“Israel is great, but judging by our entry and exit it doesn’t seem to want us here. I don’t understand: Does Israel not like tourists?” asks Magda, a 26-year-old Hungarian visiting Israel for the fourth time. She is a regular visitor here, meeting Israelis she became friendly while on other overseas trips. But the treatment she gets when she tries to enter the country is far less friendly.
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Nor is her experience unusual. More and more tourists who have passed through Israel’s borders in recent years have described – and sometimes even filed official complaints about – hostile and humiliating treatment.
“The woman at one counter took my passport and asked where I would be visiting,” another European tourist tells Haaretz. “I said I’d be three nights in Jerusalem and another night in Tel Aviv. In response, she sent me to a room at the far end of the ground floor to collect my passport.
“I waited there for three hours before someone even said a word to me,” he related. “Then they took additional information from me, like my email address and my parents’ phone numbers, without explaining why. After another 90 minutes, I asked to speak to the person in charge, who was nice. I told him I understand there are security needs here, but they were treating me like garbage.
“They treated me in a shameful way, in a country I thought was friendly,” he says, adding, “I’ve visited more than 150 countries and I’ve never encountered such treatment. This experience ruined my vacation.”
Even the dozens of bloggers invited to the TBEX International 2017 conference co-sponsored by the Israeli Tourism Ministry three months ago – which was intended to improve Israel’s image overseas – received humiliating treatment that overshadowed the positive experience of the trip itself and thwarted the organizers’ intentions. On a Facebook group, several of them described their bad experiences.
One said he was detained for questioning for two hours when he left the country, almost missing his flight. Another said he was asked about the fact that his passport contained entry stamps from Qatar, Tunisia and Turkey. Others also said they were asked about the entry stamps of every single Arab country in their passports.
Nightmare on Allenby Bridge
The border where the situation appears to be worst is the Allenby Bridge crossing from Jordan. Even though this is the most convenient way to reach Jordan from central Israel, Israel doesn’t encourage tourists to use it. By law, Israelis can’t use it at all; it is only open to tourists and Palestinian residents of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The border terminal is located some 5 kilometers (about 3 miles) east of Jericho and a 55-minute drive from Amman, the Jordanian capital and home to Jordan’s international airport. On the Israeli side it is run by the Israel Airports Authority; on the Jordanian side, by Jordan’s border control agency.
The crossing is supposed to be open from 8 A.M. until midnight, but tourists are told to arrive by 9 P.M. On Fridays, it officially closes at 3 P.M. but, again, tourists are told to arrive no later than midday. In contrast, the Jordanian border crossing near Beit She’an in northern Israel is open until 6 P.M. on weekends.
In 2016, a new terminal was built at Allenby Bridge so that the tourists could be separated from the Palestinians. In reality, though, the tourist terminal is closed most of the year due to a shortage of money and manpower. Instead, tourists have to go through the terminal meant for Palestinians. As a result – and especially around the time of the main Muslim holidays – tourists encounter long waits and more security checks.
Hundreds of tourists cross the Allenby Bridge each week, and that number would probably be higher if conditions were better there. But organized tour operators say that going through this crossing is a “nightmare.”
One problem, they say, is that anyone detained for extra security checks – or held up because other travelers are going through extra checks – is given no estimate of how long the delay is likely to be. They say this is chiefly because the terminal doesn’t have enough staff to help tourists and ensure that they receive any information.
“We’re really reluctant to bring tourists through the Allenby crossing,” says David Sosner, a tour guide who works mainly with Christian tourists from Russia who want to visit both Israel and Jordan. “The wait at the entry to the terminal can last a long time,” he notes. “There are exceptional workloads, and terminal staffers themselves recommend not going there – even though it’s the crossing closest to Jerusalem and Jordan’s hotel district, which is along the northern section of the Dead Sea.”
To ensure his tourists get a swift passage through the crossing, Sosner says he has to pay for them to get VIP service, which raises the cost of the entire tour package.
“The attitude there resembles that of a military regime, it isn’t meant for tourists,” adds another tour operator. “The lines are long, forcing our drivers to wait a long time when they pick up or drop off travelers, who also suffer from the slow, lengthy inspections.
“The tourists see how ugly our treatment of the Palestinians is," he adds. "And it doesn’t matter how much you try to cover it up – this simply harms Israel’s image.”
A few months ago, following repeated pleas by tour guides, a room for guides was opened at the crossing. Now they can monitor and report on the progress of their group on both sides of the border.
The Airports Authority defends its procedures at the crossing, saying: “During periods of security tension or on days when traffic drops sharply, service is given to all passengers by adjusting the terminals as needed, with a level of service that includes all the means necessary for the crossing.”
It says it has also created a computer program, in conjunction with the tour operators, in which the crossing’s managers post estimates of how long it will take a given group to cross, and what wait times they can expect to encounter. This allows the operators to plan their group’s arrival for times when the wait isn’t expected to be long and to coordinate with all relevant parties, like the drivers and guides waiting on the other side of the border, it adds.
Though the Airports Authority runs the crossings and has personnel stationed at them, the initial questioning of visitors is conducted by border control agents, who are therefore the first Israelis that tourists meet. Their job is to make sure the visitors’ travel documents are in order.
As a result, one explanation for the poor treatment that tourists receive may be that the qualifications needed to become a border control agent are very low: a high school education and the ability to speak both Hebrew and English. The agents are also supposed to have good interpersonal skills, but even the Airports Authority admits it receives a lot of complaints about unpleasant treatment.
The Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority – which has overall responsibility for the border crossings – says its border control agents perform their work courteously and professionally. “The purpose of the border control process is to ensure the traveler does in fact arrive with the visa appropriate to the circumstances of his visit,” it added. “If the need arises, the traveler is sent for additional questioning in order to clarify facts. The process is handled with the requisite professionalism, and appropriate training is given to the agents, in various languages.”
Either pay for empty seats, or wait
The problems don’t end after entry into Israel. Tourists who have crossed the Allenby Bridge terminal from the Jordanian side face a walk of about 2 kilometers to reach the nearest bus station. But the problem is aggravated because pedestrian traffic is forbidden in the area. This situation sends the tourists unwillingly into the hands of the only taxi franchisee at the crossing, the Al-Nijmeh Taxi Service, which has held the franchise for operating shared (“sherut”) taxis from the terminal to Jerusalem since 2009.
“There’s nobody who supervises the collection of the usual fare. That’s why a tourist who wants to get to the bus stop 2 kilometers away ends up paying 40 shekels ($11.32), just like a tourist who wants to get to Jerusalem,” explains Itiel Sharabi, director of Abraham Tours. “The taxi leaves only when it is full – even if that takes hours. The original idea was that even if it doesn’t fill up, the taxi service is supposed to leave once an hour.
“In practice,” adds Itiel, “the drivers give the passengers two options: Either you also pay for the empty seats or you wait until the taxi fills up. These are taxi drivers who don’t keep their promises to the group, who are rude and unfriendly to tourists, and who benefit from their power as a monopoly. It’s true that in principle the Airports Authority declares you can order another taxi, but nobody wants to compete with the existing service – and so the status quo remains.”
The IAA responded: “The terminal’s administration isn’t in favor of walking to the bus stop, mainly because on both sides of the road there are areas that are suspected of being mined – and there’s also the heat for most of the year. In addition, the road from the terminal to Route 90 is narrow, winding, with many areas in which the driver’s line of sight is limited, and we prefer not to endanger the passengers by letting them leave the terminal on foot.
“According to the directives of Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, we have arranged for the Allenby Bridge crossing between Israel and Jordan to be open continuously, 24 hours a day, starting July 20," it continued. "Katz is promoting accelerated development plans for the crossing at Allenby – at a cost of 450 million shekels – in order to increase the capacity of the terminal and improve the level of service for passengers and cargo, including the construction of a new passenger terminal, improving the service at the border control and improving access roads to the crossing.”
Regarding the taxis, it claimed that “the conditions of the license, as well as the maximum price the company is allowed to levy on the specific routes, are defined in the context of the franchise. The Transportation Ministry is responsible for enforcing the licensing conditions of the franchise. In the past three years, we have not received any official complaints at the terminal about the shared taxis.”