One of the birthplaces of civilization, Israel has an incredible history that stretches back over five thousand years, and it is home to several ancient cultures steeped in tradition. Unfortunately, this tradition consists largely of these ancient cultures trying to kill each other.
Israel and the occupied territories offer a great opportunity to experience living history, as long as you stay living to experience it.
1. Where to Stay
If you are traveling to the West Bank, try to find a hotel that is still open. Travelers often have the place to themselves, especially during the intifada. Any other Western guests are most likely journalists, so treat them with contempt.
An alternative to staying in a hotel is to stay on a kibbutz. Kibbutzim are rural communities founded on ideas of co-operation and mutual aid. They are rather like shared houses on farms or hippy communes without the dope or rampant sex. Staying on one is a great way to experience a different aspect of Israeli life.
While an everyday traveler will spend their holiday being pampered in a hotel and seeing the sights, kibbutzniks will sleep on a cot, wake at five every morning and spend their days picking fruit. On second thoughts, stick to a hotel.
2. Eating and Drinking
Much of the population of Israel has a kosher diet, which means that they do not eat pig products, prawns or shellfish. These archaic regulations are the result of living in the desert, where pigs were valued as intelligent and lovable members of society.
3. Orientation and Information
Tourists in the occupied territories will find getting a useful map a nightmare. Maps can be obtained from Palestinian schools free of charge, but as these don’t acknowledge the existence of the state of Israel, they can be of limited use for travelers.
Israeli maps are generally useful, but bad on specifics. It is not uncommon for travelers to come across settlements full of armed religious zealots not marked on the map, or find seemingly continuous highways blocked by a huge wall. It is best to stop at roadblocks for directions.
4. Society and Culture
Israel has the second strongest army in the world and has a force that is maintained through compulsory military service. This means that cargo pants are always in fashion.
One of the liveliest cultural events in the occupied territories is a Palestinian funeral. These are regular events, sometimes held several times a week. They take the form of street parades, in which hundreds of young men carry the body of the deceased through the streets, angrily chanting slogans are firing weapons into the air. Militants dress in colorful green and white hoods and suicide bombing belts add to the sense of occasion.
5. Al-Aqsa Mosque
This site is holy for both Jews and Arabs, so Arabs are not allowed to visit it. As it was a visit to this site which caused the latest intifada, visit to the mosque are not encouraged, except by Benjamin Netanyahu for purposes of expediency.
6. The Dead Sea
The Dead Sea is a mineral-rich body of water separating Israel and Jordan. It is not to be confused with the sea of dead, which can be found in Jerusalem’s café districts.
7. The Wailing Wall
The Wailing Wall is one of the most significant religious sites in the world. Orthodox Jews, who wear beards as a sign of their faith, gather here and nod their heads as they offer up prayers. If you see bearded men nodding back and forward and can hear loud music, then you are at a ZZ Top concert, not at the Wailing Wall.
8. The Gaza Strip
The Israelis have implemented a strict “door policy” for tourists to the Gaza Strip, to ensure its status as a boutique destination is maintained. Aid workers, peace activists, and BBC journalists need not apply. Most tourists who do go there are either journalists or terrorists.