Straight Outta Israel

Straight Outta Israel

Israel is a country that has never known peace, built by a people that hasn't known peace for 2000 years. This has shaped it more profoundly than anything else. The most immediate and tangible consequences are the numerous security checkpoints, and of those, the ones encountered by an air traveler are the ones most widely known.

El Al[a], the Israeli airline, has of today only suffered a single hijacking (Flight 426)[b]. Given the location of Israel and its numerous enemies, this fact has made Israeli security legendary, albeit impractical to adopt[c]. But what is it like to pass through it?

1. Arrival

The only security you encounter on arrival is the passport check. The officer behind the counter will ask you why you are traveling to Israel, who you intend to visit, and so on[1]. Of course, they have no way of verifying what you are saying - the whole plan is to keep asking follow-up questions until they catch you lying or appearing to[2]. The theory is that it is very difficult to come up with a consistent "world" of lies. Sooner or later, the liar will have to make things up as they go and it takes a very skilled liar to do so. I was asked why I as traveling to Israel (to see friends), where they live (Ahuzat Barak), how I know those friends (met them in Leavenworth, KS), and so on.

That was it.

2. Departure

In Sweden, the check-in opens two hours before departure and closes one hour before. In Israel, the check-in opens three and a half hours before and closes two hours before departure Do arrive on time, because they're quite serious about the screening process here.

When I arrived at Ben Gurion (via train), I expected the process to be like the one I had been through so many times before - check in at a check-in machine, drop the baggage, go through security and to the gate. This is not how Ben Gurion Airport operates. First, the airport is split into sections named A, B, C and so on. Each section corresponds to a set of destination countries (the day I arrived, Sweden was B), and a set of baggage X-ray machines. The process is then that you first have your hold baggage X-rayed and screened, then you get to check it and yourself at the counter. Past that the process is the usual one we all know and love.

Presumably, the security bosses of the airport had sat down and asked themselves when the best time would be to train the new security personnel[3]. If so, the answer they came up with was "Tuesday afternoon", maybe with a rhetorical "nobody flies then anyway" jotted in the margin of the meeting notes.

End result and summary: Things took time. Though, as far as I could see, nobody missed their flight and everyone was helpful along the way. A rough timeline of the events:

  • 1345: My train rolls into the Ben Gurion Airport train station. I head up from the platform, get lost, find someone to point me the right way, and up at the entrance to section B and is told to come back in ten minutes.

  • 1400: I get in line for the hold baggage screening process of section B. While in line to the X-ray machine, my passport is inspected and I am asked questions about my visit. I explain what my visit was about, who I met, and so on. I am asked if I received any presents or packages, and I show the keychain and Northern Command hat I got. I get some stickers on my carry-on bag and passport and am off to the big white X-ray machine.

  • 1425: The belt in the X-ray machine ejects my bag. I'm told I've been selected for special screening and get in line number three for that.

  • 1520: Close to an hour passes, during which one has time to quietly meditate upon the relative merits of grinding boredom versus being interrogated by Shin Bet a bit. People with more social skills than I'll ever have complained to a security officer about the slow pace of our queue[4]; lines one and two have had people come and go, but we were standing still. We were told that the queue I'm in has been forgotten. We were then immediately called for inspection.

  • 1530: Inspection complete. The officer put a little bit of what looked like a cotton swab on a wand and brushed it against everything in my bag. The swab was then put into a machine that analyzed it. Due to the delay, I get help to jump the queue to check-in. After being checked in, I am pointed to gate B-2.

  • 1532: By now I figure I'd better make getting to the gate priority one. No time for lunch or tax-free. I walk to the departures hall checkpoint (the one before the gates).

  • 1550: Eighteen minutes later I have had my carry-on baggage unpacked, scanned twice and swept for explosives residue by a friendly officer who also happens to be into photography[5], which probably is a very good thing. You see, I travel with one laptop, two cameras and three lenses. Add to that a GPS, an external HD, and chargers and such - and you have what is less a backpack and more of a small, mobile electronics store. I've seen my backpack go through an X-ray machine. While everyone else's bags look like a thin outline with a couple of lines in it, mine looks like a solid block of some kind of overlaid, space-filling curves worthy of H.P. Lovecraft. It was when I passed this checkpoint and saw the young ones take turns at the monitor that I realized I had walked in on training day at Ben Gurion, and I felt quite a bit of sympathy for the poor newbie who would suffer. To be honest, it would not have surprised me if I had been told to just stand and wait until some more experienced screeners arrived. But nothing of that kind happened.

  • 1600: I pop out of the passport control and proceed to the gates. This time the officer just leafed through the passport.

  • 1620: Had "lunch", consisting of compressor-eating a sandwich and some juice. With five minutes to boarding, I'm real proud of myself.

  • 1625: Told that the gate has changed.

  • 1710: Told that the boarding is delayed one hour, in Hebrew.

  • 1712: Told the same in English.

  • 1830: Took off for Stockholm, Sweden. For unspecified reasons Cyprus had closed its airspace and we had to fly west out over the Mediterranean before turning north for Sweden.

That's all, folks.