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The immense religious significance of Israel to Jews, Muslims and Christians alike makes Israel one of the most important places on earth. Unfortunately, where great importance lies, the danger of conflict and violence also lies, as news of suicide bombings and political strife in Israel brutally demonstrates. That said, Israel is still a beautiful and fascinating place to visit.
The Land of Israel, known in Hebrew as Eretz Yisrael, has been sacred to the Jewish people since Biblical times. According to the Torah, the Land of Israel was promised to the three Patriarchs of the Jewish people, by God, as their homeland.
Between the time of the Israelite kingdoms and the 7th-century Muslim conquests, the Land of Israel fell under Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Sassanian, and Byzantine rule.
Jews living in the Diaspora have long aspired to return to Zion and the Land of Israel. That hope and yearning was articulated in the Bible, and is a central theme in the Jewish prayer book. Beginning in the 12th century, Catholic persecution of Jews led to a steady stream leaving Europe to settle in the Holy Land, increasing in numbers after Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492.
The first large wave of modern immigration, known as the First Aliyah, began in 1881, as Jews fled pogroms in Eastern Europe. While the Zionist movement already existed in theory, Theodor Herzl is credited with founding political Zionism, a movement which sought to establish a Jewish state in the Land of Israel. The Second Aliyah (1904–1914), began after the Kishinev pogrom.
During World War I, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour issued what became known as the Balfour Declaration, which "viewed with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people". The Third (1919–1923) and Fourth Aliyah (1924–1929) brought 100,000 Jews to Palestine. From 1921 the British subjected Jewish immigration to quotas and most of the territory slated for the Jewish state was allocated to Transjordan.
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After 1945 the United Kingdom became embroiled in an increasingly violent conflict with the Jews. In 1947, the British government withdrew from commitment to the Mandate of Palestine, stating it was unable to arrive at a solution acceptable to both Arabs and Jews. On May 14, 1948, the day before the end of the British Mandate, the Jewish Agency proclaimed independence, naming the country Israel; it was not until this day that the world knew that the new state would be called Israel. The following day the armies of five Arab countries - Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq - attacked Israel, launching the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Jordan annexed what became known as the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and Egypt took control of the Gaza Strip. Israel was admitted as a member of the United Nations on May 11, 1949. During the conflict 711,000 Arabs, according to UN estimates, or about 80% of the previous Arab population, were expelled or fled the country. The fate of the Palestinian refugees today is a major point of contention in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Arab nationalists led by Nasser refused to recognize Israel or its right to exist, calling for its destruction. In 1967, Egypt, Syria, and Jordan massed troops close to Israeli borders, expelled UN peacekeepers and blocked Israel's access to the Red Sea. Israel saw these actions as a casus belli for a pre-emptive strike that launched the Six-Day War, in which Israel achieved a decisive victory and captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights. On October 6, 1973, Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, the Egyptian and Syrian armies launched a surprise attack against Israel. The war ended on October 26 with Israel successfully repelling Egyptian and Syrian forces but suffering great losses.
Up until this day, constant fights, wars with neighbouring countries and unsolved disputes about the dividing of land between Jews and Arabs are the reality.
Israel shares international with Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. It lies between latitudes 29° and 34° N, and longitudes 34° and 36° E. The sovereign territory of Israel, excluding all territories captured by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War, is approximately 20,770 square kilometers in area, of which two percent is water. However Israel is so narrow that the exclusive economic zone in the Mediterranean is double the land area of the country. The total area under Israeli law, when including East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, is 22,072 square kilometers, and the total area under Israeli control, including the military-controlled and partially Palestinian-governed territory of the West Bank, is 27,799 square kilometres.
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Unique to Israel and the Sinai Peninsula are makhteshim, or erosion cirques. The largest makhtesh in the world is Ramon Crater in the Negev, which measures 40 by 8 kilometers. A report on the environmental status of the Mediterranean basin states that Israel has the largest number of plant species per square meter of all the countries in the basin.
Israel consists of 6 main administrative districts.
Not surprisingly, Israel's main appeal is its spiritual significance. Being able to retrace the steps of the Jewish Patriarchs or Jesus or pilgrims who have visited throughout the centuries is what thousands come here to do. The Israeli Antiquities Authority has preserved and restored many biblical/historical sites complimented by well informed and interesting tour guides, audio-visual presentations, computer simulations, slide shows and live action re-creation.
For those less interested in spirituality, Israel still has an extensive list of activities, be it floating on the Dead Sea, rafting on the Jordan River, hiking in the Negev Desert or striking up a towel on one of the many fine beaches along the Mediterranean coast. There are dozens of national parks and reserves to enjoy, both with natural and cultural features or a combination of both. If you are an art lover, you should visit the Israeli museum in Jerusalem, Yad VaShem, Tel Aviv museum of art and the Raw Art Gallery.
Jerusalem is a magical city, where the ancient and modern worlds collide. Very few places bear the immense significance that Jerusalem has for Jews, Muslims and Christians, which explains why Jerusalem is such a fascinating city. The Israeli Museum is just one of many highlights here. If you want to read more about the city, visit the Jerusalem article.
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In northern Israel, you'll find beautiful, rolling green hills and expansive valleys rich in vegetation, with flowers galore and so very much to see and do in the Galilee. The Sea of Galilee is called the home of Christ and is a beautiful fresh water area. The Golan Heights (only considered territory of Israel by the country itself, but internationally regarded part of Syria) afford great views of the surrounding land. There also are a lot of historical and cultural sights to explore in this less visited region. For example Nimrod Castle, a beautifully located Crusader castle above the Galilee Sea.
The Negev desert in southern Israel is a gorgeous destination with a quiet and majestic beauty which will astonish you. It covers the southern portion of the country including the coastline of the Red Sea near Eilat and is home to just a small part of the Israeli population. Beer Sheba is one of the bigger settlements here and is one of three biblical tels (prehistoric settlement mounds) along with Megiddo and Hazor which is on the Unesco list. Other features include the Ramon Crater, the largest crater in the country. The Incense Route is a route along the Nabatean desert cities of Haluza, Mamshit, Avdat and Shivta which is on the Unesco World Heritage List.
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The Dead Sea is located in the east of Israel on the border with Jordan which also has part of the coastline and lake within its territories. This is the lowest point on earth at almost 400 metres below sea level and is the lake has the saltiest water in the world. People with certain skin diseases may find the water healing. In the region of the Dead Sea Valley which is part of the Great Rift Valley you can find the Ein Gedi National Park which is the biggest and the most important oasis in Israel. Another important feature includes Masada which is a rugged natural fortress, a symbol of the ancient kingdom of Israel and its violent destruction.
Just like its neighbours Israel has some fantastic diving locations to explore the Red Sea near Eilat. The Red Sea among divers is one of the best locations in the world to see an abundance of species of fish, turtles and other sea creatures, including impressive coral.
Israel has many national and religious holidays and they often involve days where most of the stores and places of entertainment are closed for business so it is worth checking before you travel.
Any time is a good time to visit Israel, though a few basic weather precautions can be taken into account. Spring & summer months are the best times to visit Jerusalem, where there is always a cool afternoon breeze blowing across the Judean Hills. If you can bear the heat and humidity along the coast, come in July and August, when there's lots to do, see and experience.
The best time to visit the south of the country is during late summer and autumn and in spring. Even winters are still warm though, but summers are unpleasantly hot, with temperatures near Eilat over 40 °C not uncommon. In the Negev desert, temperatures over 50 °C have been recorded. The northern coastline is somewhat milder and has hot and dry weather in summer and mild weather in winter with occasional showers. In winter snow is possible more inland and even in Jerusalem.
El Al is the national airline of Israel, based at Ben Gurion International Airport (TLV) close to Tel Aviv. El Al has flights to and from a number of European cities, including Amsterdam, Madrid, London, Frankfurt and Geneva and flights further away include those to Johannesburg, Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Beijing. Dozens of other airlines (including several Israeli based) serve the country, mostly to Europe and the former Sovjetunion republics and to Cairo.
You can cross borders by car to Jordan and Egypt. Note that to the latter you can only cross borders into Egypt, not the other way around (back to Israel). Also note that borders with Lebanon and Syria are shut tight (both for car as well as public transport). For all other crossings, you will be fine with your own car (not a rental!) and the right information regarding insurance, car and personal documents.
Borders to Egypt used to be Rafah and Taba, but now only the latter functions that way. Rafah (border with Gaza Strip) is closed. To Jordan, most travellers cross near Aqaba but there are a handful of other possibilities including one in the north of Jordan, near Irbid and Umm Qais ruins. The border crossing in the central part of the country near Jerusalem across the King Hussein Bridge is closed for foreigners with their own (or rental) cars.
Be sure to have your visa in order for all the countries mentioned here. You can get a special Sinai (Egypt) visa if you only want to visit the Sinai Peninsula.
Mazada Tours has buses between Tel Aviv/Jerusalem and Cairo.
Buses also travel between Haifa/Nazareth and Amman in Jordan. Also connections to Amman exist from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. You can do most trips in stages as well. Eilat is a convenient places of doing daytrips to Petra and Wadi Rum in Jordan.
Ferries are supposed to travel between Haifa and Cyprus but check in the ports to make sure, because services get suspended quite often and after a while resume again. In summer, there is a higher chance of getting a ferry or a last minute place on a more luxurious cruiseship if you fancy that. For the more adventurous travellers, there are also cargo ships going from Haifa to Limassol on Cyprus. If you want to avoid travelling through Israel, take the Aqaba to Nuweiba ferry. Check the getting there sections of Egypt and Jordan to see details.
Getting around Israel is very easy, either by train, bus, tax or "sharoot" (a cross between a taxi and bus, seating 7-13 people). Getting from one point to another is easy. A taxi from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv costs about NIS240 (shekels) or a sharoot about NIS15. This journey is about 60 kilometres in distance. The following gives more opportunities to get around Israel, as there are many options for such a small country to travel from A to B.
Israel Railways offers an extensive network of rail links throughout the country. There are six lines. One goes along the coast from Nahariya in the north to Ben Gurion Airport in the south, stopping in Haifa and Tel Aviv. A second line runs from Binyamina to Ashkelon, via Netanya, Herzliya, Tel Aviv and Ashdod. The other lines run from Tel Aviv to Kfar Saba, from Tel Aviv to Beersheva, from Tel Aviv to Rishon le Zion and between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, which is one of the most scenic railways in the country. Note that services don't run on Shabbat (Friday evening to Saturday).
The road network in Israel is in a very good condition and so are the rental cars from many international (Hertz, Sixt, Avis) and local (Eldan is one of the biggest) companies. You can find them on airports, ports and major cities and towns. It is not cheap, but is an excellent way of getting around. Traffic drives on the right and you need a national driver's licence and sufficient insurance. Note that driving skills might not be the same as in your own country, so drive defensive.
Hitching in Israel is pretty easy and relatively safe as well.
EGGED is the national bus service company, offering frequent, cheap, comfortable and reliable bus links to almost any city, town and even smaller villages. They don't run on Shabbat (sunset Friday to sunset Saturday). Older buses travel between East Jerusalem and the West Bank towns. Dan bus company operates in the Tel Aviv region only. Sheruts are 7 to 13-seat minibuses plying the same routes as buses. They are a bit more expensive but do run on Shabbat. For bus tours check out Egged Tours or Dan Tours as well. These are the top tour companies in Israel which run basically the same routes in and around the major sightseeing areas. Within Jerusalem the public Egged bus number 99 does a loop past most of the major sites and in Tel-Aviv there is a hop-on-hop-off tour bus run by Dan.
Kinneret Sailing Company has ferries across Lake Tiberias (Sea of Galilee) from Tiberias on the west side to Ein Gev kibbutz on the eastern shore. Other than that, you can take short boat excursions from Eilat to go diving in the Red Sea. Cruise ships come and go from Haifa usually on short 3 - 7 day Mediterranean cruises.
Main article: Visas (Israel)
Most of the red tape content is in the main article, but it's important to notice at least here as well that if you have stamps or visas of specific countries in your passport, you will probably be answering some questions on why you travelled to those countries. It is worse the other way around though: with a Israeli stamp in your passport, there are at least 10-15 countries that either will not let you enter their countries (for example Lebanon and Syria), or you will get a seriously hard time at the border or airport of that specific country explaining yourself in detail!
See also Money Matters
The new sheqel (Hebrew: שקל חדש, abbr. NIS) is Israel's currency. It is made up of 100 agorot (אגורות). Notes come in
20, 50, 100 and 200 new sheqalim denominations and coins come in denominations of 10 agorot and ½, 1, 2, 5 and 10 new sheqalim.
Hebrew and Arabic are the official languages, and English is spoken widely.
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Like America, Israel is a land of immigrants and you can find a wide selection of international cuisine on the streets of Israel. The classic Israeli foods which you should be sure to try while in the Holy Land are Hummus, Tachina, pita bread, shawama and falafel but the country has much more to offer. Try an Israeli Yemeni restaurant for Yemeni soup, malawach (fried savory pastry served with grated tomato), zivah (pastry stuffed with cheese), hilbah (fenugreek dish), jachnun (another dough based dish) and the hot sauce Charif or Schug made from chilies. Other popular cuisine in Israel is from the Moroccan kitchen, Ethiopian food and Turkish dishes. For desert taste the sticky baklava pastry or the milky textured Malabi.
You will find most restaurants serve either meat dishes or milk dishes because fo the kosher laws of the country but in Arab communities or cities that are more culturally diverse the restaurants are often not kosher.
Israel has a wide range of accommodation options. You can find luxurious hotels in places like Tel Aviv and Eilate and several other main tourist destinations. There are also smaller more intimitate options, including B&B's, guesthouses and pensions. And of course there are hostels and some camping grounds for the budget travellers.
See also: Travel Health
There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Israel. It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Yemen. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.
See also: Travel Safety
Israel is one of a few countries today where you will see young children entertaining themselves at the beach or shopping malls, catching buses or taxis alone to and from their destinations. Children are independent from an early age. The media frequently reports incidents of suicide bombings in Israel. Although the threat of a suicide bombing is real, this threat is no higher than being killed in a car accident.
Lately (late 2012), situations are more tensed in the country with the ongoing conflict with Palestinian Territories like Gaza and the West Bank. Check things beforehand.
See also: International Telephone Calls
The Israel Post is the national postal service of Israel and generally has fast, reliable and affordable services. Efficiency means that letters and postcards send by airmail just take about 3-7 days within Europe, a few days more to the USA and Australia. Express Mail Services (EMS) is available, with which you are guaranteed to have the postcard or letter delivered within 72 hours anywhere in the world. You can buy stamps at post offices, or newspaper stands/kiosks or some souvenir shops and hotels. The main post offices are usually open from 8:00am to 6:00pm Sunday to Thursday and 8:00am to 2:00pm on Friday, though some might keep longer hours. Branch offices and post offices in smaller towns keep shorter hours, usually with a break from 12:30pm to 3:30pm, and on Wednesday and Friday only during the morning. Parcels can be send by the regular post offices or with companies like TNT, UPS and DHL.
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