Israel is big on security. Think about it and you’ll totally get why. It’s something that is nearly impossible to miss on a daily basis. They’re also fairly notorious for their rather difficult border crossings, particularly if you have one of many potential “suspect” stamps, primarily from any Arab country. After 6 weeks in the region, I’d started adapting to these stringent procedures. I mean, surely I’d seen everything right? Wrong.
I’d been warned that flying out of Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport (TLV) can be a rather difficult process. Matt from LandLopers wrote about his experience being escorted to the gate there last year. So knowing this, I arrived at the airport a full 3.25 hours before my flight was due to depart. Little did I know, it would take me 2 hours just to clear the various levels of security and get stamped out of the country…
An Advance Warning
“They might ask you some questions,” our taxi driver warned us as we approached a gate on the highway. “For security reasons,” he added. The first wave was upon us, though this person simply chatted with the taxi driver in Hebrew and waved us on.
The real experience started in the terminal itself, where you are directed to one of four check-in areas based on the airline you’re flying. From there, you immediately get in a line, which is where the real fun begins! First…
Little did I know that a few questions could have such a huge effect on my day… But I was ready for whatever the friendly, nice, young gentlemen could throw at me.
“Where are you going,” he asked?
“New York via Kiev,” I replied.
“Do you have any family in Israel?”
“Not as far as I know…”
“Did anyone give you anything to bring back with you,” he inquired?
“So your bag hasn’t left your sight?
“Who packed your bag?”
“Is this your first time in Israel?
“Sort of, I went in and out 3 times to visit Egypt and Jordan.”
“Egypt? Is that safe right now?”
“Yes. I went to Cairo and you’d never know anything was happening outside of Tahrir Square.”
“Hmmm. What brought you to Israel?”
“I came with a Birthright trip.”
“Oh really? Where’s the rest of your group?”
“They left December 18. I extended.”
“Did you come with a community?”
“Are you particularly religious?”
“High holidays or something?”
“No pretty secular.”
“Like most of Israel then,” he chuckled.
It was all very friendly and cordial. Then he starts questioning me about the validity of my claim…
“How does one get on a Birthright trip?”
“You need to be Jewish between the ages of 18 and 26.”
“Is it just for people who’ve never visited Israel before?”
“No, but you have to have not come to Israel on an educational trip before.”
“Are you sure?”
“Do you speak any other languages?
“What about any Hebrew?”
“None at all?”
“I picked up a few words on the trip but that’s all.”
“Sorry to ask again, but who packed your bags?”
And finally, a question I’d hear so many, many times from nearly everyone I’d encounter: “What time is your flight?”
He kept apologizing for asking such “personal questions.” But finally, a barcode was stuck onto my passport and my bag. Little did I know this little number would have such a large effect on my fate.
From there, we had to put our bags through a heavy duty scanner, which seemed rather silly since the very next station was a thorough searching of your checked luggage by hand.
Nearly every pocket was opened on my backpack and nearly every object swabbed for explosives. Now, I’m very organized when I pack and my fantastic 32 liter backpack (which, incidentally, weighs a mere 8.5kg), is full of lots of pockets for storing stuff. While this is great for organization, it’s not good for getting through this process, or repacking my entire bag in a hurry…
“I’m really sorry about all the mess,” the nice young lady who’d gone through my stuff told me, as she waited to escort me to the check-in desk. There I was instructed to bring my backpack to the “special elevator,” to which I was escorted. “Would I ever see my bag again,” I wondered?
From there it was onto security, where they could’ve cared less about seeing my boarding pass or ID. All they were interested in was my barcode, a quick scan of which dictates which security line I go to.
“Line 2,” I was told; a special line that can only be entered by permission. Clearly, I’d told the guy something I shouldn’t have. “What do you have to do to end up in this line,” I jokingly asked the guy in front of me. “Oh be a criminal or something,” he joked back. At least that’s how we felt.
Line 2 should be remembered by the fact that it did not move. At all. I spent roughly 45 minutes in this short line that only kept getting longer behind me. I noticed from the guy who had taken over directing people that one quick glance at the number on the barcode meant he could direct you appropriately.
By the time I finally hit the checkpoint, I knew it would be a thorough check. All electronics had to be removed from the bag, including chargers. Interestingly enough, you did not have to remove your shoes and they lacked those full body scanners that have been taking over at U.S. airports.
On the other side of the metal detector were a few chairs, a somber sign of the lengthy process ahead, where your carry-on baggage was thoroughly searched with the same attention to detail as your checked luggage. Everything was unpacked and swabbed. But much to my surprise, after this process I was waved on, unlike the poor sap who had 3 people going through his luggage in even greater detail!
From there it was onto immigration, one of the most ridiculously easy checkpoints I’d been through, even when leaving Israel by land previously. “What’s your family name,” was the one and only question and before I knew it, I was stamped out and on my way!
I would come to learn from my seatmate that the first digit of your barcode denotes the “threat” level you are perceived at from your interview. 1 meant no threat at all. I was a 5. Apparently 6 means you’re super duper suspicious…
And from the sounds of things, I could have had it much worse. After all, there are numerous reports of people being escorted to the gate and being allowed to board only with their wallets and passports! Perhaps I should consider myself lucky?
Oh, and for the record, my bag did end up back at JFK with me!
What About You?
Have you flown out of Ben Gurion or experienced tough security measures before? What was your experience like?