Safety and etiquette tips for travel to Palestinian territories

My Israel and the West Bank trip announced, the please-don’ts and I-wouldn’ts I had to face were even more dispiriting than looking at the world through the magnifying glass of governmental travel advice. Turning to numerous travel groups – the only nonpartisan source of first-hand information, as I had believed back then – unexpectedly brought only a few responses. Nevertheless, baffled and with a dozen of second thoughts, I left to have one of my 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, killed. However, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is NOT a savage wholesale slaughter and tourists are not targeted, unless acting in a provocative way.

Fact two: The media image hardly ever mentions Palestinian hospitality and kindness, neither knowledgeable native guides or cultural immersion. The streets are not black-and-white, the sun is shining, people are laughing and partying.

Fact three: Palestine is a territory struggling against nearly 50 years’ of military occupation with unimaginable stories of loss and pain. For those who absorb destinations with empathy, it is going to be an at-least-disturbing experience.        

Regardless of emotional involvement, there are a few practical safety and etiquette tips that help make the trip as frisky as possible. The following are both based on my own experience and kindly extended by a nativel professional guide from Bethlehem.

1. Street dress code
The level of tolerance of bare body parts differs from town to town. However, even in places relatively liberal you can experience curious looks and/or pejorative remarks. What’s more, there are particularly conservative communities where bare shoulders and legs are considered even outrageous. Set your feminism/masculinism aside and get yourself some maxi-length outfit.

2. Religious sites dress code
Maxi dress or long pants would be the best choice, though you can also use a large shawl to cover your legs. (Tight outfits are rather frowned upon.) 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 equals offence and the utmost lack of respect.


3. Driving around
Traffic in densely populated areas might be a challenge. However, renting a car in Israel to cross to the West Bank might be even a bigger one. Most companies don’t offer insurance to customers planning a Palestinian getaway, or don’t allow crossing the border at all.

4. Public transport
This option is operative enough, and offers another opportunity to taste local flavour or get some precious advice from fellow passengers. I used it in all its available range, hitchhiking included. (Never ever forget your visa and passport, otherwise your trip will finish at one of the checkpoints if crossing to the West Bank from Israel.)

5. 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. Should this occur, keep in mind you are on a military territory and stay clear of any local unrest.

6. Showing affection in public
Avoid kissing and touching in public. In most places these are considered highly inappropriate, especially in houses of worship. You risk being mocked, told off or even shouted at, as well as being thrown out of a sacred place.

7. Visiting refugee camps
The refugee camps were created following the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Visiting one of them guarantees an emotional, eye-opening experience, however, it becomes truly meaningful only if you are accompanied by a local, preferably from a given camp.

8. Drinking alcohol
Although alcohol is available in restaurants, consumption elsewhere may cause offence. In Islam, intoxicants are generally forbidden by Qur’an, hence (as courtesy) it shouldn’t be your most sought-after pastime in Palestine. Nobody feels comfortable when their values are stamped over publicly.

9. 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’. Avoid drinking, eating, and smoking in public places, not only as an act of respect, but simply out of sheer empathy.

10. Taking photos
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 – with recovered space on its memory card.

11. Jewish symbols
The guides agree it’s a matter of utmost tact when they show Jewish tourists around. Due to the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, wearing publicly insignia of Judaism may provoke verbal and physical attacks, and they often need to draw tourists aside to explain why it’s not safe. Fortunately, they never take it personally.

12. Discussing religion and politics
Palestinians are friendly folks willing to share their feelings. Nevertheless, keep in mind that their country has been devastated by decades of conflict, and their hearts and minds torn by suffering and frustration. Make sure your talk is non-judgmental and respectful.

13.Greetings from strangers
Palestinians are heart-warming and extremely hospitable people. Greeting foreigners with simple ‘hi!’or ‘welcome’! makes part of the culture. Don’t be afraid to reciprocate, even in the case of coaxing street vendors!

14. Water
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, the fact that the locals do it on daily basis is the best certificate. Don’t 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.

Written by our guest author: Marta Nightingale-Styczen from Vegan Beauty Travels.

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