A Personal Travel Guide To Israel: Security Issues
By Douglas E. Duckett
Speaking of security, this is a constant aspect of Israeli life, and I won’t minimize it. Despite what you hear and read, however, you are safer in Israel than in most major American cities, and any mass terror-related incidents are exceedingly rare now,
Unlike the awful years of 2001-03. Any attack is disturbing, but tourists are not the targets, though a handful have been caught up in the violence. But here is a sobering statistic. My hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio sees up to 80 homicides in a year out of a population of 350,000. Extrapolated to a population the size of Israel (about 8,000,000), that would be the equivalent of more than 1,600 dead in just one year. Yet fewer people than that have been killed in terror attacks in all of Israel’s history! And the per-capita murder rate is more than four times higher in the US than Israel’s homicide rate from all causes.
Of course, we routinely now have mass shootings in the US. You don’t worry about going to Las Vegas, Paris, or New York—don’t worry about Israel. Every time I have traveled to Israel, I always felt utterly safe, even in earlier years when the situation was far worse. Neither I nor my travel companions were ever afraid—even my husband, who can be a bit of a scaredy-cat, to be honest.
Don’t judge by the media image! Just pay attention to the news when in Israel, ask for local advice on conditions in more sensitive areas and times, and use common sense.
For example, when Jerusalem is tense, I tend to avoid the Damascus Gate area on the north side of the Old City, and on Fridays around the noon prayer time I might avoid the Muslim Quarter. That’s it. That does not affect 95% of what you’d want to do while in the city.
You will at times see armed soldiers or civil guards, some in uniform, some not. This does not mean something untoward is happening. It is just a fact of life in Israel, and you will get used to it.
Some Israeli civilians carry pistols, especially in Jerusalem. Do what I do—if the locals around you look concerned, worry; otherwise, don’t. Israelis have no death wish, particularly when their children are around; if they look mellow, be mellow.
Some hotels and museums or other public places will have a security guard at the door who will check your bag, perhaps your ID, and you. It’s a shame it must be, but their presence makes me feel safer, not less so. But never leave a bag or item of luggage unattended in Israel, at the airport or anywhere else, not even for a minute or two. If you do, you are both taking a risk and may well return to find that the bomb squad has arrived and blown up your bag.
Similarly, when approaching many religious or political sites or other public places, you will need to open any bags, back-packs, or purses for inspection, as noted above. It’s routine, and you’ll quickly get used to it.
At the airport (for your flight to Israel if on El Al; for any flight going out) you will be subjected to questioning by Israeli security agents, some of which may seem pointless, repetitive, and intrusive. I have been asked where I learned Hebrew and for the names and addresses of my Israeli friends. It can be intense and even a little intimidating. Just answer honestly and keep your cool— don’t show attitude or irritation. They are looking for nervousness, unrest, and inconsistency (hence the repeated questions).
Your bags may be searched, though the airport now uses more sophisticated X-ray techniques behind the scenes, so you are less likely to be asked to open a bag. They may open it, as the TSA does at times in the US. But the experience is quite different from US airport security, and, frankly, it’s far more effective.
I’ve often heard Israelis say that “you screen things. We screen people.” Don’t take it personally—the security agents cannot read minds or hearts. You also need to understand that there is an overt profiling aspect to Israeli security. If
you have an Arabic name, are Muslim or “look Middle Eastern,” or have visited Arab families or areas, you may be subject to more questioning and perhaps searches than others.
If you are Jewish, it will probably be easier. Is this racist? Perhaps to some degree it is. Security doesn’t know quite what to make of me as a non-Jew who speaks Hebrew, and in 1993 I was very upset when I was pulled out for two and a half hours of intensive questioning and a complete item-by-item search of my luggage, likely because I had stayed with some Israeli Arab friends and don’t otherwise fit the profile of Christian visitors to Israel.
After the September 11 attacks, I am far more understanding that Israelis don’t have the luxury to debate the niceties of intrusive security in a world where they know that there are so many people trying to kill them.
Do not try to photograph soldiers or military installations without permission. And while this is not a security issue, it is also advisable not to photograph Muslim Arabs or ultra-Orthodox Jews without asking for permission since many view photography of people as a violation of the commandment against graven images (or risking the evil eye).
It is also simple courtesy not to treat people like a zoo exhibit. Also, don’t take photos on Shabbat (the Sabbath) at the Western Wall or in religious Jewish neighborhoods. In short, be respectful.
I suggest that you carry your passport or at least a photocopy of it with you at all times; you will often need it in circumstances you would not expect (checking into hotels, financial transactions, and going to some sites).
I also recommend that you carry a small book bag/backpack big enough to carry your passport and wallet, a guide book, maps, a Bible (you’ll see frequent references at historical sites), water, and miscellaneous day-trip items. (Of course, some of this you may be able to carry on your phone or tablet, but beware of theft issues as you would anywhere.)
I carry my bag with me everywhere and know to start opening the zippers as I approach a security check point. Carry something that is secure and can’t be easily ripped off.
While street crime in Israel remains far lower than in the US, there are occasional pickpockets or thieves. On our 2005 trip, a thief lifted a digital camera out of a man’s bag in the middle of an Old City walking tour.
On our 2008 trip, my friend Joy’s day-bag was either lost or stolen in Tel Aviv. Those were the most “dangerous” things I saw in seventeen trips traveling on my own all over the country. Things like that can happen anywhere, of course, and they do, far more often, in any major American or European city. You’re safe in Israel. You really are.
©2004-2019 Douglas E. Duckett, All rights reserved.