Israelis can’t escape troubles in world travels

TEL AVIV, Israel — After three grueling years of compulsory service in the Israeli military, 21-year-old Arbel Altschuler is heading for some peace and quiet in what has become the most popular haven for thousands of recently discharged Israeli soldiers — India.

Even after last week’s deadly attacks in Mumbai, where the 171 killed included six people at a Jewish center, four of whom were Israelis, he says he’s undeterred, despite pleas from his parents to reconsider.

“I’m not looking for trouble,” he said. “But it’s not much different from what I am familiar with here.”

Accustomed to war and instability at home, Israelis have long looked overseas for an escape, earning them a reputation as among the most intrepid — and noticeable — world travelers.

For young men and women, a yearlong, post-army sojourn to the Far East has become so common it is seen almost as much a rite of passage as military service itself.

Bursting with machismo, recently discharged soldiers are notorious thrill-seekers, defiantly ignoring danger. The rough-and-tumble Israelis routinely sneak into the world’s toughest conflict zones, and there are frequent reports of travelers dying from drug abuse, bus plunges and mountain climbing accidents.

Early this week, Chinese authorities identified the body of a 23-year-old Israeli tourist who had been missing since June when he slipped off a cliff into a river while trekking in the Yunnan province.

“Guys are saying, ‘I just got out of Gaza, I’m not scared of this,'” said Matan Ben-Barak, 25, who just returned from India.

Israel, founded as a simple, agrarian society 60 years ago, has developed into a high-tech powerhouse of 7 million people and increasingly prosperous Israelis now travel everywhere around the world. Younger travelers are particularly fond of the Far East, which offers daring adventures and cheap accommodations.

The beaches of Goa, India, are so immersed with Israeli backpackers that restaurants offer Hebrew-language menus and some locals are familiar with Hebrew slang and jargon.

But with the recent unrest in India, the number of places safe for Israelis is rapidly shrinking.

Much of the Middle East and the Arab world is already off limits and the government warns that the Sinai Peninsula in neighboring Egypt has been infiltrated by al-Qaida. Even when traveling to safer venues, the government advises Israelis to keep a low profile.

Travel agents say parents and older travelers take Israel’s counterterrorism bureau’s travel advisories seriously, resulting in lower demand for exotic trips since the Mumbai attacks. However, they expect the drop to be temporary and say it may also be related to the looming recession.

One popular camping goods chain, “Maslul,” offers a thin instructional booklet alongside its supplies of hiking boots, camping gear and travel guides. The booklet, produced by Israel’s Foreign Ministry, provides emergency numbers around the world and tips on how to stay out of trouble.

Among the recommendations: Warnings against “highlighting your Israeli identity” and avoiding “prolonged stays at locations Israelis are known to frequent.”

This week, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said there was “no doubt” the attacks in Mumbai targeted Jewish institutions.

Jewish and Israeli targets have been struck before, most notably in the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Argentina, which killed 29 people, followed by an attack on a Buenos Aires Jewish center that killed 85 in 1994.

In recent years, Israelis have been killed in hotel bombings in Sinai and Mombasa, Kenya. During the 2002 attack in Kenya, attackers also fired a missile at an Israeli airliner but missed their target.

Even so, the perception that no place is safe doesn’t deter the young trekkers. Repeated warnings about the Sinai Desert go unheeded and thousands of Israelis visit the sandy desert during holidays.

“If it’s not attacks, it’s anti-Semitism. It’s not safe anywhere but that’s no reason not to go,” said Shiran Yousef, a 20-year-old woman from Tel Aviv about to depart to India. “If there are tourists here, there is no reason why we shouldn’t go there.”

But even those who plan to travel acknowledge they will have to be careful.

Altschuler, who plans to head to India next week, said he would shy away from speaking Hebrew and would refrain from any outward symbols — such as Israeli markings on his backpack — that would identify him in touchy places. He said he would take the basic precautionary steps he has honed so well at home.

“There is a price to being Israeli,” he said. “It seems normal to me already, though. We have to be more careful than others, and we have to accept that.”