City’s Jewish quarter; Egypt took control of the Gaza Strip.
As a result of the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, Israel achieved independence, quickly becoming a place of refuge for Holocaust survivors and Jewish refugees from Arab countries. The establishment of a sovereign Jewish state guaranteed that Jews fleeing persecution would always have a country that would take them in.
But for the Palestinian Arabs, the war is remembered as Al-Naqba, the Catastrophe. At the start of the conflict, at least 800,000 Arabs lived in what was to become Israel. By the end, 160,000 remained in areas under Israeli control. While many fled their homes to escape fighting, others were forced out of their towns and villages by Israeli military units.
After Israel became independent, impoverished Jewish refugees began flooding in, including Holocaust survivors and Jews from Arab countries whose ancient Jewish communities had been targets of anti-Jewish violence. Within three years, Israel’s Jewish population had more than doubled.
War, Terrorism & a Peace Treaty. In the spring of 1967 Arab capitals – especially Cairo – were seething with calls to liberate all of historic Palestine from what they saw as an illegitimate occupation by Jewish Israelis. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser ordered UN peacekeeping forces to withdraw from Sinai and closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping.
On 6 June Israel launched a pre-emptive attack on its Arab neighbours, devastating their air forces and, in less than a week – the reason why the conflict came to be known as the ‘Six Day War’ (www.sixdaywar.co.uk) – captured Sinai and Gaza from Egypt, the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, and the Golan from Syria.
In 1973 Egypt and Syria launched a surprise, two-front attack on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. Unprepared because of intelligence failures, Israel was initially pushed back. Although in tactical and strategic terms Israel eventually achieved victory on the battlefield, it came away from the war feeling defeated, in part because the early Egyptian and Syrian advances, coming just six years after the stunning victory of 1967, were so bloody and traumatic.
In 1977 Egyptian President Anwar Sadat stunned the world by travelling to Jerusalem. He offered to make peace with Israel in return for an Israeli withdrawal from Sinai and promises (never fulfilled) of progress towards a Palestinian state. The Camp David Accords, the first peace treaty between Israel and an Arab state, were signed in 1978.
In 1987 a popular uprising against Israeli rule broke out in the West Bank and Gaza. Known as the Intifada (Arabic for ‘shaking off’), this spontaneous eruption of strikes, stones and Molotov cocktails gave Palestinians a renewed sense of hope and purpose.
In 1988 Yasser Arafat, then president of the PA, publicly renounced terrorism. Five years later, Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) signed the Oslo Accords, under which Israel handed over control of territory to the Palestinians in stages, beginning with the major towns of the West Bank and Gaza. The toughest issues – the future of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees’ ‘Right of Return’ – were to be negotiated at the end of a five-year interim period.
Renewed Violence & Stalemate. But the Oslo Accords didn’t bring real peace. Rather, they drove those on both sides who opposed compromise to greater acts of violence. Hamas and Islamic Jihad launched suicide bombings against Israeli civilians, and in November 1995 a right-wing Orthodox Israeli assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at a peace rally in Tel Aviv.
The Second Intifada (2000–05) brought an unprecedented wave of Palestinian suicide bombings against Israeli civilian targets, including buses, supermarkets, cafes and discos.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a tough-talking former general, sent tanks to occupy West Bank towns previously ceded to the Palestinian Authority.
Depressed and sick, Arafat’s command of events and – according to some aides – reality weakened until his death in November 2004.
Over the course of the Second Intifada, over 1000 Israelis, 70% of them civilians, were killed by Palestinians and some 4700 Palestinians, many of them civilians, were killed by Israelis, according to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem (www.btselem.org).
In 2005 Sharon – completely contradicting his reputation as an incorrigible hardliner – evacuated all 8600 Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip and four settlements in the northern West Bank. Like many other hawkish Israeli leaders before and after, he had come to the conclusion that Israel’s continued occupation of the territories captured in 1967 was against Israeli interests and, in the long run, geopolitically and demographically untenable.
In the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, Hamas – an Islamic political and militant group classified as a terrorist organization by the United States, Canada, the European Union, the UK, Japan and Israel – won a landslide victory. The following year Hamas gunmen ran their Fatah counterparts out of the Gaza Strip after several days of bloody fighting, leaving the West Bank and Gaza under rival administrations.
In summer 2006, Israel and the Shiite Lebanese militia Hezbollah, backed by Iran, fought a brief war. Thousands of rockets rained down on Israeli cities, towns and villages, bringing northern Israel to a terrified halt. The scale of Israel’s bombing attacks on Lebanese towns was widely condemned, but in mid-2012 a tenuous ceasefire was still holding.
In very late 2008, in response to years of rocket fire from Gaza, Israel launched a major offensive, dubbed Operation Cast Lead, aimed at halting the attacks. After three weeks of fighting, much of Gaza’s infrastructure lay in ruins and more than 1000 Palestinians were dead; Israel claimed most were militants. Despite this, a tenuous ceasefire between Hamas and Israel was still holding (more or less) in mid-2012.
Today. Optimism about peace was widespread among both Israelis and Palestinians in the heyday of the Oslo peace process, in the mid-1990s. But following years of suicide bombings, rocket attacks from Gaza and calls by Palestinian Islamists for Israel’s destruction, many Israelis have become pessimistic. Continuing Israel. Defence Force (IDF) roadblocks, settlement construction and settler violence have had a similar impact on the assessment of many Palestinians.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has declared his support for a two-state solution to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, but since his right-wing coalition government came to power in 2009, it has repeatedly expanded Jewish settlements and offered only vague answers to Palestinian questions about eventual borders, calling into question Netanyahu’s commitment to the eventual establishment of a viable Palestinian state next to Israel.
The leadership of the Palestinian Authority (PA) also appears hamstrung. Although PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayad, have a long record of support for a two-state solution, they too have seemed reluctant to make any bold moves. Instead, Abbas has been putting great effort into having Palestine admitted to the UN General Assembly as a full member state.
Israel. As the only Jewish state, Israel and its society are unique in the Middle East – and the world. Over three-quarters of Israelis are Jewish, but Israeli society is surprisingly diverse, encompassing communities of Muslim and Christian Arabs, Bedouins, Druze, Circassians and recently arrived refugees from Africa (especially Eritrea and Sudan).
The ancestors of about half of Israeli Jews immigrated from Europe (especially Russia, Romania, Poland, Germany and Hungary) and the Americas, the other half from Africa (eg Morocco and Ethiopia) and Asia (especially Iraq, Iran, Yemen and India). Despite their diversity of background, Israeli Jews are bound together by a collective memory of exile and persecution.
The army, to which Jewish, Druze and Circassian men and non-Orthodox Jewish women are drafted at the age of 18 (men for three years, women for two), also creates strong bonds, although burdens are not equally shared – most ultra-Orthodox Jews do not serve at all, and these days only a minority do reserve duty. The country is always in a state of security vigilance, in recent times as a result of rocket attacks and attempted infiltrations from Gaza, Hezbollah’s huge Iranian-supplied arsenal in Lebanon, instability in Sinai and Syria, and anti-Israel proclamations from Iran.
Despite being very much at the heart of the Middle East, Israel leans toward Europe, and increasingly to America, in its lifestyle, culture and business proclivities. For Israel, inclusion in European events, especially the Eurovision Song Contest (a country-wide favourite) and the Euroleague basketball and EUFA Champions League football championships, are a chance to commune with ‘fellow Westerners’ on the opposite side of the Mediterranean.
In the business world, too, Israel has forged strong and successful links to Europe, the USA and East Asia. It has one of the world’s highest GDPs, fuelled by a keen sense of entrepreneurism and world-class capacity in fields such as computers, chemistry and medical research.
Palestinian Territories. The perspectives and dreams of the residents of the Palestinian Territories have been forged by a century of loss, deprivation and violence. While Islam plays a major role in Palestinians’ worldview (only 8% of West Bankers and 0.3% of Gazans are Christians), the defining characteristic is the desire for an independent homeland. For many Palestinians, years of unemployment, poverty and shortages have led to a collective sense of desperation and powerlessness. For others, these factors have inspired them to stand up against their ‘oppressors’, in some cases joining militant organizations whose tactics include attacks against civilians.
GOVERNMENT & POLITICS
Israel. Israel is a parliamentary democracy headed by a prime minister. Government decisions are made by the cabinet, presided over by the prime minister; its members (ministers) have executive responsibility for government ministries. The 120-member unicameral legislature, the Knesset, is elected by national proportional representation every four years (although elections are almost always called early). Israel also has a president, whose role is largely ceremonial, except that they must consent to the dissolution of parliament and, after elections, decide which party leader will be given the first shot at forming a coalition. The parliament elects the president for a term of seven years.
Since 2009 Israel’s prime minister has been Binyamin Netanyahu, head of the right-wing Likud Party. His coalition, one of the most ideologically right-wing in Israeli history, is made up of parties representing ultra-Orthodox Jews, Jewish settlers and a fragment of the Labour party.
Palestinian Territories. The Palestinian Authority (Palestinian National Authority; PA or PNA) was established in 1994 as an interim body to rule for five years while a bona fide Palestinian government was established (this has yet to happen). According to the Oslo Accords, the PA assumed civil and security control of urban areas (Area A) and civil control of many rural areas (Area B); Israeli settlements, uninhabited areas and main roads (Area C) remain under Israeli civil and security control.
The PA is headed by a president who is supposed to be elected once every four years. In 2005, Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen) won the presidency with 62% of the vote. When his term ran out in 2009, it was extended without new elections; as of early 2012, Abbas remains in power.
The Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), the PA’s parliament, is a unicameral body with 132 members. The majority party (or coalition) confirms the prime minister, who is nominated by the president, and the cabinet ministers selected by the prime minister. In January 2006, the Islamist Hamas party won a 74-seat landslide, but the resultant ‘national unity’ government collapsed when Hamas staged a violent takeover of Gaza
The largest religious groups in Israel are Jews (75.6%), Muslims (16.9%), Christians (2%) and Druze (1.7%).
Judaism. One of the oldest religions still practiced, Judaism is based on a covenantal relationship between the Jewish people and God. The most succinct summary of Jewish theology and Judaism’s strict monotheism is to be found in the Shema prayer, which reads, ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord is your God, the Lord is One’.
Judaism is based on the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, ie the Old Testament) and the Oral Law, as interpreted by rabbis and sages in works such as the Mishna (edited in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD) and the Talmud (edited from the 4th to 6th centuries AD).
Orthodox Judaism (the most conservative of the religion’s streams) – including modern Orthodoxy, whose male adherents usually wear crocheted kippot (skullcaps), and ultra-Orthodoxy (Haredim), whose menfolk wear black hats and suits – holds that the Oral Law, in its entirety, was given at Mt Sinai.
The Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Movements believe that Judaism has always been dynamic and proactive, changing and developing over the generations as it dealt with new ideas and circumstances.
Christianity. Christianity is based on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew who lived in Judea and Galilee during the 1st century AD; on his crucifixion by the Romans; and on his resurrection three days later, as related in the New Testament. Christianity started out as a movement within Judaism, and most of Jesus’ followers, known as the Apostles, were Jews. But after his death, the insistence of Jesus’ followers that he was the Messiah caused Christianity to become increasingly distinct from Judaism.
The ownership of holy sites in Israel and the Palestinian Territories has long been a subject of contention among the country’s various Christian denominations, which include Armenians, Assyrians, Copts and Ethiopians. At a number of sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, relations are still governed by a ‘status quo’ agreement drawn up in Ottoman times.
The Holy Land’s largest denomination, the Greek Orthodox Church – almost all of whose local members are Arabic-speaking Palestinians – has jurisdiction over more than half of Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and a large portion of Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity.
Islam. Islam was founded by the Prophet Mohammed (AD 570–632), who lived in what is now Saudi Arabia. It is based on belief in the absolute oneness of God (Allah) and in the revelations of His final prophet, Mohammed. The Arabic word islam means ‘absolute submission’ to God and His word. Islam’s sacred scripture is the Quran (Koran), which was revealed to Mohammed and is believed to be God’s infallible word.
sider Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Moses to be prophets. As a result, Jews and Muslims share a number of holy sites, including Al-Haram ash-Sharif/Temple Mount in Jerusalem and the Ibrahimi Mosque/Cave of Machpelah (Tomb of the Patriarchs) in Hebron. Because of their close scriptural links, Muslims consider both Jews and Christians to be an ahl al-Kitab, a ‘people of the Book’. Judaism has always seen Islam as a fellow monotheistic faith (because of the Trinity, Jewish sages weren’t always so sure about Christianity).
Other Belief Systems.
Druze. Adherents of the Druze, an 11th-century off-shoot of Islam, live in northern Israel (including Mt Carmel) as well as Lebanon and Syria.
Baha’i. Haifa is the world centre of the Baha’i faith, founded in Persia in 1844.
Israel and the Palestinian Territories may be small in size, but they’re big in artistic output – be it literature, the visual arts, music, or, increasingly, film.
Literature. Israelis are enormously proud of the revival of the Hebrew language and the creation of modern Hebrew literature. Some classic names are (their major works are available in English translation) include Shmuel Yosef Agnon (1888–1970), Israel’s only winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature; Yehuda Amichai (1924–2000); Aharon Appelfeld (b 1932); AB Yehoshua (b 1936); Amos Oz (b 1939) and David Grossman (b 1954).
The Palestinians Emile Habibi (1922–96 The Secret Life of Saeed the Pesoptimist (1974) is a brilliant, tragicomic tale dealing with the difficulties facing Palestinians who became Israeli citizens after 1948) and Tawfiq Zayad (1929–94), both wrote highly regarded works of fiction. The stunning debut work of Ghassan Kanafani (1936–72), Men in the Sun (1963), delves into the lives, hopes and shattered dreams of its Palestinian characters.
Cinema. In recent years, Israeli films – many of which take a highly critical look at Israeli society and policies – have been garnering prizes at major film festivals, including Cannes, Berlin, Toronto and Sundance. Four have made the shortlist of Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Language Film: Beaufort (2007), Waltz with Bashir (2008), Ajami (2009) and Footnote (2011). Other feature films to keep an eye out for include Sallah Shabbati (Ephraim Kishon, 1964), a satire about life in a 1950s transit camp; Waltz with Bashir (2008), a haunting, personal look at the 1982 Lebanon War; and Yossi & Jagger (2002), about the secret love between two IDF infantry officers. For a database of made-in-Israel movies, see the website of the Manhattan-based Israel Film Center (www.israelfilmcenter.org).
Most feature-length Palestinian movies are international productions shot, but not completely produced, in the region. The first Palestinian film nominated for an Oscar was the controversial Paradise Now (2005), directed by Nazareth-born Hany Abu-Assad, which puts a human face on Palestinian suicide bombers.
The West Bank has two movie venues, the Al-Kasaba Theatre & Cinematheque (www.alkasaba.org) in Ramallah and the internationally supported Cinema Jenin (www.cinemajenin.org). Cinema has not done as well in Gaza, where all films must be approved by Hamas censors; a brief shot of a woman’s uncovered hair is enough to get a movie banned.
The Israeli–Palestinian conflict provides the backdrop for a host of powerful, award-winning documentaries by Palestinians and Israelis (or both working together), including Juliano Mer-Khamis’ Arna’s Children (2003), about a children’s theatre group in Jenin; the hard-hitting Death in Gaza (2004), whose director, James Miller, was killed during production; Yoav Shamir’s 5 Days (2005), which looks at the Israeli pullout from Gaza; Shlomi Eldar’s Precious Life (2010), about the relationships formed during a Gaza baby’s medical treatment in Israel; Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s The Law in These Parts (2011), about Israel’s military legal system in the West Bank; and 5 Broken Cameras (2011) by Emad Burnat on the anti–Separation Fence protests at Bil’in. To take the edge off these tension-filled flicks, check out Ari Sandel’s zany West Bank Story (2005), a spoof on the musical West Side Story.
Music. Israeli music is rich tapestry of modes, scales and vocal styles that cross back and forth between East and West. The country was producing ‘world music’ before the phrase even existed.
In the realms of Israeli pop and rock, names to listen for include Shlomo Artzi, Arik Einstein, Matti Caspi, Shalom Hanoch, Yehudit Ravitz, Assaf Amdursky and, more recently, Aviv Geffen.
Among the Israeli hip-hop artists and groups are Shabak Samech, HaDag Nachash, Subliminal, The Shadow and the Israeli-Palestinian group DAM.
One of the most exuberant performers of dance music has been Dana International (www.danainternational.co.il), a half-Yemenite transsexual who won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1998.
Mizrahi (Oriental or Eastern) music, with its Middle Eastern and Mediterranean scales and rhythms, has its roots in the melodies of North Africa (especially Umm Kulthum–era Egypt and mid-century Morocco), Iraq and Yemen.
Over the last few years, performers such as Etti Ankri, Ehud Banai, David D’Or, Kobi Oz, Berry Sakharof and Gilad Segev have turned towards traditional – mainly Sephardic and Mizrahi – liturgical poetry and melodies, producing works with massive mainstream popularity.
Born in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, Jewish ‘soul’ can take you swiftly from ecstasy to the depths of despair – you can check it out at the Tsfat Klezmer Festival
Israel also has a strong Western classical tradition thanks to Jewish refugees from Nazism and post-Soviet immigrants from Russia. The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (www.ipo.co.il) – whose first concert, in 1936, was conducted by Arturo Toscanini – is world renowned.
In the Palestinian Territories, music lessons have become increasingly important to children in recent years, as a therapeutic escape from the rigours of everyday life. Teenagers and 20-somethings have expanded into hip-hop and rap; two of the most popular groups are Gaza-based PR (Palestinian Rappers) and Israeli Arabs Dam Rap (www.damrap.com), who rap in a heady mixture of Arabic, Hebrew and English.
FOOD & DRINK
Food is a national passion in both Israel and the Palestinian Territories, and the humble dish that probably unites the two nations more than any other is hummus. There are pros and cons of hummus with fuul (fava bean paste), tahina (sesame seed paste) and the version containing soft whole chickpeas, known as masabacha.
Dining out is common. Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Nazareth and Ramallah are filled with top-end restaurants covering every conceivable cuisine, while even the smallest village will usually have a place or two dispensing the ubiquitous falafel, shwarma, or local specialties.
Vegetarians will find it remarkably easy particularly in Israel where many restaurants do not serve meat because of the laws of keeping kosher: falafel (fried chickpea balls served with salad and hummus in a pita pocket), shakshuka (a rich egg-and-tomato breakfast dish served in a frying pan), jachnun with a slow-boiled egg, strained tomatoes and fiery schug, a Yemenite hot pepper and garlic relish), and sabich (fried aubergine, boiled egg, potato, salads and spicy amba – Iraqi mango chutney – stuffed into a pita).
Juices are freshly squeezed: pomegranate juice especially. Coffee – instant (nes in Hebrew), cappuccino (hafuch in Hebrew) and Turkish with cardamom (qahwa bi-hel in Arabic, kafeh turki im hel in Hebrew) – is popular throughout. Tea prepared with fresh mint leaves and lots of sugar (shai bi-naana in Arabic, tey im nana in Hebrew) is a favourite among Palestinians and Jews from North Africa and the Middle East.
Alcohol is widely available, but observant Muslims don’t drink at all and most Jews drink very little. The main Israeli beer brands are Maccabee and Goldstar; the Palestinian Territories’ only brewery, Taybeh produces some excellent brews.
Note that in both Israel and the Palestinian Territories, tipping 10% or 12% of the bill is as much of an established practice as it is in the West.
Israel and the Palestinian Territories have a number of elements of daily life that are remarkably similar on either side of the Separation Fence. For both, family life is of prime importance; many Israeli families eat dinner together each Friday night. Similarly, extended families are highly valued in the Palestinian Territories, and grandparents frequently live with or close by their younger family members. For both, religious holidays – be it Christmas, Eid or Passover – are the perfect excuse for big family celebrations.
Israel society was founded on socialist principles, exemplified by the shared community life of the kibbutz. But the vast majority of contemporary Israelis have shifted to a decidedly bourgeois, consumer-driven existence. Increased wealth and a love of the outdoors have made them an active lot: hiking, cycling, windsurfing, backpacking, camping and other leisure activities are hugely popular. Hebrew culture and the arts are immensely important.
Gaza is largely controlled by Muslim fundamentalists, but much of the West Bank retains a moderate outlook, and Ramallah in particular exhibits the trappings of modern, Western living.
Israeli women enjoy a freedom, opportunity and status on a par with their European counterparts and have historically played significant roles in the economy, politics and even the military. (Israel was one of the first countries to elect a female prime minister, Golda Meir, in 1969.) Though Palestinian women have traditionally assumed the role of home-based caregiver, recent years have seen more women encouraged to enter higher education and to work outside the home. However, as in Ottoman times, marriage and divorce in both Israel and the Palestinian Territories remain in the hands of a very conservative religious establishment, which tends to favour male prerogatives over women’s rights. As there is no civil marriage in Israel, couples of mixed religious background wishing to wed must do so outside of Israel (eg in Cyprus).
Palestinians earn far less than the average Israeli (the annual per-capita income in the West Bank is just US$2900, compared with Israel’s US$29,800), a factor that has done much to keep Palestinians frustrated with their lot.
Israel’s two official languages are Hebrew and the Palestinian dialect of Arabic, the first language of most of the Arab population. Most Israelis and many Palestinians speak at least some English. On the streets of Israel you’ll also hear a lot of Russian, French and Amharic. Some ultra-Orthodox Jews and older Ashkenazim still speak Yiddish (medieval German mixed with Hebrew), and a small number of Sephardic Jews still use Ladino (Judeo-Español), a blend of Hebrew and Spanish written – like Yiddish – with the Hebrew alphabet.
Most road signs appear in English, Hebrew and Arabic, but often with baffling transliterations. Caesarea, for example, may be rendered Qesariyya, Kesarya, Qasarya, and so on; and Tsfat may appear as Zefat, Zfat, or Safed.
With an area of nearly 28,000 sq km, Israel and the Palestinian Territories are geographically dominated by the 6000km-long Great Rift Valley (also known as the Syrian-African Rift), to which the Sea of Galilee, the Dead Sea and the Red Sea all belong.
Between this mountain-fringed valley and the Mediterranean Sea lie the Judean Hills (up to 1000m high), which include Jerusalem and Hebron, and the fertile coastal plain, where the bulk of Israel’s population and agriculture is concentrated. The arid, lightly populated Negev, the country’s southern wedge, consists of plains, mountains, wadis and makhteshes (erosion craters).
The country’s strategic location at the meeting point of three continents has created a unique ecological mix. African tropical mammals such as the hyrax live alongside Asian mammals such as the Indian porcupine and the relatively rare European marten. The arid Negev has African acacia stands, the nimble antelopes and the towering horns of the ibex, while in the Galilee there are Mediterranean forests, with gnarled oaks, almonds and sycamores.
Some 500 million birds from an incredible 283 species migrate through each year; check out www.birds.org.il, www.birds-eilat.com or www.birdingisrael.com to find out more.
National parks comprise around 25% of Israel’s total area. Israel is increasingly concerned with environmental issues, including the protection of beaches from development, and recycling.
Environmental Issues. Israel is the only country in the world that ended the 20th century with more trees than it had at the end of the 19th century. But while afforestation programs recreated forest habitats and innovative desert agriculture – using technologies such as drip irrigation, which was invented here – ‘made the desert bloom’, demands on the land from urbanization have resulted in the same problems found in many parts of the world: air and water pollution, overuse of natural resources and poor waste management. Things are even worse on the coast of Gaza, where the problem of surface pollution is accompanied by seawater seepage into the aquifers.
Israel and the West Bank’s most publicized environmental threat is the drying up of the Dead Sea, which has continued unabated for 30 years, the result of the intensive use of the water of the Jordan River. There have long been proposals to refill the Dead Sea with seawater either from the Mediterranean, through a ‘Med-Dead Canal’, or from the Red Sea, via a ‘Red-Dead Canal’ (and to use the difference in altitude to generate hydroelectricity). For details, visit the Friends of the Earth Middle East website (www.foeme.org) and click on ‘Projects’.
Though Israel ranks as one of the most expensive destinations in the Middle East, its accommodation manages to cater to all budgets. In the summer (especially July and August) and around Jewish and Israeli holidays (especially Sukkot and Passover), prices can rise significantly and room availability plummets.
The Palestinian Territories offers more limited, but less expensive, accommodation. Room prices remain fairly constant year-round, the only exception being in Bethlehem, where rates rise around Christmas and Easter. Be sure to book well ahead if you’re planning on travel at these times.
B&BS (Tzimmers). The most popular form of accommodation in the Galilee and Golan: simple rooms with shared facilities to romantic studio apartments (not all serve breakfast); for a double, count on paying 400NIS at the very least. Go to www.zimmeril.com or www.israel-tours-hotel.com.
Camping. The cheapest way to overnight is in a tent (or at least a sleeping bag). Particularly mellow are some of the sites around the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, many of which charge per car (they’re free if you arrive on foot). Paying a fee for admission or parking gets you security, a decent shower block and toilet facilities.
Camping is forbidden inside nature reserves. Fortunately, various public and private bodies run inexpensive camping sites (www.campingil.org.il) at about 100 places around the country, including 22 operated by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (www.parks.org.il, search for ‘overnight campgrounds’). Some are equipped with shade roofs (so you don’t need a tent), lighting, toilets, showers and barbecue pits. In Hebrew, ask for a chenyon laila or an orchan laila.
In the Palestinian Territories, camping should be avoided due to general security concerns.
Hostels. in all Israel Hostels (ILH; www.hostels-israel.com) has almost three dozen independent hostels and guesthouses parts of the country, including some of the country’s best accommodation deals. If you’re interested in meeting other travellers, these places are usually your best bet.
Hostelling International (HI) runs the Israel Youth Hostels Association (www.iyha.org.il/eng) with 19 official hostels and guesthouses offer clean, well-appointed rooms and usually dorm beds.
The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (www.teva.org.il/english) runs nine field schools (bet sefer sadeh) in areas of high ecological value. They offer basic but serviceable rooms, often with four or more beds, but most are accessible only by car.
Hotels & Guesthouses. Range from grim to gorgeous. Generally speaking, hotel prices are highest in Tel Aviv, Eilat and Jerusalem. Most serve generous smorgasbord breakfasts.
In the Palestinian Territories, most decent hotels, as well as some guesthouses, are in Ramallah and Bethlehem. Elsewhere in the West Bank, new hotels are being built, but most places tend to be basic and prices, due to low occupancy, unchanged for years. Palestine Hotels (www.palestinehotels.com) is an excellent hotel booking website.
Kibbutz Guesthouses (www.kibbutz.co.il). Capitalizing on their beautiful, usually rural locations, quite a few kibbutzim offer midrange guesthouse accommodation. Often constructed in the socialist era, but significantly upgraded since, these establishments allow access to kibbutz facilities, including the swimming pool, and serve delicious kibbutz-style breakfasts.
Cycling. Mountain biking has become hugely popular with many trails through forests managed by the Jewish National Fund (www.kkl.org.il ‘Cycling Routes’). Shvil Net (www.shvil.net) publishes Hebrew-language cycling guides that include detailed topographical maps.
Hiking. With its unbelievably diverse terrain – ranging from the alpine slopes of Mt Hermon to the parched wadis of the Negev – and almost 10,000km of marked trails, Israel offers some truly superb hiking. Don’t forget to bring a hat and plenty of water, and plan your day so you can make it back before dark. The website Tiuli (www.tiuli.com), run by Lametayel, Israel’s largest camping equipment store, has details in English on hiking options around the country.
At national parks and nature reserves run by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (www.parks.org.il), walking maps with English text are usually handed out when you pay your admission fee. In other areas, the best maps to have – in part because they indicate minefields and live-fire zones used for IDF training – are the 1:50,000-scale topographical maps produced by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.
In the West Bank, it’s generally not a good idea to wander around the countryside unaccompanied. Consult local organizations for up-to-date information on areas considered safe; Jericho and environs are usually a good bet.
Watersports. The Red Sea has some of the world’s most spectacular and species-rich coral reefs. Good value scuba courses – and dive packages – are available in Eilat, but the underwater life is a lot more dazzling across the border in the Sinai.
Israel’s Mediterranean beaches, including those in Tel Aviv, are generally excellent, offering ample opportunities to swim, windsurf and sail. For freshwater swimming head to the Sea of Galilee; the super-saline Dead Sea offers that quintessential ‘floating’ experience.
In predominantly Muslim areas – East Jerusalem, Nazareth, Akko’s Old City, the West Bank and Gaza – businesses may be closed all day Friday but remain open on Saturday.
Christian-owned businesses (eg in Nazareth, Bethlehem and the Armenian and Christian Quarters of Jerusalem’s Old City) are closed on Sunday. Opening hours in Israel:
Banks Most are open from 8.30am to sometime between 12.30pm and 2pm Monday to Thursday, and in addition a couple of afternoons a week. Many branches are open on Sunday, and some also open on Friday morning.
Bars & Pubs Hours are highly variable, but many – especially in Tel Aviv – are open until the wee hours. Thursday and Friday are the biggest nights out.
Clubs & Discos The trendiest boogie joints don’t open their doors until after midnight, closing around dawn. In Tel Aviv and Eilat most operate seven days a week, while in Haifa and Jerusalem they only open on weekends (ie Thursday and Friday nights).
Post offices. Generally open from 8am to 12.30pm or 1pm Sunday to Thursday, with many reopening from 3.30pm to 6pm on certain days. Friday hours are 8am to noon.
Restaurants Hours are highly variable, though only a few upmarket places take siestas. Most kosher restaurants are closed on Shabbat (Friday night and Saturday).
Shopping malls generally open from 9.30am or 10am to 9.30pm or 10pm Sunday to Thursday and until 2pm or 3pm on Friday and the eves of Jewish holidays.
Shops Usually open from 9am to 6pm or later Sunday to Thursday and until 2pm or 3pm on Friday and the eves of Jewish holidays.
A Hostelling International (HI) card is useful for obtaining discounts at official HI hostels. Hostels-Israel has a free 5% discount card. An International Student Identity Card (ISIC) doesn’t get you anywhere near as many discounts as it once did (none, for instance, are available on public transport).
If you’ll be visiting lots of the national parks and historical sites run by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA; www.parks.org.il), you can save some serious cash by purchasing a 14-day Green Card, which gets you into all 65 INPA sites for just 145NIS (a six-park version costs 105NIS).
EBMASSIES & CONSULATES
Jerusalem may be Israel’s capital, but most diplomatic missions are located in or near Tel Aviv. A few countries maintain consulates in Jerusalem, Haifa and/or Eilat.
Most diplomatic missions are open in the morning from Monday to Thursday or Friday, and some for longer hours. The following are in Tel Aviv unless specified otherwise:
Australia (www.israel.embassy.gov.au; 28th fl, Discount Bank Tower, 23 Yehuda HaLevi St, 65136)
Canada (www.canadainternational.gc.ca/israel; 3 Nirim St, 67060)
Egypt (www.egyptembassy.net, for Egyptian embassy in Washington) Eilat (Afrouni St, 88119 Eilat; 9-11am Sun-Thu); Tel Aviv ( 03-546 4151; 54 Basel St, 64239; 9-11am Sun-Tue) In Eilat, deliver your passport, application and one passport-sized photo in the morning and pick up the visa around 2pm the same day. In Tel Aviv the process may take a few days.
France – Jerusalem (www.consulfrance-jerusalem.org; 5 Paul Émile Botta St, 91076); Tel Aviv (www.ambafrance-il.org; 112 Herbert Samuel Esplanade, 63572).
Germany (www.tel-aviv.diplo.de, in German & Hebrew; 19th fl, 3 Daniel Frisch St, 64731)
Ireland (www.embassyofireland.co.il; 17th fl, 3 Daniel Frisch St, 64731)
Jordan (www.jordanembassytelaviv.gov.jo; 10th fl, 14 Abba Hillel St, Ramat Gan) You can apply in the morning and pick your visa up around 2pm the same day; bring one passport-sized photo.
Netherlands (http://israel.nlambassade.org; 14 Abba Hillel St, Ramat Gan, 52506)
New Zealand (www.mfat.govt.nz; 3 Daniel Frisch St, 64731)
Turkey (202 HaYarkon St, 63405)
UK Jerusalem (www.ukinjerusalem.fco.gov.uk; 19 Nashashibi St, Sheikh Jarrah, 97200); Tel Aviv Consular Section (03-725 1222; www.ukinisrael.fco.gov.uk; 6th fl, Migdalor Bldg, 1 Ben Yehuda St, 63801)
USA Haifa (26 Ben-Gurion Ave, 35023); Jerusalem ( http://jerusalem.usconsulate.gov; 18 Agron Rd, 94190); Tel Aviv ( http://israel.usembassy.gov; 71 HaYarkon St, 63903)
GAY & LESBIAN TRAVELLERS
Tel Aviv is the gay capital of Israel, if not the Middle East, and nearly all bars and nightspots that don’t specifically cater to gays are gay-friendly. Other cities – even Jerusalem – have smaller, but active gay scenes.
Gay culture is virtually nonexistent in the Palestinian Territories. In fact, many gay Palestinians have taken refuge in Israel. To better understand the difficult plight of gay and lesbian Palestinians, click on www.globalgayz.com/middle-east/palestine and www.aswatgroup.org.
ATMS. Widespread throughout Israel, but are less common in the Palestinian Territories so take cash along with you. Visa, MasterCard and, increasingly, American Express and Diners cards are accepted almost everywhere. Most, but not all, ATMs do Visa and MasterCard cash advances.
Cash. The official currency in Israel, and the most widely used currency in the Palestinian Territories, is the new Israeli shekel (NIS or ILS), which is divided into 100 agorot. Coins come in denominations of 10 and 50 agorot (marked ½ shekel) and one, two and five NIS; notes come in denominations of 10, 20, 50, 100 and 200NIS.
Travellers Cheques. Can be changed at most banks, but charges can be as high as 20NIS per cheque; instead use a no-commission exchange bureau or the post office.
Wire Transfers. Post offices offer Western Union international-money-transfer services.
In addition to the main Islamic holidays, the following are observed in Israel and the Palestinian Territories:
New Year’s Day Official holiday in the Palestinian Territories but not in Israel (1 January).
Christmas (Orthodox) Celebrated by Eastern Orthodox churches 6 to 7 January and by Armenians in the Holy Land on 18 to 19 January.
Passover (Pesach). Weeklong celebration of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt (March or April).
Easter Sunday (Western). For Catholics and Protestants (late March, early April).
Easter Sunday (Orthodox). For Eastern Orthodox and Armenians (April or May).
Holocaust Memorial Day (Yom HaSho’ah). Places of entertainment closed. At 10am sirens sound and Israelis stand silently at attention (in April but date varies).
Memorial Day (Yom HaZikaron). Commemorates soldiers who fell defending Israel. Places of entertainment closed. At 8pm and 11am sirens sound and Israelis stand silently at attention (April or May).
Israel Independence Day (Yom Ha’Atzma’ut) (April or May).
International Labour Day Official holiday in both Israel and the Palestinian Territories (1 May).
Nakba Day Palestinian commemoration of the nakba (catastrophe) of 1948 (15 May).
Shavuot (Pentecost) Jews celebrate the giving of the Torah at Mt Sinai (May or June).
Tish’a B’Av (Ninth of Av) Jews commemorate the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. Restaurants and places of entertainment closed (July or August).
Rosh HaShanah (Jewish New Year) (September).
Yom Kippur (Jewish Day of Atonement) Solemn day of reflection and fasting. Israel’s airports and land borders close, all transport ceases (September or October).
Sukkot (Feast of the Tabernacles) Weeklong holiday that recollects the Israelites’ 40 years of wandering in the desert (September or October).
Hanukkah (Festival of Lights) Jews celebrate the rededication of the Temple after the Maccabean revolt (November, December).
Christmas (Western) Public holiday in the West Bank, but not in Israel or Gaza. Celebrated by Catholics and Protestants on 24 to 25 December.
Airport & Border Security. If border officials suspect that you’re coming to take part in pro-Palestinian political activities, or even to visit the West Bank for reasons other than Christian pilgrimage, they may ask a lot of questions. Having a Muslim name and passport stamps from places like Syria, Lebanon or Iran may also result in some pointed enquiries. The one sure way to get grilled is to sound evasive or to contradict yourself – the security screeners are trained to try to trip you up.
I have met a German man refused entry because he had lived in Pakistan for 10 months, and a Bolivian woman refused because of a slight of Israel by their president)
Minefields. Some parts of Israel and the Palestinian Territories – particularly along the Jordanian border and around the periphery of the Golan Heights – are still sown with anti-personnel mines. Known mined areas are fenced with barbed wire sporting dangling red (or rust) triangles and/or yellow and red ‘Danger Mines!’ signs. Flash floods sometimes wash away old mines, depositing them outside of known minefields. Wherever you are, never, ever, touch anything that looks like it might be an old artillery shell, grenade or mine!
Security Situation. Israel has some of the most stringent security policies in the world. In recent years the number of annual terrorist attacks inside Israel has dropped to the single digits (by comparison, in March 2002 alone over 130 Israelis were killed in Palestinian attacks), but it pays to remain vigilant about suspicious people (or packages), especially when travelling by public bus. Keep an eye on the news and heed local travel advice while on the road.
When entering bus or rail terminals, shopping malls, many supermarkets, and all sorts of other public venues, your bags are likely to be searched and in some cases X-rayed. You may also be wanded. Abandoned shopping bags, backpacks and parcels are picked up by bomb squad robots and blown up.
Road passage between many Palestinian West Bank towns and Israel is regulated by Israeli army roadblocks, where you’ll need to show a passport and may have to answer questions about your reason for travel. The situation[…]”“Israel is regulated by Israeli army roadblocks, where you’ll need to show a passport and may have to answer questions about your reason for travel. The situation in the West Bank and Gaza (which is effectively off-limits) remains unpredictable, so monitor the news closely before travelling in the area. Some good rules of thumb:
»Always carry your passport.
»Don’t wander into the refugee camps on your own.
»Travel during daylight hours.
»Dress modestly. Cover up bare shoulders and legs – you’ll blend in with the crowd a bit better and won’t cause inadvertent offence. This applies to both men and women (but especially women).
»Avoid political demonstrations, which often get out of hand and can turn into violent confrontations.
»Use caution when approaching road blocks and checkpoints. Remember: soldiers may have no idea that you’re just a curious visitor.
Overseas mobile phones work in Israel (so long as your gadget can handle 900/1800 MHz), but roaming charges can be ruinous. Israel’s three main mobile phone companies, Orange (Big Talk; www.orange.co.il, in Hebrew), Pelefon (Talk & Go; www.pelephone.co.il, in Hebrew) and Cellcom (www.cellcom.co.il, in Hebrew), all offer pay-as-you-go SIM cards at their many outlets. All offer remarkably cheap rates to most countries, though it pays to find out what their latest offers are.
Phonecards. Prepaid local and international calls can be made using a variety of phonecards, sold at post offices, lottery kiosks and newsstands.
In general, Western visitors to Israel and the Palestinian Territories are issued free tourist (B-2) visas. You need a passport that’s valid for at least six months from the date of entry. (For specifics on who qualifies, visit www.mfa.gov.il and click on ‘About the Ministry’ and then ‘Consular Service’.)
Most visas issued at an entry point are valid for 90 days. But travellers, eg those entering by land from Egypt or Jordan, may be given just 30 days or even two weeks – it’s up to the discretion of the border control official.
Kibbutz volunteers must secure a volunteer’s visa.
You’ll probably be subjected to extra questioning if you have certain stamps in your passport (eg from Lebanon, Syria, Pakistan or Sudan), though after a long wait you’ll probably be allowed in. You may be asked to provide evidence of sufficient funds for your intended length of stay.
If there is any indication that you are coming to participate in pro-Palestinian protests or are seeking illegal employment, you may find yourself on the next flight home.
There are many implications of having an Israeli stamp in your passport and basically are not allowed in most Islamic countries (except Egypt and Jordan).
Extensions. To extend a tourist (B-2) visa, you can either apply to extend your visa (170NIS) or do a ‘visa run’ to Egypt (Sinai) or Jordan. This might get you an additional three months – or just one. Ask other travellers for the latest low-down.
Visas are extended by the Population Immigration and Border Authority (www.piba.gov.il, in Hebrew; generally 8am-noon Sun-Tue & Thu), part of the Ministry of the Interior which has offices in most cities and large towns. Join the queue by 8am or you could be waiting all day. Bring a passport-sized photo and evidence of sufficient funds for the extended stay.
Travellers who overstay by just a few days report no hassles or fines.
For a list of Israeli organizations interested in foreign volunteers, go to the websites of Ruach Tova (www.ruachtova.org) or the National Council on Volunteering (www.ivolunteer.org.il); for the latter, click on ‘Volunteer Opportunities’ and then ‘Visitors’.
For details on volunteering on a kibbutz (communal farm), “contact the Kibbutz Program Centre Citizens of the US & Canada (www.kibbutzprogramcenter.org; Ste 1004, 114 W 26th St, New York, NY 10001). Candidates from everywhere else (www.kibbutz.org.il/volunteers; 6 Frishman St, Tel Aviv; 8.30am-2.30pm Sun-Thu).
Female travellers can expect the same sort of treatment they’d receive in most European countries, though it’s important to follow sensible travel advice, such as not hitchhiking alone, and other precautions one generally adheres to back home. Dress modestly in religious areas such as the Old City and Mea She’arim in Jerusalem, the churches of Nazareth and around the Sea of Galilee, and in the West Bank and Gaza (where you’ll be more of a novelty, but treated generally as a ‘sister’). Note that the more religious male Jews and Muslims may not wish to shake a woman’s hand. On some beaches on both sides of the Green Line, foreign women may attract unwanted attention.
Travellers used to be able to turn up in Tel Aviv and find plenty of casual work in bars and restaurants, but authorities have been cracking down on businesses hiring illegal workers and opportunities are now slim. Your best chances for gainful employment are through Tel Aviv guesthouses and restaurants near the beach.
Working legally requires a permit from the Ministry of the Interior and, as in North America or Western Europe, these aren’t easy to get – with one exception. If you would qualify for an oleh (new immigrant) visa – ie if you have at least one Jewish parent or grandparent – you can get a working visa with relative ease.
GETTING THERE & AWAY
A frequent topic of conversation among travellers is the entrance procedure for Israel and the Palestinian Territories. It’s rigorous, and you can expect a barrage of questions about your recent travels, occupation, any acquaintances in Israel or the West Bank and possibly your religious or family background. Expect extra enquiries if your passport has stamps from places like Syria or Lebanon, or you’re headed to less touristed parts of the West Bank. If you are meeting friends in Israel, have their phone number handy.
Air. Except with some European budget carriers, fares into Israel aren’t especially cheap. The best deals are normally available on the internet, frequently direct from the airlines’ websites themselves. Tel Aviv is only rarely an allowable stop on round-the-world itineraries.
Airports. Israel’s main gateway is Ben-Gurion International Airport (TLV www.iaa.gov.il), situated 50km northwest of Jerusalem and 18km southeast of central Tel Aviv. Its ultramodern international terminal, finished in 2004 at a cost of US$1 billion, handles about 11 million passengers a year. For details on arrivals and departures, go to the website and click ‘Ben Gurion Airport’, then ‘Passenger Services’ and finally ‘On Line Flights’. Airport security is tight, so international travellers should check in at least three hours prior to their flight – when flying both to and from Israel.
Airlines. The following airlines fly to/from Israel:
Arkia (www.arkia.com) Has daily flights to Eilat (one-way from 200NIS) from Sde Dov airport and also offers flights to Europe.
easyJet (www.easyjet.com) From Tel Aviv to London, Basel and Geneva.
El Al (www.elal.co.il)
Israir (www.israirairlines.com) Domestic airline.
Air Canada (www.aircanada.com)
Air France (www.airfrance.com)
American Airlines (www.aa.com)
Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.com)
Royal Jordanian Airlines (www.rj.com)
Land. Frontiers with Syria and Lebanon are sealed tight, but there are open land borders with Egypt and Jordan; cross on foot or by private vehicle, but not in a taxi or rental car. Drivers and motorcyclists will need the vehicle’s registration papers, proof of liability insurance and a driving license from home (but not necessarily an international driving license).
Egypt Taba Crossing: The only border post between Israel and Egypt that’s open to tourists is at Taba (www.iaa.gov.il; 24hr), on the Red Sea near Eilat. Israel charges a 103NIS departure fee; Egypt has a E£30 entrance fee. There’s an exchange bureau on the Egyptian side. You can get a 14-day Sinai-only entry permit at the border, allowing you to visit Red Sea resorts stretching from Taba to Sharm el-Sheikh, plus St Katherine’s. If you’re planning on going further into Egypt, you’ll need to arrange an Egyptian visa in advance, eg at the Egyptian consulate in Eilat or the embassy in Tel Aviv. Mazada Tours (www.mazada.co.il) runs overnight buses from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to Cairo via Taba, and vice versa.
Rafah Crossing. As a result of the Arab Spring, this crossing is now officially open between 10am and 6pm Saturday to Thursday (excluding public holidays), but is often closed for days at a time. Foreign nationals wishing to cross must first seek special permission from the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Palestinian Affairs Division in Cairo. If you enter Gaza through Rafah, you cannot continue on to Israel – you must also exit through Rafah. Be prepared to wait for an extended period (possibly weeks) for the crossing to open, or while you wait for approval from Egyptian authorities to let you back into Egypt.
Jordan: There are three border crossing points with Jordan. Israel charges a departure tax of 103NIS (167NIS at Allenby/King Hussein Bridge); Jordan charges JD40 to enter and JD10 to exit. None of the crossings have ATMs, though all theoretically have exchange services.
Nearly all nationalities require a visa to enter Jordan. Conveniently, single-entry, extendable, two-week visas are issued with a minimum of fuss at the Jordan River/Sheikh Hussein Crossing (visa JD40). However, visas are not available at the Allenby Bridge/King Hussein Bridge crossing nor the Yitzhak Rabin/Wadi Araba crossing – if you want to enter Jordan here or need a multiple-entry visa (single/multiple-entry JD20/60 or 88/168NIS), contact the Jordanian embassy in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv.
Allenby Bridge (King Hussein Bridge). This often-crowded crossing (www.iaa.gov.il; 8am-early afternoon Sun-Thu, 8am-about noon Fri & Sat, closed Yom Kippur & Eid al-Adha, hours subject to change), between the West Bank and Jordan, is 8km east of Jericho, 46km east of Jerusalem and 60km west of Amman. Controlled by Israel, it is the only point at which West Bank Palestinians can enter Jordan, so traffic can be heavy, especially between 11am and 3pm. Try to get to the border as early in the day as possible – times when tourists can cross may be limited and delays are common. Bring plenty of cash (Jordanian dinars are the most useful) and make sure you have small change.
Jordanian visas are not available at the crossing – you can get one at the Jordanian embassy in Tel Aviv.
From opposite Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate, shared taxis run by Abdo leave for the border (40NIS per person, twice per hour until around 11am). After 11am they offer private taxis (150NIS to 180NIS), with hotel pick-up as an option. Egged buses 961, 948 and 966 from West Jerusalem’s central bus station to Beit She’an (and points north) stop on Rte 90 at the turn-off to Allenby Bridge (12NIS, 45 minutes, hourly). Walking the last few kilometres to the crossing is forbidden, so you’ll have to take a taxi (up to 50NIS).
From Amman, you can take a servees (shared taxi) or minibus. JETT (www.jett.com.jo) runs a daily bus from Abdali (departure at 7am).
Yitzhak Rabin (Wadi Araba). Located just 3km northeast of Eilat, this crossing (www.iaa.gov.il; 6.30am-8pm Sun-Thu, 8am-8pm Fri & Sat) is handy for trips to Aqaba, Petra and Wadi Rum. Visas on arrival are not available at this crossing since Jan 2016.
A taxi from Eilat costs 35NIS. If you’re coming by bus from Be’er Sheva, the Dead Sea or Jerusalem, you don’t have to go all the way into Eilat – ask the driver to let you out at the border turn-off.
Once you are in Jordan, you can take a cab to Aqaba (JD8), from where you can catch a minibus for the 120km ride to Petra (JD5, 2½ hours); the latter leave when full between 6.30am and 8.30am, with an occasional afternoon service.
Jordan River Bridge (Sheikh Hussein Bridge). The least used of the three, this crossing (www.iaa.gov.il; 6.30am-9pm Sun-Thu, 8am-8pm Fri & Sat, closed Yom Kippur & Al-Hijra/Muslim New Year) is 8km east of Beit She’an and 30km south of the Sea of Galilee. The Israeli side is connected with Beit She’an (17 minutes). On the Jordanian side, frequent service taxis travel to/from Irbid’s West bus station (JD1, 45 minutes), and to Amman.
Air. Flights to Eilat from Tel Aviv’s Sde Dov airport, Ben-Gurion airport’s domestic terminal and Haifa are handled by Arkia (www.arkia.com), El Al (www.elal.co.il) and Israir (www.israirairlines.com).
Hitching. Although hitching was once a common way of getting around Israel (it’s still common in the Upper Galilee and Golan), increasing reports of violent crime make this a risky business and we do not recommend it. Women should not hitch without male companions and all travellers should be circumspect about the cars they get into. The local method of soliciting a lift is simply to point an index finger at the road.
Bicycle. If you cycle between cities, bear in mind the hot climate, winter rainfall, steep hills and erratic drivers; bicycles are not allowed on certain major highways. One of the best places for leisure cycling is around the Sea of Galilee.
Bus. Almost every town and village has bus service at least a few times a day, though from mid-afternoon on Friday until Saturday after dark, most intercity buses don’t run at all.
On some lines, a kartisiya (kar-tees-ee- yah), a punch card valid for six or eight trips, can also save you money. Students no longer qualify for discounts.
Israel no longer has two bus monopolies, but rather about 20 private companies that compete for routes in Ministry of Transport tenders. The Public Transportation Info Center (www.bus.co.il), easy to use once you figure it out, provides details in English on all bus companies’ routes, times and prices.
Car & Motorcycle. To drive a vehicle in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, all you need is your regular driving license (an international driving license is not required).
Having your own wheels doesn’t make much sense in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv – parking can be a huge hassle – but it’s a great idea in the Galilee, Golan and Negev, where buses can be scarce. A car will also let you take advantage of cheap accommodation options, including hostels and (almost) free camping.
Local companies with good rates include Cal Auto (www.calauto.co.il) and Eldan (www.eldan.co.il).
Note that most Israeli rental agencies forbid you to take their cars into the Palestinian Territories; a notable exception is Green Peace.
Bicycle. Bicycle paths have been going up in cities all over Israel, but the most developed network is in Tel Aviv.
Taxi. Insist that Israeli taxi drivers use the meter (Palestinian yellow taxis rarely have a meter installed), and watch your progress on a map to ensure that the shortest route is followed. Taxi tariffs rise 25% between 9pm and 5.30am.
Sherut. To Israelis it’s a sherut (sheh- root) while the Palestinians call it a servees (ser- vees), but whatever name you use, shared taxis are a useful way to get around. These vehicles, often 13-seat minivans, operate on a fixed route for a fixed price, like a bus except that they don’t have fixed stops and depart only when full. Some sheruts operate 24/7 and are the only means of public transport in Israel during Shabbat, when prices rise slightly.
Train. Israel Railways (www.rail.co.il) runs a comfortable and generally convenient network of passenger rail services that link Tel Aviv with destinations such as Ben-Gurion Airport, Haifa, Akko, Nahariya, Jerusalem and Be’er Sheva. Details on services are also available from the Public Transportation Info Center (www.bus.co.il). Return tickets are 10% cheaper than two on-ways. Trains do not run from mid-afternoon Friday until Saturday night.