30 things to know before going to Israel and the Palestinian Territories

After 2 visits to Palestine & Israel–the first time for 2 weeks and the second time for 3 months–there are definitely things I’ve noticed and have kept in mind (and yes, have turned into inside jokes with friends and family, not gonna lie).

As such, I’ve created my own rather detailed list based on things I’ve experienced and which may be helpful to check out before going.

*Sidenote: my short story collection “Twisted Reflections” features 2 stories set in the Holy Land. 🙂

All pictures were taken by *ME* 🙂

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*Here it goes* :

1. People are often direct and/or blunt; both vocally and physically. It’s not unusual for both Palestinians and Israelis to display a direct style of speech that could be construed by others (such as Americans) as ‘rude’. This assertiveness can also be witnessed in crowded places like malls, where shoppers will repeatedly brush by you–and probably come in closer contact with you than you may be used to. This is another reminder that other cultures have a different notion of ‘personal space.’

2. This one is connected to #1: Middle Eastern people are a generally vibrant, vocal population. Which naturally means you should plan on noisiness, and heated, passionate modes of expression. At least, like, 80% of the time.

3. ‘Patience is a virtue’ is a Western concept. See below.

4. Be aware of drivers!!! Driving is just one of the many visual examples of said lack of patience. Middle Eastern drivers are always in a hurry and constantly honk, traits which are inherently tied to impatience. Honking the horn is practically second nature to them and happens on a daily basis. But fear not; like anything else, you get used to this after a while. I know–shocking! 😉

5. Don’t expect to hear ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ all the time. That’s not to say that Israelis and/or Palestinians are the rudest people ever, however after having asked people of different backgrounds, it reminded me of another cultural difference. In some cultures, you do things because it’s natural to do them, without constantly having to specify or express–at least verbally–your gratitude.

6. May or may not be tied to #5: Don’t expect to always get great customer service. I know that we in the States love to emphasize this trait, but that can easily go out the window–and even be nonexistent–in other parts of the world. Here’s a story to clarify that. I once entered a store at the mall for the sole purpose of checking out an alluring lace shirt that was displayed on a mannequin. I located the shirt folded on a shelf and picked it up to check it out, since I contemplated buying it (and it was not cheap; believe you me!). I had barely done so when the employee (or she may have been the owner, not that it really matters) rushed to my side and literally snatched the shirt out of my hands and proceeded to folding it and putting it back up on the shelf!!!! I was floored and stood there speechless for a minute! I was like, are you serious?! Needless to say, I did not spend a single shekel there. The shirt was lovely but I wasn’t sure it was worth the $80 or so I would’ve spent on it anyways (and again; it was a lace shirt, meaning I’d have to wear something underneath it so as not to give off a questionable impression :)), but the rudeness clearly made the decision for me. I was shocked and complained about it to my cousin, who understood my frustration, and said that normally this would’ve been considered unacceptable, and that yes, people would usually get reprimanded for that kind of behavior. (I would sure fuckin’ hope so!)

Speaking of mall madness; glad to see that it doesn’t only happen stateside 😉 Taken at Mamilla Mall:

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7. People may stand around and stare at you, depending on where you are, who you’re with, etc.. I remember this bothering me quite a bit the first time I went there, but I quickly got over it. Again, part of that is cultural and if you’re an ‘unusual’/rare sight in a certain place, then it may draw curiosity… manifested through staring. Something that may help with that would be wearing dark sunglasses, as it avoids direct eye contact and thus cuts off that kind of ‘connection.’ While analyzing the country’s liberal vs. conservative attributes requires a long, complex thread of its own, it helps to remember that–at least compared to the States–it’s a generally more conservative place.

8. If you know you’ll be visiting religious sites, dress conservatively. In a country where religion is often an issue–and sometimes isn’t–it’s good to remember that this is a passionate subject for many of its residents. Most religious sites, whether Jewish, Muslim, or Christian, require some kind of ‘covering up’ for women, so long loose skirts and shawls/scarves will definitely come in handy. As stated in #7, it will also definitely help in blending in and in limiting the potentially judgmental looks.

9. Bring several pairs of flats and tennis shoes: you are in the desert after all, LOL! Since you’ll likely end up doing quite a bit of walking/exploring on your feet, you’ll want–or rather, NEED!–to have happy feet! 🙂

10. Although Bethlehem–city of Jesus’s birth–is synonymous with Christianity, the largest Christian population is in Nazareth, followed by Haifa, Jerusalem, and Shfaram. (Source: http://www.onenewsnow.com/culture/2012/12/30/report-declares-thriving-israeli-christian-population#.UdeU3fltjsY)

11. This is NOT a cheap country. It’s overly expensive for a lot of things, especially in tourist areas. Things may have changed since, but I did notice that buying from the Arab side was often cheaper than the Israeli shops.

12. American(s) = RICH! At least that’s what they–along with other countries–seem to assume of Americans. (Would that were true… Ha! ;))

13. That’s probably why it’s good to tell you that you may be able to bargain when in certain shops. Obviously, this doesn’t apply to regular malls, but more so to outdoor places like gift shops. Now, I totally realize that travelers often want to help out the local shops and residents–as do I– and that you may not mind dropping the cash. If that’s the case, then that’s awesome and more power to you. However in some cases, like if you’re on a limited budget (as I was by the end of my stay!), you might want to suggest a certain price for a certain number of items you’re interested in getting. I knew (and witnessed) for a fact that depending on who you’re perceived to be (ie: tourist, local, etc.), the prices can greatly vary. Jus sayin’.

Damascus Gate–just one of the many entrances to the Old City:

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Shops in the Old City:

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14. The currency is called the Israeli New Shekel. Both of the acronyms NIS and ILS are used to refer to this currency. A quick, useful way to convert prices: whatever the shekel amount is, divide it by 4 to have an estimate of its dollar equivalent.

15. Bring $100 bills with you, as smaller bills are often considered a nuisance which will therefore be reflected in your exchange rate. So keep the smaller bills for home.

16. Some mall stores may let you pay with dollars. I really wanted this cute pair of shoes from Renuar and since I hadn’t yet changed money, they suggested it. The (friendly) salesgirl used a calculator to estimate the $ amount, allowing me to get my cute heels on the spot, because it’s anyone’s guess if I would’ve been able to find them again. However, I obviously wouldn’t count on all places being that accommodating.

17. It’s diverse… and it isn’t. It’s diverse in that there are Israeli Jews from all over the world who, aside from Hebrew, speak a variety of languages depending on their backgrounds (such as families originally from France, Eastern Europe, Russia, etc.). Palestinians are largely well-educated and many, if not most, have done their studies abroad, resulting in more knowledge and varied languages brought back home. Many also have families abroad, such as in the US, Canada and Europe. The thing is that, aside from Palestinians and Jews (including the Falasha, who are Ethiopians of Jewish faith), it doesn’t take long to notice the absence of other ethnic groups. This might go unnoticed on a shorter trip, but after being there for a while, I definitely felt the absence of all the varied ethnicities present in the Bay Area. It really reminded me–and made me even more thankful!–for all the diversity I’m surrounded by on a daily basis.

18. Sometimes, you may not be able to tell people (as in, Israeli or Arab) physically apart unless made obvious by their clothing and/or language. Perhaps it’s just one way of remembering that, as per the Bible, they share a common line. We can definitely also credit the various invaders who have infiltrated this long fought-over land, further contributing to diversity. Either way you slice it, I thought that was pretty cool to see.

19. Thanks to all the attractive people, you just may fall in love a few times… 😉

20. Russians are everywhere. So much so that I believe Russian is either the most spoken language in Israel, or a close second to Hebrew, Arabic and English! Many places you go, you’ll see signs posted in Hebrew and Russian. As if Russia wasn’t a big enough country as it is, LOL!

Proof:

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(*Taken at the Dead Sea, if the mud isn’t hint enough* LOL)

21. Thursday night is often the fun, festive night for Israelis to go out, since the next day is quieter (see the next point). Expect crowded cafés and  packed streets and clubs. This likely repeats on Saturday evenings.

22. Shabbat is observed from Friday evening until Saturday evening. This means that all Israeli shops, malls, etc. are closed and the streets are almost eerily quiet and empty, due to the lack of cars on the road. Depending on where you are and what your plans are, this may affect what you choose to do.

23. The atmosphere can differ depending on the time of the year (season, holiday, etc.) you choose to visit. Easter is festive for local and visiting Christians–and may be tense, as per recent Easter events–while Ramadan definitely entails its own intensity. The hunger from fasting can definitely put people on edge!

24. There’s also a definite change in vibe depending on where you are in the country. Jerusalem is a generally tense city, but many places outside of it such as Bethlehem, the Dead Sea and Eilat are more laid-back and imbued with gentle energy.

At the Dead Sea:

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^Looks like a postcard to me!!! 🙂

In Eilat:

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Jordanian flag across the border:

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25. Yes, the tension between Israelis and Arabs may be palpable at times. This will likely stand out for anyone who’s not from there, since it’s quite unsettling. It’s definitely sad and unfortunate to see that there’s a place where that’s considered ‘the norm.’

26. It may seem obvious, but carry your passport with you at all times, and make photocopies of it to bring with you as back-up.

27. Fully-armed soldiers are the norm and shouldn’t be cause for alarm/unease. It’s a highly militarized state, after all.

28. Be ready to EAT!! The food is DE-LI-CIOUS!! I mostly had Arabic food, but given the similarities between dishes eaten on both sides, it’s probably great all around. I LOVE falafel and to this day, the best I’ve ever had was in Jerusalem. I’d go back in a heartbeat just for THE FOOD!!!

29. You may get a fairly thorough check-up when leaving the country… by quite possibly a young female soldier. There’s a rumor–and I’m not so sure it’s just a *rumor*–that travelers are assigned a certain number from 1-5, which determines their security clearance level. No one knows which one they are because it’s obviously not something they tell you nor that gets put (at least visibly) on your passport. So basically, if you’re a 5, you’ll get the full thorough check-up, with everything practically getting unwrapped, checked for implanted malicious hardware/devices, etc. I’m speaking from experience about this lengthy madness, so again, keep your passport with you at all times, even if you have to step away from your luggage.

30. You’ve seen pictures, you’ve heard stories, but it’s still worth saying it: it’s a beautiful country and it may strike you in unexpected ways. Ah, the joys of traveling…

So there ya have it! In the end, like any other place, it’s a country that must be experienced for yourself.

I’m working on a list that pertains to the Palestinian Territories and when it gets done, it shall get linked here. 🙂

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8 thoughts on “30 things to know before going to Israel and the Palestinian Territories

  1. My husband and I we are planning to Travel
    to Jerusalem. For tours plans should we buy it in the hotel if they have packages or should we buy it here at home in the states

    Thank you

    • Hi there,
      I’m not sure since I’ve never done tours, but I would assume that it’s probably best to make your reservation ahead of time on a trusted site, such as booking.com or tripadvisor. But if you’re flexible you may wait til you are there?
      All the best in your travels!

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