DEC13. Tel-Aviv, Israel.
TEL-AVIV, ISRAEL: STRIPPED ~LEAVING ISRAEL (a love story)
I have a great sense of humor. I really do. But, Israel took it too far on Wednesday, January 2nd.
I had heard that leaving Israel could be a difficult process, but I didn’t really believe I would be put through something so arduous.
Sense of humor intact on the 1st, I bought an Israeli Flag pin in Tel-Aviv to put on my backpack to hopefully expedite the departure process. “Ah, she loves Israel. Let her go. Have a nice flight. Come back soon!”
And I thought it would go that swimmingly. I had an 1100am light, so I arrived to Ben Gurion airport just before 700am (just to be safe.) As I proceeded to ask various airport staff where the Air Sinai counter was, they said, “Oh, don’t worry! You have plenty of time!” Nah, I had a feeling I didn’t. So, at 730am, they let me enter the first security line which would eventually lead to the check-in counter.
A woman on staff takes my passport, flips through it (never seems to stop flipping through it) and asks me questions like this:
What is your reason for coming to Israel? “Christmas!” I say with a smile.
Where did you visit while you were here? “Jerusalem. Tel-Aviv. I went to The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on Christmas Day.” (I omitted Hebron and Ramallah from my response.)
You were in Lebanon? “Yes.” Why? “Travel. Holiday.”
Did you meet anyone/talk to any locals? “Umm…sure, I talked to people…I was traveling…”
Did anyone give you any gifts? “No.”
Maybe something that might look innocent to you… “No. Nothing.”
The reason we ask is that it has happened before where people have received explosive devices and they weren’t aware. “Yeah, nothing.”
You were in Lebanon before this? Why? “Yes. Work.”
What do you do? “I’m a teacher trainer.” Who pays you? “The individual schools.” How do you hear about these positions? “Emails.”
Why do you get emails? “I’m on a special trainers list.” Why don’t they hire people in their own country? “Maybe they want native speakers? I don’t know.”
What were you doing in Jordan? “I crossed the border to come here.” Did you visit Jordan before? “Yes. In July, to see Petra.”
Did you meet or talk to anyone? “No.” Please wait a minute.
(She leaves with my passport and a few minutes later, a new woman appears holding my passport.) She basically asks me all of the same questions again. Maybe they will compare my answers with each other later? She finally allowed me to go to the check-in counter at 800am. I was planning to carry a ‘rolly’ bag and a backpack on the plane, so I didn’t check anything in. At 815am, I arrived to security. (I naively thought the tough part was over, that I would just place my bags on the scanner, go through the door, pick my bags up on the other side, and proceed to the gate.) See? I told you I had a sense of humor. Immediately upon entering the security area, I was told to sit down and they swabbed my flip flops. As the woman was having the results analyzed, I heard a strange beep and then again, with really no time elapsed, a more official woman came onto the scene. She says, “We are going to have to empty all of your belongings and scan them. This may take awhile. What time is your flight?” (1100am) “We’ll try to get it done.”
She then proceeds to ask me pretty much all of the same questions again, but with a bit more severity. What were you doing in Lebanon? “Travel. Holiday.” And suddenly, a personality emerged from this woman. Oh? Holiday in Lebanon? With a smirk and a shrug of her shoulders. (I think I had shrugged my shoulders when I gave her my answer.) “Yes. A holiday. I relaxed. It was a tough year…(trailing off…)” Where did you stay when you were in Jerusalem? “The Hebron Hostel.” You stayed in Hebron?! “No. It’s in Jerusalem. It used to be the Tabasco Hostel.”
It was really all like some big cat and mouse game. Looking back, it felt like with the number of people who had questioned me at that point (four) and to the degree it increased in seriousness, that they were trying to get me to admit that I had visited Hebron and Ramallah (The West Bank and legal for me to visit) without asking me outright, and as though they already knew. This is when the idea that possibly they were aware of my blog (pictures, anecdotes of my entire trip up to that point.) I’ve heard stories that upon entering Israel (they obviously get your passport info) they are known to track individuals during their stay. This could have happened to me, but I have no direct evidence of this. This whole experience just stimulates speculation.
So, back to the scrutinization of every single item I was traveling with. At first, when I was told that I couldn’t bring my laptop or iPad with me (in addition to my headphones, hard drives that contain all of my freelance materials, mini-speaker, iPad/iPod charger) the most current interrogator informed me that I would be able to put them all in my “rolly” bag and they’d check it in or they would put everything in a box and send it. I opted for it to all be put in my bag. Three new women were brought over, given instructions without looking at me and then started picking up each item one by one and swabbing it, then taking it over to the special scanner to have it scanned carefully. A new woman arrived holding one of the big handheld scanners and asked me to step inside a small room that had a curtain that served as the door and told me to take a seat. Then, she left me there with the curtain closed. No explanation for what was happening. I was really uncomfortable with this, as I couldn’t keep an eye on all of my things that five people were now going through (two people at the scanner and three combing through my stuff) so I opened the curtain and stood in the doorway. “Ma’am, just sit, don’t worry. We won’t lose your things.” I replied, “No, thanks, I’d rather stand and see what’s going on.” They made me stay in that room for an indeterminable amount of time without telling me why or what they were going to do. Finally, the woman with the handheld scanner comes in and closes the curtain behind her and proceeds to slowly trek the scanner over every inch of my body, starting with my hair at the top of my head. When she finally got to my legs, she spent a significant amount of time at my right cuff. Then she went to my left leg and stayed at my left hamstring for a long time. Then she says, “Wait here, please.” She returns with another woman who keeps going back and forth over my hamstring and she was much more stern, “stay turned around!” I was like, “I think it’s my muscle, what do you want? Should I just take my pants off, I mean…” She says, “Wait here.” Now, a man comes and peeks in. The woman says “Yes, take your pants off,” hands them to the man, and he disappears. At this point, I’m just kind of shaking my head incredulously with the intention to relay to them that now I find this whole thing farcical. I mean, NOTHING is wrong with any of my belongings. Nothing.
Awhile later, he returns with my jeans, says nothing, and I put them back on. Now, I exit the room, where they would have preferred I continued to sit quietly, but instead I returned to what now looks like an assembly line of Israeli airport security going through every little thing of mine, talking about it to each other, but never telling me anything. I see one woman with my camera and she is trying to view photos, but as I watch her, I know that they’ve all been deleted because I transfer them daily to my computer. She looks genuinely perplexed as she struggles to view something, but of course, I didn’t offer any assistance. This was the first enjoyable moment of the whole experience thus far. Eventually, she came over to me and said, “Take a picture using the flash.” Me: “Using the flash?” Her: “Yes.” So, I took it and pointed it to my left, which happened to be her colleague’s face, and I took the picture. They said something in Hebrew, I could tell they didn’t appreciate that. (Good, we’re becoming even.) So, then she was able to see that she could view pictures on my camera, there just weren’t any and she didn’t say a thing to me about it. She just put it back in the bin with my other stuff.
Now, a new man comes to me holding my empty rolly bag and explains that the scanner isn’t big enough here and that he has to take it somewhere else to have it scanned. Fine. He said he’d be back in a few minutes, but he was actually gone so long that the other security staffers were starting to radio him to return because the boarding of my flight was about to begin and all of my belongings still lay scattered. He finally returned and they said I could start packing it. Then, one of the original ladies came up to me, the one who told me I could put my things into my rolly bag and then they would check it in…but, now, she said, “Sorry, you actually can’t put those things in your bag. It will be sent in a separate box.” I was really starting to question all of this now…”Why? Please let me take my iPad! I have a 12-hour flight to New York tomorrow and I need something to read!” Sorry. We can’t. “Why not? Is this typical? Does everyone have to send their laptops and everything separately?” She shakes her head and says, “Yours indicates a problem.” What?! At this point, I had no time. It was either acquiesce to all of this and catch my flight or argue to no avail and be stuck there. As a freelance trainer/solo traveler, I literally travel with everything I need, like a laptop, an iPad, iPods, headphones, external modems to hold my teaching files and photos…and they took all of it (allowing me to travel with my iPods – which I do have books on) and it made me incredibly nervous because if it didn’t show up in JFK in a day, I would no longer have any records of anything. I had a 22-hour layover in Cairo ahead of me and they absolutely wouldn’t let me retrieve my things there, they said that they had to go to the final destination, so it’s 1000am on Thursday in Tel-Aviv and I have to let my things go, hoping that they will be in New York City on Friday at 400pm. Very nerve-wracking to envision your electronics being thrown onto a plane in Tel-Aviv, taken off in Cairo, put back on the next plane the following day in Cairo, to be sent to New York. Your mind can’t help but convince you that yours will be the only one that doesn’t arrive.
We’re still not done. They are now holding my shampoo bottles. One was the original one that I knew was oversized, but since it wasn’t full, I thought maybe (you know, I still had that Israeli Flag pin on my backpack) they’d let it slide. Not only did they have an issue with that, they also confiscated my legal travel-sized bottles of shampoo and conditoner. I said “Please, I got those for the whole purpose that they are legal travel-size. One woman replies “They’re too heavy.” What? Then she summons another woman over. I try to explain the ‘shampoo situation,” and she says, “I understand, but it’s not the size for Israel.” Omg. Whatever. Throw it all away. (I’m exhausted.)
There are now about eight minutes before my gate is to begin boarding and all of my stuff is still scattered and they tell me I can commence repacking. Nightmare. I’m trying to do it hurriedly. I have to stuff my rolly bag that I now can’t take with me to Cairo. I throw a tshirt in my backpack. I’m only wearing a tshirt, jeans, and flip flops. They are stuffing my electronics in a box…it’s all frantic at this point. I’m not really going to know what I have with me until I get on the plane, because I had to run!
I just googled “Israel Airport Security Experiences” to see if my case was unique, but it’s not. Very similar stories came to light. Two shocking things: (1) Israel does track you in their country. (2) I didn’t take much notice of the yellow barcode stamp that they stuck to the back of my passport, but according to this story http://www.aaronswwadventures.com/2013/01/leaving-tel-aviv-israel-airport-security-ben-gurion/, if the number begins with “1,” you are no threat. If it begins with “6,” you are considered VERY SUSPICIOUS. Mine began with a “5.” Awesome.
No rhyme or reason: They were absolutely hellbent on me not taking my iPad/Pod charger, so stuffed it into the box. Yet, they let me take my other iPad/Pod charger. I couldn’t take the original shamppo bottle, but I could take the original (same size) Pantene conditioner bottle.
No rhyme or reason, part 2: They took my ‘art case,’ which contains four sharpie markers, some ballpoint pens, stamps, and postcards, and not only had it sent to New York, but also, put in its own box, separate from the electronics bag and separate from the rolly bag. (So, blame Israel if you didn’t get a postcard from me from Cairo.)
My belongings DID arrive to JFK. The “fragile” boxes, a bit banged up, but I can’t complain. I just needed it all back.
At one point, because i knew I was going to tell this story, I looked up to count every person that was on my case. Total: 9. All standing together, walkie-talkies spouting off unintelligible Hebrew…I mean, who ELSE are they talking to?! Aren’t those nine enough right there? Seems a bit excessive to me.
If Israel and America are such ‘friends,’ then I wouldn’t want to see us as enemies.
A follow-up: http://jacquelinemhadel.com/2014/01/05/stripped-leaving-israel-a-love-story/and after having time to reflect on my overall experience, I have to say that, even though the security measures felt extreme, they were pretty justified from their perspective. My reaction to the experience was much more riddled with surprise at the lengths the interrogation/confiscation went, and my post was intended more as a warning for people to be prepared for that if they ever visit Israel.
From our side of things, it looks excessive because I’m obviously innocent of any wrongdoing whatsoever, so it seemed like a huge waste of time. I happen to love Lebanon and like to be there, as well as, I love the idea of visiting the Holy Land during Christmas and New Year’s. Innocent enough. Fair enough. In a perfect, peaceful world.
The reality: Israel is ‘officially/unofficially’ at war with Lebanon, so it will naturally raise red flags to them if I visit there more than once in a calendar year, travel alone, and carry-on all of my belongings, plus, head for Cairo next. And the more I think about it, and the real point of all of this, is that I hope that they don’t miss the real threats, and that they are actually preventing any threats from being carried out and people being harmed.
It still remains disconcerting to receive a threat level number of ‘5’ on a scale of ‘6,’ but they don’t know me at all and they’re just doing the jobs that they’ve been entrusted by their government to do, in order to protect their country, as well as the lives of other tourists/travelers.
I won’t be visiting again, as it still remains a really tough experience to have gone through, but, I do encourage others to visit at least once, and to keep in mind what can happen if you visit countries they’re in conflict with…they won’t make it easy for you, but, it’s what they have to do.