I alluded to it offhandedly in a recent post on United catering out of Tel Aviv, but based upon the comments it drew I want to revisit the topic directly. I recently had an incredibly invasive security experience in Tel Aviv, so lengthy I almost missed my flight.
It is unlikely I’ll ever know exactly what triggered the alarm, but I’ll first describe what happened and then speculate why it did.
After stepping off my flight from Amman, I followed the “transit” signs, but was stopped by a uniformed soldier and told that the transit line was only for Israeli citizens. I was directed to passport control and waited about 20 minutes in line.
My interaction with the immigration agent was brief. He asked me how long I would stay in Israel, I said 90 minutes, and he handed me my migration card. Easy as that. I proceeded upstairs to check-in for my United flight.
The Check-In Interview
Everyone is interviewed by Israeli intelligence before approaching the check-in counter for their flight. A lady took my passport and began with a series of general questions about why I in Israel, how long I stayed, and what the purpose of my visit was.
When she found that I was merely transiting from Jordan, it seemed her suspicions were raised. Indeed, I doubt many people transit from Amman to San Francisco via Tel Aviv, but it sure made sense for me — I left Amman at 8:40p and was back to San Francisco by 5:30a the next morning.
She started asking details about my trip to Jordan. Next she started leafing through my passport and asked me about my occupation. Then she asked if I spoke Hebrew and Arabic.
She took my passport and walked away, conferring with a colleague behind her.
When she returned, she asked if I had any other forms of ID. I presented my driver’s license and she squinted at it and made a remark in Hebrew to a colleague now standing beside her. They giggled. I assume they were looking my teenage mug and remaking at how much I aged.
Trying to reduce the tension, I joked that the years had not been good to me.
The agents laughed and one said, “No, you look better today. Very handsome.”
But then, “Are you sure you don’t speak Hebrew? Do you have any other forms of ID?” I did not. She took my driver’s license away and conferred with a third colleague who appeared to be a supervisor. She returned and asked me again if I spoke Hebrew again.
Then she started asking questions about my education, business, and previous travels. She asked more detailed questions about Jordan and wanted to know if I had been to Israel before (as if she didn’t know…).
Last time I was in Israel (2009), I was stopped briefly at the border in Ben Gurion Airport when the agent found a Pakistan visa in my passport. I was also stopped again when returning from Palestinian-controlled territory because I had no Israeli stamp in my passport (Israel no longer stamps passports, but at the time they did unless you requested them not to).
Finally I was allowed to proceed. A yellow sticker with a barcode was placed on the back of my passport.
It was getting late and the United check-in agent handed me my boarding pass and instructed me to proceed immediately to security. I wasn’t worried: departure was still 45 minutes away.
Upon presentation of my boarding pass, I was directed to a special security line on the left. The first part of the security screening was like any other, though I waited in line about 10 minutes just to reach the front of the queue (of four people). Electronic devices were removed and shoes had to come off.
But then it got interesting. After proceeding through a full body scanner a security officer/intelligence agent walked over and asked me to point to my bags. He told me to take a seat and proceeded to pull out every item from both of my bags, scrupulously examining everything and performing at least a dozen Explosives Trace Detection (ETD) tests (swabbing articles then testing them for explosives).
Everything was taken out. Everything. Every envelope was looked in and even my two books were carefully leafed through. I was instructed to open my laptop and turn on my phone, but the contents were not searched.
Next, I was directed into a private room where a different agent performed a very invasive patdown, carefully handling every last inch of my body…
Finally, I was cleared to go…”You can re-pack your bags now”
It took several minutes just to do that.
I asked why I was singled out and was met with a shrug.
Why Did This Happen to Me?
I can think of four reasons why this happened to me. First, because I was transiting from the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, an Arab nation. Though Israel is at peace with Jordan, my itinerary was admittedly a bit odd. Second, I booked the one-way ticket same-day. Amman to Tel Aviv was on a separate ticket from Tel Aviv to San Francisco to Burbank on United. Third, my travel history. I’ve been to Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Egypt, and Morocco. None of those stamps were in my current passport, but I assume Israeli officials had access to my travel history.
Finally, my work history. I’ve worked for the U.S. federal government, served in the U.S. military, and carried a high-level security clearance. On the one hand, you’d think that would work in my favor, but I can see why that would also arouse suspicion in the convoluted world of espionage, even between allies.
Some may argue that horrific is an unfair description. Others will say my experience could have been much worse. I think horrific is perfectly reasonable, but you’ll notice I describe merely my experience without casting any judgment on the Israeli security apparatus that undeniably keeps flyers out of Israel very safe. To me, it was horrific, because I was treated like a criminal. Whether you think my experience was reasonable or not, being interrogated then invasively searched is objectively a pretty horrific experience. You’ll have to take my word on that if you have never been subjected to such an experience.
We hear calls from time to time for Israeli-style security in the USA. It will never happen because of the sheer size of major airports in the USA. Israel has one international airport with a limited numbers of flights: what Israel does could never occur in the USA without bringing travel to a complete bottleneck.
Edward Snowden exposed an NSA computer system called XKeyscore that acts as essentially an advanced search engine on anyone in the world. Surely the Israelis, who share so much intelligence and intelligence systems with the USA, have something like this. If they pulled up my work history, education history, internet searches, and phone records they should see that I’m really not a threat to anyone.
But one thing is certain: it seems that nothing is left to chance when it comes to Israeli security. It seems I was subjected to the “just in case” search…