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Christmas in Bethlehem
Tags - israel travel
Working as a Jerusalem-based journalist and tour guide, I'm constantly aware - if no longer surprised - by the disconnect between tourists' expectations of violence in Israel and the peaceful reality they encounter.
Watching TV in America or Europe, it's understandable that people have the impression that Israel is a kind of Wild West in the Middle East, where gunslingers walk the streets and people dodge bullets. Especially now during the wave of revolutions that has toppled long-standing dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt (with Libya and perhaps Iran next), there is a false perception that life in Israel's vibrant democracy is dangerous. In the last month I've had two tours cancel, though most tourists don't have the honesty to acknowledge they're forgoing their trip of a lifetime because they're scared.
Is there anything to be afraid of here? Is Israel unsafe?
The answer, in a word, is "No." Israel is one of the most secure countries in the world - with a formidable behind-the-scenes security apparatus making sure it stays that way. The media, with its "If it bleeds it leads" mentality," is largely responsible for this misperception of violence.
Terrorism statistics (see: http://www.johnstonsarchive.net/terrorism/terrisraelsum.html) prove my point: in 2009 exactly 6 people were killed by terrorism in Israel. Last year the number was 10. By contrast in 2008, 444 people were killed here in traffic accidents. Similarly 61 people drowned - a relatively small number considering the throngs of beachgoers who frequent the Mediterranean Sea, Dead Sea, Red Sea and freshwater Sea of Galilee during Israel's practically year-round sunshine.
Perhaps you're sceptical? How could the free world's media have it so wrong? It's precisely because Israel is so safe and friendly that foreign correspondents love to get stationed here - and write their accounts that so wildly misrepresent the truth.
Check out the U.S. State Department's travel advisory (http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_1064.html#safety):
"In Jerusalem, travelers should exercise caution at religious sites on holy days, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, and dress appropriately when visiting the Old City and ultra-orthodox Jewish neighborhoods."
What about visiting Jordan and Egypt, you wonder.
Frankly I've taken a wait and watch attitude about visiting Egypt. I have a reservation at a wonderful Sinai beach camp in April called Rock Sea, run by a German pharmacist and his Bedouin staff. See http://rocksea.net/cms/content/view/1/57/lang,de/. I haven't cancelled my reservation. Similarly in May I am taking a group of Baptists on an 11-day trip across Israel, one day of which includes jetting off to Eilat and then Petra. I wouldn't miss the "Red Rose City Half As Old As Time", nor would I ever put my clients or myself in any danger.
If terrorism is a non-issue for visitors to Israel, there are other concerns for your wellbeing - like the country's wonderfully diverse restaurants. If you're planning to come soon, my recommendation is to start a preemptory diet now. And don't say I didn't warn you about how dangerous the Middle East can be - to your waistline.
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Gil Zohar is a Jerusalem-based journalist and tour guide and a frequent blogger on Travelujah. He can be reached at GilZohar@rogers.com.