Difference between revisions of "Israel"
Revision as of 16:19, 13 January 2008
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 Gaza Strip to the southwest, by Jordan and the West Bank to the east (with which it shares a border along the Jordan River and the Dead Sea), and by Syria and Lebanon to the north.
Although Israel was established specifically for the Jewish people, Israel is considered a Holy Land (together with areas of Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Territories), to three major world religions - Judaism, Christianity, and Islam - as well as a vibrant modern history and culture, based in no small part on the diverse, mostly immigrant origins of its inhabitants from the Arab world and the Jewish Diaspora. These aspects make Israel a fascinating (if sometimes challenging) destination for many travellers and pilgrims.
Israel is a highly urbanized and economically developed society and is therefore best divided for the traveller 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 Israeli occupation since 1967. In the West bank and the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian Authority exercises various degrees of control in large parts of the territories.
The Golan Heights is now officially a part of Israel proper (according to Israeli law).
A large number of major attractions in Israel are located some distance from large towns and cities:
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
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 rejected by the Arabs. Subsequently, Israel's Arab neighbors invaded the nation with the hope of regaining territory previously held by the Ottoman Empire. The Israelis defeated the Arabs in a series of wars without ending the 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 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.
The most obvious division in Israel's society is between Jews, who make up 80% of the population in Israel proper and 15% in areas currently controlled by Israel (West Bank) and non-Jewish 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, onerous security and travel restrictions, positive discrimination, etc). There are also deep divisions within Jewish society, although it is more than over hyped about. First is the so-called 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 and North Africa. (Sephardi 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, in part owing to widespread understanding.
While 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 10% of the population but able to wield a disproportionate amount of power thanks to Israel's fractious coalition politics, to 15% who are Modern Orthodox40% who see themselves as "traditional" and 35% who consider themselves secular. 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.
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 FRIAR, often translated as "sucker", meaning someone who pays too much, stands in line quietly as others jostle past and in general is taken advantage of instead of standing up.
But Israelis are also very kind and hospitable. When you make a friend here they will do the best to take care of you while you're in his country.
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 tend to 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, North American and Australasian countries 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. Not only an Israeli stamp puts your entry into these countries at risk but also a stamp from another country (such as Egypt or Jordan) that you can only receive in a border crossing point towards 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. Citizens of some countries (such as Germany, Hungary or Czech Republic) have the possibility of applying for a second passport. This allows them to have an Israeli stamp in one passport and travel to the Arab states with another one.
Most European and American visitors get three months stay when they arrive by plane. In the past westerners entering by land have been given two weeks, this is no longer true (as of November 2005). 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 anything from 10 minutes to several hours.
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.
It is also possible to travel to Israel by boat. In Limassol in Cyprus, Louis Cruises, and Salamis Cruises have weekly cruise service every Wednesday evening. As of September 2007, Louis Cruises can take passengers one-way for 80 CYP. Louis doesn't advertise one-ways on their website but you can either call or just buy the ticket at their offices (walking distance from the new port in Limassol). Salamis at first seemed to be very firm on not taking one-way passengers, however going on the day of the departure to the freighter offices of Salamis, it was possible to get on the boat for 100 CYP (50 CYP for children). The easiest way to get to Cyprus by boat is from Turkey to the Northern part. You will then need to cross the semi-open green line to the Greek side.
From Greece, Salamis Freighters (Mostly for cargo and vehicles) go on Wednesdays and Saturdays to Haifa through Limassol (Cyprus). The price from Limassol is 80 CYP per passenger and you can get the tickets at their office in Limassol in the new port area.
There are (Summer 2006) weekly round trip cruises from Ashdod and Haifa to Cyprus (Larnaca and/or Limassol) and Turkey (Alanya), however these are known to refuse one-way travelers - that is not to say it isn't worth a try as going from Turkey directly is simpler than going through Cyprus.
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.
It is also possible to visit Israel as an excursion from a cruise liner.
There are land routes from both Egypt and Jordan from 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.
To get from Cairo to Israel by bus, purchase a ticket from Turgomen Garage (metro Orabi) to Taba at least one day in advance. There are 3 East Delta Travel buses a day, at 6.30am, 9.30am and 10.30pm, costing 55LE (except the night bus - 75LE). In the return direction, there are buses from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem (US$50-70 return), operated by Matzada tours (Tel 972-2-6235777) and Aviv tours (Tel 972-36041811) operate this route.
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 daytripping 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 pack of 20 tickets.
Main Article: Bus travel in Israel
Buses are the most common form of public transportation for Israelis and travellers 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 modernisation of the train system, now set for major expansion. The system 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.
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). For now, the only train to Jerusalem is very slow, you have to change trains in Beit Shemesh, and it ends in the out-of-the-way Jerusalem Malcha station. It's very scenic 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). The trains get very crowded on Sunday mornings, when soldiers travel to their bases, and on Thursday afternoons when they travel home for weekend vacation. 
Taxis are very common in Israel. The driver should use the meter both inside and outside cities (in Hebrew, moneh), unless the passenger agrees to prefix a price. 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 then other parts of Israel.
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; 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 oddly numbered, and north-south roads are evenly numbered. 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. 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. One is eligable at 16 to drive a motorcycle or moped. 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.
Private and public tours
Israel is blessed with a professional cadre of trained and experienced guides and tour operators. You can avoid, albeit at a price, the hassle of doing it yourself. The price can be low if you book one of the regular tours run by such companies as Egged, United or Dan all of whom offer day, multi-day or week-long trips to different parts of the country. There are also large tour operators who put together custom made packages such as TouringIsrael.Com, IsraelExperts.com, Kenes, Desert Eco Tours and Amiel. Finally, at a somewhat higher cost, there are private guides and companies that run private, tailor-made tours, such as Joe Yudin, Jeff Abel, Guy Tours, Genesis2000 and RentAGuide IsraelDeluxe.com to name but a few.
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) and Traffic.
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, 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 noticable 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 while other influential languages in Israel, reflecting the diverse origins of Israelis include, French, German and Polish. Some of the older members of the population and some of the ultra-orthodox population speak Yiddish, a Jewish Germanic language.
While speaking Hebrew Slang, words of Arabic origin are commonly used. For example: "Walla?" (is that so ?), "Yalla!" (come on, lets 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.
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.
Sellers in small food kiosks (known as "Pitzutziot") will often try to overcharge people for soft drinks, cigarettes and candy. Take note that currently (Feb 2007) the price of a soft drink can is between 3 and 7 sheckels and a 0.5CL bottle is generally one sheckel more expensive than a can. Prices in tourist areas in big cities, especially tourist cities like Eilat can be up to 20 sheckels per 0.5CL bottle, however often a small walk will reveal the more local places that will sell you 6 1.5CL bottles for as cheap as 14 sheckels.
Currency and money matters
The Israeli unit of currency is the shekel (proper name = the New Israeli shekel; in Hebrew, shekel chadash or shach for short). Each shekel is divided into 100 agorot. The common symbols for the shekel are NIS or ₪. There are 10, 50 agorot, 1, 2, 5, 10 shekels coins, and 20, 50, 100 & 200 shekels notes. $1 US equals about NIS 3.90; 1€ equals about NIS 5.80; £1 equals about NIS 8.20 (November 2007).
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! Note that post office branches change travellers cheques (and cash) commission-free. Cash can also be sent to post office branches using Western Union services.
You can get V.A.T. (15.5%, Jan 2007) refunds when leaving the country but if you don't like the queue at the airport note that there is no V.A.T in Eilat.
US Dollars are accepted in some tourist locations, particularly Jerusalem, at a rough exchange rate of 4 to 5 NIS to the dollar.
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 in general 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 towns or in touristic areas, as well as 24-hours convinient stores, open on Saturday as well. 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, and some shops stick to the traditional business hours, 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 in most modern areas in Israel. When buying at shopping malls and the bigger places bargaining will be more difficult but is always worth a try to lower the price. Usually it's easier to make a deal if you are buying multiple items than a single item.
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 price.
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, unless with a written authetization 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. Tipping is appreciated in sit-in restaurants. It is standard to give 10% (or 15% for exceptional service). Some establishments include a service charge in the bill; in this case it is clearly marked (normally in Hebrew and in English).
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 humus-chips-salat (humus, 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 ("kha-TSEE mah-NAH").
Another popular option is Shawarma, sliced turkey meat, also served inside a pita, or its larger cousin Lafa, with humus-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. (Humus), a cream of chickpeas, tehina, onion, lemon and olive oil, is also served on a plate, and eaten by hand using small piece of pita.
Another street food gaining popularity is the Iraqi-origin Sabich, a pita bread stuffed with a hard boiled egg, batter dipped deep fried eggplant, houmos, tehina, and salad.
The Hebrew word Kasher (כָּשֵר), pronounced by East-European Jews as Kosher, means legal, or legitimate. 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 most restaurants aren't kosher. Kosher laws do not usually apply to Arab areas of Israel (unless they cater to mixed clientelle), although Halal dietary laws (the muslim equivalent) do.
Most of the hotels in Israel are Kosher, so breakfast is dairy, and on lunch and dinner you'll not be able to get milk for your coffee (although soy milk is a common substitute). Most big supermarkets sell only Kosher products, but more and more non-Kosher supermarkets and convenient stores have appeared in recent years, due in part to the huge numbers of secular Jews who have come to Israel from former USSR. With restaurants things are more complicated: in Tel-Aviv, it is sometimes difficult to find anything but Falafel & Shawarma stands that hold Kosher certificate. 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 have kosher certifications are nevertheless kosher as far as the food is concerned, and have kosher kitchens. So if you care, you shouldn't assume anything and always ask. Where restaurants are kosher, they will either be milky or meat. Milky restaurants, by their very nature, are perfect for any vegetarian tourists.
One attraction for practicing Jewish (and other) tourists are 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, 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 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 run by the Black Hebrews. 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), Bulgrian, Turkish, North African, Iraqi, Iranian, and others. One can also enjoy excellent local Arab cuisine served in locations of Arab population, mostly in the north of the country and in the vicinity of Jerusalem.
One dish however is known over almost 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 on 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 (chickpea or bean) and\or rice, eggs, and vegetables such as potatoes, onions, carrots. Chamin is served in some restaurants on Saturday, and can be bought in delicatessen 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) which is an extra finely ground coffee you just stir into the glass and let settle. 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. The Embassy Bar (next to the U.S. embassy) serves bacon butties as a sign of ultimate disrespect, and will even put cheese on it and serve beer on Shabbat. A good place if you're homesick.
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 botique 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 theWorld Zionist Organization.
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 immigant 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 all but unknown. Single women should still take care late at night but the risks here are far lower than practically anywhere in Europe. Unlike in surrounding Middle Eastern countires, single women walking the streets or revealingly dressed, are not very likely to be harassed or hissed at, unless walking in a very religious area.
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.
At the time of writing, in areas nearing Gaza there is a "slight" risk of being hit by a Qassam rocket.
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, however, as the Israeli health system frequently operates under the American-style "user-pays" approach to treatment.
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.
The Israeli/Palestinian situation is an emotional issue for many. Expressing any opinion about it 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 Palestinian, would be happy to answer your questions about it.
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 and the disputed territories 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.
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).
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 very 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', '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.