The last stop of our Middle East itinerary was Jerusalem & Bethlehem. So many of you have asked about my experience traveling to Palestine (I myself had a million questions before making the decision to go) so I wanted to write it down before I begin to forget details.
Before getting into my long winded personal experience, let me just lay down a foundation of things many of you have already DMed me about. I know they’ll become FAQs so lets get it out of the way haha. I got a ton of different perspectives from my friends ahead of time (consisting of South Asians, Arabs, Palestinians, & Jews) and I researched online obsessively so I want to bullet out what I learned before we made the decision to go. Please keep in mind that my perspective & experience is that of a South Asian American Muslim (it matters!) and I am NO expert. Please look into everything and do your own research as well!
- Officially Israel does not care what stamps you have in your passport or where you were born. Could they subject you to being arbitrarily detained & questioned for hours? YES but the advice across the board was to just answer all questions honestly and don’t show any attitude even if provoked.
- Typically solo (male) travelers are the ones seen as “suspicious” and are given a hard time, families are seen as a unit and have a much easier experience. My friend and her husband, both South Asian British, traveled in separately and were both held up for hours (him longer than her, eek).
- But I was told being non-Palestinian & non-Arab would be an advantage for us while traveling as a family. My Jordanian American friend has visited numerous times and said it always took hours + tons of harassment.
- Ah the concern of having an Israeli stamp in your passport:
- Israel (generally) does not stamp passports anymore, they give you a visa card that you keep in your passport book during your stay. To be extra sure, just request that they do not stamp your passport beforehand.
- However, you need to make sure that you do not get an exit stamp in your passport from Jordan when crossing by land, this would be the equivalent of having an Israeli stamp. Just request that they stamp a piece of paper instead of your book, which I believe has become pretty standard anyways.
- Since you are not getting an exit stamp, you will be fine re-entering Jordan on the same single entry visa you got when you first arrived in Jordan
- There are three 3 border crossings from Jordan: the closest from Amman is the King Hussein / Allenby Bridge (not to be confused with Sheikh Hussein bridge to the north), this is the only border that crosses into the Palestinian Territories.
- This is also the most direct route from Amman, a little less than an hour to the border and another 45-60 minutes to Jerusalem. Very close!!
- Traveling via King Hussein / Allenby does NOT bypass Israel even though it connects to the West Bank. Israel controls all of the borders but they’ve stopped stamping passports anyways so no worries!
- You cannot drive (yourself, via taxi, bus, etc) across the border. If you plan to cross independently (without a tour company) like we did, know that you will need to be dropped off on the Jordanian side and picked up / hire a taxi on the opposite side.
- Upon arrival at the border you can be processed as normal or pay extra for a VIP service to expedite everything. The VIP service from Jordan was about $115ish per person – you will cut all the lines, wait in a lounge, and be driven across in a private car as soon as you’re all clear. If you take the bus its 5 JD per person and 1.5 JD per piece of luggage, I believe it leaves every hour once its full.
- There is an exit fee of 10 JD per person.
- I couldn’t find any information about an entry/visa fee at Israel border control and was anxious about not having enough cash. I don’t remember paying anything after crossing but don’t quote me on that! I did see an ATM on both sides though!
My main concern was safety, not all of the logistical stuff above, and I am actually dumbfounded with how the media paints things out to be!! Of course anything can happen anywhere, and that’s what all of my friends would start with before telling me how amazing the holy land is and nothing like the west makes it out to be; just don’t plan to go if its a time of high political tension obviously. I was surprised to hear the same experience consistently across the board.. no one ever felt unsafe and my mom-friends who went without their babies would absolutely go back with them today. My Palestinian friends said that the clashes tend to happen in the more rural, village-type areas and that the biggest threat for us is being overfed LOL! All of the negatives consisted of being incessantly questioned, screened at checkpoints, or given a bunch of religious tests before entering Dome of the Rock, al-Aqsa, etc.
Phew! That was a ton of info but I think it covers all the bases! Really, once you get to the border its all really self explanatory but its so helpful to go in confidently with as much background knowledge as possible.
Road to the Holy Land
The entire tail end of our trip was very last minute and spontaneous. While I had it mentally planned to visit Jerusalem over our last two days, nothing was booked! Between my daughter falling ill for about a week and then having no wifi in Petra & Wadi Rum… I couldn’t research or plan a thing! We left Wadi Rum early to get back to civilization; Waseem & I both work remotely, I had anxiety over having no communication with our housesitter, and I needed to get our return flight booked, so we packed up all our stuff in the spur of the moment to drive back to Amman.
No matter how I sliced our dates we had to head to the border on Friday or Saturday, the day of prayer & rest for Muslims & Jews respectively; aka shortened/uncertain bridge operating hours. In classic Irene fashion it was the worst timing to go but we had to work with the cards dealt. Additionally, I didn’t want to go to al-Aqsa on Friday, crowds make me nervous away from home and my friend warned me about stricter checkpoints and more harassment on Fridays. We had our daughter with us so I was taking no chances.
We planned to leave our hotel in Amman at 8am on Saturday to get to the border by 9. We hoped to spend the whole day in Bethlehem to visit Jesus’ birthplace (peace be upon him), stay the night, and head to Jerusalem in the morning to spend the day before heading back to Amman in the evening to fly home.
We stowed our luggage at our Amman hotel and just took an overnight backpack & diaper bag to travel as light as possible. It took us longer than planned to get on the road and we arrived on the Jordanian side of the border via Uber at 10:40am. We were told that the border was closed without any real information or explanation, they just kept saying to come back tomorrow. I saw hoards of western tourists arriving back and stopped a couple to ask if they knew anything. It was daylight savings in Jordan that day so it was actually 11:40am on the other side and they were closing at noon.. alsjdflaksjdf. Technically we should have still been allowed to pass but from what I hear, its all very arbitrary and inconsistent. I was devastated and my husband told our driver to drive to the north border (Sheikh Hussein) since they were open until 8.
After several weeks of research I just knew there was another reason Allenby was the best option to cross other than it being the closest & most direct route, I just couldn’t remember why because I never considered taking the others. I got ahold of @experiencejordanadventures on IG and they really saved me by staying on DM to answer my questions & look into things for me until i was settled (this is not sponsored – THANK YOU JULIE). From my understanding:
- King Hussein / Allenby bridge has a different status than the other crossings because Jordan doesn’t fully recognize it as a border between itself and the Palestinian Territories.
- The other land borders may or may not stamp your passport, they are not as consistent. If you do get stamped, you will need to get another Visa to re-enter Jordan.
- You can not get a Jordanian visa at King Hussein / Allenby on arrival! You must get it beforehand (or travel via a different border) and that was not a risk I was willing to take.
- There was also a chance that they would require that I exit and re-enter Jordan from the same land border, another risk I was not willing to take. She said the worst case scenario would be going through Israeli customs, paying exit fees, getting bussed to the Jordanian side to only be sent back and take a taxi 2 hours north to Sheikh Hussein. NO THANK YOU!
I immediately asked the driver to stop driving north and just take us back to Amman. I swear I cried the whole way I was so sad, disappointed, and quite frankly.. exhausted. I was fully ready to give up but my husband assured me that we could pull off a day trip the next morning before our flight back to LA, he knew how important this was to me.
Palestine or Bust
I woke up on Sunday just feeling better than the day before. The vibes were better lol I just had a good feeling about our day ahead. We were fully rested, bellies full, & things were sorted. Our first attempt was after I pulled an all nighter packing, booking return flights, researching/booking our one night stay in Bethlehem, and got on the road with no breakfast. I definitely wasn’t set up for success and I believe there was a bigger reason for not being able to go the day before.
I called an Uber and we were on the road at 7:30am and it took exactly one hour to get to the station. Sunday is the first day of the work-week btw so an hour in morning rush hour isn’t bad! We walked directly to the “station”, placed our backpack on the x-ray machine and were quickly ushered to VIP even though we didn’t ask for it. I’m sure its an upsell and assumptions were made about us with our US passports. They sat me and Iya in a waiting area and offered me Arabic Tea while they took Waseem to a private room. I assumed they were just going to ask him a bunch of questions and then ask me the same questions. Within minutes I saw a push notification for $230ish and knew they rushed him into the VIP service lol!! They didn’t charge my daughter but I’m not sure what their policy is. I didn’t want to get the VIP service since it wasn’t busy at all but I ended up being grateful for the efficiency since our time was so short. We paid the 10 JD exit fee each & they did the exit stamp on a slip of paper not our passports yay! I totally forgot to make the request and freaked out when i heard the stamp lol! We were immediately led to a private van and they drove us across the bridge, stopping at a few check Israeli checkpoints where they took our passports and looked in our van. Upon arrival at the Israeli “station” we were able to cut the line (thanks VIP!) and went through airport-like security. They held on to our passports while we waited in a lounge where they offered us snacks & refreshments. Everyone was very friendly with us and in under 30 minutes we were cleared to move forward to another counter. The man there asked Waseem a few questions like “do you speak Arabic?” “What’s your father’s name?” “Does your wife speak Arabic?” lol which he could have asked me directly but *shrugs*. It was obvious they were checking if we’re Arabs and trying to figure out why Waseem was born in Saudi Arabia, but it was just a few questions and we were all done. FAR from the harassment I was expecting and mentally prepared for, yay!! From start to finish with the VIP service we were through in a little over an hour. I think it would have taken 2+ hours otherwise with no comfy lounge for Iya to make a mess in lol. If we were staying longer I would have saved the cash and waited but it was well worth it in this case of only having a half day to see as much as possible.
We walked outside to the taxi line and it was a fixed fee of about $100 usd to go to Jerusalem so I was open to doing a shared taxi instead (which is also a flat rate per person), it would have taken much longer so to save time we just paid our taxi fee and were on our way.
I don’t know what I was expecting to see while driving through the West Bank… Chaos? For it to be scary?? I really don’t know but I hate that we develop these ignorant pre-conceived notions, all the more reason to travel, meet people, and open our damn minds. It was all so beautiful with rolling stone hills & lush palms. I wish we had time to visit Jericho where Prophet Musa (Moses) is buried at Maqam al-Nabi Musa. The region is just dripping with incredible sites & landmarks, if you’re a follower of an Abrahamic faith the experience of walking the footsteps of our beloved prophets is otherworldly subhanAllah. I grew up in private Christian school, attending church every week, singing in choir, & decorating nativity scenes around Christmas. While school felt incredibly isolating being the only non-Christian kid in my class and like… 1 of 3 people of color, I’ve grown to really love and appreciate all of the stories I learned of our shared prophets and beloved figures (like Mary) growing up. I wish we had time to visit everything during our stay but I had to be realistic; I planned to spend most of the day in Jerusalem’s Old City & the al Aqsa compound, and then spend a couple hours at the Church of the Nativity (Jesus’ birthplace!) in Bethlehem before heading back to the border.
Our taxi driver pointed out the different cars as we drove – Israeli cars with yellow license plates, Palestinians with green plates. Palestinians are so restricted in their right to move and travel, I had an intense feeling of guilt crossing the checkpoint into Jerusalem. Why was it so easy for me (they didn’t even check our passports) but literally impossible for those whose homeland it actually is?? Its because of their willingness to hold on that we even have a Palestine, an al-Aqsa, a Dome of the Rock to visit. The ummah has not forgotten our Palestinian brothers & sisters and we are indebted to their sacrifice. If we have the means, I think its essential for us to make the effort to visit and support the Palestinian people and their economy. I pray for a free Palestine ♥
As mentioned, we zoomed through the checkpoint into Jerusalem.. our driver and the guard cracked some joke and we moved on without even needing to show our passports. He dropped us off near Damascus Gate and we were off into the Old City! It was all cobblestone with stairs every now and then but still doable with a stroller if you need one! just make sure you take one that is easy to lift. We had our Silvercross Jet stroller on this trip and use the lap bar as another handle so we can lift it together.
Man, make sure you pull out cash ahead of time. We wasted so much time trying to find a working ATM!! Nothing worked and no one took credit card!! Everyone in the old city was super nice & helpful though and its interesting to note that I found shop/restaurant owners here to be the least aggressive in all of my travels around the Middle East & Asia – honestly SOOO relieving lol it can get so stressful and overwhelming otherwise. Turkey and Bali were the worst lol.
Waseem found a currency exchange place and exchanged the Saudi Riyals he had left — just enough for lunch lol! My friend advised me ahead of time to throw on an abaya before entering the Muslim Quarter or we could get grilled with religious tests to prove we’re Muslims. The Israeli guards asked if we’re Muslims while we were looking for an ATM because they thought we were trying to enter so I made sure to put it on before we actually were entering. We grabbed lunch, had the best hummus EVER, and started heading up to Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount). They asked if we were Muslim again before entering the grounds and a simple “yes” was enough. Before entering Dome of the Rock, an Israeli guard aggressively and impatiently asked me to recite the shahada to confirm that I am a Muslim. A bit off-putting but it was a matter of 2 seconds and probably the only rude encounter from our day trip! My friend once visited wearing pants and they had her recite a few surahs on top of the shahada lol.
Waseem was waiting outside with Iya & our stuff while I prayed really quickly but saw them enter out of the corner of my eye; Iya was crying for me so the guards softened up with them and offered to watch our things :)! We walked around inside & touched the stone, a local started chatting up Waseem and wanted to take us to al-Aqsa (Qibly mosque) just a few minute walk away. He took us down to the basement and showed us around before we had to figure out our next move to make it to Bethlehem early enough.
My only real negative of the day was not having arranged a driver ahead of time, the travel contact I had didn’t have any available drivers and we just had no time to thoroughly prepare. It wasn’t a huge deal, it just got expensive getting around. We walked back down into the old city to find Lion’s Gate to exit, I was trying to get an Uber while we walked but everyone kept cancelling. Perhaps they didn’t want to / weren’t allowed to cross into the West Bank? I’m still not entirely clear on the rules :/ Upon exiting there was a taxi line and the drivers started soliciting their services, one offered to drive us to Church of the Nativity, wait for us, and then drive us to the border for 700 shekels (about $200). Our driver in Jordan warned us ahead of time that it’d be ridiculously expensive getting around. We didn’t have much of a choice so we were off!
In more classic Irene bad timing, we visited the Church of the Nativity on a Sunday so it was packed!!! There’s no way we would have been able to wait hours to get down to the grotto but I am so grateful to even have been there. I learned SO much and sang so many hymns of Jesus’ birth (PBUH) in private school that it was so surreal to actually be there. After spending a little time walking around we found our driver and were on our way back to the border. It took just under an hour from Bethlehem to the border station, we arrived right before 5pm. Note that you have to take a taxi with a yellow (Israeli) plate to get all the way through, Palestinian taxis can only take you as far as the gate/checkpoint and then you’d have to switch cars even though its in the West Bank. Sigh.
I read ahead of time that going back into Jordan is a much faster process so we didn’t opt for the VIP service this time. The station was practically empty and we had plenty of time to make our flight. They asked Waseem the standard “do you speak Arabic?” “What’s your father’s name?” “Do you have family in Jerusalem?” questions, we paid our exit fee (a little over 500 shekels total), and waited for the JETT bus. We got on with a few other Americans and waited forever to leave, I think we had to wait until 6. The process leading up to the bus was so fast so this was really annoying and our Jordanian driver wouldn’t stop txting me “hi” waiting for us LOL. The bus stopped at a checkpoint and they took all of our passports which we got back on the Jordanian side. We paid 5 JD each for the bus ride (I don’t think they charged Iya) and we were back! It took about an hour to get back to Amman — we grabbed dinner at the hotel, picked up our luggage, & were off to the airport. Note that there is no UberXL in Jordan, we ordered two UberX’s and went separately to the airport — still much cheaper than hiring a car service.
Literally 7:30am to 7:30pm; a very smooth & successful half day trip to Jerusalem & Bethlehem!! What an opportunity!
Full disclosure: the reason why our original plan was also short was because it took forever to convince my husband to go! He was worried about our safety which I understand but I put in a ton of time and did the research! I didn’t want to push it with “hey I booked 4 days in Palestine” after finally getting the ok lol! I have to brag and mention that he gushed today that he’s so proud of me for being bold in planning everything, being so adamant about taking my family to the holy land, and being so passionate with my “zest” for life (he said “josh” in Urdu lol). Our short stay smashed his misconceptions completely and he wishes we stayed longer (!!!). I hope I’ve done the same for you guys following along and if you get the opportunity to visit al-Aqsa please remember us in your duas! xo
I’d say let me know if you have any questions but I’ve literally spilled every nugget of info I have haha! Hope this was helpful and I’d love if you’d consider supporting these organizations: