Security at the Western Wall in Old City of Jerusalem
I just returned from a fantastic New Year’s holiday with my girlfriend. One that I had not planned on enjoying – based mainly upon all the hassles I expected to encounter after reading TripAdvisor and other travel and US government websites.
I went to Israel. For my first time and not my last time.
But this post is not about how great my trip was, or how great the food was, or how terrible the weather was, it is about security – or the lack thereof and the people.
Everywhere I had read and from family friends I had heard that (1) we must carry our passports at all times and that we will be stopped many times a day to be checked for identification, and (2) that in Jerusalem especially we will be bothered by overly zealous religious Jews.
So, for our 8 day vacation we spent 2 days in Tel Aviv, 5 days in Jerusalem and 1 day in Bethlehem (a Palestinian city located in the central West Bank).
We landed in Tel Aviv mid-morning and spent about 30 minutes in an immigration line-up (to be expected and nothing out of the norm from any other country that has passport control). Then with the help of some very friendly people (some Jewish and some Muslim) we took the train into Tel Aviv and a taxi to our hotel. Then it was out to see the city. Over the 2 days, we walked around some good parts, some rough parts and some amazing parts of the city – never once being harassed and never once being asked for our identification. Actually we do not remember seeing a single police or military officer that was not just driving by in their vehicle.
Then on the Sabbath (wow what a day not to travel in Israel as nobody is working and literally I mean nobody) we were lucky to find a taxi driver to take us to Jerusalem (slight premium of 50% for travel on the Sabbath).
So now we are in Jerusalem, where I had been informed that security would be tight tight tight and there would be lots of police and military and check after check of our passports.
Well for 5 days we walked the entire city from one end to the other. Through the old city at least a dozen times. In/out back in/out. All over the place. And yes we saw a few military personnel (especially relaxing near the Western Wall) but we were never stopped or asked for our identification (actually we stopped many military persons to either take pictures with them or to ask for directions. And it was not just us, we did not see the military ask anyone in any lineup we were in for their identification either.
Then on January 7, with snow coming down and a terribly cold wind, we headed to Bethlehem. We took a bus, which whizzed through the Israeli check-point into Bethlehem and we were then dropped somewhere in New Bethlehem. Out the bus and into the hands of many taxi drivers looking for a customer. We selected a driver and off we went to see the Church of Nativity. Driving through the rain/snow in some unknown direction we were a little concerned. But 10 minutes later we arrived at the church and left our smiling and very friendly driver behind. A couple of hours later we left the church to find the town covered in snow and basically empty of people. It was now about 3:30pm. We approached some guys that also quickly approached us and told them we needed to get back to the bus that would take us to Jerusalem. We were told the buses had stopped running – first impression was they were lying – so we told one of the drivers to take us to the bus station anyway. We got into an unmarked taxi and negotiated a fair price (considering the weather and all) and proceeded through heavy snow down some streets, which I was sure was in the wrong direction to where we wanted to go. Then about 15 minutes later we arrive back where the bus was supposed to be. No bus. No people. Dead quiet streets. Our driver said he would go ask another taxi driver that was near the bus stop and he returned minutes later to say “no bus – too much snow and no people”. Ok. It is now 4:00pm in Bethlehem and snowing like mad and we did not want to stay. So we negotiated with our driver to be taken to checkpoint 300, whatever that was. He said it was a checkpoint into Israel. What can I say. The answer was OK, let’s go. He drove through deserted streets and we both had a strange/nervous feeling in our heads/stomachs, especially since there were no door handles on any of the 3 passenger doors. It felt like we were about to be part of Hostel 2 – the remake.
So then we come upon a huge wall, which looked about 30 feet in height and as I now understand is 450 miles in length, the wall separating Israel from the West Bank, and start driving along a very quiet deserted street. He couldn’t make it up a slight grade since he had bald tires so after many attempts he reversed down where we had come from and turned up another street and then a few minutes later he stop. Again the wall was in front of us. He got out and then let us out of the car and told us to follow him. There were two other guys standing near the wall and they were talking very loudly. So then our driver takes us into a walkway (one of three) that resembled something you would send pigs through to get them to the slaughter. Only the walls went all the way to the rooftop and so no escape but to retreat. Our driver was yelling something to the 2 guys that had been by the wall and at the entrance to the walkway and we just kept pushing forward. He in front of us and these guys somewhere behind us. Again it is only 4pm on Wednesday, January 7. But it is really cold and the streets are covered in snow and it is snowing heavily.
After about 50 feet we get to a corner/turn in the walkway, and this is one of 3 walkways, and we are in the middle one. Our driver looks at us and says “I cannot go any further, you go the checkpoint is there.”
First, we are a bit shocked since it seems like we were not to be in the re-make of Hostel 2 and yet a bit concerned as what was in front of us was a turnstile that once through there was no way back. We looked at him and he must have sensed some trepidation on our part, he said “go through there and there will be buses and taxis on the other side.” We paid him and moved on.
We were not sure if we were entering Israel, Jordan, Egypt, who knew.
So through the first turnstile, more walkway, no people, nothing, no noise, nothing. through another turnstile and then we come out into an open parking lot. No people, no cars, no buses. Nothing. There was what looked like a border control checkpoint station where someone should have been, but nobody was to be seen. In front of us were more turnstiles and walkways and behind us no way back.
Two other female tourists arrived after a few minutes and had come from where we had come from and while we were trying to decide whether to enter this next set of turnstiles two Africans came in our direction. We asked them “how do we get to Jerusalem?” They looked at us and walked on past.
So we entered the first turnstile, down a walkway, another turnstile, into an empty building that looked like it could either be the entrance/holding area for a prison or maybe the slaughterhouse for the pigs that had been driven down the walkways. We went through many doors and then reached a dead-end, so we back-tracked and found a huge door that led us to a border processing area. I was calling out trying to see if anyone was nearby. Again, we were not sure (no signage at all) whether we were entering Israel or some other country.
We saw some waist-high turnstiles like when you go onto a subway and some border control checkpoint stations. All the turnstiles had a red X lit up and the border control checkpoint stations were empty. Then we found a turnstile with a green X lit up and looked into the border control checkpoint station to find a man in some uniform who looked at us and waved us through.
We had just left the Palestinian controlled Bethlehem and entered into Israel, our passports safely in my jacket pocket and having yet to be pulled out of my pocket.
Outside we find a taxi driver (one of only three that were outside the checkpoint) who agrees to take us to Jerusalem for a reasonable fee. Again, for all we knew we could have been in Jordan. So 20 minutes later we stop beside the old city of Jerusalem and get out thanking our driver who of course doesn’t have any change so the price went up a bit. But what the hell, we are back in a place we now know very well.
So the morale to my story is. In 8 days in Israel, going into Palestinian controlled Bethlehem and back. Walking around bundled up due to the terrible weather – looking like the camera under my jacket is something else entirely – we were never once asked for identification, we were never once hassled, we were treated with kindness and generosity from people who could have taken advantage of us and the situation we were in.
In my 56 years I must say this was one of the best vacations I have ever had and I look forward to my return to Israel and Palestinian controlled Bethlehem and to both the really nice Jewish people we met and the really nice Muslim people we met.