Is the Middle East Safe to Visit?

Security keeps watch
Israeli soldiers stand guard

I recently spent nearly three weeks in Israel. Before I left, many of my friends said “Be careful” or “Be safe.” It got to the point that I was beginning to think maybe it isn’t safe.

I was leading a group of travel “ambassadors” to Israel. Once before, I had tried to go but too many ambassadors cancelled the trip when violence broke out. This time, I only had one ambassador who seemed to be concerned about safety. He was traveling without his wife, who was staying in the U.S., but she wanted to know exactly where he was going to be at all times. That is hard to know in advance because sites close for unforeseen reasons at the last minute.

Overall, Israel is quite safe. I felt safer there than I do in some U.S. cities and neighborhoods. You get the feeling (confirmed by locals), that Israel is watching everyone, everywhere. One Israeli told me that a friend got a traffic ticket mailed to her. She was driving a car rented by another person in her group, and the ticket came with a picture of the driver in the car. Somehow, they were able to track her address down. So it’s probably true that “they” are monitoring you in Israel. But, when you live in an inherently unsafe area, as Israelis do, monitoring is just accepted.

Wherever we went in Israel, we had a guide or local Israelis with us. They seem to be tuned in well to the security situation. If there was trouble in a particular area, they would switch plans to go to another area.

While in Israel, we visited extensively in the West Bank, the part of Israel controlled by the Palestinian Authority. The Dead Sea resort of Ein Gedi is in the West Bank, as is Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, and both are very popular tourist sites.

Security wall regulates entry into Jerusalem
Security wall erected by Israel between Jerusalem and Bethlehem

As you enter the West Bank from Jerusalem, you pass through the security wall erected by Israel to control terrorists from bombing Israeli citizens. The wall has been very effective. Since it was erected, terrorist attacks have stopped. Maybe that’s where Donald Trump is getting his wall concept from, although it’s an entirely different situation.

When you cross the wall, there is a checkpoint with armed guards. We crossed in a tourist bus and were waved through. Sometimes, however, they will board the bus to investigate if they have word of trouble brewing.

In the West Bank, there are places where Israeli citizens cannot go, such as the city of Jericho, the oldest city in history. Clear signs demark off limits as “Area A.” One must learn what the signs mean. Of course, there are checkpoints when entering Israeli territory from the West Bank even when you are not crossing the wall.

We did not go to the Gaza Strip, controlled by Hamas, but we were within a few miles outside the Gaza Strip visiting a Bedouin family in Rahat. I am sure that if there had been violence in the Gaza Strip, we would have heard it, and the guides would not have taken us there.

At the airport, both when flying into Israel and when leaving, the security on El Al, the Israeli airline, was extremely tight. As I was leading a group, I was called to vouch for several members of the group who, I was told, would not otherwise have passed security. The tight security at the airport made me feel secure on my flight, and there have not been any incidents with flights into or out of Israel, probably because of the extensive security. When flying to Israel, do not lock your luggage. The security procedure includes matching each bag and passenger and opening some bags, even if checked through on a connecting flight.

By all means, visit Israel. See for yourself what is true and what is myth about what we read about the Middle East.

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