Israel Assessment; 3 Key Takeaways (and 10 travel tips)

As I begin writing this, I sit on a plane in Ben Gurion International Airport to wrap up a 3 month stay in Israel. That is the normal allotted time provided with a tourist visa which is purchased upon entry into the country. There is so much to say regarding the people, land, culture, food, language, history, conflicts, politics, etc; both positive and not so positive.

In the spirit of journaling for personal purposes, and of writing to provide insight to others, I’d like to point out 3 key takeaways that anyone who is either interested in visiting and or learning about Israel from afar should be aware of. This may or may not be information you will find easily online, but it is what you will have to visit the country to know firsthand. A few general travel tips will be provided towards the end as well.

1. Israel is Safe, Strong, and Stubborn

For a country that is surrounded by ongoing violence and distinct anti-Semitism, Israel is a very safe place despite common misconceptions. 

Israel is bordered by:

  • Syria, which is undergoing a six year disastrous and complex internal war involving many different parties
  • Lebanon, which is where Hezbollah is based as they scheme on how to bring an end to the Jewish state
  • Egypt, which has a sect of ISIS roaming around the Sinai region launching rockets into their Mediterranean neighbor
  • Gaza, which is where Hamas is committed and active in their fight against the Jewish state as well
  • And Jordan, which is the most friendly and least problematic country for its former Palestinian neighbor

Someone will say “you forgot to mention Palestine”, but it’s on purpose because that’s another important point to discuss in a little bit. 

Going back to Israel’s position, it is without question that Israel is the most advanced and stable country in its region. Airport with biometric passport readers at Customs; taxi’s that can be ordered via app; buses that can be tracked real-time via app; a country-wide hostel network; several major cities that mimic San Francisco, Seattle, Phoenix, and Houston; basic exercise equipment available at the local parks; malls like those in the West with three or four stories, universities pumping out a high percentage of students that go work in the fields of technology and cyber-security, businesses that employ such talent, hospitals with modern equipment and practices, etc. And with armed young military personnel in nearly every major and minor public place to keep the peace, there’s not much reason to feel unstable or threatened. Israelis go about their daily lives as if they forgot about the massive problems that exist just outside their borders.

Keep in mind this is a place that is about the size of New Jersey in the United States. No doubt this is all thanks to a big capitalistic change in fiscal policy during the days that current Prime Minister Benjamin “BiBi” Netanyahu was the former Finance Minister; as well as thanks to big monetary contributions and defense industry business alliances with friends in the West like America. Politics aside, travelers who visit Israel are thankful that they can visit a Middle Eastern country with democratic values and low levels of armed internal conflict.

That being said, since my short time in Israel there have been three incidents of multiple rockets fired into the country from Gaza, Egypt, and Syria. You can thank, however, Israel’s CIA (Mossad), and the Iron Dome, Arrow System, and the just recently unveiled David’s Sling for smart and effective defense against such attacks which did not hurt a single person. That doesn’t discount though the psychological trauma that some Israeli’s will tell you about regarding the consistent rocket attacks and city-wide alarms between 2014 and 2015. Some of them even say they still hear the alarms vividly in their dreams or in their head while they’re walking around today. 

The other pressing security issues are the lonewolf stabbing attacks in Jerusalem that target mostly members of the armed forces, or recently a young British student who was stabbed to death by a mentally unstable Palestinian man. These, however, are infrequent and low casualty events (know I’m not making light of them either way).

So how is Israel stubborn? I invite anyone to explain to me how it is not. Stubbornness is ingrained into Israel’s manner of life with deep religious, political, and cultural history. 

I’m a pretty patient person, but there are two things that can get under my skin. One is traffic, or as I refer to it as a collective group of people wasting my time in getting to my destination (time is important to me, but I do need to take another patient perspective on it…). The other is lack of empathy, or in this case what I refer to as “purposeful inconvenience.” 

For example, if you’re walking through a shouk (outdoors market) and you want to stop to look at something, it would only make sense for you to pull aside and let the crowd move on the main road. Nope, Israeli’s just stop, talk, and stand inconveniently in the middle of everyone to figure what, or if, they’d like to purchase something. The same thing happens in a bus or car, Israeli’s will stop in the middle of the road (non-highway) to talk with the bus, car, or pedestrian next to them and hold up everyone behind with no shame. It’s normal for them, as is honking the horn loudly and proudly. Waiting in line for something? You best assert yourself forward or it’ll be a while until you get served before the people who cut in front of you. Note: I am overexaggerating a little bit, but only a little bit.

This assertive attitude permeates into Israel’s political and business handlings, and I believe it comes from it’s religious history as a chosen nation by God that has suffered much and yet prospered much as well over thousands of years. In the Bible, God Himself refers to His people as “stiff-necked and obstinate.” They are a people that have endured many punches to the face, but they always come back up and thrive. It’s this that makes them a successful and respectable people, but at times a thorn in the side as well.

Note: current day Israel is not only Jews (75%), there are many Arab Muslims (20%) and a small minority of Christians and other religious groups as well (5%). And although non-Jews hold positions in the Knesset, it’s not inaccurate to say Israel is a Jewish state with aspirations to solidify its Jewish roots. Not all of it’s Jewish citizens, however, are religious.

2. The Israeli and Palestinian situation is extremely complicated with no promising end in sight, and it affects the whole world

Duh. And huh?

Yeah, I don’t think foreigners truly appreciate or see the depth of the pain and disagreement on both sides of the issue. You won’t until you’re in people’s homes listening to their stories and views. I spent time both in Israel and Palestine, talking to the common people about their feelings (which they are very happy and almost eager to share), and as a person that is full of hope and usually finds some sort of common ground in conflicts I am having a difficult time with this one to be realistic.

Israeli’s remember their roots in their ancient homeland and how Egypt, Jordan, former Palestine, and Syria came against them following the establishment of their country. Palestinians remember that Jews and Zionism took away the land they had inhabited for nearly 500 years prior, and in certain ancient times as well.

Israeli’s remember the first and second Infitadas (“tremors or resistance”) involving stabbings, suicide bombs, and hanging of Jews by the Palestinians. The Palestinians remember the hundreds of citizens killed by the Israeli Defense Forces in raids, land-clearing, and anti-terrorist operations over the years under occupation.

Israel knows that the Palestinian National Authority and Hamas receive millions of dollars from the U.N., Iran, and other sources to “build infrastructure as a nation” and instead funnel it to the fight against Israel or pocket it for personal wealth while everyday Palestinians continue living frustrated in substandard conditions. Palestine knows that Israel receives billions of dollars from the U.S and other sources to make their already powerful military and depth of control oven more so while citizens enjoy the pleasures of generally above standard living conditions.

Israel is concerned about Palestine continuing to war against them in the plight to “free Palestine” and consequently bring an end to the Jewish state (not necessarily the extinction of the Jewish people, although some call for that), even if and after a resolution is found where Israel and Palestine become two separate states, as Palestinians have openly stated is their most desirable and ultimate goal in multiple surveys over the years. Palestine is concerned Israel will overstep the bounds of any resolution found, as they have with the Oslo accords and the agreement signed in front of former U.S President Bill Clinton, by expanding settlement construction in the West Bank and deploying occupation-type hostility. This, along with many other reasons which include the belief that Israel may not exist as a nation within the next 25 years, is why Palestine has rejected five offered resolutions in the past few decades.

For Israel, prolonging the current situation as the status quo is acceptable and managable. For Palestine, a fire is burning in the midst of angry youth, propaganda and calls for revolution are already being made by the zealous, and with the help of seemingly well-intentioned foreign aid and radical ideologies it’s only a matter of time before another big bloody conflict is inevitable. There will be high casualties on either both or one side, including everyday innocent people who are in the way or don’t pick sides, and there would still be no end or solution found.

Ultimately, if both sides are honest, I feel the issue comes down to this statement: “Why should I trust them? They hate us and don’t want us here. They need to be subdued under control of our own government.”

That fundamental distrust and prejudice, is what fuels the anti-Semitism, anti-Arabism, anti-Westernism, radical Islamic terrorism, and generally unproductive discourse and violent actions that exists in the Middle East. And whether Americans, Europeans, South Americans, Asians, or Africans like it or not, the fruits of this conflict is a cancer that is spreading into every country around the world, on display most evidently in Europe. Why? An overly simplistic but holistic answer is because the three Abraham religions, which extends to all corners of the world, are interested in the land of Israel and Palestine as the Holy Land, with Jerusalem being the golden apple and epi-center of the disagreements. There are nonreligious geo-political and business interests involved as well. What’s disturbing is that there are powers-that-be that gladly invite this cancer in order to give reason to prejudice and hence investment into intelligence, weaponry, and military power both domestically and internationally (i.e., control and exertion of force).

Conflict is good for business and political careers. 

Humanity is a society with an unending history of conflict and war over resources and control. Add belief over the rights to a certain plot of land into the mix, whether for religious or historical reasons, and peace is surely not a priority.

3. Nonetheless, wisdom is vindicated by all her children

Talk is cheap.

While Israel, Palestine, and the world is debating over what to do about these pressing issues, there are people on the ground who are investing their time, money, and skills into building bridges where there are none.

Hands of Mercy in Sderot, Israel is a small ministry that provides food, clothes, and money to many struggling families in an area that has endured 6000 rockets since 2001. They also visit hospitals, homes, and schools; and have earned the respect of the local people.

Juha’s Guesthouse in Jisr Az-Zarqa, Israel is a hostel opened by a Jewish woman and an Arab man in an area that was purposefully avoided by Israelis (and inadvertently foreigners) due to the 100% Arabic Muslim population of which the majority live in poverty. In three short years, these trail-blazing business partners have been able to draw media and entreprenurial attention to a very kind and misunderstood people.

One For Israel is an organization which oversees a Bible College, the only one of its kind in fact which welcomes both Arabs and Jews to study Scripture together in one classrom (not just one or the other). It also has a Humanitarian Aid component that visits Holocaust survivors, who may equate Hitler with Christianity, that live in poverty and meets their needs.

There are more organizations, and even more individuals and families doing what they can, but the point is that when it comes to truly seeking reconciliation actions speak louder than words. 

The world and those in power are busy pointing fingers, but the beginning of peace and redemption starts with getting down on our own knees and willingly washing the feet of others, including “our enemies.” It starts with getting our hands dirty, by digging gardens to plant fields that will produce vegetables and fruits for strangers. It starts with our minds, in changing the way we think and in teaching children how to fish so they can teach others and be an example.

Yes, the world is a cruel place. Yes, Israel is no angel. Yes, Palestine is also corrupt. Yes, the issues are over our paygrade. Yes, sometimes our work yields no fruit.

Nonetheless, a farmer never stops planting seeds even if the last harvest wasn’t plentiful. Wisdom is this: some seeds will go to waste, some will grow and die quickly, but others will grow and be fruitful. Our job is to focus on the hope set before us and continue on in good deeds.

To conclude, here’s a question for you. In your own community, which has its own problems, how will you serve and make a contribution whether big or small?

Think about it, and then apply yourself. You won’t regret it.

Travel Tips for Israel and Palestine

As promised, here are a few travel tips that may be of assistance to you should you decide to visit Israel and Palestine someday.

  • Arriving: Be prepared to be questioned extensively at the airport and customs either in Tel Aviv or Eilat about your reasons for travel and itinerary. Don’t be offended, the questioning is for security reasons. Be honest and straightforward, remember that you’re talking to a human and not Skynet.
  • Accommodation: The Israel Hostel network is very well built and connected, making it easy for you to find places to stay with different rates. When you stay at one, you get a red discount card that saves you 5% on your next hostel stay within the network. Some friends of mine also did Couchsurfing or Woofing.
  • Transportation: The public transportation in Israel is phenomenal. Bus, train, taxi, and Sherut (mini-bus/big-taxi) are all predictable and efficient. If you can apply for one, get a Rav Kav card which may get you some discounts.
  • Safety: I traveled through both cities and remote desert regions of Israel on my own and rarely felt unsafe. When I did feel unsafe, it was because of wild animals and not because of dangerous individuals. Be smart, be conscience of your surroundings, and you’ll be okay. If you’re adventurous and want to carry a “weapon”, head over to al-Eizariya in Palestine across from Lazarus’ Tomb and buy yourself a homemade Shepherds Sling (like the one David used against Goliath)! It’s the only place to purchase one in the whole land.
  • Food and Sanitation: I ate mostly street food and never once got sick or food poisoning in three months. Water is drinkable from the tap in most places (not Palestine), and food quality seems strict (remember, Kosher laws apply in many places). You will find all the hummus, falafel, shawarma, shakshuka, and french fries your heart desires. There are many international restaurants in the touristy areas as well.
  • Money, credit and cash: I would recommend bringing some New Israeli Shekels (cash) with you, to the tune of 100 or 150 NIS. That will be enough to get one individual out of the airport and to your accommodation either by bus, train, taxi, or Sherut. You’ll have some leftover for a quick bite of food as well if you’re hungry. Once you arrive to your abode, you can pull out either local cash or USD from a nearby ATM via your debit card (I rarely ever got charged ATM fees). Most places do indeed accept credit cards, but the number of places that don’t is high as well, so carry both forms of payment.
  • Daily Budget (subject to change by seasonal prices): Hostel one night = 75-100 NIS; 3 Decent Sized Meals = 60-90 NIS; Inner-city vs Inter-city bus tickets = 5-10 vs. 25-50 NIS; Total in one day: 140-240 NIS (or, per current exchange rates, $38-65 USD). It’s important to note that everything in Palestine is generally cheaper than Israel, but they still use NIS.
  • Medical Needs: There are modern hospitals, clinics, and pharmacies in Israel. Something that surprised me is you can even buy prescription contact lenses and glasses over the counter. I don’t take medicine, but it all seems easily accessible.
  • Technology: There are plenty of places with free WiFi throughout the country, including the buses and trains. If you want to buy a sim card with data for your phone, you can certainly do that too. I bought a 2 month minimum plan with Partner that gave me unlimited talk, text, and 10 GBs of data for 40 NIS per month. That’s just over $10! What you do need to bring is a wall adapter since they are different from the US.
  • Miscellaneous: Be aware that in most cities on Friday afternoons starting around 3pm every shop, store and public transport begins to shut down for Shabbat, or the Sabbath (day of rest). They don’t pick back up again until 6pm on Saturday evening. This is similar in Palestine, but slide it back one day (Thurs – Fri). If you get stuck somewhere, guess who will have to pay outrageous prices for private taxi’s? Don’t be that person, plan accordingly. The other option is to hitchhike, which is actually very common and normal (in Israel, not so much in Palestine). I did it myself for the first time there and I had no issues! Sometimes it took me a few rides before getting to my destination an hour or two later.

Hope this helps. 

If you are planning to visit Israel and Palestine, may you have a fun, educational, and relaxing trip! Bring an open mind, as well as a book to leave behind as you pick up another one (book/knowledge exchange is common there).

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