Visit Israel at your own risk, warn many Western countries
The latest travel advisory warns tourists that Israel periodically conducts military operations in the West Bank and Gaza with no prior notice, and advises travelers to avoid demonstrations.
Israel has long starred in other countries' travel advisories, and reading these warnings isn't particularly flattering.
The warnings about terror attacks are predictable: Most countries urge their citizens to stay alert while visiting Israel and to avoid certain areas, such as Gaza, the Lebanese and Egyptian borders, and sometimes the West Bank - though no country has yet included a warning about the Iranian threat.
But many of these warnings also paint Israel as a primitive, crime-ridden country, full of bad drivers, religious extremists and even undrinkable water.
The most detailed and, it seems, important travel advisory is the American one, as many other countries refer their own citizens to it. This advisory, last updated it three weeks ago, focuses heavily on security. It offers a detailed survey of recent incidents along the border, as well as information about terror attacks in Jerusalem and rocket fire from Gaza. It warns that Israel periodically conducts military operations in the West Bank and Gaza with no prior notice, advises travelers to avoid demonstrations and exercise maximum caution in crowded places, and tells visitors to the Golan Heights to beware of land mines.
Other countries offer similar warnings - though Belgium, surprisingly, defines Israel's security situation as "relatively good."
But many advisories go way beyond security problems. Britain, for instance, warns its citizens against giving their passports to anyone in Israel, since it is currently investigating Israel on suspicion of fraudulently using British passports in the 2010 assassination of senior Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai.
"This has raised the possibility that your passport details could be captured for improper uses while your passport is out of your control," it says. "The risk applies in particular to passports without biometric security features. Only hand your passport over to third parties, including Israeli officials, when absolutely necessary."
Other countries warn of problems at Ben-Gurion Airport. Austria, for instance, tells travelers to expect problems with airport security personnel when entering and leaving Israel.
The American version is much more detailed: "U.S. citizen visitors have been subjected to prolonged questioning and thorough searches by Israeli authorities upon entry or departure ... U.S. citizens have been detained and/or arrested at the airport and at other border crossings on suspicion of security-related offenses. Members of religious groups have been monitored, arrested, and deported for suspicion of intent to proselytize in Israel."
Moreover, some travelers have had "laptop computers and other electronic equipment confiscated at Ben-Gurion Airport. While most items are returned prior to the traveler's departure, some equipment has been retained by the authorities for lengthy periods and has reportedly been damaged, destroyed, lost or never returned ... Israeli security officials have also requested access to travelers' personal email accounts or other social media accounts as a condition of entry."
But wait, there's more
Many countries warn travelers about Israel's dangerous drivers, including Australia, Britain and Ireland. "Driving in Israel is erratic," says the Australian version. "The road fatality rate in Israel is very high."
"Aggressive driving is commonplace, and many drivers fail to maintain safe following distances or signal before changing lanes or making turns," concurs the U.S. version. "Overtaking on high-speed undivided two-lane roads is common and results in frequent accidents. Drivers are also prone to stop suddenly on roads without warning, especially in the right lane."
Ireland adds a warning about frequent speed traps and high fines.
Most countries devote special warnings to Jerusalem, and especially its ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. Spain says Jerusalem has "returned to normal," but still warns travelers to be extra careful there. Other countries are less upbeat. The U.S. and France both warn against using public transport in the city, for fear of terror attacks; Austria advises against public transportation throughout the country.
"Demonstrations in religious neighborhoods occur regularly and sometimes result in clashes between residents and the local police," Canada warns. "Traffic may also be disrupted ... Assaults on visitors who are traveling in cars or immodestly dressed have occurred in Jerusalem's Old City and ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods on Sabbath."
Australia warns that public displays of affection at religious sites or in Haredi neighborhoods can spark anger. The British version is blunter: "If you choose to enter ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, be aware that local residents can react strongly to anyone (particularly women ) whom they deem to be dressed in an inappropriate manner. For women this would include wearing trousers. On Shabbat (from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday ) these neighborhoods are blocked off and you should not attempt to drive into them. If you do, local residents may stone your car."
Most countries note that Israel's crime rate isn't high, but add several caveats: Canada says car theft is high; Britain warns of the theft of passports, credit cards and valuables; the U.S. warns of purse-snatching and car break-ins.
Japan offers a nonstandard list of places to avoid. It is headed by Tel Aviv's Hatikva neighborhood, where it claims drugs and dubious characters abound. At night, it adds the city's Neve Sha'anan neighborhood to the list, citing foreign workers, sex shops and high crime. And don't walk alone at night on Allenby and Ben Yehuda streets, or in Old Jaffa, it warns.
Japan's advisory includes a long list of places where Japanese tourists have had their valuables stolen, and claims that serious crime is also on the rise: Israel's per capita crime rate is 2.1 times Japan's for murder, 6.7 times Japan's for theft and 7.2 times Japan's for sexual offenses, it says.
Canada, Japan and Austria even warn their citizens not to drink tap water in Israel; Austria urges caution when eating fruits and vegetables as well. And France warns against visiting farms and open-air markets - while reminding travelers to "wash their hands frequently" to avoid germs.