Is it safe to travel to Israel in 2018?

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Is it safe to travel to Israel? Current information that will make you see what a safe travel destinaion Israel actually is.Many people tell me they’re love to visit Israel but they’re not sure if it’s safe to do so. After all, Israel comes up in the news with scary images of riots and rockets. Surely not a place one would want to spend time in, right?

Wrong.

The fact is Israel is a very safe country to travel to. Crime rates are low compared to other countries. The risk from hostile war-related activities to anyone traveling within Israel itself is very small. Overall, you’re safer traveling in Israel than you are in most European countries or in the US.

I should know. I’ve lived here all my life and I have also traveled extensively in Europe and the US & Canada. In this post, I’ll discuss the actual risks associated with traveling in Israel and how you can avoid them. Keep reading for a thorough risk assessment!

Now, I can see why you might be worried. The press does a terrible job explaining what is actually happening here. And they tend to mix Israel up with its neighbors.

In fact, let’s begin with some myth busting!

  1. Israel is not Syria and is not affected by the war in Syria.
  2. Israel is not Gaza or the West Bank (though some settlers would have you believe otherwise).
  3. Our buses are very safe to travel in.
  4. You are at greater risk from terrorism in Europe or the US, then you are in Israel.

How dangerous is Israel compared to other Western countries?

Whenever we travel abroad – away from Israel – my mother becomes very worried. Especially when we go to the US. And she’s actually right.

According to the UN’s report, the murder rate in the US is almost five times higher than the murder rate in Israel. Israel has a murder rate of 1.3 people per 100,000 which is lower than that of Belgium or Finland and fairly close to that of France or Germany.

Of course, crime isn’t the only thing that may bother you as a traveler. When it comes to general crime rates, Israel fares even better. Ranked at #37 in the world, its score is better than that of Canada, Norway, New Zealand and definitely much better than that of the United States. The same is true for the general safety index, by the way. Which presumably takes into account conflict-associated risks.

I can attest to the same.

Walking around in Paris, Rome or London is less safe than in Tel Aviv. No two ways about it. When we travel, we’re constantly worried about pickpockets and petty crime. I can’t recall the last time I heard of anyone getting mugged or encountering pickpockets here in Israel. You also won’t see con artists in street corners.

Now, I’m not saying there are no thieves in Israel. I’m just saying they’re not something you associate with just walking outside here. Not even at night.  And the statistical data supports that.

The weather in Israel is safer too

We have traveled extensively in the USA. Hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, heat waves, blizzards, and floods. We’ve had to change our plans because of inclement weather more than ones. And “inclement weather” in the US can be totally crazy. We’re talking

  • Heat waves of over 110F
  • Cold fronts with sub-freezing temperatures
  • Wildfires that will affect air quality for thousands of miles around them
  • Hail that can tear holes in your car
  • Hurricanes that cause the evacuations of entire cities

Really dangerous stuff. Granted, the locals know how to handle these things, mostly. As a traveler, they can put your life at risk, or at the very least, force you to drastically alter your travel plans.

But that’s all in America.

We don’t have those things in Israel, fortunately.

Yes, summers can be hot but it’s super rate to get a heat wave that will bring temperatures above 100F. Plus, everywhere is airconditioned. Unless you’re planning on hiking in the desert, you’ll be ok. Winters are pleasantly mild. We do get the occasional winter storm but I’m sure our storms will make the average American laugh. Oh, and it may snow for 2-3 days every winter in high places. That’s about it.

Of course, Europe has its share of bad weather too. Heat waves in countries which are not prepared for heat have taken a heavy toll on human lives in the past few years. So have extra cold fronts, locally known as “The Beast From the East”.

So, weatherwise, you’re far safer in Israel than in most countries in the world.

But isn’t Israel in a constant state of war?

Israel is surrounded by Egypt, The Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. We have peace with Egypt and Jordan. We’re at a state of war with Lebanon and Syria. As for the West Bank and Gaza, “it’s complicated”.

That’s as far as official relationships are concerned.

But what does it actually mean for you as a traveler?

Almost all of the time – nothing.

Let me explain how our wars work here. We haven’t had a major “existential” war since 1973. That’s over 40 years ago. What we do have is a low-intensity conflict (that’s actually a professional term) with the Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Hamas in Gaza.

Normally, that doesn’t mean a whole lot. Once every few years, things heat up for one reason or another and there’s a small war (or operation).

I won’t go into the politics of this – not in a travel blog. I’m just focusing on what this means for you as a traveler. During these mini-wars, we usually get rockets fired at Israel. When the war is with Hezbulla, the rockets cover the northern part of the country. When it’s with Gaza, they cover the southern part.

What happens then?

Israel has a superb infrastructure when it comes to home defense. Most homes have their own shelters – including within apartments. I’m actually typing this from my office which is also our shelter. These rooms have super strong walls, special anti-blast windows and doors.

There’s an automated system in place which calculates where the rockets are headed specifically. Almost all of the rockets will get intercepted, but just in case, the system turns on the sirens in specific areas and also sends everyone in that area an automated text message, telling them to find shelter.

Overall, with so many layers of defense, it’s rare for anyone to actually be physically hurt by rockets. Having said that, the whole thing can be upsetting and even traumatize some people.

Just remember, all of the above is rare. Only once every few years and then it lasts for a couple of weeks. Hurricanes are far worse than any of our wars in that respect.

Are some areas in Israel safer than others?

The area around Gaza is different from the rest of Israel. When things escalate, people who live there can experience a constant barrage of mortar shells and rockets. When hundreds or thousands of these are fired, some make it through the anti-rocket systems. Even then, it’s rare for anyone to get physically hurt – though it could happen. But living under constant attack does take a heavy psychological toll.

I hope I haven’t scared you off with the description of war there. The point is, as long you’re not traveling in the area surrounding Gaza during an escalation period, there’s really nothing to fear. And remember, the country is small, getting out of harm’s way is as easy as driving for half an hour.

I would actually encourage you to travel all over the country, just be aware of the news and if you hear about potential escalation with Gaza or Lebanon, be on the alert. It’s perfectly legitimate to change your plans when that’s the case and go visit the Dead Sea or Jerusalem until things calm down.

What about terror attacks?

Time to bust another myth.

I can see where the fear is coming from. Back in the late 1990’s Israel experienced a series of very nasty terror attacks. The terrorists targeted crowded places and buses. Yes, it was scary back then.

That’s over and done with.

Ever since they built the wall between Israel and the Palestinians, things have been really quiet. That’s almost two decades now. No bombs, no suicide bombers, no firing in the streets. The worst that can happen – and that’s rare too – is a crazed individual trying to carry out a terror attack using a knife.

What’s more, public establishments such as shopping malls check people as they enter. You basically go through a metal detector, and a guard may or may not ask you to open your bag for inspection. It’s super quick and easy and it adds a lot to our sense of security.

Frankly, I feel much safer in Israel than I do in Europe or in the US in that respect.

Think about how many terror attacks there were in Europe over the past few years. None in Israel. Think about all the mass shootings in the US. Nothing like that in Israel. It’s just safer here.

Won’t I be seeing soldiers with guns guarding the streets?

In most places, you won’t.

If you happen to see soldiers carrying guns, that’s just military personnel leaving or returning to their base. They’re traveling. They’re not on guard duty.

There are two exceptions to this rule –

  1. If you go past a military base, you’ll see soldiers outside the base. They’re guarding their base – not the street. The street simply isn’t dangerous.
  2. You’ll see armed border patrol soldiers in the Old City of Jerusalem. More of them during the holidays. They’re there for the unlikely event of rioting (more on that in a minute). In a way, they’re there to deter potential rioters.
Border police in Jerusalem
Border police in Jerusalem’s Old City

Honestly, I’ve seen more armed military personnel when visiting Paris and Rome. Israel has very little of that – and limited mostly to the Old City of Jerusalem.

When are the safest times to travel to Israel?

You can always visit Israel, any time of the year, and feel safe.

That said, there are certain days where tensions may run higher than usual. That doesn’t mean anything will actually happen, but security forces will be on the alert. During these days, it’s best to stay away from religious places and possibly from Jerusalem’s Old City as a whole. It’s not actually dangerous but if you’re sensitive to local vibes you may notice the tension.

Generally, try to avoid the holidays of the three main religions: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Things will not only be tenser but also just more crowded.

Fridays are always a bit of an issue in the Old City of Jerusalem because that’s when the Muslims pray in the Dome of the Rock. You won’t be allowed to visit there at all on a Friday  – if that’s on your itinerary. The Dome of the Rock is also more problematic during these three Jewish holidays: Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot.

I’ve mentioned Jerusalem several times here already, so it’s worth addressing the question –

Is it safe to travel to Jerusalem?

Jerusalem is safe but it’s also a complicated city. It will probably be the highlight of your trip so you definitely should not avoid it. Just worth keeping a few things in mind.

Jerusalem used to be divided until 1967. The Western part was under Israeli sovereignty and the eastern part under Jordanian rule. During the Six-Day-War Israel took over eastern Jerusalem and annexed it. According to Israel law – Jerusalem is unified. Not so according to international law which still regards the eastern part as occupied territory. The eastern part of Jerusalem now has a mix of Palestinian Arabs and Jewish settlers. Almost by definition, things there are more volatile. In fact, many Israelis avoid visiting east Jerusalem at all, with the possible exception of the Old City.

Jerusalem - the heart of the conflict
Jerusalem – at the heart of the Middle East conflict

The Old City of Jerusalem is in the area which used to be under Jordanian rule. Technically, this is east Jerusalem through and through. However, because of its religious and cultural significance, you won’t find many Israelis who have never visited the place. In fact, schools usually take the kids at some point to visit the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.

Now that you know all that, I can say again that visiting the Old City of Jerusalem is safe and should not be avoided. However, just know that tensions can rise during certain times, especially Fridays and religious holidays. Not dangerous but not necessarily pleasant either.

And since we mentioned Jerusalem… I have to mention the other capital of Israel.

Is Tel Aviv safe?

Yes, it is. Very much so. You can walk in central Tel Aviv, day or night and feel very safe. Jaffa is safe as well and very touristy.

Tel Aviv is a fantastic walking city
Tel Aviv is a fantastic walking city

The only area in Tel Aviv which locals tend to avoid after dark is that of the Old Central Bus Station. And even then, I’ve never heard of anything happening to anyone there. It’s just one of those “bad neighborhoods” that people will avoid.

There’s plenty to see and do in Tel Aviv but above all, the city has a wonderful relaxed and easygoing vibe. Well worth experiencing.

Is traveling to Bethlehem safe?

I get asked that very often so it’s worth mentioning here too.

I actually have no idea how safe traveling to Bethlehem is. Bethlehem is not in Israel. It’s in the West Bank, under the rule of the Palestinian Authority. As an Israeli citizen, it’s actually illegal for me to visit Bethlehem.

Not so for tourists of other nationalities. As far as I know, it’s legal for them to visit the West Bank, including Ramallah, Jericho, and Bethlehem. I know many who have and they all said they enjoyed their visit and felt safe.

The question, in the end, is would you feel safe traveling in the West Bank? I can’t answer that as I’ve never done so myself. I can tell you that both the UK and the US travel advisories specifically say that no one should attempt to travel into Gaza but are more lenient about traveling in the West Bank. To quote the British on this –

You should take care when traveling anywhere in the West Bank.

Does the conflict in Syria affect travel to Israel?

No, it doesn’t.

I’ve seen a couple of posts about the safety of travel to Israel which claimed otherwise. Very clearly, they were written by someone who’s not in Israel.

Yes, there’s a terrible war in Syria. Yes, it’s right across the border. No, it hardly ever affects anyone in Israel. There were maybe one or two instances where the forces in Syria shot something into Israel by mistake. They didn’t hit anything or anyone.

We have family living in the Golan Heights, across the border from Syria. We’ve visited them countless times over the past few years. There were times when we could clearly hear the fighting in Syria – it was that close – but that was all it was. Just sounds. In fact, my brother-in-law regularly rides his bike up the nearby hill from which he can look into Syria. He used to do that when there were ongoing battles on the other side, and watch the exchange of fire. It really is that safe on the Israeli side of the border.

View of Syria from the Golan Heights

This is the view of Syria from Mt. Bental, a small hill on the Israeli side. The place is a popular tourist attraction, even today.

Don’t let the war with Syria affect your decision on traveling to Israel. It shouldn’t even stop you from visiting the Golan Heights.

Travel is always somewhat unsafe

I always keep that in mind. We went on a long road trip to Alaska by car last summer. That was probably more dangerous than anything you could ever do in Israel, just for the risk of having an accident along a road with no cell reception.

We visited London, Rome, Berlin, and Paris and I can assure you, I felt less safe in any of these locations than I do here in Israel. Part of that is simply knowing more about where you live. Another part is actually fairly objective. In the past decade, these destinations have seen more terror attacks than Israel has. We still went there though and had a great time.

And remember, the news makes things look worse than they actually are.

Last summer, as we were traveling in Denali National Park in Alaska, my Mom called us to warn us about a hurricane. In Florida. Because the local news here mentioned the United States, and she knew we were traveling “there”. It’s easy to get confused when you’re unfamiliar with another country.

In summary –

Enjoy your trip to Israel! And if you have any other questions, please do leave me a comment. Also, if you’ve traveled to Israel and can share your own experience with safety concerns here, that would be great. Hopefully, you’ve had a good experience and can help put others at east.

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