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End of the “Israeli stamps” issue?

2 April 2013

israelroadsignFor years, Israeli passport stamps have bedevilled “Western” tourists visiting the Middle East. It seems, though, that a new Israeli policy – apparently only just launched – could signal more freedom (for some) to move around the region.

[NOTE: All of this applies only to holders of "Western" passports who are exempt from applying for Israeli tourist visas (full list here). Citizens of other countries must apply, pay a fee and sometimes wait for official clearance. However, Israel is known to discriminate against Western tourists of Arab or Muslim origin at its points of entry, and also severely restricts the movement of Palestinians into and out of the West Bank and Gaza – they cannot use Tel Aviv airport, for instance. Hold that in mind as you read on...]

The problem:

I explain the original problem in detail here.

In a nutshell, many Arab and Muslim countries refuse entry to people who show evidence of a visit to Israel. “Evidence” mostly means Israeli passport stamps, but it can also mean Egyptian or Jordanian stamps from the crossing-points into/out of Israel.

The ban means that, apart from Egypt, Jordan and Morocco – who don’t care – if your travels include almost any other country in the region you either have to construct a touring itinerary so you visit Israel last, or you have to do a complicated (and expensive) bit of backtracking through a certain border post where, thanks to a piece of bureaucratic doublethink, your passport usually remains free of stamps.

For years (decades!) Western travellers have meekly asked Israeli immigration officials not to stamp their passport, but – as has happened to me – officials have been known to cheerfully “forget” and bang a stamp in anyway. And then shrug. For me that’s not such a big deal. For someone, say, living in Dubai, such a stamp could mean separation from family, property and livelihood, and massive added expense and worry in obtaining a new passport and reconfirming immigration status.

The solution?

I was just in Israel again – entering and leaving through Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. I asked the official not to stamp my passport, but this time he told me there’s been a new policy in the last “couple of months” and they’ve stopped stamping passports altogether. Instead he quickly scanned my passport and issued me with this:

israelimmigfront

It’s the usual B2 tourist visa, but on an electronically printed slip of paper, which includes my name, nationality, photo (copied from my passport photo), date and so on. My thumb conceals a serial reference number and my passport number, and I’ve obscured the barcode. You’ll spot that Arabic, one of Israel’s official languages, is noticeably missing here.

This is the back of the slip:

israelimmigback

There was no rubber-stamping at all. I kept the slip in my passport, and when I left the country the passport official returned it to me, again without stamping (she date-stamped my airline boarding card, that was all).

Is this a universal policy, or only at Ben Gurion airport? I don’t know, and I’ve not been able to source any official comment either way. The last time I passed through Israeli immigration was in December 2012, when I crossed the northern Jordan River bridge. Back then they were stamping – are they still doing so? Maybe someone could add a comment below to tell me.

And what happens if you are granted entry on a B2 visa, but with restrictions – excluded from PA areas, or restricted to PA only, or on a limited time validity (less than the standard 3 months)? Do they stamp then, or issue a printed slip? I don’t know.

If this turns out to be a universal policy, applied at every entry point, to every “Western” (i.e. visa-exempt) tourist, it opens up (for those people at least) the possibility of guaranteed free movement around the Middle East. You still need to be careful not to pick up tell-tale Egyptian and Jordanian exit/entry stamps, but if you know your passport will definitely remain clear of Israeli stamps, it’s one less thing to worry about on a complicated border-hopping tour through the region.

If anyone can shed more light, please feel free to add a comment.

UPDATE: It seems I was right, and there has been a policy change. One of the most experienced local travel companies, operating cross-border in Jordan and Palestine for many decades, has contacted me to point out a newly revised section on the website of one of their subsidiary firms. Their information corroborates my original post.

 

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43 Comments leave one →
  1. 2 April 2013 4.00pm

    Can’t add more recent info than you already have, but I did have to turn myself into a pretzel on my last visit to avoid the situation you describe. Hope it’s changed!

  2. 2 April 2013 4.01pm

    Sounds tricky, Lynette :)

  3. 2 April 2013 4.24pm

    That is interesting. When I went to Isreal about 4 years ago we also went to Jordan, Egypt and Morocco on that trip. We didn’t go to Syria due to the stamp and I regret not going there every day.

    I went to Cuba about 10 years ago and they did the same thing with the card. There was no evidence that I was in Cuba, just an exit and entry stamp in Guatemala mysteriously 14 days apart. If Israel adopts that it would make it a lot easier to visit.

  4. 2 April 2013 7.49pm

    As far as I can understand it, its the policy of Arab countries, discriminating against those wishing to visit Israel that causes the problem. Israel allows people with visas from, say, Iraq or Syria, yet Iraq and Syria refuse entry. So they are to blame, aren’t they?

  5. Ronni Ishaky permalink
    2 April 2013 8.46pm

    I’m not sure that ‘blame’ is really the appropriate word. It is what it is and the information is valuable. To add to Michael’s comment, I also believe that one can come in to Israel with a Lebanese stamp, but it can be problematic for them to go the other way round with Israeli stamp. Since I’m a tour guide in Israel, I’m interested in the subject as I sometimes have visitors who have been traveling in other countries in the M East looking for advice. Thanks for the article Matthew.

  6. 3 April 2013 9.41am

    Thanks for stopping by here, Jeff.

    Michael, I’m sure you’ll agree there’s a difference between a government making its own legal decisions about who to admit – and, understandably, choosing to bar all those who declare a visit to a hostile state – and a government singling out certain individuals on the basis of their ethnicity, religion, appearance or name. One is a legal right; the other is odious discrimination.

    Israel chooses not to formally bar those who have visited Iraq, Syria or Lebanon. That is its prerogative. (Though just try waltzing through Ben Gurion immigration showing those stamps…)

    Iraq, Syria and Lebanon (and others) choose to bar those who have visited Israel. That, too, is their prerogative.

    Ronni – it’s not just ‘problematic’ to try and enter Lebanon with an Israeli stamp; if the immigration official sees the stamp – and they examine every page closely, for exactly this reason – it is impossible. After all, the two countries are at war.

  7. ronni ishaky permalink
    3 April 2013 10.51am

    Thanks for that.

  8. 3 April 2013 3.41pm

    Well, Matthew, the Israeli policy of strict screening of incoming visitors is an unfortunate security necessity. The Arab policy of refusing entry is a punishment – “you visited Israel? How dare you!”

    And I don’t really understand the discrimination remark – what do you mean exactly?

  9. 3 April 2013 4.01pm

    “Unfortunate security necessity”? Come on, Michael. It’s like this:

    Israel’s policy punishes individuals, singling them out for special treatment on the basis of their looks, their background or their beliefs, regardless of what they have (or have not) done.

    The Arab countries, by contrast, take the view that people who declare openly they have visited a hostile state represent a threat.

    Their policy is based on what you have done. Israel’s is based on who you are.

    One is discriminatory and prejudicial to human rights. One isn’t.

  10. 3 April 2013 9.25pm

    Last month I passed through Taba, Egypt to Israel and being my first time, I asked them not to stamp my passport. The official looked at me suspiciously and asked me why I didn’t want a stamp in my passport. Then she smiled and said they don’t stamp the books and gave me a slip of paper similar to yours. Good point about the exit stamps out of the country though. To a keen eye looking for it, it’s obvious you went to Israel even without an Israeli stamp.

  11. 4 April 2013 7.02am

    I’ve nothing really to contribute, but shall be most interested to follow this. But of course, it doesn’t “solve” the problem, with the stamps from an adjoining country giving everything away. This has always been the situation, since these stamps are (were!) checked carefully by Syrian and Lebanese immigration.

  12. 4 April 2013 2.38pm

    Many thanks, xpat – I also get the suspicious looks, too.

    Ruth, you’re right – as I say in the original post – but (if true) it does remove one element of uncertainty, at least. Thanks again.

  13. sig permalink
    17 July 2013 8.18pm

    Was the same this year in april. No stamp at Ben Gurion airport but at Taba border crossing they stamp (israeli as well as jordan stamp)

  14. 21 July 2013 2.59am

    Reblogged this on empolitic.

  15. 21 July 2013 5.50pm

    This is definitely an improvement in policy!! – I experienced first hand the troubles of having my passport stamped.
    My question now is – will there still be trouble for a “Westerner”, visiting Israel, with stamps from the other Arab countries?

  16. 23 July 2013 9.34am

    Empolitic – do I understand correctly that you’ve had troubles in Arab countries because of an Israeli stamp in your passport? And did you have trouble entering Israel, with stamps from Arab countries?

    As far as I know, based on experiences of friends who visited Israel with and without me, having a stamp of an Arab country (for example, Morocco or Qatar) in your passport is not a big issue. In many cases, no extra questions were asked. Stamps from, for example, Lebanon, Syria or Sudan may lead to a more thorough security check, but do not mean you’ll be refused entry to Israel automatically. On the other hand, an Israeli stamp in your passport probably bars you from entering several countries – those mentioned above and others.

  17. bananapouch permalink
    16 August 2013 10.58am

    Finally this problem is gone – Matthew, the Arab countries policy was blatantly racist and anti-Semitic, given that they ban people who have visited the world’s only Jewish state. Not to mention the ridiculous aspect of this policy given that people still used multiple passports to get around this.

  18. 16 August 2013 4.15pm

    Thanks for the comment, banana.

    The policy of refusing entry to people who have visited Israel is neither racist nor anti-Semitic: it is not based on who the individual traveller is (their ethnicity, or their religion), but rather on what they have done – they have visited a country with which the refusing country is either at war or has withheld diplomatic relations.

    Israel’s immigration policy, by contrast, profiles travellers on the basis of their ethnicity and/or their religion.

    One is discriminatory and prejudicial to human rights. One isn’t.

  19. 29 August 2013 7.05am

    MATTHEW, your way of thinking is completely backwards.

  20. 29 August 2013 8.55am

    Thank you, ON. I’ll take that as a compliment.

  21. 9 September 2013 4.22pm

    Matthew,
    Your sympathies for the, Arab Cause (which comes through in your articles) not withstanding, there are a lot of people who are alive today who would not be so otherwise, because of Israel’s, “odious” policies of profiling. For all I know I’m one of them.

  22. 21 September 2013 2.23pm

    Oh thank goodness… it’s bad enough that I get profiled for having an Arabic last name, and it was quite a lengthy and rather ludricrous detainment, to be sure… at least now, when I visit, after getting a fresh passport, I won’t have to worry about not being able to visit other places. When I went last year, for the first time, I didn’t even get a chance to ask him not to stamp, he was so fast…and the damage was done. Thanks for the article, valuable info, and “your thinking” is completely sensible.

  23. 23 September 2013 9.20am

    Many thanks, Angela. Yes, let’s hope things are slightly easier.

  24. SDMan permalink
    3 December 2013 8.22pm

    To update on this, I was in Israel / Jordan in July, with an itinerary like:

    Enter Ben Guiron
    Aqaba crossing Israel –> Jordan
    Aqaba crossing Jordan –> Israel [RECEIVED ENTRY STAMP]
    Aqaba crossing Israel –> Jordan [RECEIVED EXIT STAMP]
    Allenby crossing Jordan –> Israel
    Exit Ben Gurion

    At no point did I ask them to stamp or not stamp my passport, although secretly I wanted a stamp.

  25. SDMan permalink
    3 December 2013 8.26pm

    After reading those comments, my own experience was that despite all those crossings (two of which were solo–and on the same day, had to return a f*(#@ing rental car–the rest with a female companion; I’m a guy) I never got profiled or even asked any questions except to confirm my first name. I have a US passport and am extremely ‘Aryan’ looking, but strangely also had two border control people ask if I was Jewish (I’m not; my name is very English also).

    I did feel bad for the Palestinians at the Allenby Crossing though. Tourists get to skip to the front of the line, while they wait the entire day (although it’s still about 2 hours even at tourist speed, vs. 8 for Palestinians).

  26. Seth permalink
    9 February 2014 8.26am

    Israel has the right to profile like they do. I don’t know why you’re making it sound like they don’t. Every country does it. It’s them trying to keep people safe by making their time more effective. They know what the majority of people look like who may be hostile to their country. Thy know the signs to look for of someone who is scared and sweating. The Arab countries on the other hand won’t let anyone in to their country, even if you are completely friendly. All because you’ve visited a country that the Arab countries don’t like due to the Jewish religion.

  27. 9 February 2014 10.56am

    @SDMan – thanks for your insights here, much appreciated.

    @Seth – the Israeli government has the right to do anything it likes within its own borders, as long as that stays within domestic and international law. I’m not saying Israel has no right, I’m saying their policies stink. Should discrimination on the basis of race or religion be legal? And, even if it is legal, is it right?

    As for ‘trying to keep people safe’, well, that depends on how you define ‘people’ (it’s not, for instance, intended to heighten the sensation of safety and security among Israel’s Palestinians: are they ‘people’?) and also how you define ‘safe’ (a nation that has to rely on racist discrimination to underpin domestic security is, I would suggest, a nation that is by definition unsafe).

    As for ‘scared and sweating’, we are not talking about profiling on the basis of behaviour. It is profiling on the basis of ethnicity.

    I don’t understand why you would want to defend it.

  28. Seth permalink
    9 February 2014 4.31pm

    Go ahead and tell me about the last time El Al or Ben Guion Airport had a terrorist attack. Oh that’s right. It’s been a long time. And I’m not talking about the sensation of safety among people. I’m talking about the safety among people. It works in keeping people safe and that can’t be argued. You and I both know that if Israel stopped the racial profiling the airport would be attacked tomorrow. I don’t u del stand how you can disagree with that.

  29. 16 February 2014 7.43pm

    I have an Israeli stamp from 2010. I want to fly into Amman this year for a Jordanian tour. Will I be prevented from entering because of the four-year old Israeli stamp?

  30. 17 February 2014 9.15am

    No. Jordan and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1994. Borders have been open since then. There are full diplomatic relations. You will not experience any difficulties at all.

  31. Richard permalink
    8 March 2014 9.21pm

    Passed through Taba/Eilat in Feb 2014 and the Israelis were issuing the paper permits and not stamping. The Egyptians still do stamp however, so this is still ‘evidence’ of a visit to Israel.

  32. 26 March 2014 8.31am

    Yep, exactly – that’s the issue.

  33. Rami permalink
    24 April 2014 3.07am

    I have a British passport with Palestinian origin,name and place of birth ,I plan to visit Palestine west bank this year via Israel ( Ben gurion airport ) do I need to be worry about my entry or needs to apply for visa to Israeli embassy before ??

  34. 24 April 2014 8.56am

    hi Rami, thanks for coming by. I don’t think you can apply to an Israeli embassy in advance for a tourist visa on a UK passport – and I don’t think it would help you anyway. Everything might be OK, but you just need to be prepared for long and difficult questioning at the airport before you fly (be there 3 hours ahead of departure), and again at the passport desk when you arrive. Be prepared to be pulled out of line and questioned separately in a back room out of sight, perhaps for many hours, and for Israeli officials to demand your passwords to unlock your phone/tablet and to access your email/social media accounts, and then to question you closely about the people you email with and what you have written online. Even if they let you in, be prepared for the same treatment when you depart.
    You might experience none of this. But you should be prepared for it.

  35. Rami permalink
    25 April 2014 1.44am

    Thank you for replying , but after reading that all I think better if I travel via Jordan , because I can understand the way you said (if they let you in ??) Mean my entry can be refuse ,and is my brother wedding gonna be this summer so its bit risk to do so.

  36. 25 April 2014 8.57am

    Thanks, Rami. Yes, it is a risk. But going in via Jordan doesn’t decrease the risk. It probably increases the risk: crossing the bridge is always difficult, complicated, time-consuming and expensive. I can’t advise you: it has to be your choice. They can refuse to let you in whatever you do. Or they can make it really difficult for you with questioning and searches, and then let you in. Or you might not get any trouble at all, and go straight through immigration.

  37. Steve permalink
    22 May 2014 3.09pm

    Most importantly for those of us who like passport stamps and other little souvenirs of where we’ve been, do you get to keep the B2 immigration slip when you leave Israel? Or do they confiscate it?

  38. 11 June 2014 3.20pm

    Nope – you can keep it, if you want.

  39. danny permalink
    29 July 2014 4.04pm

    I love passport stamps. So, my concern is opposite to that of most of you here: Can I get a passport stamp from Israel if I want one?

  40. 3 August 2014 12.01pm

    It’s a good question. I have no idea. Since the whole process is now electronic, perhaps not.

  41. 15 August 2014 10.09pm

    Hi guys ! When going to Israel using land border crossings, please don’t forget that the stamp you get from the Jordanian or Egyptian authorities, state the exact location where you cross the border. Lebanon or KSA wouldn’t let you in when they see you that your passport has the Wadi Araba crossing for example, between Jordan and Israel. (Or the Taba Crossing) Even without having Israeli stamps ! You therefore better request a new passport, just to be on the safe side.

  42. 23 September 2014 3.08pm

    All true – that’s why the important phrase is “evidence of a visit to Israel” – ‘evidence’ doesn’t only mean Israeli stamps.

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