Difference between revisions of "Israel"
Revision as of 16:24, 23 June 2009
Israel  (Hebrew: מדינת ישראל Medinat Yisra-el; Arabic: دولَة إِسرائيل Dawlat Isrā'īl) is a small yet diverse Middle Eastern country with a long coastline on the eastern Mediterranean Sea and a small window on the Red Sea at the Gulf of Eilat (Aqaba). Israel is bordered by Egypt and the Gaza Strip to the southwest, by Jordan and the West Bank to the east, and by Syria and Lebanon to the north. It shares borders to the Jordan River and the Dead Sea with the West Bank and Jordan. The West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip have been under Israeli de-facto rule since 1967. In addition to the majority Palestinian Arab populations living in these regions, the Israeli Government has built many Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as well as in the annexed Golan Heights.
Although Israel was established specifically for the Jewish people, following the Second World War, Israel is considered part of the Holy Land (together with areas of Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Territories). The three monotheistic religions -Judaism, Christianity, and Islam- all have historical ties to the region. Israel thus contains a vibrant modern history and culture, based in part on the diverse, immigrant origins of its inhabitants returning from the Jewish Diaspora. These aspects make Israel a fascinating destination for many travelers and pilgrims. As a result of this vast mix of culture, in addition to the official languages of Hebrew and Arabic, Russian and Yiddish are also spoken by a significant minority of Israelis. Within Israel's recognized pre-1967 borders, about 90% of Israelis identify themselves as Jewish, the remainder classify themselves as either as Arab and or Palestinian, Bedouin or Druze.
Israel is a highly urbanized and economically developed society and is therefore best divided for the traveler into its main cities and towns, followed by the regions and other sites.
Israel possesses a number of diverse regions, with landscapes varying between coast, mountain, valley and desert landscapes, with just about everything in between. Beyond the towns and cities, each region of Israel holds its own unique attractions. The metropolitan areas of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv form very much their own regions; from north to south, however, Israel's regions are as follows:
The following areas have been under dispute between the Israelis and the Palestinians since 1967. In the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian Authority exercises various degrees of control in large parts of the territories.
Archaeological and historical sites
Israel has a vast amount of archaeological and historical sites, and new ones seem to be discovered every year. The following is a selection of the most important and spectacular ones.
Geographical / natural sites
Whilst Israel is relatively new country, the land has a long and often very complex history stretching back thousands of years to the very beginnings of human civilization. It has been invaded by virtually every empire worth its salt including the Persians, Romans Ottomans and the British. It is also the birthplace of both Judaism and Christianity. Jerusalem is also a sacred city for Muslims.
Israel has been inhabited for tens of thousands of years, with Neanderthal remains from the region dating back 50,000 years. Its strategic location serving as the gateway from Asia to Egypt and Africa had made Israel an ideal target for conquerors through the ages. The first nation to have influence was the great Egyptian civilization. Approximately 1000 B.C, an independent Judean Kingdom was set up under King Saul. After intermittent civil war, the land was conquered by the Assyrians and Persians and in ~330B.C by Alexander the Great. A newly independent Jewish state ruled by the Maccabees was conquered in the 1st century B.C by the Romans. Around 30AD, Jesus Christ began his ministry in the Galilee. Following a revolt in 179A.D, the Jews were expelled from the land, starting nearly 1800 years of exile. The area was captured by Muslim invaders in the 7th Century. In the middle ages, European Christians invaded in a period known as the crusades, but after a few centuries were expelled. The land was then ruled for many years by different Muslim empires, culminating in the Ottoman Empire.
During WWI, Palestine, as it was known, was captured by the British, who agreed to the idea of creating a Jewish homeland in 1917. During this period there was mass migration of Jews fleeing persecution in Europe that eventually culminated in the Holocaust. The events of WWII significantly strengthened the Independence movement, which led to civil strife between Jews and both the British and Arabs.
Following World War II, the British withdrew from their mandate of Palestine, and the UN partitioned the area into Arab and Jewish states, an arrangement firmly rejected by the Arabs. Subsequently, Israel's Arab neighbors invaded the new nation with the hope of regaining territory previously held by the Ottoman Empire and preventing the creation of an independent Jewish state. The Israelis defeated the Arabs in a series of wars confirming their independence, but the uprooting of millions of Palestinians from their homelands has created deep tensions between the two sides. On 25 April 1982, Israel withdrew from the Sinai pursuant to the 1979 Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty. Outstanding territorial and other disputes with Jordan were resolved in the 26 October 1994 Israel-Jordan Treaty of Peace. In addition, on 25 May 2000, Israel withdrew unilaterally from southern Lebanon, which it had occupied since 1982. In keeping with the framework established at the Madrid Conference in October 1991, bilateral negotiations were conducted between Israel and Palestinian representatives (from the Israeli-occupied West Bank) and Syria, to achieve a permanent settlement. But progress toward a permanent status agreement has been undermined by the outbreak of rounds of bloody Palestinian-Israeli violence since September 2000.
Israel has a technologically advanced market economy with substantial government participation. It depends on imports of crude oil, grains, raw materials, and military equipment. Despite limited natural resources, Israel has intensively developed its agricultural and industrial sectors over the past 20 years. Israel is largely self-sufficient in food production except for grains. Cut diamonds, high-technology equipment, chemicals and chemical products, machinery and equipment, transport equipment, rubber, plastics, and textiles are the leading exports. For many years Israel posted sizable current account deficits, which were covered by large transfer payments from abroad and by foreign loans. However, the tight fiscal policy of recent years and the high growth rates have led Israel to a budget surplus in 2006. Roughly half of the government's foreign debt is owed to the US, which is its major source of economic and military aid. The influx of Jewish immigrants from the former USSR during the period 1989-99 coupled with the opening of new markets at the end of the Cold War, energized Israel's economy, which grew rapidly in the early 1990s. But growth began moderating in 1996 when the government imposed tighter fiscal and monetary policies and the immigration bonus petered out. Growth was a strong 6.4% in 2000. But the bitter Israeli-Palestinian conflict, increasingly the declines in the high-technology and tourist sectors, and fiscal austerity measures in the face of growing inflation have led to declines in GDP in 2001 and 2002. However, in 2007 the economic growth was 5.3% and the inflation was only 0.4%. In the first six months of 2008 tourism has grown with 45%.
The most obvious division in Israel's society is between Jews - who make up 77% of the population in Israel proper and 15%-40% in areas currently controlled by Israel (parts of the West Bank) - and non-Jews (mostly Israeli-Arabs), who make nearly all of the rest. In terms of religious loyalty, 77% are Jewish, 16% are Muslim, 4% are Christian and 2% are Druze (a Muslim offshoot considered heretical by mainstream Islam). While equality is theoretically guaranteed, in practice there are many restrictions on the Arab population, both legal and 'de facto' (difficulty in obtaining building permits, increased security checks, etc).
There are also deep divisions within Jewish society. First is the ethnic division between the 'Ashkenazim', who lived in Europe for nearly 2000 years and are generally considered wealthier and politically better connected, and the 'Sephardim' and 'Mizrahim', who immigrated from the Middle East, Hadramaut and North Africa (Sephardi and Mizrahi immigrants from Europe tend to match the socio-economic profile of Ashkenazim.) In recent years, the divide between these ethnic groups has, however, grown much less acute.
While ethnic divisions have weakened as the native-born population has increased, religious tensions between 'secular' and 'orthodox' Jews have increased. The spectrum ranges from the stringently-orthodox 'haredim', only 15% (2008 est.) of the population but able to wield a disproportionate amount of power thanks to Israel's fractious coalition politics, to 50% who are 'modern orthodox' and finally 45% who consider themselves secular, although still adhere to some traditions. While secular Jews are widespread throughout all of Israel, orthodox Jews tend to concentrate mostly in certain cities such as Jerusalem, Bnei Brak and Ashdod.
Israel's time is + 2 hrs from GMT so when it's 6 pm (GMT), 1 pm (EST), it's 8 pm in Israel. Daylight saving time (Summer time) begins on the last Friday before April 2nd, and ends on Saturday between the Jewish holidays of Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur.
Public Holidays in Israel follow the Jewish calendar and as such vary from year to year although tend to fall within the same few-week period. Different levels of activity stop in Israel depending on the festival or holiday, and different areas will see different levels of activity on these days. The public transportation, for example, tends to completely stop its activity in many holidays. In the Jewish tradition, a new day begins with the appearance of three stars in the sky, which means that Jewish holidays begin in the afternoon hours a day before the official date. In general, Israel is a secular country, so most festivals won't see big changes in the levels of activity. Official national holidays are bolded.
Citizens from most European and North American countries as well as Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand and Russia do not need a visa prior to arrival. Note that German citizens born before January 1, 1928, do have to apply for a visa in advance. This visa will be given if you were not heavily involved in events during the Nazi era and will be valid for the whole time your passport is valid. Further note that in some Arab states it constitutes a crime for their citizens to enter Israel at all. Even if you're an Arab-born citizen of a European or North American country having entered Israel may have consequences when returning to your country of birth.
Pay attention to the fact that many Arab and Islamic countries deny entry to any person that has been to Israel. If arriving by air or by sea and wishing to go to Arab states with the same passport, try asking the Israeli immigration officer to put their stamp onto a separate piece of paper. Depending on the current situation, they are often willing to do this. Then you're safe not to be denied entry by the Arab states named above. However, this may not be enough if you've entered Israel by land: in the most paranoid countries (notably Syria and Lebanon, your passport will be scrutinized not only for Israeli stamps, but also neighboring countries' stamps from Israeli land border crossings like Taba (Egypt) and Arava/Aqaba (Jordan). In this case, you'll have to apply for a second passport, which allows you to have an Israeli stamp in one passport and travel to the Arab states with another one. Inquire at your own embassy.
Israeli immigration may take a dim view of travelers arriving from Arab countries, but you are unlikely to face anything worse than very time-consuming, and repetitive, but polite questioning. Depending on the situation, if you have stamps from other Arab countries in your passport, you should expect to be taken to one side (without any explanation) and eventually questioned. This can take anywhere from 10 minutes to several hours. The key thing to remember is this: if you have nothing to hide, then, other than the inconvenience of questioning, you should have nothing to be worried about. If you are a young backpacker, especially if you travel alone, it is much more likely you will be detained for questioning in Tel Aviv airport. There is a "selection committee" of 2 security guards waiting when you go up the escalators from your flight, and if you seem suspicious they will not hesitate to stop you. If you dress up nicely, seem a part of another group or a family they are less likely to bother you.
If you're in Israel on a tourist visa (B2) and decide to renew your visa for a longer term, you may do so at the Ministry of the Interior Visa office. In Tel Aviv, it's located on the 2nd floor at 125 Derech Menachem Begin. That office is open from 8 am - 12 pm from Sunday through Wednesday. Alternately, citizens from most European and North American countries can renew their visas by crossing into Jordan and back at the Arava border crossing near Eilat or by crossing into Egypt and back at Taba.
Israel's main international airport is Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion International Airport  (code IATA:TLV, ICAO: LLBG) which is located approximately 40km from Jerusalem and 12 km from central Tel Aviv, and serves both cities. Ben Gurion acts as a hub for Israel's three main international airlines, El Al  Israel's largest airline and flag carrier offering flights across the globe, Arkia Israel Airlines , Israel's largest domestic airline who also serve a number of European destinations, and Israir  who also serve many European destinations as well as New York City. Around 50 international airlines fly to Ben Gurion airport from around the world.
Please note that the boxed advice about not allowing Israeli customs officials to stamp your passport can be a problem, too. In November 2008 three travelers, following the Wiki advice, asked their Israeli customs officer to stamp a separate sheet of paper, which she did. Shortly thereafter, another airport official collected the loose sheets without realizing what they were and tore them up as part of a routine passage through the airport. The travelers ended up with no verification that they had entered Israel legally. This caused problems throughout the rest of their visit to Israel. When they checked with a U.S. Consular employee, he advised them that, unless they intended to travel to Syria or Iran, there was no reason at all to ask for the Israeli custom stamp to be placed on a separate sheet of paper from their passport.
It's surprisingly difficult to travel to Israel by boat. The main route is from Limassol in Cyprus to Haifa, and the main operators are Louis Cruises  and Salamis Cruises . As the name says, these are cruise services and they do not advertise one-way fares, but they may be willing to carry you for around €150-170 if you're persistent and they have space -- showing up at the port office on the day of departure may work. Both companies seem to start and stop cruises on short notice, so enquire locally.
If you manage to hitch a lift on a freighter, Israel's major sea ports are Haifa and Ashdod. Private yachts use the marinas at Herzliya (north of Tel-Aviv), Ashkelon (South of Ashdod), Haifa and Tel Aviv.
There are land routes from both Egypt and Jordan to Israel. There are no land routes to either Syria or Lebanon owing to the continuing state of hostilities with these countries. The border crossings have security measures similar to the airports.
Jordan has three crossings with Israel: the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge (the shortest way between Amman and Jerusalem, the busiest crossing); the Jordan River (in the north); and Arava\Yitshak Rabin (2 km from Eilat). If you ask the immigration officers (Jordanian and Israeli) politely they will usually stamp a separate piece of paper. It's fairly straightforward to cross using a series of buses.
From Egypt you can cross the border at the Taba Border Terminal, near Eilat. From the terminal to Eilat, take bus number 15, or a taxi. The terminal is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with the exception of Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) and the Muslim Feast of Sacrifice.
Israeli rental cars are not generally permitted across the borders for insurance reasons; in addition, it may not be advisable to travel in Arab countries while displaying an Israeli number plates.
If you have more money to spend, there are buses from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem (US$95-110 one way)to Cairo, operated by Matzada tours (Tel 972-2-6235777) and Aviv tours (Tel 972-36041811). You still have to change buses at the border.
(Note: Use Matzada tours at your own risk!!! They subcontract the Egyptian side of the Journey and do little to nothing to help if there is any mix up. Our Matazada group from Tel Aviv/Jerusalem was held at the Taba Border - Egyptian side for 7 hours due to the fact that the Israeli company failed to pay the Egyptian company)
In getting around Israel, be aware of the Sabbath: from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown, train and bus services are not available in Israel (except in Haifa and Eilat, and limited sherut services - shared taxis, see below). Unless you have a car, or are willing to pay for a taxi (not shared), if you're day tripping on a Friday, you should start thinking about how to get back by noon at the latest, and you should plan on staying near your lodgings on Saturday.
Also note that both youth and students usually get discounts at buses and trains. Showing a valid student ID will usually entitle you for 10% discount for one-way long-distance travel, while for short distance bus travel those below the age of 18 can usually get half-priced Kartysia - a punch-card valid for 20 rides. Each bus driver has a hole-puncher which makes a unique shape on the card. Both the card and or receipt must be kept until the end of the ride as there are random checks by bus officials.
Public transport is used heavily by soldiers returning to/from their bases, so a bus or train packed full of soldiers (some armed) is a common occasion and does not indicate any special occurrence. One can expect higher crowding on Thursday evening and Friday morning (due to weekend leave) and on Sunday mornings (due to soldiers returning to their bases).
Main Article: Bus travel in Israel
Buses are the most common form of public transportation for Israelis and travelers alike. They are cheap, fast and reliable. The only problem tourists will face is that it is very difficult to plan your journey through Israel by bus; a problem the main article Bus travel in Israel aims to solve. The extensive national bus system is run by a public corporation called Egged  (pronounced "Eg-ged"), the second-largest bus network in the world. Additionally, a bus company called Dan  operates solely in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area. Some other companies are active as well.
Faster than normal buses are minivans, known as monit sherut or "service taxi", that generally follow major bus routes but can be hailed from anywhere. They are usually somewhat cheaper and somewhat quicker than buses, their operations hours may be longer - and maybe most importantly, in many cases the sherut runs 7 days a week, including on Shabbat.
For inter-city lines, if a driver is at a station he may wait until he has a full load of passengers before leaving. Ben Gurion Airport has a rule that drivers are supposed to leave one hour after getting their first passenger, but that rule seems to be left mostly ignored. The upshot of this is that unless you're with a group, or the Sherut already has a load of passengers, you might be in for a wait before you leave. Look for an almost full Sherut!
One of the best advances in transport in Israel in recent years has been the modernization of the train system, now set for major expansion as part of the country's efforts to combat global warming, gridlock, and smog. Israel Railways  currently runs intercity lines from Nahariya to Beer Sheva via Haifa, Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion airport (note that not all trains travel the whole route), and suburban lines radiating from Tel Aviv to Binyamina, Ashkelon, Kfar Sava, Rishon LeZion, Modiin and Bet Shemesh. There are also lines between Bet Shemesh and Jerusalem, and between Beer Sheva and Dimona.
Tel Aviv has 4 train stations, and Haifa has as many as 6, providing easy access to many parts of those cities.
Trains run 2-3 times per hour in peak travel times and at least once an hour at off peak hours. Trains on the Nahariya-Haifa-Tel Aviv-Ben Gurion Airport line run through the night too. Note, however, that after midnight trains stop in Haifa at the Bat Galim station only, and in Tel Aviv at Merkaz (Central). All other Tel Aviv and Haifa stations close after midnight. One must also remember that trains operate only on weekdays (there are no trains from Friday afternoon till Saturday evening).
A high-speed train line from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem via Ben Gurion airport is now under construction (as of November 2007, the line is open as far as Modi'in, and service to Ben Gurion airport is fully operational). For now, the only train to Jerusalem via Beit Shemesh is very slow, and it ends in the out-of-the-way Jerusalem Malcha station. It's Israel's most scenic rail ride, though, and the area it traverses is sometimes called "Little Switzerland". In winter, after a rare heavy snowstorm, Jerusalem may get cut off for a up to a day from the rest of the country by road, making the train the only possible connection between the capital and other parts of Israel. The scenic line to Jerusalem was built by the Ottoman Turks and dates back to 1892. Because of the long travel time and inconvenient location of the Jerusalem Malcha station, the line is not widely used. During holiday periods these trains can get crowded, though.
Train fares are generally more expensive then equivalent bus fares (especially for the line from Tel Aviv to Beer Sheva, with a train fare almost double that of the bus fare). In exchange, you can generally expect a much higher level of comfort, speed, and safety.
Taxis are very common in Israel. To differentiate from a shared taxi (sherut), a regular taxi is sometimes called special (using the English word). The driver should use the meter both inside and outside cities (in Hebrew, moneh), unless the passenger agrees to prefix a price (however agreeing to go off the meter is almost universally in the driver's favor). There are surcharges; for calling a taxi (3.50 NIS as of June 2006), for luggage (2.90 a piece) and for hailing a taxi at Ben Gurion airport (5 NIS). Drivers are known to try to cheat tourists by not turning on the meter to begin with and then fighting about the cost at the end of the ride. It is best to specify that you absolutely require the 'moneh' to be activated before you leave unless you know how much the trip should cost, in which case you can make a deal. However, if you are caught off guard some drivers will become extremely rude or even violent if you refuse to pay despite the meter never having been switched on. It is best to try to avoid this common situation but it is better to avoid any conflict with the driver by paying and learning rather than saving your money and risking an unpredictable escalation.
Israel is known to be one of the easiest places to hitchhike in the world. Most major junctions have a shelter and are well lit throughout the night. This is a great way to meet and interact with the locals. A sign can help (put a blank piece of paper inside a plastic sleeve, and with a dry-erase marker you have a reusable hitchhiking sign). When hitchhiking, instead of a thumb, you extend your hand, with 1 or 2 fingers extended, pointing at the road. For short rides, the 1 or 2 fingers should point to the ground. Drivers staying in the area may point downwards while passing, indicating that they wouldn't make a good long-haul ride.
Generally speaking, hitchhiking in urban areas is less popular than in other parts of Israel. It is more accepted in rural areas, particularly sparsely populated areas like the Golan Heights that have little bus service.
Tourists should note that the British Foreign Office considers it unsafe to hitch-hike in Israel, like most other countries in Europe and the Middle East. This advice applies specifically to tourists and is not a comment on the safety of hitch-hiking for locals and is not specific to Israel.
It is considered especially unsafe to hitchhike in the West Bank; Israeli settler-hitchhikers have been kidnapped and murdered there in past years.
Israel has a modern highway network, connecting all destinations throughout the country. Most roads are well maintained. In recent years, increased investment into infrastructure has further improved the condition of roads. Most roads are numbered according to orientation and significance. In general, east-west roads are given odd numbers, and north-south roads are given even numbers. The most significant national highways are numbered using one or two digits, while the least significant local roads are numbered using four digits. Exceptions to these rules do exist.
Traffic in Israel drives on the right. Traffic signs and regulations are generally standard and resemble those of Western Europe. Israel has a somewhat unique "protected" traffic light system. Whenever a green light applies to a certain direction of travel, it guarantees fully protected travel to that direction, with the exception of right turns on green, which might require the driver to yield to pedestrians in some cases. Usually, each traffic light has an arrow on top, and the traffic light then controls travel to the indicated direction, with a green light guaranteeing that all conflicting traffic faces a red light. However, the most unusual thing happens in the rare occasion when a traffic light has no arrows. Unlike in most other countries, a green light allows protected travel into all directions, and one may even turn left without yielding to oncoming traffic, which faces a red light. Turning right at a red light is strictly forbidden; however, many large intersections provide separate right-turn pockets that bypass traffic lights, usually only requiring drivers to yield to pedestrians and traffic. Such right-turn pockets are usually preceded by a single flashing yellow light with a picture of a pedestrian in it - this merely reminds the driver to watch out for pedestrians who may be crossing the pocket in the path of the turning vehicle. Like in several other countries, the green phase is preceded by a red+yellow combination phase. A flashing green light indicates that the yellow light is about to appear, but can usually be found only on roads with speed limits of at least 60 km/h.
White road markings are used to separate both traffic traveling in the same direction and in opposite directions. Yellow lines are used to mark the outer edges of the road (do not cross these, except if stopping at a shoulder), and orange or red lines are used in construction zones. Traffic circles (roundabouts) are very common; generally, one gives way to cars already in the circle. There are no all-way stop signs. Highway signage is usually in Hebrew, Arabic, and English, although sometimes just in Hebrew and English.
Headlights must be turned on (even during the day) on intercity highways from November to March. Motorcyclists have to have their headlights on in all months of the year. Seat belts must be worn at all times. Talking on a cell phone without a hands-free system is forbidden. If one must exit the vehicle on the shoulder of a highway, there is a law requiring that one put on a neon yellow reflective vest in order to promote visibility.
Parking regulations are indicated by curb markings. Red and white markings mean parking is prohibited (though depending on the locale and its parking regulations, one may park at a red and white overnight). Do not stop near curbs marked red and yellow, because these are usually reserved for certain vehicles, such as buses at bus stops. Blue and white markings permit parking only with a parking permit purchased at a machine. Red and grey areas are reserved for residents, but might only be reserved at specific times when a sign appears at the beginning of the street. Grey areas are free to park at. And of course, do not park in handicapped zones.
Israel uses the metric system of measurements. Default speed limits are 50 km/h in residential zones, 80 km/h on intercity roads without a physical separation median between opposing lanes, and 90 km/h on intercity roads with a physical separation median. By default, all major freeways (identified by the standard blue European motorway sign) have a speed limit of 110 km/h; however, in practice, speed limit signs bearing a lower limit (usually 90 km/h or 100 km/h) limit the speed on these roads. Currently, only one freeway, toll highway #6 (Cross-Israel Highway) actually allows 110 km/h in most sections.
Police presence on the roads is generally very significant, and speed and red light cameras are common.
All drivers in Israel must carry a driver's license. International driver permits, as well as licenses from certain countries are accepted. Drivers of motor vehicles must be at least 17 years old, whilst insurance is mandatory. Driving a motorcycle or a moped is permitted starting at the age of 16. All cars in Israel must undergo an annual safety inspection, and a sticker bearing the year of the last inspection should appear on the front windshield. Recently, there has been a law passed that calls for every car to carry a yellow reflective vest at all times. Theoretically, the police could stop you at any time and ask to see it. If you stop on the edge of the road, and have to get out, you are expected to wear the vest. All rental cars should have one so it is a good idea to check before you leave.
Compared to Western Europe and North America, the rate of traffic accidents in Israel is high. Many factors contribute to this, but Israeli drivers are known to be aggressive and impatient. Take this into consideration if you decide to drive in Israel, and use caution. Be especially cautious on two-lane intercity roads, especially when passing other vehicles. While most major highways have a physical separation median, many lower-traffic intercity roads do not. Also be particularly cautious when driving in the Negev desert, since most roads in that region have only two lanes carrying fast-moving traffic, and trips tend to last hours in the heat. Take care while traveling on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, as roads tend to be emptier and invite faster, and occasionally more reckless, drivers. Also take care in the winter, when it rains and roads are unusually slick. The first rainy days in fall are particularly dangerous, since the oil/grease and other stuff that accumulated on the road all summer is dissolved.
Most major international car rental companies; Hertz, Avis, Budget and Sixt, as well as many Israeli ones including, Eldan (Israel's largest car rental company), Traffic and Tamir, a car rental service that delivers and picks up your rental car.
If you are interested in Touring Israel with a private vehicle and guide there are many highly professional guides who do this for a price.
Note that you will be charged VAT for your car rental if you do not produce a visa (for example, if you entered via Allenby and avoided the stamps, although the paper will do). Also, the Israeli government requires expensive insurance on rental cars that can cost up to $20 per day.
A large number of major attractions in Israel are located some distance from large towns and cities:
Israel is host to a huge variety of accommodation options, from camping and hostels through to 5-star luxury hotels. Accommodation in Israel is similar to Western standards in general both in terms of price and what you can expect as service. Hotels in Israel do not currently possess star ratings, so beware that where these are seen, they are awarded by the hotels themselves. A good way of finding good hotels in Israel is by looking through reviews on websites such as Tripadvisor, although the links below act as good starting points.
Hebrew and Arabic are the official languages of Israel. Hebrew is most commonly spoken. However, a sizable part of the population are Israeli-Arabs (as well as a significant number of Jewish refugees from Arab countries), who speak Arabic.
It is generally very easy to communicate in English in Israel, since English is compulsory in Israeli schools. Nearly anyone you meet on the street, especially people under 40 years old, will be able to communicate with you in English, although with noticeable accent and fluency issues. All street and road signs (and many others) have the English name, as well as the Hebrew and Arabic names. Most tourists get along fine in Israel without speaking a word of Hebrew.
Massive immigration from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s brought a large number of immigrants who speak Russian. Other commonly encountered languages in Israel, reflecting the diverse origins of Israelis, include Romanian, French, German, Polish and Argentine Spanish. Some of the older members of the population and some of the ultra-orthodox population speak Yiddish, an Eastern-European Germanic Jewish language.
While speaking Hebrew Slang, words of Arabic origin are commonly used. For example: "Walla?" (Is that so ?), "Yalla!" (Come on, let’s move!), "Sababa" (great), "Akhla" (good), "Sahbak" (friend), and many more. Street talk is also much affected by the military language, which is second nature to many Israelis.
Currency and money matters
The Israeli unit of currency is the new shekel (usually pronounced as just shekel; proper name = the New Israeli Shekel; in Hebrew, shekel chadash or sha-ch for short). Each shekel is divided into 100 agorot (singular: agorah). The common symbols for the shekel are NIS or ₪. $1 US equals about NIS 3.92; 1€ equals about NIS 5.50; £1 equals about NIS 6.43 (June 2009).
The following banknotes are in circulation: NIS 20 (green) in two varieties, regular papere and a new polymer variety; NIS 50 (violet); NIS 100 (brown); NIS 200 (red). Caution: all current banknotes are of a vertical design, similar to Swiss currency (most Israeli banknotes are manufactured in Switzerland). Do not accept change in horizontally designed New Sheqalim, as these notes are no longer legal tender. They can, however, still be exchanged at par at the Bank of Israel in Jerusalem only.
Coins in use: 10 Agorot (copper); 1/2 New Sheqel (copper); 1 New Sheqel (nickel); 2 New Sheqalim (nickel); 5 New Sheqalim (nickel); 10 New Sheqalim (bi-metallic; copper core, nickel rim).
ATMs are widely available in cities and towns and are connected to European and American banking systems - this is easily the best way to access funds without paying commission on travelers' cheques! There are specific change storefronts that do not charge commission. Bank of America charged a service fee of five dollars for taking money from the ATM, so other banks probably do as well. Check with your specific bank.
Note that post office branches change traveler’scheques (and cash) commission-free. Cash can also be sent to post office branches using Western Union services.
You can get VAT (Value Added Tax, 15.5% as of Jan 2007) refunds when leaving the country, though be prepared to queue at the airport. Eilat is a VAT-free city, for citizens as well as for foreigners, but being a resort city it can be often more expensive to begin with.
US Dollars are accepted in some tourist locations, particularly Jerusalem, at a rough exchange rate of 3.5 to 4 NIS to the dollar.
Living and travelling costs in Israel are almost on a par with Western Europe, North America and Australasia, making it by far the most 'expensive' country in the Middle East region outside the Gulf area.
Small food kiosks (pitzukhiot) offer various snacks such as freshly roasted peanuts, sunflower, and melon seeds, soft drinks, cigarettes and candy. Take note that currently (June 2009) the price of a soft drink can is between 5 and 8 shekels and a 0.5L bottle is generally one shekel more expensive than a can. Prices in tourist areas in big cities, especially tourist cities like Eilat can be up to 20 shekels per 0.5L bottle, however often a small walk will reveal the more local places that will sell you 6 1.5L bottles for as cheap as 32 shekels.
Fast food wise, a shawarma in lafa should cost roughly 24-30 shekels (drink not included), while a regular meal at a burger chain (McDonald's, Burger King and the local Burger Ranch) will set you back at least 35 shekels -- and there is no such thing as a "free refill" anywhere in the country.
Restaurants generally are in a high standard of taste and style, a first course averages 15-25 shekels, a main dish about 40-60 (good meat can go from 60-100) and the desserts are usually 25-35 shekels. soft drinks are somewhat costly and usually go for 10-12 shekels for an average sized glass without refills.
The business days are Sunday through Friday in Jewish towns, allowing for observance of the Sabbath ("Shabbat") from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday. On Friday, many shops will close at about 14:30-15:00 to allow ample time return home before sundown. Many shops, especially in malls, will re-open on Saturday evening, at about 19:00 in winter, and 20:30 in summer. Some shops, especially outside city limits or in tourist areas, as well as 24-hour convenience stores, remain open on Saturdays. In Arab towns, shops are generally open 7 days a week.
Shops in malls and on major shopping streets are generally open from 9:30 to 21:00 daily. Banks and post offices, as well as some smaller shops, stick to traditional business hours of 8:30-19:00, with a lunch break from about 13:00 to 16:00, so do check.
Markets usually open and close early.
It is pretty common to bargain with businesses serving the general population. When buying at shopping malls and the bigger places, bargaining is uncommon. In such places, the prices are usually clearly stated, the sales personnel has limited ability to offer discounts and bargaining will seem as much out of place as it'd be at a McDonald's restaurant.
However, it is quite common to bargain in bazaars and the more rural markets, and when buying second hand products. Prices in tourist areas such as the Old City of Jerusalem can routinely be haggled down to as low as 25% of the asking price. Usually it's easier to make a deal if you are buying multiple items rather than a single item. Souqs are common, and if you look like a tourist, prepare to have the price inflates several times over. In some places, bargaining is expected; in others, the owner will decline all bargaining -- respect this.
When buying larger items (e.g. electronics), it's often possible to get a discount of about 3% for paying in cash (rather than credit card).
Bargaining with private taxi drivers over fare is expected, though instructing them to use the meter (moneh) excludes this possibility. Bargaining with service providers (technicians, plumbers, movers, handymen) is also common.
Israeli wine, kosher products, t-shirts, diamonds. Almost needless to say, Israel is one of the best countries for purchasing Judaica and Christian pilgrim trinkets.
While it is legal to purchase antiquities from the small number of government-licensed dealers, exporting antiquities from Israel is illegal, except with a written authorization from the Israel Antiquities Authority .
Israeli cuisine is as diverse as the population which makes up this gastronomic country. Food here is generally of a very high standard, and immigrants from around the world mean that almost every genre and type of food is available. Not tipping in sit-in restaurants that have waiters is frowned upon. It is standard to give 10%-12% (or more for exceptional service). Including a service charge in the bill is no longer legal in Israel and should not be paid. In recent years, restaurants have been charging a "security fee" - roughly 1-2 NIS per person. However, this fee is not mandatory, and it is common to ask for the fee to be removed from the bill.
Most restaurants do accept credit cards, but do not accept personal checks.
Fast and popular
Falafel was officially adopted as the national food. In recent years, it has lost some of its popularity, but is still quite ubiquitous. These are small fried balls of mashed chickpeas, usually served inside a pita bread with hummus-chips-salat (hummus, French fries and vegetable salad) and tehina. A selection of more salads is usually available, and you can fill your pita with as much as it can take. This is usually the cheapest lunch available (10-15NIS), and it's vegetarian. You can also order half a serving ("kheh-TSEE mah-NAH").
Another popular option is shawarma, sliced turkey or lamb meat, also served inside a pita, or its larger cousin lafa, with hummus-chips-salat. Many other things can fit your pita: for example, Me'orav Yerushalmi (Jerusalemite mix), which contain several types of meat, or Schnitzel, a batter fried chicken breast somewhat inspired by the Viennese original.
Hummus, a cream of chickpeas, tehina, onion, lemon and olive oil, is also served on a plate, and scooped up with small pieces of pita. At places that specialize in Hummus, you can find the dish topped with chopped lamb, fried chicken breast and many other different toppings.
Another street food gaining popularity is the Iraqi-origin sabich sabich, a pita bread stuffed with a hard boiled egg, batter-dipped deep fried eggplant, hummus, tehina, and salad.
The Hebrew word Kasher (כָּשֵר), pronounced by East-European Jews as Kosher, means "fit" (in Israel, gyms are known as kheder kosher, i.e. fitness room). When associated with food, it means anything that is allowed by the Jewish religious laws concerning food. These laws are quite complex, but the short version is that they totally forbid certain products (such as pork and shellfish), and allow others only under restrictions - most importantly, that meat and dairy products are not to be cooked together or eaten at the same meal, which bans all sorts of Western staples like cheeseburgers and pizzas with meat toppings. In addition, lighting a fire on Shabbat is forbidden, so only cold or long-simmered food is allowed. Having said this, due to the secular nature of much of Israel, many foods can be found, and many restaurants aren't kosher depending on the region. Kosher laws do not usually apply to Arab areas of Israel (unless they cater to mixed clientele), although Halal dietary laws (the Muslim equivalent) do.
Most of the hotels in Israel are Kosher, so breakfast is dairy, and during lunch and dinner you'll not be able to get milk for your coffee or butter for your bread (although soy milk and margarine are common substitutes). Most big supermarkets sell only Kosher products, but more and more non-Kosher supermarkets and convenience stores have appeared in recent years, due in part to the huge numbers of secular Jews who have come to Israel from the former USSR. With restaurants, things are more complicated: in Tel-Aviv, there are fewer kosher restaurants than in more religious cities like Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, on the other hand, Kosher cafes and restaurants are much more common. Bear in mind that restaurants that remain open on Shabbat cannot receive Kosher certification, so some restaurants that do not carry a Kosher certification are nevertheless kosher as far as the food is concerned, and could have kosher kitchens. So if you care, you shouldn't assume anything and always ask. Where restaurants are kosher, they will either be dairy or meat. Dairy restaurants, by their very nature, are perfect for any vegetarian tourists.
One attraction for practicing Jewish (and other) tourists is the kosher McDonald’s restaurants. Note that most of the branches are not kosher, so ask before ordering. Most Burger King restaurants in Israel are kosher, though - and so are branches of Burger Ranch, an Israeli burger chain. In addition, Pizza Hut branches in Israel are kosher, and thus will not serve pizzas with meat toppings, while Domino's chains are not kosher, and serve a toppings selection similar to their Western branches.
Another series of strict restrictions come into force during the seven days of Passover, when leavened bread (hametz) — taken to include any grain product that may have come into contact with moisture and thus started fermenting — is banned. Some Jews even widen the ban to cover rice and legumes. The main substitute for the bread is matza, the famously dry and tasteless flatbread, and you can even get a matzoburger from McDonalds during Passover.
Vegetarians/Vegans should have a relatively easy time eating in Israel. Due to "kashrut" (the rules of keeping kosher) there are many restaurants that serve only dairy food, which makes them popular with vegetarians. In some parts of the country you can also find Vegan restaurants. Amirim is a vegetarian/vegan village in the Galilee with several restaurants.
Jews immigrating to Israel from different parts of the world brought with them many different cooking traditions. Most of these are now served in a handful of specialty restaurants, so check the individual chapters and ask around. Among the selection: Ashkenazi (Eastern European Jewish), Bulgarian, Turkish, North African, Iraqi, Iranian, and many others. One can also enjoy excellent local Arab cuisine served in areas with large Arab populations, mostly in the north of the country and in the vicinity of Jerusalem.
One dish, however, is known across nearly the entire Jewish Diaspora. Known in Europe as Cholent and in the Middle East and North Africa as Chamin, it is a sort of stew that has simmered for many hours over a low fire. It is traditionally a Shabbat dish, originating from the prohibition on lighting fire and cooking on Shabbat. The exact ingredients vary, but it usually contains meat (usually beef or chicken), legumes (chickpeas or beans) and\or rice, eggs, and vegetables such as potatoes, onions, and carrots. Chamin is served in some restaurants on Saturday, and can be bought in delicatessens on Friday.
Israelis appreciate good coffee and a café culture thrives in the country. Although the Starbucks enterprise has not been so successful there are several highly popular local coffee chains. Many Israelis like to just spend time sipping their "hafuch" (Cafe latté) and chatting with friends. You can also have light meal with sandwiches and salads. Aroma is Israel's largest coffee chain. You can order sandwiches there in three sizes and choose from three types of bread. Arcaffé is slightly more expensive, but their coffee (some say) is even better. Other chains include Elite Coffee, cafe cafe, Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, and the kosher (dairy) Cafe Hillel. Many Israelis still like to drink "botz" (mud coffee, also known as "cafe turki" or Turkish coffee) which is an extra finely ground coffee that is cooked on a stove and is comparable to an espresso, but much stronger. But you probably wouldn't order "botz" in a chic espresso bar, and those who are used to Starbucks-like coffee most likely won't find it palatable.
Krembo (A hybrid of the words KREM and BO, "Cream" and "In it", respectively) is a favorite Israeli chocolate snack. It is composed of a round cookie, on which cream (Most often Vanilla-flavored, but there is also a mocha variety) lies, covered with a chocolate shell. Krembos come wrapped in aluminum foil, and are very delicate. They are rarely found in the summer due to the weather. Krembos have been eaten in Israel for two generations now, and there is a well known argument as to the right way for eating it. 1. Holding the cookie while eating the chocolate and the cream, and then eating the cookie. 2. Holding the chocolate while eating the cookie and then eating the chocolate and the cream. 3. Eating all of it at once. 4. While holding the cookie, eating the chocolate. Then the cookie and "lastly" the cream.
There are three main brands of Israeli beer:
Palestinian beers are also available:
In addition, a wide variety of international brands are available throughout Israel, some of which are locally brewed. Among the most popular are Heineken, Carlsberg, and Tuborg.
A common liqueur in Israel is Arak. It is clear, and anise-flavored, quite similar to Pastis or the Colombian Aguardiente. It is usually served in a glass of about 0.3 liters, mixed with equal amount of water and ice. Some like to drink it mixed with grapefruit juice. Arak is usually kept in the freezer. A common brand is called Aluf Ha-Arak and Elit Ha-Arak (both of the same distillery) with the former of higher alcohol per volume and the latter of stronger anise flavor. They are of slightly different volume although the price is accordingly different.
There are several local big vineyards and a growing selection of boutique ones, some of them of high quality.
Most of the regular western sodas are available, and many have local variants that aren't very different in taste. Pepsico and Coca-Cola Company fight for the soft drinks market aggressively. Israeli Coca-Cola is thought by Cola connoisseurs to be tastier and more authentic than elsewhere. This is due to the fact that Israeli Coca-Cola is made with sugar, and not with high-fructose corn syrup. Tempo (not to be confused with Tempo Industries, Ltd. which is the brewer of most Israeli beer and bottler of most soft drinks including the local Pepsi) and Super Drink are dirt-cheap local variants, at times sporting very weird tastes.
The generic name for Coke or Pepsi is "Cola", and it usually implies Coke; if the place serves Pepsi, they will usually ask if it's fine.
There are several more authentic soft drinks:
Israel has many universities which tend to be well regarded by the international community. Special programs for students from abroad are offered by the Rothberg International School  at the Hebrew University  in Jerusalem, the Lowy School for Overseas Students  at Tel-Aviv University  and the Ginsburg-Ingerman Center for International Student Programs  at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev  in Beer Sheva.
The International School for Holocaust Studies  at Yad Vashem  in West Jerusalem also offers a variety of educational options relating to the Holocaust or you could also use your time in Israel to study Hebrew. Hebrew school is called Ulpan (pl. Ulpanim).
There are even ways to learn Hebrew online from outwith Israel - try Hebrew Online . A good starting point for finding more information on study and volunteering programs, can be found on the website of the World Zionist Organization .
If you are interested in learning firsthand about the social, political and cultural aspects of life in Israel, there are several programs and organizations offering courses, workshops or learning tours, such as: The All Nations Cafe  in the Jerusalem - Bethlehem area.
One of the iconic activities in Israel is working ("volunteering") on a collective farm: a kibbutz or a moshav. 
Another popular option is to volunteer for work on an archaeological excavation, mostly conducted in summer at a variety of locations. Most Israeli excavations offer college/degree credit for international students. 
Although it's not officially legal to work on a tourist visa, in reality Israel depends upon immigrant workers. Stay at any hotel in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem and the staff will offer to put you in contact with opportunities to wash dishes or jobs in construction. Pay is only around $5 an hour which is standard for non-skilled work in Israel.
It is not unusual to see soldiers and civilians carrying firearms (military rifles and handguns) in public. In terms of typical crime, Israel is a very safe country. You can walk around the cities and towns at night without fear, as mugging and drunken violence is unknown. Single women in particular should still take care late at night but the risks here are far lower than practically anywhere in Europe.
Israel's relations with its neighbors should always be something that a traveler should be familiar with, as evidenced by the Israeli-Lebanese conflict of 2006. Despite the current cease fire there remains a low danger that the conflict will again erupt.
Unlike in surrounding Arab countries, women can generally travel around unaccompanied in casual western dress and wear bikinis on beaches without being constantly harassed.
Although a cease-fire is now held between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip Travel to the Gaza Strip area is not recommended at this time.
Gay and lesbian travel
Unlike many parts of the Middle East, Israel is one of the gay friendly countries in the region. In fact, comparing to United States, Israel is quite progressive on homosexual rights (particularly the government allow Israeli gay and lesbian citizens to openly serve in the military as well as recognition of foreign same-sex marriages). Criticisms towards homosexuality may vary depending on where one travels, but otherwise, this country is fairly safe for gays and lesbians, as violence against them rarely occurs in Israel.
In case of emergency
There are no special medical issues in Israel, and no immunizations are necessary for travel here. Pharmacies and hospitals are available in all major cities and emergency and health care is to a very high Western standard. In Israeli pharmacies, the "over-the-counter" stuff is, in fact, over the counter. Ask the pharmacist if you need anything - chances are, they speak at least some English. Travel health insurance is highly recommended; although all Israelis are covered under the national health insurance system, foreigners will be expected to pay for any treatment received in the public hospitals or at a clinic.
Tap water is potable and perfectly safe for drinking all throughout Israel, big cities and rural parts alike. It is heavily chlorinated, however and doesn't taste that good, so as an alternative, bottled water is available everywhere and is popular among locals as well as tourists. It is also important to note that in some areas (especially Jerusalem and further south) visitors may experience mild stomach problems due to particulate in the water.
Most street food is perfectly safe and clean, including fried dishes, fish and different salads. It still is wise to use common sense and avoid anything suspicious and it is also be a good idea to eat wherever local Israelis eat, as these are usually the cleanest and most reliable places.
Due to the hot climate in sunny Israel, remember to use sunscreen throughout your stay and drink a lot of water. It is also recommended to wear a good hat and a UV-screen pair of dark sunglasses. When travelling in the desert, particularly during the hotter summer months, you may consider wearing a cloth, similar to a "keffiyeh", to cover your head, neck, and ears. It is the original headdress for Arabs and mid-eastern Jews alike for a good reason!
The Arab-Israeli situation is an emotional issue for many, as is the Holocaust/Shoah, as well as much of Jewish History generally. Expressing any opinion about these might get you some nasty looks, even if you are very sure of the opinions of the people you are with. On the other hand, most people, both Israeli and Arab, would be happy to answer your questions. In addition, one should not make disdainful remarks about the Torah, or any other aspect of Judaism, toward Israelis, particularly observant Israelis nor the Quran for Muslims. It could land you in hot water!
Israelis sometimes compare themselves to the prickly pear or sabra: said to be tough and prickly on the outside yet sweet on the inside. Israelis are direct in a way that might seem abrupt, even rude, in other parts of the world. Directness and honesty are often valued over politeness and projection of niceness. Direct personal questions are common, and should not be taken as offensive. The information Israelis collect on you is meant to help you in a good way, not to set traps for you. Israelis are used to fighting for their right to exist and have to hold their own against the pressures of the family, religion, the army and other Israelis. Loud and heated debates and arguments are socially acceptable and should not be taken as a sign of hostility. Israelis are typically careful not to be perceived as a FRIER, often translated as "sucker", meaning someone who pays too much, stands in line quietly as others jostle past, and generally is taken advantage of instead of standing up for himself.
But Israelis are also very kind and hospitable. When you make a friend here, they will do their best to take care of you while you're in their country. Foreign visitors are deeply appreciated and are generally shown the utmost respect by locals.
The voltage in Israel is 220 V, and the frequency is 50 Hz. The electric outlets used are type H and Type C. Type H is a uniquely Israeli three-pronged standard, but most modern type H outlets can also accept type C European two-pronged plugs. In fact, most electronic devices in Israel use type C plugs. For more information on plug types, please see the article Electrical systems. Electricity is supplied by the Israel Electric Corporation. The special phone number 103 can be used to reach the customer service center.
The country code for Israel is +972.
Drop the leading 0 (zero) when calling from abroad:
If you want to phone home from Israel, you need to choose which company you want to use for your international call first. You cannot use an access code for international numbers like in the rest of Europe, where '00' is the almost universal common access code. The companies and their access codes are the following:
Note that the 015, 017 and 018 prefixes are for VOIP operators. Thus, they have the cheapest rate but a somehow lower line quality.
Cellphone rentals and pre-paid phone service
You can rent a cellphone for use in Israel either before your trip or once you arrive from several vendors such as IsraelExperts.com - these can be delivered to your home before you leave or you can collect them at the airport upon arrival or have them delivered to your hotel upon arrival. Phone stores that rent out phones can be found in the public arrival hall of Ben Gurion Airport (ie, the non-restricted zone); turn right after leaving the restricted area after picking up your baggage. Here, you will find 'Pelephone' and 'Orange' phone stores, both of which rent out phones.
If you have a cellphone without a SIM-lock, you can buy a SIM-card which is much cheaper than either renting or buying a phone. An 'Orange' pre-paid SIM-card costs about 100 shekels ($20). As of April 2009, A SIM-card with Cellcom's pre-paid "TalkMan" service and including 60 shekels worth of credits cost 100 shekels. Prepaid SIM cards are available at Cellcom and Orange phone stores throughout Israel. Almost all shopping malls will have a Cellcom or Orange kiosk or store.
Some GSM North American and European cell phones will function in "roam" mode in Israel using your regular phone number. Check with your cellular provider for details. Be aware, however, of the costs - calling to the US or Europe, or inside Israel, might cost more than $1 a minute!
Israel is a technologically advanced society, and internet cafés are widely available in most cities and towns. The regular price for paid internet cafés is about NIS 15 per hour but you can get it for about 10 NIS in some of the more local places. Free wi-fi access is common in cafés (check individual articles). All branches of 'Aroma Espresso Bar', 'Arcaffe', 'Café Café', 'McDonalds' and 'Yellow' convenience stores have free wi-fi access, though in some you will have to approach the staff for a password.
Recently, the "Jerusalem WiFi" project started. This government started project aims to cover the entire Jerusalem area with WiFi although at the moment the only areas covered are in the city center. A similar project has started in Tel Aviv.