International SOS recently conducted a trip to Israel and the West Bank to assess the in-country security situation. Our Security Director for Assistance, Erika Weisbrod and Security Specialist, Melissa Sanguinetti have compiled tips to help travellers who may be planning their first business trip to Israel on how to prepare for their journey and what they should expect while they are there.
[Chris] - In the light of ongoing tensions and recent protests in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, International SOS has recently conducted a security assessment to Israel and the West Bank to better understand the current operating environment and to meet with our security partners.
We also wanted to use this opportunity to explain to workforce who could be travelling to the area for the first time, how best to prepare for their trip and what to expect.
Hello and welcome to this global situation podcast from International SOS, the leading medical and security risk services company. I'm Chris Giles.
Well this is the podcast where we provide you with timely analysis and tactical insight for your organisation.
Joining me today is International SOS's Security Director for assistance for the London Security Centre Erica Weisbrod and Security Specialist Melissa Sanguinetti.
So, Melissa, when it comes to preparing for a trip to Israel, what sort of things should people who haven't been to the country before take into consideration?
[Melissa] - So in our planning process of this trip, we had a meeting with some of our internal stakeholders to just kind of go over some of the things we may need to keep in mind, such as if there were any religious holidays during our proposed travel dates. And currently protests have been ongoing mostly on Saturdays. So, we also took that into account in our planning. It was Pride the week that we were traveling and so we kind of were able to be aware that that was happening while we were there, as well as with Sabbath on Friday afternoons and planning to depart from Friday after arriving on Sunday. And then also just broader awareness of the ongoing situation in the country with regional tensions and tensions between the Palestinian Territories in Israel, just to kind of have a good grasp of what the security environment is.
[Chris] - And Erika, what should people expect when they land in Israel and are there any different things to plan for at the airport before they get on the flight home?
[Erika] - Factoring in the arrival and departure to Ben Gurion International Airport, which is Israel's main International Air airport, is really important in terms of knowing what to expect upon arrival and departure. So, Melissa and I had a really smooth arrival. We were fortunate to be able to progress really quickly from the plane through to the arrival hall. What we encountered when we left the gate area is that there were several self-service kiosks where if you have a biometric passport and don't require a visa, you can scan your passport and obtain your arrival card, which is also called a stay permit or a blue card. This blue card is something you need to retain throughout your travel in Israel, but it also suffices in lieu of a stamp in your passport, which can create additional complications if you do have an Israeli stamp in your passport when traveling to regional Arab countries. Once you get this blue card, or if you're unable to obtain the blue card through the through the self-service kiosk, everyone either way needs to progress through the immigration desks. At these desks, individuals will be asked usually some basic questions about the purpose of their stay, how long they're going to stay, where they're going to visit, and depending on your itinerary or maybe because of your profile, you may be questioned additionally to understand the purpose of your visit in Israel. Another thing to factor in is departure from Ben Gurion airport and we recommend that travellers get to the airport with at least three hours in advance of their international flight. And this is to progress through all of the security stages at the airport.
So, upon arrival to the arrival desk, you will go through some questioning even before you go through security screening. And these questions may include again, the purpose of your visit, where you went, people that you met with, any items that you might have obtained or being carrying back.
And after passing through that initial security questioning, you will go on to the security screening,
which will include x-ray and metal detectors. While Melissa and I had a fairly smooth arrival and departure from Ben Gurion airport, we know from our clients that depending on their profile and their occupation, for example, journalists or NGOs, they might not have as straightforward of an experience passing through some of the security questions, particularly if they have spent time in the West Bank and depending on the nature of their mission and the work that they're doing.
And this might prompt additional questions or additional searches, which could create delays in being able to depart. So, factoring in that additional time is very, very important.
[Chris] - When it comes to staying at a hotel in Israel what sort of things should business travellers be prepared for?
[Erika] - Israel is a really unique environment and while staying in some locations, the risk environment can seem quite benign. There is a great likelihood that an escalation could occur during the stay of a traveller. So it's important for travellers to understand what to do if there is this type of escalation. And one example of that could be missile strikes from Gaza and understanding what to do if there is an air raid siren or what is called a red alert. If you're staying at a hotel, for example, understand, one that the hotels have shelters and safe rooms. So for example, in Tel Aviv, if you do hear the red alert siren, you have 90 seconds to progress to a safe haven room, which most cases if you're in the hotel, you will hear an alert that the hotel will broadcast and you'll see everyone progressing to those locations. So you can follow those and, and follow the instructions of the local authorities. It's just something to be prepared for like a fire alarm, but it's unique to the risk environment in Israel. Same thing with an earthquake or tsunami warning, which are risks that Israel faces, especially along the coast for tsunami. Knowing what to do and where is an assembly point or a shelter for such natural hazards or alerts that might come up.
[Melissa] - Something to add to Erika's point is it is important to choose accommodations while traveling in Tel Aviv and throughout Israel that do have those measures in place. All hotels there do have the safe rooms and that sort of thing, but it is important that you choose a hotel that can handle escalations, have, standfast procedures in place so that if an escalation occurs that you are in a place where you're able to be safe for a period of time. And that's one of the things that we did on this trip and are able to provide to our clients recommendations on hotels that we have visited and found to be safe accommodations in the city.
[Chris] - So Melissa, how does a city like Tel Aviv compare to a city like Jerusalem, for example?
What sort of things should people who haven't travelled to Israel before be aware of, do you think?
[Melissa] - Yeah, so there are many differences between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Tel Aviv is the largest city in Israel and has a lot of the business industry. Several companies kind of even based their headquarters of their Middle East region out of Tel Aviv. So a larger city known for its nightlife and has a very vibrant scene there. It's on the beach front, which attracts the different kind of tourists than maybe the more religious tourism scene in Jerusalem. So Jerusalem is an important city for many different religions and that attracts large groups from other countries coming to visit the religious sites. And, you know, a bit different tensions as Jerusalem is right on the West Bank and has kind of the division between east and west Jerusalem.
[Chris] - And you were both there during Pride month, what tips would you have for LGBTQ+ travellers who are going to Israel?
[Erika] - Tel Aviv is known to have one of the largest pride celebrations globally, and it attracts a lot of visitors from other countries to attend the Pride celebrations, which is very tolerated and accepted and in in Tel Aviv. In general when travelling to any location, it's important to understand your profile and the local laws and tolerances that are in place, and that can really vary from one location to another in that country, from being in a major city to smaller or more remote locations or factoring in religious sensitivities. As we know in Jerusalem, the Pride celebrations that took place the week before the one in Tel Aviv was conducted smoothly, safely, but with some additional concern that there could be some associated violence or counter demonstrations. And the security forces were very increased during the Jerusalem pride because of those concerns where attitudes towards LGBTQ+ individuals are not as tolerated as they might be in a city like Tel Aviv.
[Chris] - Finally, Erika, I wanted to ask about traveling to other areas outside of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. What sort of things should people keep in mind?
[Erika] - One nice thing about travel in Israel is it's not a very large country and the distances are not too great. So you can cover a lot of ground in a short period of time. It's really just knowing if there are any considerations, which can include checkpoints if you're travelling from point A to point B.
The infrastructure, the roads are quite good and there's a good rail infrastructure in place. Melissa and I both used the train service to return to Ben Gurion airport and it was very easy to manage and an easy journey.
[Chris] - How important is it to be able to have a flexible itinerary?
[Erika] - I had originally planned to travel from west Jerusalem to Ramallah and then to assess Route 60, stopping in Nablus and Jenin, before proceeding to exit the West Bank via the Jalama border crossing. The morning that I was going to set out for this journey I was apprised by our information analysis team that had been scanning developments in locations overnight, and they notified me that overnight there had been some clashes that took place in Ramallah. This included gunfire from the Israeli defence forces and also some Molotov cocktails that were being thrown by Palestinian residents. The incident had calmed down significantly by the early morning. And so as I considered my journey to Ramallah, I decided that it should be safe to progress to Ramallah. And when I got to Ramallah, I was meeting with our credentialed security partner, who was the perfect person to talk to at that moment because he was able to provide additional guidance on my onward journey to Nablus and Jenin. And it was a really helpful conversation to understand what are considerations given that there have been repeated clashes in in these locations, it's become more of a regular occurrence and understanding what would be the risk to an international traveller that was doing that movement. Really the consideration is that most of this violence that has taken place takes place overnight. And I was doing my movement during daylight hours, which was a safer time to conduct the movement. And I was doing the movement with ground transportation provided by our credentialed security partner, who was with a local driver who really understood the environment and understood the tensions that might flare up, which didn't during the course of our movement.
So when we look at advice for travelling within the West Bank best practice, you know if there are areas where there could be heightened tensions to monitor that really closely, it may be necessary to defer travel during escalated tensions, but otherwise to make sure you're up to date on developments and receiving the right guidance and local support to be able to do those movements safely and understanding the local environment. One recommendation that we have if travelling to sensitive locations in West Bank is to do those movements in daylight and return to locations such as Ramallah, overnighting there, and then kind of proceeding if you need to do multiple days going out and back using Ramallah as the base for overnighting.
[Chris] - Okay, Erika, Melissa, thanks so much for all your advice and analysis.
[Erika] - My pleasure. Thank you, Chris.
[Melissa] - Yeah, thanks Chris.
[Chris] - Well that's all for now, but just a reminder that you'll be able to access all the latest information and updates on the situation in Israel and the Palestinian Territories from our website - www.internationalsos.com.
And from there you can find out about our global network of Assistance centres available to clients 24/7. But until next time, thanks very much for listening and goodbye.