Tel Aviv airport doesn’t mess around

Photo by Hudin

I was recently invited for a wine tour of Israel by a group called Kinetis whose aim is to promote the other side of Israel not covered in the evening news that consists of the innovation and culture that emerges from this small country on the eastern side of the Mediterranean which has had nothing if not a troubled history during the 20th century. To be honest while incredibly curious about Israel I had had no designs on actually visiting it until Kinetis reached out to me. The various horror stories I’d read about entering the country along with the never-ending Palestine question had kind of put it further down my to-visit list despite knowing that a good deal of wine production has been happening with the quality improving considerably in recent years.

The pitch of Kinetis was pretty straightforward–one week in Israel, no politics, just the wines (well and food as well, of course.) They arranged everything and as such, my entrance in to Israel was a very different experience compared to most. I was met at the arrival gate by Shy, a no nonsense fellow in a dark suit. He proceeded to walk me through the various levels of passport control to enter the country. Elsewhere, this person is called a “control” or “protocol officer” and in places like Africa, they can be very useful where the border agents exist purely to shake you down and make life annoying. Israel is obviously a different case and they enforce their borders for the purposes of their security. At times, some would say it’s extreme, but from what I gathered glancing to my right at the longer line I was eschewing, if you’re not Arab, it’s much the same as to what the United States does to most foreigners with the standard, “What is the purpose of your visit?” “Where will you be staying?” “Is this your first time in Israel?” Apparently the questions can extend further if your answers aren’t satisfactory or well, you’re of Arab descent. And, they will indeed deny entry. Thanks to Kinetis attaching me to this escort as well as giving me a pile of papers to print out and bring, I had no problems whatsoever.

Shy wasn’t much for small talk, but I asked him about the issues some people have and what they’re looking for. He said, “Essentially, you. A single male, traveling alone, under the age of 45. You’re a prime suspect for denial of entry.” But, as an American? “Yes, even as an American. They don’t care where you’re coming from, only what you potentially might do.” I’ve traveled to countries outside my general level of comfort and have gotten over the fact that being American doesn’t mean shit to a lot of the world. I assume that this must be a shock for many Americans visiting Israel though as they think their passport to be a Golden Ticket to entry given the US’s relationship to Israel and I can assume that two girls of Arab descent that were Americans must have thought this when they weren’t allowed entry and then documented their plight in a lengthy post afterwards.

After exiting Ben Gurion Airport (which is really nice and modern by the way) I went on my way to start my trip in Israel (which was fantastic and I’ll write about on VI Magazine.) One week later, I returned the airport and saw the security from the other side. It starts with a checkpoint before the airport with a guy asking for the ID of the taxi driver and an AK-47 wielding soldier standing behind him. Once you pass that and come up to the entrance of the airport, you have to immediately go through security before you check in. Again, I was lucky to be greeted by an escort. While I still had to go through all the same steps as everyone else, it was with far fewer people. Oh, in case you didn’t know, they request that you show up to your flight three hours before departure and you’d better damn well do it or you won’t make your flight.

Once through x-ray scans, we came to this area with various portable podiums and went up to a petite, young girl. I handed over my information and my initial thinking that she would be easy quickly evaporated. She asked where I had stayed while in Israel–by memory, what I had been doing, and if I’d received anything from anyone. Naturally I had to reply that I had received wine bottle samples from several wineries. She insisted on clarifying whether I had been given them or purchased them. I said I had been given them and asked if that was a problem? She stated, “I’m trying to ascertain if you’ve been given a bomb.” but she said it in this way that made it sound that they had received intelligence that a bottle I was carrying was indeed going to blow up the plane and I was a bit alarmed. Leaving me to think about this, she went over to a terminal, punched in my data, spent a few minutes reviewing that everything I had said was true, came back, gave me my passport and allowed me to go to the check in counter. Finishing there, I deposited my suitcase and went to the boarding gates to wait for two hours for my flight to Istanbul.

My suitcase had a bit more of a journey though as stating that there were wine bottles wasn’t enough and they decided to open it, much as what happens to me every time I fly out of the US. And they went through everything. When I opened the suitcase in Istanbul, it was a mess. Thankfully the bottles were solid as my careful packing had been tossed aside so that they could inspect each one. Apparently they put your suitcase in to a pressure chamber to verify that there are no potential explosives in it. They also run any suspect items through a separate machine individually as I assume each of my wine bottles were. Needless to say, I will be letting those sit a bit prior to tasting.

Probably the only ironic aspect to all of this was the note that security left in my suitcase which you can see above and asserts that great care was taken to put all of my belongings back in to their original state. Thankfully none of the bottles broke, but a bag of nuts exploded all over my stuff which in hindsight was a bit stupid of me to stick in the suitcase.

I accept all of this because there is a legitimate reason for it. It’s much different than the US where the threat is just implied and statistically improbable. The Israelis have all of this down to such a science, that you can keep on your shoes and also take liquids in to the cabin. They don’t worry about such things as if they deem you not to be a threat before you check in then, you’re not a threat. And for those who think this is tough, read up on how to enter and exit Gaza.

Naturally, like anyone else I find it all very annoying, but then again, I find it less annoying than having a plane explode while I’m on it. I learned long ago that you do whatever security forces like these ask you to do. For some reason, whether its my height or large forehead that they believe is hatching nefarious plots, or that the potential of someone that looks like me doing something is so far fetched that it could actually be true, I’m always picked out for “additional screening”. Thankfully I never had any designs on being a spy. Also, thankfully I’ve learned not to say stupid shit when asked “Anything to declare?” Yes, I’m fucking fantastic or “Are you here for business or pleasure?” They’re really the same, no? or the best, “Did you pack your own bags?” No, my mother still does it for me.

Knowing what I know about statistics, I’m sure that the Israeli security nets a good number of false positives. Then again, whenever I read a story by someone who has been denied entry I feel like they did something stupid or were a smartass or is indeed something akin to the Hindawi affair and someone has been unknowingly sucked in to committing a heinous crime by someone with a demented political agenda. Like I said, all you can do is go along with it. If I visit Israel again in the future and have problems, then I probably wouldn’t return. It’s their system and that’s how it goes whether you find it right or wrong. But as it went, I had a fantastic trip and one of the more memorable trips I’ve had in a very, very long time.