Off the Beaten Track: 'Is it safe to come?'

Travel expert Joe Yudin gives his insight into the Gaza conflict and why it's important to visit Sderot.

Joe Yudin Israel 311 (photo credit: Joe Yudin)
Joe Yudin Israel 311
(photo credit: Joe Yudin)
Joe Yudin owns Touring Israel, a company that specializes in “Lifestyle” tours of Israel.
"Is it safe to come to Israel right now?"
This is the eternal question. Almost every tourist who has ever inquired about an Israel tour with me over the last 15 years or so has asked me the same question. It's a concern for those people watching the news from afar and I do take these concerns seriously; however the very short answer to the question is "Yes."
For those people who are very nervous, for their "peace of mind" we stay away from perceived "dangerous" areas such as the border areas of the Gaza Strip due to indiscriminate and unpredictable Palestinian rocket fire. The chances of getting hit by a taxi while crossing the street in downtown Manhattan are however much greater than getting injured while visiting an Israeli village on the border. Life in these areas, day in and day out though, can be terrifying however. If a tourist is interested in going to see these areas I will take them, and be happy to do so.
There is always much in the news about the Palestinian territory of Gaza and the IDF "siege" on this heavily populated but small strip of land wedged between the Egyptian Sinai desert, Mediterranean Sea and the State of Israel. This area is roughly twenty-five miles long and seven miles wide with a reported population of 1.5 million people. If you believe most of the popular news media this densely populated, extremely poor entity's problems start and end with the "illegal" blockade by the IDF, but the conflict with the Palestinians is more complex than that.
Photo; Joe YudinPhoto; Joe Yudin
Drive south on Route 4 from Tel Aviv. Pass the Ashdod Interchange. The next interchange is Ad Alom, (meaning Until Here in English), named so because the Egyptian military was stopped at this point during the War of Independence in 1947-48. From this junction continue 23 kilometers to Yad Mordicai Junction and turn right. Follow the signs to the historical site overlooking the Gaza Strip. It's not always open these days so call ahead at (08)-672-0559.
On November 29, 1947, UN Resolution 181 called for the partition of what was left of Palestine (the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was created from two thirds of Palestine by the British in 1921) into two states: One Arab and one Jewish. The Jews of Palestine rejoiced, the Arabs vowed to destroy the Jewish presence in Palestine. Indeed the Arab representatives at the UN vote declared the resolution "invalid" (Morris, Benny, 1948, p. 63) and all Arab governments and leaders in the Arab world across the board started to prepare for war. The Arab League Political Committee instructed its member's states to "open the gates…to receive children, women and old people [from Palestine] and to support them in the event of disturbances breaking out in Palestine and compelling some of its Arab population to leave the country" (Morris, p.67).
Just before the UN vote, the leader of the Egyptian delegation to the UN declared that "the lives of 1,000,000 Jews in Muslim countries would be jeopardized by the establishment of a Jewish state" (Morris, p.70). Indeed between 1947 and 1964 over 800,000 Jews fled for their lives to Israel from the Muslim world leaving their homes, businesses and wealth behind. The day after the UN vote on November 29, 1947, Palestinian Arabs took to the streets to riot and attack Jewish civilians all over the former Ottoman district of Palestine. In the week following the vote 62 Jews and 32 Arabs lay dead. The Hagana mobilized to defend their people as the more militant Irgun and Lehi began reprisal raids against the Arab forces in their civilian garb. Already by the end of March 1948, before the Jews had declared independence, Arabs were fleeing the coastal plain of Palestine and the area between Jaffa and Egypt was fast becoming flooded with Arab refugees. In some cases there had been Jewish intimidation of Arab villagers to leave, but for the most part it was due to the Arab leadership and abandonment by the wealthy class of Arabs that led to this mass exodus (Morris 92-95). The political and military leader of the Palestinians, Jamal Husseini, told the UN in April of 1948 that, "The [Jews said] that they were not the attackers, that the Arabs had begun the fighting. We did not deny this. We told the whole world that we were going to fight (UN Security Council Official Records, S/Agenda/58, April 16, 1948, p. 19)". As Egypt prepared its forces along the Gaza border, this area became a magnet for Palestinian refugees fleeing the coming full scale war between Israel and its neighboring states.
Photo; Joe YudinPhoto; Joe Yudin
After Israel's declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948, the Egyptian air force bombed Tel Aviv and on May 19 the Egyptian military attacked Kibbutz Yad Mordicai from the Gaza Strip. For six days the battle raged between the kibbutz members and several dozen Hagana fighters, before the kibbutz finally fell. These six days were key to enabling the IDF troops to regroup and stop the Egyptians at Ad Alom. There is a wonderful prerecorded presentation at the battlefield, as well as an Egyptian tank, trenches, bunkers and weapons displayed all overlooking the Gaza Strip.
Take Route 34 south and pass Nir Am, continuing to Sha'ar Hanegev Junction. Turn right on route 232 towards Kibbutz Mefalsim. Pass the kibbutz and make your first right onto a small road and follow the signs to the parking lot of the Hetz Hashahor or "Black Arrow" Monument. Park and walk over to the monument overlooking the Gaza Strip. You are about a mile from the 1950 armistice lines with Egypt, now designated as the border with Hamas controlled Gaza.
In 1949, the Egyptian military controlled the Gaza Strip and began organizing terror cells made up of Palestinian refugees. These terrorists called "Fedayeen" would launch attacks against Israelis often ambushing buses, farmers, schools and other civilian and military targets. There was no border fence at the time. Between 1951 and 1956, 400 Israelis were killed and 900 more wounded in Fedayeen attacks. After a massacre of civilians in the nearby city of Rehovot in 1955, the IDF began reprisal raids dubbed "Black Arrow" by its paratrooper units. Each monument here represents a raid on the Fedayeen and it's worth playing the audio for a full explanation.
Return to the main road and head east on Route 232 returning to Sha'ar Hanegev Junction. Turn left on Route 34 and make your first right. Make your way to the Sderot Media Center for
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an organized private tour of the town. They are located at 1 Hahistadrut Street. Call for a reservation: (07) 730-02576 or check out their website at Sderot has come under fire from rocket attack by the Hamas controlled Gaza Strip ever since Israel withdrew in 2005. Its inhabitants had to adapt to this new life and every home, school and playground has been retrofitted with very unique bunkers and shelters. The Media Center will take you on a tour of these places as well as to the police station which has a collection of thousands of spent rockets. They will also introduce you to Sderot's brave residents who will tell you their heart-wrenching stories.
Joe Yudin became a licensed tour guide in 1999. He completed his Master’s degree at the University of Haifa in the Land of Israel Studies and is currently studying toward a PhD.