Facebook Twitter

ISRAEL: DESPITE THE POLITICAL UNREST, TOURING HOLY LAND MAY BE AS SAFE AS STAYING HOME.

SHARE ISRAEL: DESPITE THE POLITICAL UNREST, TOURING HOLY LAND MAY BE AS SAFE AS STAYING HOME.

The sun spreads a damp heat as our bus passes a group of off-duty soldiers and parks a few feet from the so-called "Good Fence" marking the border between Israel and Lebanon.

This is a narrow finger of land that pushes Israel into the eastern end of Lebanon just west of the Golan Heights. Nearby is the city of Metulla.Israel is a nation that uniquely blends the cataclysmic history of the world with the volatile tide of current events. It is a mixture that often frightens tourists away, and the "Good Fence" is one of the many places to confront those fears.

Beyond the spot where the road abruptly ends are two fences and tangles of barbed wire. Armed soldiers patrol between them. Beyond that is a security zone that extends for several miles up a mountain, on top of which is a United Nations lookout tower.

And beyond that is a war zone - an active and often violent one.

The scene brings us face-to-face with a concern potential tourists to Israel must confront: Is it safe to travel in the Holy Land?

As a participant in a Murdock Travel tour to Israel in early May, I found out. I was one of about 350 Americans, mostly from Utah, who flew to Israel non-stop from Seattle on the inaugural flight of El Al Airline's newest Boeing 747.

We toured the country for 10 days, including the day the peace accord between the Palestinians and the Israelis was signed. Our itinerary included sites of religious and political significance in areas inhabited by Jews and Palestinians. The only unrest we encountered was demonstrations.

Here is some of what we experienced.

A trip to Israel goes beyond visiting historical sights and pressing buttons that light up descriptions of the past. It is a land of immense historical significance, but its history still is under construction.

A few weeks after our visit, Israeli fighters ventured into Lebanon and raided Hezbollah bases near the eastern city of Baalbeck, killing 45 guerrillas and wounding 100 others. Lebanon responded by launching missiles into northern Israel, perhaps near some of the places we had driven.

This is not a new war, and the shifting boundaries became evident to our group. To the right in the distance from where we stood at the Lebanese border is a large building that once was a notorious nest of terrorism. Many Israeli soldiers lost their lives capturing it only a few years ago.

Yet the people in our group, visiting this sight in early May, approached the "Good Fence" with eager curiosity, not with dread or fear.

We learned quickly that the "Good Fence," like most of Israel, is a friendly place, despite the forbidding barriers and the armed soldiers. A few feet from the barbed wire, American tourists shamelessly posed for pictures with a group of off-duty soldiers. The female troops didn't mind the attention and smiled happily for the cameras. They answered questions with refreshing frankness in halting English.

Even the Lebanese, the enemy, are allowed to pass through the borders each day on their way to jobs. We watched a few of them come and go. Across the fence we saw a small Lebanese city that developed in recent years because of jobs across the border in Israel.

As travel and tourism officials like to point out, the person who waits for a quiet and peaceful time to visit Israel will wait forever. Many people don't realize that few if any tourists ever are injured by political or military attacks in Israel, and the crime rates in Israel's largest cities, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, are far lower than in major U.S. cities.

A tour through Israel, then, likely is as safe as staying home.

These facts lead many Israelis to complain that the world's media are painting a distorted picture of the country, ignoring its unique culture, history and relative safety while concentrating on sensational reports about terrorism and disputes with Palestinians and other Arabs.

Yehuda Shen, director of public relations for the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, said the country has launched efforts to spread a more peaceful message in an effort to attract more tourists. He believes the calm and beauty of Israel are well-kept secrets zealously guarded by the world's media.

"We have 450 foreign correspondents here," he said. "They want to remain here, so they're sending the most sensational stories they can back to their editors."

The safety of Israel's large cities became clear to me near midnight as I walked in the crisp spring air on Jerusalem's Ben Yehuda Street. This is a giant pedestrian-only street in the heart of Jerusalem's modern business district. Despite the hour, teenagers and children as young as 10 or 11 roamed freely, eating ice cream at a corner shop or chasing their friends down the street. They mingled with the occasional civilian carrying a large rifle around his neck and with the off-duty soldiers, equally armed.

It was a scene that, if played in the United States, almost certainly would have been a recipe for disaster. But on Ben Yahuda there was nothing but clean fun and the energetic joy of youth. No one appeared to be intoxicated. No one harassed the elderly or the tourists. Most shops remained open and street musicians plied their trades.

Each year, the tourism ministry brings hundreds of journalists and travel agents to Israel in hopes they will experience such scenes and return to encourage more tourists to come. The efforts appear to be paying off. Nearly 2 million tourists came in 1993, an increase of more than 10 percent over the previous year. Shen said about 400,000 of those were from the United States.

"Tourism is a source of foreign currency, but it's also a way to show what the country's all about," Shen said. "This (Israel) is the largest open-air museum in the world."

Israel is indeed a great place to explore the past. However, the tourism ministry's goals may be hindered by the reality that Israel's past, present and future are, to many people worldwide, inseparably connected with violence and unrest.

This became apparent as we visited the ruins of ancient Megiddo, a city that stood alongside the Jezreel Valley, an important trade route whose strategic importance led to many battles. Twenty-five times it was destroyed, and 25 times it was rebuilt by the conquerors.

The city has been rubble for centuries, but its location has relevance to most Western cultures. Its Greek transliteration is Armageddon. The Jezreel Valley also is known as the Valley of Armageddon, a place synonymous with the final destruction of the world.

While our group encountered no real dangers during the tour, we did see plenty of demonstrations connected with the signing of peace accord.

The day before the signing, we were scheduled to drive along the west bank of the Jordan River to Jericho. We were stopped by armed soldiers at several road blocks that morning, forcing us to take a lengthy detour. We then passed peaceful demonstrations by Jewish settlers angry at the signing. At one point, we saw a car burning near the side of the road.

Soldiers barred our entry into Jericho, and we were forced to scrap the ancient city from our itinerary.

In Jerusalem that night, we took a bus tour of the city's ultra-orthodox neighborhoods. There we encountered more demonstrations and saw large trash bins overturned in the street and set afire.

Yet, despite the armed soldiers here and there, security did not seem particularly tight. At sacred religious sites such as the Dome of the Rock, tourists roamed freely so long as they left their jewelry, cameras and shoes outside in accordance with Muslim custom.

The Israeli government has trained and licensed 3,000 tour guides, putting them through 1 1/2 years of intense training before they are allowed to work. The training pays off. The guide on our bus, Abraham Hillel, not only thoroughly understood the history of the land, he tailored his presentations to the unique needs of a group of Utah tourists.

Shen said the guides are the most important link between the government and tourists. With them, tourists can feel safe and comfortable without having to worry about wandering into unusually volatile areas.

And once worries about safety and comfort are gone, few other reasons exist for not visiting Israel.