Palestinian territories: Travel safety and etiquette
Our Israel and the West Bank trip announced, the please-don’ts and I-wouldn’ts we had to face were even more dispiriting than looking at the world through the magnifying glass of governmental travel advice (which, if you are not familiar with the reference, makes the most peaceful place on earth seem a daredevil venture.) Seeking advice in numerous travel groups – the only nonpartisan source of first-hand information, as I had believed back then, unexpectedly brought only few responses. Nevertheless, baffled and with a dozen of second thoughts, we left to have one of our most meaningful journeys so far.
For a start, a brief first-hand outline from a traveler’s perspective:
Fact one: The situation is, obviously, unstable. And yes people get abused, attacked, killed. However, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is NOT a savage wholesale slaughter and tourists are not targeted, unless acting in a provocative way (read below). First and foremost, please do separate politics/terrorism from ‘regular’ Israeli and Palestinian citizens that are longing for peaceful solution and disapprove of violence.
Fact two: The repugnant image spread by bloodthirsty media never ever mentions famous Palestinian hospitality and kindness, neither knowledgeable native guides or cultural immersion offered eagerly by locals. The streets are not black-and-white, the sun is shining, people are laughing and partying.
Fact three: You must remember it is a country struggling against nearly 50 years’ of military occupation with unimaginable stories of loss and pain. If you are the type of traveler that absorbs destinations with empathy, not only aesthetically but also emotionally, it is going to be an at-least-disturbing experience. It does not mean an unworthy one, though. You might feel the need to volunteer or at least appreciate your life more. Gratitude sparks love, and the more love you have, the more you can share.
Regardless of your emotional involvement, there are a few practical safety/etiquette tips you might want to follow in order to make your trip as frisky as possible. The following are based on our own experience and kindly extended by Abood Dayyah, a local professional guide and the founder of Free Bethlehem Walking Tours.
Street dress code
The level of tolerance of bare body parts differs from town to town. However, even in places relatively liberal, such as Bethlehem, you can experience curious looks and/or pejorative remarks. Besides, there are particularly conservative communities, e.g. in Hebron where bare shoulders and legs are considered outrageous. My personal advice is to set your feminism/masculinism aside and get yourself some maxi-length outfit. (That’s right guys, you too.)
Religious sites dress code
Maxi dress or long pants (nothing tight!) would be the best choice, though you can also use a large scarf to cover your legs. Leggings are rather frowned upon and you might be asked to use a scarf anyway. As for the upper part, forget halters and cover your shoulders. It might be necessary to cover your hair too, at both Christian and Muslim sites. Violating the dress code is considered the utmost lack of respect and offence of the sacred.
Traffic in densely populated areas might be a challenge, even Palestinians consider themselves ‘crazy drivers’. However, renting a car in Israel to cross to the West Bank might be even a bigger one. Most companies do not offer insurance to customers planning a Palestinian getaway, or do not allow crossing the border at all. Middle East Car Rental & Leasing Jerusalem claims to be the only one to go for such a transfrontier venture.
This option is cheap, operative enough, and offers another opportunity to taste local flavour or get some precious advice from fellow passengers. We used it in all its available range, hitchhiking included. As for warnings about public transport being subject to terrorist attacks, well… the locals use it, we used it every day. There is a risk of course, but (IMHO) there is nothing to get hysterical about. Never ever forget your visa and passport, otherwise your trip is going to finish at one of the checkpoints.
Area C – possible protests and demonstrations
The Occupied Palestinian Territories are divided into three areas, A, B, and C. Area C is the one adjacent to the border with Israel and, even though rarely, may feature some demonstrations or protests. Should this occur, keep in mind you are on a military territory and stay clear of any local unrest. Just run away, do not stare or take pictures as it is not going to be paintball.
Showing affection in public
If you are travelling with your soulmate, you should definitely avoid kissing, touching or even holding hands in public. In most places these are considered highly inappropriate and offensive, especially in houses of worship. You risk being mocked, pointed at, told off or even shouted at, as well as being thrown out if in a sacred place.
Visiting refugee camps
The refugee camps were created following the 1948 Arab-Israeli war which resulted in more than 700,000 Palestinian Arabs fleeing or being expelled from their homes. (Some 400 to 600 Palestinian villages vanished from the earth while urban Palestine was almost entirely extinguished.) Visiting such a camp is an emotional, eye-opening experience I highly recommend. However, it becomes truly meaningful only if you are accompanied by a local, preferably from a given camp.
Although alcohol is available in restaurants, drinking it elsewhere may cause offence, especially during Ramadan. In Islam, consumption of any intoxicants is generally forbidden by Qur’an, hence (as courtesy) it should not be your most sought-after pastime in Palestine. Nobody feels comfortable when their values are stamped over publicly.
Travelling during Ramadan
Ramadan is a holy month in Islam and, briefly, means 30 days of fasting from sunrise to sunset: no food, drink or any other ‘pleasures’, all forms of sexual behavior and smoking included. As courtesy, you should avoid drinking, eating, and smoking in public places – if not as an act of respect, then simply out of sheer empathy.
Once again, you are on an occupied territory and taking photos of anything you can refer to as ‘military’ is strictly forbidden: checkpoints, weapons, soldiers, watchtowers. And what if…? In most cases your camera is going to be confiscated and returned to you with recovered space on its memory card. If you really crave for such shots, back up all the photos you have taken so far.
Jewish symbols – provocation
Abood agrees it is a matter of utmost tact when he shows Jewish tourists around. Due to the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, wearing publicly insignia of Judaism may provoke verbal and physical attacks. Abood often needs to draw his customers aside to explain why it is not safe. Fortunately, they never take it personally.
Sharing opinions on religious or political matters
Palestinians are friendly, gentle folks willing to share their experience and feelings. Nevertheless, keep in mind that their country has been devastated by decades of conflict and occupation, and their hearts and minds torn by suffering and frustration. Make sure your talk is non-judgmental and respectful.
Greetings from strangers
Palestinians are heart-warming and extremely hospitable people. Greeting foreigners with simple ‘hi!’, ‘welcome!’ or a smile makes part of the culture. Do not be afraid to reciprocate, even in the case of street vendors – not all of them are going to try to sell you something, they are just being polite. And if they do, just refuse with one more smile.
Palestine is facing a chronic water crisis and every drop counts. According to ANERA, nearly 10% of Palestinian communities in the West Bank remain without access to piped potable water systems. Drinking tap water is safe in most places (ask at the very spot when not sure), the fact that the locals do it on daily basis is the best certificate. Do not spill it around even if it is your own bottled water.
Please note that none of the above is meant as an attack on your personal freedom, dignity or feminism. Apart from staying safe, respecting other cultures and traditions is a peaceful travel code, which reciprocates with more respect.