When considering a trip to Israel and specifically to Bethlehem and the West Bank you’ll probably wonder about the safety of such a trip. Bethlehem, like many other travel destinations has its own limitations which need to be approached sensibly and according to official recommendations, if you do this there is no problem what so ever in visiting the city of Jesus’ birth.
Don’t believe everything you read…
If you travel to any area where there has been sporadic “trouble” you are going to be bombarded with warnings from friends, family and most of all from the press. Well don’t believe everything you read, instead read reviews from travelers who have actually visited your travel destination recently, in this case Bethlehem. You will find that the reality is far less dangerous than the media-hype. By browsing through the internet travel forums you will find reviews of visits to Bethlehem which state:
Cath22uk: “…the warning of danger in Bethlehem, Jericho as well as Jerusalem are all overcooked, overstated and sometimes border on downright tabloid news type propaganda…”
Official Travel Warnings
The official websites – Embassies, consulates etc will give you a warning of some kind which will sound daunting like: “Exercise a high degree of caution” but they have to say this, it is like saying – if you go there it’s not our problem it was your choice – they are lessening their responsibility if anything goes wrong. They also want to warn you of the worse possible scenario just so that you are prepared. Remember to distinguish between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank when enquiring about travel safety as they are two distinct areas not even in close proximity. The Gaza Strip is considered a higher danger risk than the West bank where Bethlehem is located.
As far as the safety of visiting Bethlehem and the West Bank the official US site states:
“…exercise caution…violence in recent years has decreased markedly…” it continues to describe incidents that could occur.
The Reality of Safety in Bethlehem and the West Bank
Tours to Bethlehem and the West Bank leave the Israeli cities of Jerusalem or Tel-Aviv by luxury coach and travel to the border between Israel and the West Bank administered by the Palestinian Authorities. At this crossing point there is an Israeli run checkpoint. There are no restrictions on tourists entering or exiting though the checkpoint and no visa is required. The Israeli checkpoint may appear daunting with barbed wire and high walls on either side, but apart from showing your passport your passage across the checkpoint should go smoothly especially as you have guides who have done this many times. Once within the West Bank security is handled by the Palestinian Authorities and so you will see soldiers in uniform, carrying guns but it’s for your protection, they are there to keep the peace.
Bethlehem is home to one of the biggest Christian Arab communities in the Middle East and although in the West Bank the city thrives on the tourists who arrive in the hundreds to visit the holy sites every day. There is also a tradition of making guests feel welcome and of Middle Eastern hospitality. The average Jo in Bethlehem is not out to “get” tourists they too just want to get on with their lives peacefully.
Safety Tips when visiting Bethlehem
- Stay with the group.
- Don’t get into conversations with strangers.
- Be friendly, polite and respectful of the locals.
- Stay in the areas where tourists are don’t go wandering off.
- Abide by the cautionary behavior you would in any foreign country.
Recall a time when everyone told you some trip or endeavored was dangerous and when you eventually did it you realized it was really uneventful and the warnings ungrounded. Don’t let the rumor mill and media-hype prevent you from enjoying the rare opportunity to visit the place where Jesus was born.
Together with that make sure your visit to Bethlehem and the West Bank is made within the safety limitations with a professional organized tour, obey the laws of the country and follow the official guidelines for a safe trip to Bethlehem.