Terrorist attacks, bombings and warfare are, sadly, as much part of Israel's image, as the Western Wall and other sacred places. Our families were mildly concerned before our travel, urging us to stay safe and out of trouble. But was it warranted? For the most part, we felt very safe and saw less visible security than elsewhere.
I expected the Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv to be heavily guarded, being the main gateway to Israel and the most natural spot to wreak havoc via a terrorist attack. Surprisingly, it has very little noticeable security beyond what you encounter at any major airport in the world. On arrival two plain-looking security guards watched us as we were disembarking the airplane. Then there were a few officers around the exit from the baggage claim, occasionally screening passengers. Uniformed guards were strolling the terminal here and there, but were barely noticeable.
There's a bit more security for departures. The airport driveway passes through a quick security check, where a guard simply greeted us and asked a few simple questions, like where we had stayed in Israel or where we had been to. Our actual answers mattered less than our behavior, in particular whether we were acting nervously.
Then there was more questioning just before the check-in desks, where we were asked whether we had packed our luggage ourselves and whether we were carrying anything for anyone.
That's it. Overall, nothing like the assault-weapon-bearing soldiers I saw at various European airports, notably in Belgium. Or like the army of security personnel standing at the exit from the EuroStar train area at London's St Pancras, staring intently at every passenger. (One of these stopped me and started asking questions as to my reason for coming to London.)
The western heavy-screening-guns-everywhere approach is what experts call “security theater”, which works more to calm the population than to make anything really safe. What the Israelis do is actual security—trying to prevent acts of terrorism long before they really happen and far away from their intended targets.
Yom Ha'atzmaut, Israel's 70th anniversary of independence, would've been a prime opportunity for terrorists to disrupt. The official celebrations we joined at Rabin square were secured by cutting off the area from car traffic by blocking incoming streets with large tourist buses, making it impossible for any car to ram its way into the area. Additionally, there was a very brief bag check at the entrance to the square and a bit of armed police on the edges of the crowd.
Jerusalem was another story. Here the military was ubiquitous in every area of the city we've been to, notably in the Muslim district of the Old City. With the city being perhaps the most disputed strip of land in the whole region, and the most visited, it's easy to understand why security here is tightest.
Not all of the soldiers we've seen were on active duty. Many of them looked off duty or in transit. Nonetheless, they always carried their assault weapons, even when sitting in cafes, chatting with friends, sipping drinks, eating, with the guns resting on their laps. An interesting, and somewhat discomforting sight.
Many civilians carry weapons too. Often in the open. One of the guys unloading a delivery at our local store, had a pistol stuffed behind his belt. Another guy was strolling Jerusalem with his family and kids, also openly carrying a pistol. It's likely that many more people had fire weapons on them, we just didn't see those. Apparently there's about 1 gun licensed for every 30 people in Israel, which is a lot, if still notably less than in the USA.
So, if you're wondering whether Israel is a safe place to visit, we'd say it is. Incidents these days seem to be few and far between. The country has perfected its security measures, plus they somewhat calmed their relationships with groups and communities that caused the most trouble in the recent decades. Security personnel is noticeable across the country, but far less so than we were expecting, and even less than we saw in countries considered much safer. Just make sure you're comfortable with the sight of weapons large and small, carried in the open by people with and without uniforms.