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Middle East : Israel
Israel is a small yet diverse Middle Eastern country with a long coastline on the eastern Merranean Sea and a small window on the Red Sea on the Gulf of Eilat (Aqaba). Israel is bordered by Egypt to the southwest, by Jordan to the east (with which it shares a border along the Jordan River and the Dead Sea), and by Syria and Lebanon to the north. Israel also controls land that is claimed by the Palestinian Authority, sometimes referred to as the Palestinian Territories of the West Bank in the east.
Israel is considered a Holy Land (together with areas of Jordan and the Palestinian Territories), to three major world religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - as well as a vibrant modern history and culture, based in no small part on the diverse, mostly immigrant origins of its inhabitants from the Arab world and the Jewish Diaspora. These aspects make Israel a fascinating (if sometimes challenging) drawcard for many travellers and pilgrims.
Israel is a highly urbanised society and is therefore best divided for the traveller into its main cities and towns, followed by the regions and other sites.
Israel possesses a number of diverse regions, with landscapes varying between coast, mountain, valley and desert, with everything in between. Beyond the towns and cities, each region of Israel holds its own unique attractions. The metropolitan areas of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv very much form their own regions; from north to south, however, Israel's regions are as follows:
The following areas are presently largely under Israeli administration and partial settlement, but are also claimed by the Palestinian authorities. Pending Final Status negotiations and agreements, Israel maintains a vital, ongoing interest in the Territories, the focus of Jewish settlement and with strong historical connections to Jewish identity, Jewish religion and Jewish History.
A large number of major attractions in Israel are located some distance from large towns and cities:
Archaeological / Historical Centers and Sites
Geographical / Natural Sites
Following World War II, the British withdrew from their mandate of Palestine, and the UN partitioned the area into Arab and Jewish states, an arrangement rejected by the Arabs. Subsequently, Israel's Arab neighbors invaded the nation with the hope of regaining previously held territory. The Israelis defeated the Arabs in a series of wars without ending the deep tensions between the two sides. On 25 April 1982, Israel withdrew from the Sinai pursuant to the 1979 Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty. Outstanding territorial and other disputes with Jordan were resolved in the 26 October 1994 Israel-Jordan Treaty of Peace. In addition, on 25 May 2000, Israel withdrew unilaterally from southern Lebanon, which it had occupied since 1982. In keeping with the framework established at the Madrid Conference in October 1991, bilateral negotiations were conducted between Israel and Palestinian representatives (from the Israeli-occupied West Bank) and Syria, to achieve a permanent settlement. But progress toward a permanent status agreement has been undermined by the outbreak of Palestinian-Israeli violence since September 2000.
Modern-day Israel extends broad protection to the environment, protecting women's rights and maintaining a vibrant and free press. Israel's gay and lesbian legislation is on par with most Western cultures, if not better. Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East and, as a result, has an elected parliament (Knesset), with Jews, Arabs and others serving in the legislature — although the inhabitants of the Palestinian territories are not permitted to vote.
Israel has a technologically advanced market economy with substantial government participation. It depends on imports of crude oil, grains, raw materials, and military equipment. Despite limited natural resources, Israel has intensively developed its agricultural and industrial sectors over the past 20 years. Israel is largely self-sufficient in food production except for grains. Cut diamonds, high-technology equipment, and agricultural products (fruits and vegetables) are the leading exports. Israel usually posts sizable current account deficits, which are covered by large transfer payments from abroad and by foreign loans. Roughly half of the government's external debt is owed to the US, which is its major source of economic and military aid. The influx of Jewish immigrants from the former USSR during the period 1989-99 coupled with the opening of new markets at the end of the Cold War, energized Israel's economy, which grew rapidly in the early 1990s. But growth began moderating in 1996 when the government imposed tighter fiscal and monetary policies and the immigration bonus petered out. Growth was a strong 6.4% in 2000. But the bitter Israeli-Palestinian conflict, increasingly the declines in the high-technology and tourist sectors, and fiscal austerity measures in the face of growing inflation have led to declines in GDP in 2001 and 2002.
The most obvious division in Israel's society is between Jews, who make up 80% of the population (in Israel proper), and Arabs, who make nearly all of the rest. In terms of religion, 77% are Jewish, 16% are Muslim, 4% are Christian and 2% are Druze (a Muslim offshoot considered heretical by mainstream Islam). While equality is theoretically guaranteed, in practice there are many restrictions on the Arab population, both legal (eg. no military service) and de facto (difficulty in obtaining building permits, onerous security, job discrimination, etc). In particular, the rights of Arabs who are not Israeli citizens are severely circumscribed.
There are also deep divisions within Jewish society, and more than one commentator has, only half-jokingly, noted if they ever reach peace with the Arabs the subsequent civil war will make everything before it look like child's play. First is the ethnic division between the Ashkenazim, who originate from northern Europe and are generally considered wealthier and politically better connected, and the Sephardim, who were forcibly expelled from Spain in 1497 and settled in the Maghreb and Middle East. Smaller groups include the Mizrahi, or Middle Eastern Jews, and the Bene Israel, or black Jews from Ethiopia (widely called pejoratively as Falasha).
While ethnic divisions have weakened as Israel's locally-born population increases, religious tensions between secular and orthodox Jews have been on the increase. The spectrum ranges from the ultra-orthodox haredim, only 6% of the population but able to wield a disporportionate amount of power thanks to Israel's fractious coalition politics, to 43% who are "religious" or "traditionalist" and 51% who called themselves secular. While secular Jews can be found in Tel Aviv and the Merranean coast, orthodox Jews are based mostly in Jerusalem and to an increasing degree in the settlements in the Palestinian Territories.
Israelis are said to be tough and prickly, but they are really friendly people. In Israel, it's normal for people to be direct in a way that might seem abrupt, even rude, in other parts of the world. Personal questions are common, and should not be taken as an offense. The information Israelis collect on you is meant to help you in a good way, not to set traps for you. Israelis are used to fighting for their right to exist and have to hold their own against the pressures of the family, religion, the army and other Israelis. One of the worst insults in Israel is to be called a freyer, often translated "sucker", meaning someone who pays too much, stands in line quietly as other jostle past and in general is taken advantage of instead of standing up.
But Israelis are also very kind and hospitable. When you make a friend here they will do the best to take care of you while you're in their country. You might not find such pleasant behaviour if you work here though.
Citizens from most European, North American and Australasian countries do not need a visa prior to arrival. Note that German citizens born before January 1, 1928, do have to apply for a visa in advance. This visa will be given if you were not heavily involved in events during the Nazi era and will be valid for the whole time your passport is valid. Further note that in some Arab states it constitutes a crime for their citizens to enter Israel at all. Even if you're an Arab-born citizen of a European or North American country having entered Israel may have consequences when returning to your country of birth.
Pay attention to the fact that many Arab countries (such as Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia etc.) deny entry to any person that has been to Israel. Not only an Israeli stamp puts your entry into these countries at risk but also a stamp from another country (such as Egypt or Jordan) that you can only receive in a border crossing point towards Israel. If arriving by air or by sea and wishing to go to Arab states with the same passport, ask the Israeli immigration officer to put his stamp onto a separate piece of paper. Then you're safe not to be denied entry by the Arab states named above. Citizens of some countries (such as Germany) have the possibility of applying for a second passport. This allows them to have an Israeli stamp in one passport and travel to the Arab states with another one.
Most European and American visitors get three months stay when they arrive by plane. In the past westerners entering by land have be given two weeks, this is no longer true (as of November 2005). Israeli immigration may take a dim view of travelers arriving from Arab countries, but you are unlikely to face anything worse than very time-conusming, and repetitive, but polite questioning.
Israel's main international airport - Ben-Gurion International Airport 1 (http://www.iaa.gov.il/Rashat/en-US/Airports/BenGurion/) (code TLV) - is located approximately halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and serves both cities.
Israel has its own national carrier, El Al (אל על) 3 (http://www.elal.co.il/), which possesses direct international connections with many European and North American cities. A large number of international carriers also fly regularly into Israel - these include British Airways, Air France, Lufthansa, Iberia, American Airlines, Thai Airlines and Air Sinai (a subsidiary of Egyptair).
Note that security measures above and beyond what you might encounter in most countries are taken for flights both to and from Israel - these, of course, are undertaken for your, and other passengers', safety and security. Arriving at the terminal at least three hours before your flight is well advised, as Israeli security procedures can be time-consuming. Bag inspection is routine and should be expected, in addition to repeated interviews about your time in Israel. Keep your cool in what can be a frustrating time - it really is done with the best intentions, if not always the most elegant execution. Having the telephone number of friends or colleagues you may have spent time with in Israel, and who can vouch for you, always helps the process.
There are buses to Ben-Gurion airport from Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem, but the easiest way is by train (http://www.israrail.org.il/english/natbag.html). Train service to Tel-Aviv was finally launched in October 2004, proceeding up to Nahariya via Haifa, every 20 minutes. Train service has recently begun to Jerusalem, however it does not proceed into the center of the city so an additional ride in a taxi or bus may be required.
Taxi service is available, though not particularly cheap. A better option is a shared taxi, or sherut - these are available outside the airport terminal.
The sea ports of Haifa and Ashdod are easily accessible by public transportation as they are located in major cities.
Boat arrival in the following Marinas: Herzliya (north of Tel-Aviv), Ashkelon (South of Ashdod)
There are land routes to both Egypt and Jordan from Israel. There are no land routes to either Syria or Lebanon owing to the continuing state of hostilities with these countries. The border crossings have security measures similar to the airports.
Jordan has three crossings with Israel: the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge (the shortest way between Amman and Jerusalem, the busiest crossing); the Jordan River (in the north); and Arava (2 km from Eilat). If you ask the immigration officers (Jordanian and Israeli) politely they will usually stamp a separate piece of paper. It's fairly straightforward to cross using a series of buses.
Egypt also has an open land border with Isreal.
Israeli rental cars are not generally permitted across the borders for insurance purposes.
In getting around Israel, be aware primarily of the Sabbath: from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown, there is effectively no public transportation available in Israel (except in Haifa, and limited sherut services - shared taxis, see below). If you're daytripping on a Friday, you should start thinking about how to get back by noon at the latest, and you should plan on staying near your lodgings on Saturday.
Buses are the most common form of public transportation for Israelis and travellers alike. The extensive national bus system is run by a public corporation called Egged (http://www.egged.co.il/) (pronounced "Egg-ed"), the second-largest bus network in the world. Additionally, a bus company called Dan (http://www.dan.co.il/english/) operates solely in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area. The bus transport system is slowly being changed, however, as Egged phases out of many of its former routes to be replaced by cheaper and faster companies.
NB: Without being unduly alarmist, buses and bus-stops have unfortunately been the targets of suicide bombers in recent years. If you see anyone acting suspiciously, or discover an untended parcel, notify the driver, a soldier or police officer immediately. If you can, avoid standing in large crowds of people in order to further minimise any risk.
Faster than the bus companies are the minivans, known as monit sherut or "service taxi", that follow the bus routes but can be hailed from anywhere. The drivers take the money whilst driving and so it's not uncommon for lengthy arguments to develop about who gave how much.
Sherut fares usually cost the same or slightly less than the bus, but during Sabbath, when normal buses don't operate, sherut fares will increase.
One of the best advances in transport in Israel in recent years has been the modernisation of the train system, now set for major expansion. The system currently runs along Israel's Merranean coast, being particularly useful for connections between Haifa, Tel Aviv and the airport, as well as the new link to Jerusalem.
Taxis are very common in Israel. Try your best to get them to use the meter, or moneh in Hebrew.
Israel is host to a huge variety of accommodation options, from camping and hostels through to 5-star luxury hotels.
Israel has a thriving network of youth hostels run by the Israel Youth Hostel Association (http://www.youth-hostels.org.il/).
A large number of kibbutzim now include Bed and Breakfast accommodation amongst their activities. 4 (http://www.kibbutz.co.il/)
Private owned Bed and Breakfast accommodation can be found throughout the country as well. 5 (http://www.weekend.co.il/)
Israel's time is + 2 hrs from GMT so when it's 6 pm (GMT), 1 pm (EST), it's 8 pm in Israel.
Hebrew and Arabic represents the official languages of Israel. That most widely spoken is Hebrew, however, a sizable part of the population are Arab Israeli and Arabic is used by them together with a significant part of non-Arab Israelis who also speak it. Massive immigration from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s brought a large number of immigrants who speak Russian. Other influential languages in Israel - reflecting the diverse origins of Israelis - are French, German and Polish.
It is generally very easy to communicate with English in Israel, owing to the fact that English is a language compulsorily taught in Israeli schools and represents the primary key to Western culture. It is difficult to find someone who cannot speak at least basic English, especially amongst the under-40s. All street and road signs (and many others besides) have the English name, as well as the Hebrew and Arabic names.
Living and travelling costs in Israel are almost on a par with Western Europe, North America and Australasia, making it by far the most 'expensive' country in the Middle East region. If you are planing to visit any neighbouring countries, you could save some money by purchasing as many of your souvenirs elsewhere.
Currency and Money Matters
The Israeli unit of currency is the shekel (proper name = the New Israeli shekel). Each shekel is divided into 100 (new) agorot. The common symbols for the shekel are NIS or ₪. There are 5, 10, 50 agorot, 1, 5, 10 shekels coins, and 20,50,100 & 200 shekels notes. $1 US equals about 4.61 NIS; 1? equals about 5.46 NIS; £1 equals about 7.93 NIS (January 2006).
ATMs are widely available in cities and towns and are connected to European and American banking systems - this is easily the best way to access funds without paying commission on travelers' cheques! Note that post office branches change travellers cheques (and cash) commission-free. Cash can also be sent to post office branches using Western Union services.
You can get V.A.T. refunds when leaving the country but if you don't like the queue at the airport note that there is no V.A.T in Eilat. Attempts have been made to eliminate this.
US Dollars are accepted in some (many?) tourist locations, particularly Jerusalem, at an rough exchange rate of 4 to 5 NIS to the dollar.
Israeli wine, kosher products, t-shirts, diamonds...
Almost needless to say, Israel is one of the best countries for purchasing Judaica and Christian pilgrim trinkets.
It is legal to purchase antiquities from the small number of government-licensed dealers, located mainly in Jerusalem's Old City and in Jaffa, but responsible archaeologists would prefer that you didn't encourage illicit digging and tomb robbery by encouraging the trade....
The "official" Israeli national foods are falafel and houmos. Falafel (http://www.cooking.com/recipes/static/recipe4858.htm) are small fried balls of mashed chickpeas. They are served inside a pita bread together with tehina and other salads. You can also order half a serving (??? ??? kha-TSEE mah-NAH). Falafel is probably the cheapest meal you can find (approx 10-15NIS, 3-$4US) Falafel makes a great vegetarian meal. Houmos is a cream of chickpeas, tehina, onion, lemon and olive oil. It is eaten with houmos, pita bread, tomatoes, cucumbers and olives. Other foods served in pita bread are Shwarma (http://www.1worldrecipes.com/recipe.asp?r=156) (sliced sheep or calf meat), Me'orav Yerushalmi (????? ??????? means Jerusalem mix: several kinds of meat together) and Sabikh (????).
Sabich (http://www.gemsinisrael.com/e_article000039492.htm) brought to Israel by Iraqi Jews, has become popular in recent years. It is pita bread stuffed with a hard boiled egg, batter dipped deep fried eggplant, houmos, tehina, and salad.
Israelis appreciate good coffee and café culture thrives in the country. Although the Starbucks enterprise has not been so successful there are several highly popular local coffee chains. Many Israelis like to just spend time sipping their "hafuch" (Cafe latté) and chatting with friends. You can also have light meal with sandwiches and salads. Aroma is probably Israel's larges coffee chain. You can order sandwiches there in three sizes and choose from three types of bread. Arcafé is slightly more expensive, but their coffee (some say) is even better. The new gourmet cafe market is so profitable that even the boring old Elite coffee company decided to get in on the action. Many Israelis still like to drink "botz" (mud coffee) which is an extra finely ground coffee you just stir into the glass and let settle. But you probably wouldn't order "botz" in a chic espresso bar, and those who are used to Starbucks-like coffee most likely won't find it palatable.
One attraction for religious Jewish (and other) tourists are the kosher McDonald?s restaurants. Note that most of the branches are not kosher, so ask before ordering. Many Burger-King restaurants are kosher, though.
Vegeterians / Vegans - due to "kashrut" (the rules of keeping kosher) there are many restaurants that serve only dairy food, which makes them popular with vegetarians. In some parts of the country you can also find vegetarian restaurants run by the Black Hebrews.
Tipping is appreciated in sit-in restaurants. It is standard to give 10% (or 15% for exceptional service). Some establishments include a service charge in the bill; in this case it is clearly marked (normally in Hebrew and in English).
Krembo (A hybrid of the words KREM and BO, "Cream" and "In it", respectively) is a favorite Israeli chocolate snack. It is composed of a round cookie, on which cream (Most often Vanilla-flavored, but there is also a Mocca variety) lays, covered with a chocolate shell. Krembos come wrapped in aluminium foil, and are very delicate. They are rarely found in the summer due to the weather.
There are three brands of Israeli beer:
A common liqueur in Israel is Arak. It is clear, and annis-flavored, slightly similar to Pastis. It is usually drank in a glass of about 0.3 liters, mixed with equal amount of water and ice.
Tropit - Cheap soft fruit-flavor drink, usually grape. Comes in a tough aluminium-like bag and a straw. The bag is poked using the straw to make a hole, through which you drink using the straw. Very portable (until holed), and became very popular in summer camps.
One of the most respected schools for international travellers in Israel is the Rothberg International School (http://overseas.huji.ac.il/) at the Hebrew University Jerusalem (http://www.huji.ac.il/huji/eng/index_e.htm).
The International School for Holocaust Studies (http://www.yad-vashem.org.il/education/index_education.html) at Yad Vashem (http://www.yad-vashem.org.il/) in west Jerusalem also offers a variety of educational options relating to the Holocaust.
One of the iconic activities in Israel is working ("volunteering") on a collective farm: a kibbutz or a moshav. http://www.kibbutz.org.il/eng/welcome.htm
Another popular option is to volunteer for work on an archaeological excavation, mostly conducted in summer at a variety of locations. Most Israeli excavations offer college / degree cr for international students. http://www.ancientneareast.net/volunteers.html
Although it's not legal to work on a tourist visa in practice Israel depends upon immigant workers. Stay at any hotel in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem and the staff will offer to put you in contact with opportunities to wash dishes or construction. Pay is only around $5 an hour but that's standard for non-skilled work in Israel.
Buses and bus-stops have unfortunately been the targets of suicide bombers in recent years. If you see anyone acting suspiciously, or find an untended parcel, notify the driver, a soldier or police officer immediately. A cease fire currently in effect has lessened the danger of riding public transit and visiting public areas, but caution should be used in disputed areas.
Israeli national policy, however, is business as usual. The day after the November 2004 bomb in the Karmel market in Tel Aviv the market was full again. Life goes on. Israel is a very safe country. You can walk around the cities and towns at night without fear as mugging and drunken violence is all but unknown. Single women should still take care late at night but the risks here are far lower than practically anywhere in Europe.
Emergency phone numbers
There are no special medical issues in Israel, no immunizations are necessary. Pharmacies and hospitals are common in all major cities with emergency and health care to a very high Western standard. Travel health insurance is highly recommended, however, as the Israeli health system frequently operates under the American-style "user-pays" approach to treatment.
Visitors to some synagogues, most churches and all mosques should be aware that entry will normally not be permitted to those with exposed legs (i.e. wearing shorts or short skirts) or exposed upper arms. Carry a wrap or bring a change of clothes. Mosques will also require you to take off your shoes before entry. Gentlemen should cover their heads in a synagogue.
Expressing any opinion on the Israel/Palestinian problem is likely to get you some nasty looks even if you are very sure of the opinions of the people you are with.
The voltage in Israel is 230 V, and the frequency is 50 Hz. The electric outlets used are type H and Type C. Type H is a uniquely Israeli three-pronged standard, but most modern type H outlets can also accept type C European two-pronged plugs. In fact, most electronic devices in Israel use type C plugs. For more information on plug types, please see the Wikipedia article Electric Outlet (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_outlet).
Electricity is supplied by the Israel Electric Corporation. The special phone number 103 can be used to reach the customer service center.
The country code for Israel and the disputed territories is +972.
Area Codes: (drop the leading 0 (zero) when calling from abroad)
Cellular carriers - 05x plus 7 numbers:
If you want to phone home from Israel, you can phone via a few companies abroad:
Internet cafés are widely available in most cities and towns (check individual articles).