A GENERAL GUIDE For TRAVELLERS To ISRAEL
Israel is located in the South West corner of the Asian continent and at the South Eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. Geographically it is at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa. It is bordered by Lebanon to the North, Syria to the North East Jordan to the East and Egypt to the South West. Its Western shoreline is on the Mediterranean Sea and it occupies a narrow strip at the extreme South along the Red Sea. Since the signing of the accords between Israel and the PLO, certain areas within Israel's borders are now under the autonomous control of the Palestinian Authority.
GEOGRAPHICAL FEATURES :
Israel is a small country. It is long and narrow and stretches just under 450 kms from north to south and, on average, is 60 kms from east to west.
The Mediterranean Coast is comprised of a narrow plain (The Sharon Plain) which is home to most of Israel's people and its largest urban centre, Tel Aviv. Israel's eastern border is dominated by the Jordan River Valley which drops down to the Dead Sea -- the lowest depression on earth at 400 metres below the sea level. A feature of Israel's southern region is the rugged and mountainous Negev Desert. At Israel's southern apex is the port of Eilat dominates several kilometres of sparkling Red Sea coast.
The central spine of the country is hilly. At one of the highest points is the national capital, Jerusalem. The hilly and fertile Galilee region is in the northern quarter of Israel. Israel's largest body of fresh water Lake Kinneret, is in the eastern part of the Galilee. Further to the north east is the Golan Heights and Israel's highest point, Mt Hermon, which reaches an altitude in Israeli territory of 2224 metres above sea level and offers Israel's only ski slopes.
Israel enjoys long, warm-hot dry summers from April to October and a mild winter with substantial rainfall in the north of the country which reduces as one goes further south. In highland regions (including Jerusalem) there are occasional snowfalls in winter. In March there is a brief spring season. After a rainy winter, Israel is carpeted with flowers in March and early April.
Israel's official languages are Hebrew and Arabic. English is widely spoken and is a compulsory language for all Israeli school students. Other languages frequently spoken include Russian, French, German and Yiddish. Israel's cosmopolitan society guarantees that you can find somebody to speak almost any language.
GOVERNMENT AND POPULATION :
The state of Israel was founded in 1948. It is one of the few genuine democracies in the Middle East. Israel has a population of 5.5 million. The majority of its people -- 83 percent -- are Jewish and many are either new immigrants or the descendants of Jewish communities from 100 countries. Israel is home to 800,000 Arabs, most of whom are Sunni Muslims. There are also 120,000 Christians and 60,000 Druze in Israel. There are smaller minorities of Circassians, Europeans and other Asians. Israel's major cities are Greater Tel Aviv, population 1 million, Jerusalem 530,000, Haifa 300,000, and Beer Sheva (Beersheba) 140,000. Israel's capital city is Jerusalem.
THE ISRAELI WEEK :
As Israel is a predominantly Jewish country, the working week is quite different to the other countries. The official working week is Sunday-Thursday, although some services are available on Friday morning. Much of Israel closes down for the Jewish Sabbath which commences on Friday afternoon and concludes on Saturday evening. During (Shabbat) Sabbath there are few transport services available and most
shops are closed. Muslim shops are closed on the Muslim Sabbath, which is on Friday, and most Christian run businesses are closed on Sundays. The religious week is most evident in Jerusalem. In Israel the main public holidays coincide with key Jewish religious festivals.
PASSPORTS AND VISAS :
You will require a valid passport to enter Israel. Some countries' citizens are accepted into Israel with a visa issued on arrival if visiting as a tourist for less than three months, but check this beforehand. If you are intending to travel to the diminishing number of countries which do not have diplomatic relations with Israel then you should advise the passport control offficer at the port of arrival in Israel to stamp your visa on the immigration form. This is better known as a "loose leaf visa".
If you intend to pursue paid employment in Israel you will need to apply to the Israel Embassies or Consulates in your capital city. Volunteer workers on Kibbutz or archaeological digs can engage in these activities on a tourist visa in most cases, but it is always worth checking.
If you wish to extend your stay beyond three months this can be arranged with the Ministry of the Interior in most major Israeli towns and cities.
Israel has no problems with visitors arriving from countries which don't have diplomatic relations with it. At the time of writing, Israel enjoys diplomatic relations with the following Arab countries which all accept Israel stamps in passports: Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia and Oman. As the peace process between Israel and the Arab world progresses, the number of countries with diplomatic relations will grow.
Contrary to the images projected in the media, Israel is one of the safest tourist destinations in the world. Tourists have never been deliberately targeted by terrorist actions in Israel. However, there are some common sense steps tourists should take to maximise personal safety. If you have never visited Israel before it is advisable to make your initial foray as part of an organised tour. Be prudent about your use of urban public transport If you have any doubts about the safety of places you wish to visit, then contact the police or the local tourist authorities. While the crime rate in Israel is one of the lowest in the world, travellers should protect valuables as you would in any other place.
CURRENCY AND BANKS :
Israel's currency is known as the New Israeli Shekel. One NIS is divided into 100 agorot Banknotes are in denominations of 10, 20, 100, 200 NIS. Coins are in denominations of 5, 2 and 1 New Israeli Shekels and 50, 10 and 5 agorot. Most foreign currencies are readily accepted with the US dollar being the most readily accepted. Most major international credit and charge cards are accepted. Most tourist services, including tours and hotel accommodation, should be paid in foreign currency travellers cheques/ credit or by charge cards. This will enable these services to be exempt from value added tax which would be levied if you paid in local currency. Banking hours are 8.30am-12.30pm, SundayThursday. On Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday banks are also open from 4-6pm. On Fridays, and the eve of Jewish holidays, banks are open from 8am-12 noon. Many banks have automatic teller machines which will allow holders of most charge and credit cards to withdraw cash (in Israeli currency) from foreign accounts. These are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Your choice of accommodation is only limited by your budget Israel has every style of accommodation, including deluxe hotels and resorts, tourist standard hotels, selfcatering apartments, bed and breakfast home stays, Kibbutz guest houses, Kibbutz home stays, youth hostels, field schools, and campsites. Some Christian pilgrims stay at hospices run by various churches.
TRAVELLING WITHIN ISRAEL :
Israel has a highly developed transport system. Freeways link the major cities and the overall standard of main roads throughout the country is high. Independent travellers who choose to rent a vehicle will find travel within Israel quite simple. Road signs are in Hebrew, English and Arabic. If you wish to rent a car you will require a valid license and need to be over the age of 21. In Israel people drive on the right hand side of the road. This and the sometimes aggressive drivers in the city may take some getting used to.
Public transport in Israel is efficient, inexpensive, clean and frequent. The national bus line, Egged, provides a comprehensive service throughout the country. Travellers can purchase bus passes for up to a month which are very economical. There are train services linking Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel Aviv which are scenic but somewhat infrequent.
An alternative to busses and trains are the shared taxi services (Sherut). Sheruts link most places in Israel, are slightly more expensive than busses (10-20 percent) but reasonably priced.
Most shops are open from 9am-7pm from Sunday-Thursday. Many of them take a siesta period from 1pm-4pm. On Friday many Jewish stores are open in the morning and close during the afternoon for the onset of the Sabbath. Most Jewish businesses are closed on Saturday (shabbat). Muslim owned stores are closed on Friday (the Muslim Sabbath) but open Saturday. Christian owned stores are generally shut on Sunday.
Travelling shopaholics will find plenty to attract them in Israel. Israeli arts and crafts are extremely stylish and of high quality. Israeli glassware and silverware are world renowned. Israel is the world's leading manufacturer of cut diamonds. The national diamond exchange in Ramat Can (near Tel Aviv) conducts free tours for tourists staying in most major hotels and prices of finished diamonds and jewellery products are very reasonable. Israeli leather goods are of high quality and reasonably priced.
Many shops will accept payment in foreign currency. This entitles purchasers to a guaranteed discount and exemption from VAT (Value added tax). Israel offers every form of shopping centre from ultra modern shopping malls through to colourful and noisy Arab, Jewish and Bedouin markets. In markets, bargaining is accepted practice and an essential part of the Israeli shopping experience.
Israel has a full range of modern telecommunications. Public phones accept either coins or readily available phonecards similar to those available in Australia and New Zealand and a number of other countries. There is an extensive coverage for mobile-phone services. It is recommended to check the availability of these services from your service provider before you leave your country.
Generally western country travellers arriving in Israel do not require any vaccinations unless they have come directly from infected areas. Your doctor or travel agent can advise you on this matter. Israel has excellent hospital, general and specialist medical facilities. Visitors are strongly advised to take out comprehensive travel insurance when travelling to Israel as private health care can be quite expensive and may well exceed coverage provided by your country's private health funds. Israel's health spas are well known for the extensive range of treatments available for people with a range of skin disorders, asthma and other medical disorders.
FOOD AND DRINK :
Israel's cosmopolitan society is reflected by the infinite range of cuisine available in the country. Any style of food from Argentinian to Zairean can be obtained in Israel. Israel is famous for its fresh fruits and vegetables. The Jaffa orange has long been a sweet symbol of the country. The most popular snack food is the felafel which is an open pita (pocket bread) stuffed with dried chick pea (felafel) balls and many other fillings.
Many restaurants observe the Kosher (Jewish dietary) laws. When dining Kosher you cannot mix meat and dairy products. There are certain forbidden foods, including shellfish and and pig meat. However, there is no shortage of fabulous food that adhere to Kosher laws. The Israeli breakfast, which is included in the tariffs of most hotels, is a gastronomic experience in its own right.
For those visitors who cannot survive without a morning fix of bacon and eggs, it can be obtained in Christian neighbourhoods and some restaurants. However, with the wide range of culinary delights so easily available, you would be wasting your trip if you didn't "go native". Israel produces many fine wines and good beer. For those wanting an alternative to alcohol, fruit juices, coffee, milk products, soft drinks and drinkable water are available in abundance.
Israeli appliances operate on 220 volts AC, 50 Hertz. Most Israeli plugs feature three cylindrical prongs.
BORDER CROSSINGS :
Many travellers to Israel visit Egypt and Jordan. There are three tourist border crossings between Israel and Jordan. There are two main border crossings between Israel and Egypt. There is a daily Egged bus service between Tel Aviv and Cairo. Exit fees apply to all border crossings between Israel - Egypt and Israel - Jordan.
ACCESS TO PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY AREAS :
These areas include Bethlehem, Jericho, Ramalla, Gaza Strip Nablus, Jenin, I
Tulkaram and Kalkilya.
There is no restriction on tourist access to areas administered by the Palestinian Authority. Under the terms of the Oslo Accords Mark II (October 1995), tourists have free access to Palestinian autonomous areas. As these areas are not sovereign territories, no visa provisions apply. However, all tourist sites in these areas are administered by the PA Tourist Authority and the areas are policed by Palestinian police. Travellers should consult with local authorities on the security situation in PA areas.