U.S. State Department Issues Israel, The West Bank and Gaza Travel Warning
LAST UPDATED: DECEMBER 16, 2015
The security environment remains complex in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. U.S. citizens need to be aware of the continuing risks of travel to areas described in this Travel Warning where there are heightened tensions and security risks. The security situation can change day to day, depending on the political situation, recent events, and geographic area. A rise in political tensions and violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank has resulted in injuries to and deaths of U.S. citizens. The Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority both make considerable efforts to police major tourist attractions and ensure security in areas where foreigners frequently travel. Although these efforts to reduce the threat are not 100 percent effective, hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens safely visit Israel and the West Bank each year for study, tourism, and business. This replaces the Travel Warning issued February 18, 2015.
The Department of State strongly warns U.S. citizens against travel to the Gaza Strip and urges those in Gaza to leave immediately when border crossings are open; U.S. government employees are not allowed to conduct official or personal travel to Gaza.
U.S. citizens should consider the rules U.S. government employees must follow when planning their travel:
With the exception of Jericho and Bethlehem, U.S. government employees are prohibited from personal travel to the West Bank. There are some restrictions on the personal travel of U.S. government employees to Bethlehem, listed in the section below on the West Bank;
U.S. government employees are prohibited from using public and inter-city buses (and associated bus terminals) throughout Israel and the West Bank. From mid-October until the end of November 2015, there was a temporary prohibition on using the Jerusalem light rail north of the City Hall stop on Jaffa Road; and
U.S. government employees must obtain advance approval if they wish to travel to the following locations:
within 7 miles of the Gaza demarcation line;
within 1.5 miles of the Lebanon border;
north and east of the Sea of Galilee;
on or east of Route 98 in the Golan; and
south of Be’er Sheva.
The U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem are continuously monitoring the security situation. As conditions change, they can make adjustments, as necessary, to these travel restrictions on U.S. government employees. Please review the security messages at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem for the most current information.
Major Metropolitan Areas
Personal safety conditions in major metropolitan areas, including Tel Aviv and Haifa and surrounding regions, are comparable to other major global cities. Nonetheless, political and religious tension associated, in part, with access to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem has led to increased levels of violence, particularly in Jerusalem and the West Bank, not seen in those areas in a decade. Since October 2015, attacks on individuals and groups have occurred with increased frequency in East and West Jerusalem, Hebron, and Bethlehem, as well as various other places in the West Bank and Israel, including Tel Aviv. There is no indication that U.S. citizens have been specifically targeted based on their nationality, although perceived religious affiliation may have been a factor in some violent attacks on U.S. citizens. More than 12 U.S. citizens have been among those killed and injured in multiple attacks in 2014 and 2015. U.S. citizens involved in or observing demonstrations have sustained serious injuries. Therefore, the Department of State recommends U.S. citizens avoid all demonstrations for their own safety.
The Department of State also recommends that U.S. citizens maintain a high state of situational awareness, be aware of their surroundings at all times, avoid any unattended items or packages, and report any unusual or suspicious activities or items to police or other security officials. See below for specific safety and security information regarding Gaza, the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Israel’s northern region.
Travelers should be aware of the potential for military conflict between Israel and foreign terrorist organizations like Hamas. Such attacks can occur with little or no warning. During the conflict in Gaza in July and August 2014, long-range rockets launched from Gaza reached many locations in Israel and the West Bank – including Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and cities in northern and southern Israel. The Government of Israel’s Iron Dome rocket and missile defense system successfully intercepted many rockets. However, rocket and mortar impacts also caused four deaths of Israeli citizens living near Gaza, as well as injuries and property damage. There have been additional small arms fire and mortar and rocket launches from Gaza into southern Israel on several occasions between September and December 2014 and again between May and November 2015 that resulted in limited property damage.
Visitors to and residents of Israel and the West Bank should familiarize themselves with the location of the nearest bomb shelter or other hardened site. We advise all U.S. citizens to take note of guidance on proper procedures in the event of rocket attacks or other crisis events by visiting the website of the government of Israel’s Home Front Command. Consult municipality websites, such as those for Jerusalem, for locations of public bomb shelters and other emergency preparedness information. Visitors should seek information on shelters from hotel staff or building managers.
Travelers should also be aware of the heightened state of alert maintained by Israeli authorities along Israel’s border with Egypt. There have been cross-border incidents from Egypt, including rocket attacks and ground incursions, Rockets and mortars were launched from Sinai, Egypt in the direction of Eilat and Israel’s Negev region in January, July, and August 2014, and July 2015.
U.S. citizens visiting and living in Jerusalem should be aware of the numerous political, cultural, and religious tensions that permeate the city. These sensitivities have the potential to fuel rallies, protests, civil unrest, acts of terrorism, and retaliatory attacks against groups and individuals.
Demonstrations are a regular occurrence throughout Jerusalem. Even peaceful demonstrations can turn violent with little or no advance warning. Since October 2015, there have been frequent clashes between protesters and Israeli authorities, checkpoints and barriers have been set up by Israeli security forces that restrict movement of residents, and acts of terrorism have taken place, resulting in death and injury, including to U.S. citizens. Travelers should be aware that protests and violence have occurred across Jerusalem, including in some West Jerusalem neighborhoods, and in East Jerusalem neighborhoods such as Sheikh Jarrah, Shufat, Beit Hanina, Mt. of Olives, As Suwaneh, Silwan, Shuafat Refugee Camp, Issawiyeh, Tsur Baher, and within the Old City. Skirmishes, violent clashes and demonstrations also have occurred in the northern parts of Jerusalem near the Qalandia Checkpoint, and Checkpoint 300 located in the southern part of Jerusalem near Bethlehem.
From mid-October until the end of November 2015, U.S. government employees were temporarily prohibited for security reasons from using the Jerusalem Light Rail north of the City Hall stop along Jaffa Road. Travel to the Old City is also periodically restricted for U.S. government employees, including on Fridays during Ramadan. The Department of State advises U.S. citizens to exercise caution in and around the Damascus, Lions’, and Herod’s gates to the Old City as these locations have been the scene of past attacks.
The number of violent incidents resulting in the death of bystanders remains high. The frequency of such incidents often increases following Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount access restrictions, in response to random attacks, or during Israel National Police (INP) operations in predominantly Palestinian neighborhoods. The INP often deploys a heavy presence in many of the neighborhoods that have seen clashes and may restrict pedestrian and vehicular traffic to some of these neighborhoods without notice. U.S. citizens are advised not to enter any neighborhoods restricted by the INP and to avoid any locations with active demonstrations, clashes, or a heavy police presence.
The clashes and violence have not been anti-American in nature. However, politically-motivated violence in Jerusalem claimed the lives of U.S. citizens who were inside a synagogue in November 2014 and a U.S. citizen who was riding a bus in October 2015. Other U.S. citizens have been injured in such attacks. In July 2015, an attack on participants at the Jerusalem gay pride march resulted in the death of one person and injuries to several others, including a U.S. citizen.
Travelers are reminded to exercise caution at Islamic religious sites on Fridays and on holy days, particularly during the holy month of Ramadan. The INP often imposes restrictions on visitors to the Old City’s Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, and has closed access for temporary periods without advance notice. Many orthodox Jewish communities in and around Jerusalem restrict vehicle traffic on Shabbat, and entering these neighborhoods with a vehicle may result in protests and violence.
Northern Israel and Golan Heights
Rocket attacks and small arms fire into Israel from Lebanon have occurred without warning along the Israeli-Lebanese border. Heightened tensions persist along portions of the Disengagement Zone with Syria in the Golan Heights as a result of Syria’s internal conflict. There have been several incidents of rockets, mortar shells, and light arms fire landing on the Israeli-controlled side of the zone as a result of spillover from the fighting in Syria. Travelers should be aware that cross-border gunfire can occur without warning. Furthermore, there are active land mines in areas of the Golan Heights, so visitors should walk only on established roads or trails.
The West Bank
The Department of State urges U.S. citizens to exercise caution when traveling to the West Bank due to the complex security situation there. Increasingly frequent and violent clashes between Israeli security forces, Israeli settlers and Palestinian residents of the West Bank have resulted in the death and injury to U.S. citizens and others.
U.S. citizens considering travel to the West Bank should take into consideration the danger of death, injury or kidnapping of U.S. citizen residents and visitors in the West Bank evident from incidents in 2014 and 2015. On October 1, 2015, a U.S. citizen man and his Israeli wife were shot and killed on the road between Alon Moreh and Itamar, near Nablus. In November 2015, a U.S. citizen studying in Israel was one of three people killed by a gunman who fired shots into their vehicle in Gush Etzion, and another was injured by a gunshot near the Cave of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque. In September 2015 five U.S. citizens were attacked and their car destroyed in Hebron.
Demonstrations and violent incidents can occur without warning, and vehicles are sometimes damaged by rocks, Molotov cocktails, and gunfire on West Bank roads. U.S citizens have been injured or killed in such attacks in the past. There have also been an increasing number of violent incidents involving Israeli settlers and Palestinian villagers in the corridor stretching from Ramallah to Nablus, including attacks by Israeli settlers on Palestinian villages and attacks by Palestinians on settlements. U.S. citizens can be caught in the middle of potentially dangerous situations, and some U.S. citizens involved in political demonstrations in the West Bank have sustained serious injuries. During periods of unrest, the Israeli government may restrict access to and within the West Bank, and some areas may be placed under curfew. All persons in areas under curfew should remain indoors to avoid arrest or injury. Security conditions in the West Bank may hinder the ability of U.S. government officials to offer timely assistance to U.S. citizens.
Personal travel in the West Bank by U.S. government personnel is permitted to the towns of Jericho and Bethlehem, and on Routes 1, 443, and 90. U.S. government employees traveling to Bethlehem must comply with the following additional security requirements: The Rachel’s Tomb/Gilo crossing and areas adjacent to the Ayda and Al Azza refugee camps are restricted; and travel in Bethlehem must be completed between 8:00 am and 8:00 pm. These restrictions change periodically based on the current security environment. Please review the security messages at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem for current information. The Rachel’s Tomb checkpoint between Jerusalem and Bethlehem has seen an increase in public demonstrations, which have the potential to become violent. U.S. government employees may also engage in personal travel to Qumran off Route 90 by the Dead Sea and to the Allenby Bridge crossing to Jordan, as well as stops at roadside facilities along Routes 1 and 90. All other personal travel by U.S. government personnel in the West Bank is prohibited. U.S. government personnel routinely travel to the West Bank for official business, but do so with special security arrangements.
The Gaza Strip
The Department of State strongly urges U.S. citizens to avoid all travel to the Gaza Strip, which is under the control of Hamas, a foreign terrorist organization. U.S. citizens in Gaza are advised to depart immediately when border crossings are opened; U.S. citizens who choose to travel to Gaza should not rely on the U.S. government to assist them in departing Gaza. U.S. citizen employees of the U.S. government are not allowed to travel to Gaza, in either personal or professional capacities. U.S. government travel in Israel within seven miles of the Gaza demarcation requires special security arrangements. The security environment within Gaza, including its border with Egypt and its seacoast, is dangerous and volatile. Exchanges of gunfire between the Israel Defense Forces and militant groups in Gaza take place intermittently, and civilians have been caught in the crossfire in the past.
Since October 2014, Egyptian authorities have closed the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt for extended periods, sometimes with little notice. When operating, the Rafah crossing normally allows for some passenger travel; however, prior coordination with local authorities – which could take days or weeks to process – may be required and crossing points may be closed for days or weeks. Travelers who enter the Gaza Strip through the Rafah crossing must also exit through the Rafah crossing, and those entering the Gaza Strip may not be able to depart at a time of their choosing. Many U.S. citizens have been unable to exit Gaza or faced lengthy delays while attempting to exit Gaza. Furthermore, the schedule and requirements for exiting through the Rafah crossing are unpredictable and can involve significant expense.
The ability of U.S. government personnel to offer timely assistance to U.S. citizens, including assistance departing Gaza, is extremely limited. The Consulate General and Embassy are often unable to assist U.S. citizens to exit Gaza via the Erez crossing to Israel.
U.S. citizens planning to travel to Israel, the West Bank, or Gaza should consult the detailed information concerning entry and exit difficulties in the Country Specific Information.
Individuals registered in the Palestinian Authority population registry, who Israeli authorities believe may have a claim to a Palestinian ID, are denied entry into Israel or Jerusalem, regardless of other nationality or place of residence. These individuals seeking to visit the West Bank are required to enter from Jordan through the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge.
Some U.S. citizens of Arab or Muslim heritage not on the Palestinian Population Registry or otherwise prohibited from entering Israel have experienced significant difficulties and unequal and hostile treatment at Israel’s borders and checkpoints. U.S. citizens of Arab or Muslim origin visiting the West Bank, including those not on the Palestinian Population Registry, have experienced restrictions by Israeli authorities from visiting Jerusalem or Israel.
Dual U.S.-Israeli citizens of military age who have not completed Israeli military service may be prohibited from departing Israel until service is completed or may be subject to criminal penalties for failure to serve.
It is estimated that 200,000 American citizens live in the State of Israel.
Some of these are Orthodox Jews studying abroad, like Ezra Schwartz, the American yeshiva student who was killed in a terror attack last month. Furthermore, some American Jews are constantly traveling to the Holy Land on vacation. “Tickets to Israel” are a common prize in raffles and fundraisers. These people should pay close attention to the news and to the State Department’s warning, and then consider whether they would take a trip anywhere else where the danger level is so high.
It’s time to build our yeshivas and religious seminaries in America, Canada, UK and other Jewish communities around the world. Hashem wants Jews to be spread out around the world during exile, and it’s critical that high-level Torah learning and teaching take place in every country where Jews reside. The Gemara teaches that Hashem did kindness with the Jewish people when He scattered them among the nations (Pesachim 87b). It’s never good to put all the eggs in one basket.
Living outside the Holy Land is also important because it is our atonement. The Ramban in his comment on Devarim 28:42 points out that all the events of which the Torah warns come upon the Jewish people only as long as they are still in Eretz Yisroel. But once Jews have fulfilled G-d’s decree and gone into exile, they will lead successful lives. This is because the exile itself is atonement, and G-d’s promise holds true: “And despite this, when they were in their enemy’s lands, I did not reject them nor revile them to destroy them, to annul My covenant with them, for I am Hashem their G-d” (Vayikra 26:44).
We know that G-d watches over the Jewish people in exile, and as the Midrash (Esther Rabbah 10:11) says, “Great is the Shepherd who saves them!” However, the Ramban is teaching us that this promise to watch over us applies only when we have the merit of living in exile. Thus the existence of Jewish communities around the world actually ensures the safety of the Jews in the Holy Land (Vayoel Moshe 1:14). We need to adjust our focus and build more Torah centers elsewhere.