Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) region is one of the most engaging, beautiful but complex parts of the world. The area included in this guide comprises the State of Israel and the Palestinian West Bank. The West Bank has been under Israeli occupation since 1967.
Gaza is another Palestinian Territory in this region but my own government advised against travelling there. Gaza is administered by Hamas, an organisation that many governments consider a terrorist organisation. Access in and out of Gaza is controlled by the Israeli security forces.
Israel is a full member of the UN. The State of Palestine is a non-member observer state in the UN.
IS ISRAEL & OPT SAFE TO VISIT?
I travelled to Israel and the West Bank solo. In terms of personal safety, I felt very safe.
I come from a country with a predominantly unarmed police force so the region’s huge security presence was as much of a shock as it was reassuring. However, the region is volatile so it’s best to follow your own government’s advice.
The region is tourist-friendly as it receives millions of pilgrims each year. I found people to be helpful when I needed directions etc. and the region features in my top ten solo female travel destinations. I would have no hesitation in returning to the region.
ISRAEL & OPT TRAVEL GUIDE ESSENTIALS
VISA: Citizens of the EU, US, UK and a whole host of other countries can visit Israel visa-free for a period of up to 90 days. Passports must be valid for at least six months after departing Israel.
Passports are not stamped by Israeli border officials. Instead, visitors receive an Entry Card which must be presented to border officials when exiting the country. I was asked for this Entry Card at Qalandia Checkpoint when retuning to Jerusalem from Ramallah in the West Bank.
GEOGRAPHY: The Israel and OPT region is bordered by Lebanon to the north, Syria to the north east, Jordan to the east and Egypt to the south. The Mediterranean Sea lies to the west with the Red Sea at the southern tip.
For such a small region, its terrain is diverse. Fertile lowlands meet the Mediterranean Sea in the west. Mountains run the length of the country from the north through to the Negev desert in the south. To the east lies the Jordan Rift Valley which contains the Dead Sea, the world’s most saline lake and the lowest point on earth.
BEST TIME TO VISIT: The geography has a significant influence on the climate. I visited in November and found Jerusalem to be warm during the day and cold at night – It has a high elevation. Bethlehem, Ramallah and the Dead Sea were hot during the day.
Tel Aviv was warmer than Jerusalem during the day with the temperature remaining quite warm and humid at night. The sea in Tel Aviv was warm enough to swim in.
The periods around religious holidays are considered high season. July and August are swelteringly hot in all parts.
LANGUAGE: In Israel, Hebrew is the official language. In 2018, Arabic was downgraded from official status. Arabic is the language spoken in the Palestinian Territories. English is widely understood as the region was under British rule from 1917/1918 to 1948.
CURRENCY & PRICES: The Israeli New Shekel written as NIS or ILS. I found Israel to be expensive, especially for sunscreen. The West Bank was considerably cheaper.
TIME ZONE: The region is two hours ahead of Ireland/UK time and one hour ahead of Central Europe.
DIALLING CODE: +972. OPT also has +970 as a dialling code.
PLUGS: The voltage in the region is the same as Europe (220-240V) but plug types C, H and M from the World Standards List are the types used in the region.
FOOD: One of the highlights of the trip. The region has some of the tastiest and healthiest food in the world with grilled vegetables, salads and fruits featuring highly. Meats are usually grilled or baked in stews. The bread is insanely addictive. And falafel is king of the street food.
DRINK: Fruit juice is popular with pomegranate juice highly rated for its health benefits. Pomegranate vendors can be found all over Jerusalem.
Israel has a sizeable wine industry using a variety of grapes. I was well impressed with its red variety. Israel has a small beer industry but international brands are also sold.
Arak is a liquor produced in the whole eastern Mediterranean region and is made from aniseed.
ISRAEL & OPT HISTORY: The history of the region dates back millennia, pre-dating the Bible. For a summary of this extensive past, I recommend Britannica’s page on Palestine. Britannica’s page on Israel details the foundation of the modern State of Israel in 1948.
Events in the 20th century have given the region the shape that one finds it in today. It is crucial to be familiar with the following events from the above links: Sykes-Picot Agreement, Balfour Declaration, British Mandate of Palestine, 1947 UN Partition Plan and subsequent conflict, 1949 Armistice Agreements and Green Line formation, 1967 Six-Day War, Yom Kippur War, Oslo Accords.
FURTHER RESEARCH: I recommend becoming familiar with the work of Israeli organisations B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence. Al-Haq is a Palestinian human rights NGO. For my US-based readers, J Street comes recommended by Jewish Americans I met on my trip. Green Olive is a tour company that encompasses human rights and democratic values in their work and comes recommended. My trip to Bethlehem was taken with Green Olive.
GETTING TO ISRAEL & OPT: I flew to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport with Wizz Air from Budapest. A whole host of low-cost European airlines fly to Ben Gurion, Israel’s largest airport. Most of the visitors from North America I met travelled via Istanbul with Turkish Airlines.
Getting into Israel wasn’t a problem but getting out was an arduous task. I outline this in my Ben Gurion Airport post.
There are two land crossings between Israel and Jordan: Sheikh Hussein/Jordan River crossing in the north and Yitzak Rabin/Wadi Araba in the south. Israel’s borders with Lebanon and Syria are closed. The land crossing between Israel and Egypt is at Taba near the Red Sea.
Israeli security forces control access in and out of the West Bank. I took a guided tour to Bethlehem but travelled independently to Ramallah by public bus from the Arab bus station in East Jerusalem.
Access to the West Bank from Jordan is via the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge crossing. A US visitor I met, who accessed the West Bank using this crossing, said it took seven hours.
Bear in mind that religious holidays affect border crossing opening hours.
GETTING AROUND ISRAEL & OPT: I travelled between towns/cities by public bus and these transport options are discussed in the individual posts below. Train and car rental is an option in Israel. I also used Jerusalem’s light rail system and Tel Aviv’s free bike scheme.
JERUSALEM: One of the best cities I’ve ever visited, Jerusalem has so many interesting facets hence the number of posts. For a general guide, check out my Jerusalem Travel Tips post.
Jerusalem contains Holy sites pertaining to Christianity, Islam and Judaism and they are outlined in my Holy Sites of Jerusalem post. Jerusalem’s other sites are examined in my More Jerusalem Must-See Sites post.
The Stations of the Cross route is a popular mini-pilgrimage for Christians. My Walking the Via Dolorosa post outlines this pilgrimage route and gives important tips for doing so.
BETHLEHEM: Bethlehem was the birthplace of Jesus and my Day Trip to Bethlehem looks at this site and a lot more places in and around the town.
RAMALLAH: I did an independent day trip to Ramallah from Jerusalem. My post includes essential travel information as well as an outline of the city.
TEL AVIV: My Visiting Tel Aviv post details my time in Israel’s party city plus a day trip to nearby Jaffa. A one hour drive and several thousand years is the difference between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, such is the contrast. Israel’s main passenger airport, Ben Gurion, is located in Tel Aviv and I have a separate post detailing my experience with Ben Gurion Airport Security.