SAFETY FOR VISITORS
Created as a new state in 1948 with the backing of the USA and other allied powers, Israel is bordered by Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Jews, Christians and Moslems have, for centuries, been passionately devoted to the small piece of land that is now Israel. A firm belief throughout the Arab world is that it should not exist at all. Israelis have fought in five wars (six if you include the Gulf War) since independence and following these it unilaterally extended its boundaries to control the West Bank, Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Some areas within these regions are now under Palestinian control and occasional terrorist bombings and military manoeuvres are reported in the Western press. So is it really that safe?
"The best recommendation for a visit to Israel is to ask anyone who has ever visited the country how safe it is," says Eliezer Hod, director of the Israel Government Tourist Office. "A woman can walk on her own in downtown Tel Aviv at midnight and feel safe, which is not the case with cities in the USA. Everything that happens in the State of Israel is immediately reported around the world, but not one tourist has been harmed in the last ten years following terrorist action."
It is true you do feel safe in Israel. Most Israelis speak English and are generally welcoming, even if they have an sub-machine gun slung over their shoulder. National service is mandatory for all Israelis except ultra orthodox Jews and its army of 600,000 can be mobilised in a surprisingly short space of time.
"One thing," Eliezer goes on to say, "is that Israelis and Palestinians are in 100 per cent agreement on coordinating the safety of tourists for the millennium celebrations. The people of Bethlehem, Jericho and Hebron are living out of tourism and it is not in their interests to see any trouble. The Church of the Nativity is in Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem and is one of the major sites on the pilgrim's trail. We want to make journeys from Jerusalem to Bethlehem as smooth as possible."
By the time this magazine goes to press there will have been elections in Israel between the right wing Likud party of Benjamin Netanyahu, the leftist Labour party and a new central party. As far as the peace process is concerned, many people would like to see a more flexible leader to Netanyahu's more aggressive stance. But as far as the country itself is concerned, Israel will be cashing in on the Millennium. With each tourist spending on average 1,000[pounds sterling] and with twelve million expected in the next three years, an increase of US$3.4billion in Israel's GNP. None the less, millions have had to be spent to get the infrastructure right for this `invasion'. "Everyone is working to get Israel ready for the year 2000," insists Eliezer. "We shall make sure we are ready Nobody will be sleeping in the park."