Airport Security Woes – My Experience Leaving Israel

photo credit: sarahstierch

For as much as I love international travel, there are some travel experiences I can do without, namely spending hours processing through immigration and customs. I appreciate the need for the sometimes lengthy wait times, but it wears me down. I also get really nervous when approaching immigration officers for no valid reason. I don’t do anything wrong and my reasons for visiting are just that, to visit, and yet I get visibly and oddly anxious. I blame watching too many episodes of Locked Up Abroad and am terrified of someone unknowingly using me as a drug mule. My anxiety met its match though when I tried leaving Israel.

Let’s be clear, I have no issues with how any country chooses to protect its borders. Every nation takes actions which the government believes are prudent and effective to protect the safety and security of its citizens. This isn’t an indictment of Israeli security procedures, merely my experiences with them. I truly enjoyed visiting Israel and would return in a heartbeat. It’s a beautiful country with amazing people and it was a deeply enriching experience. That being said, leaving wasn’t the easiest thing I’ve ever done.

Everyone knows the reputation of Israeli security, particularly at the airport. Keeping this in mind, I arrived at Ben Gurion International Airport outside of Tel Aviv early, with more than enough time for even the most robust security screening. At least that’s what I thought.

The first stage was a fairly lengthy line (queue for my British friends) that led to the first stage of screening, well before we were even allowed to approach the ticket agent. I would learn that the ticket agent was indeed a long way away. As we were waiting, immigration officers went through looking at everyone’s passports and asking questions about their travels and such. A charming young lady took my passport and thumbed through it, remarking at how pretty the Galapagos novelty stamp was. She casually asked me about my time in Israel, why I was there, why I was alone, and what I had seen. So far so good.

photo credit: heat_fan1

Then the questions got a little more personal, especially once she saw the Morocco stamp. We had been in Morocco earlier that year as part of our vacation, and I hadn’t even considered the fact that it would cause problems. She asked me why I was there, what I did, who I was with and whether or not I still maintained any relationships with people in Morocco, especially romantic ones. This was a first for me, but I was able to quickly and honestly reply that no, I did not travel to Morocco to date and no, I don’t know anyone there. Eventually, I received a smile and was told to proceed. I thought that was it, I was done. Not too bad, a little personal, but nothing I couldn’t handle.

We were funneled through bag scanners, after which I was given a number but, instead of being directed to one of the open ticket agents, I was directed to a special line. I use the term special very loosely.

The special line was for those of us who had sparked interest at some level of our screening, probably long before we even arrived at the airport, which demanded that more attention be paid to us. I looked at my fellow special-liners, and it was a motley lot. It was a mix of men traveling alone and Arab women in traditional dress. In hindsight, I should have realized that a 30-something male traveling alone would spark some interest.

The problem with the special line was that it was slow, very slow. I watched as the people in front of me were called up, asked a multitude of questions, their bags searched, and so on. I also saw a couple of people start to lose their cool, never a good idea. They were getting flustered and, like I, were worried about missing their flights.

Eventually it was my turn, I was next in line and looked at the security personnel eagerly, waiting for them to call me up like I was at a deranged bank. Then, inexplicably, they all left. All of them. I looked around at my special-line friends, who were all equally confused. I guess it was break time, but they just left us there. After another 20-30 minutes, they returned, rested from a smoke and an espresso and it was at last my turn.

photo credit: llee_wu

Meanwhile, I kept watching the clock and getting more and more anxious about missing my flight. The lines at the check in desks had evaporated and ticket agents were leaving. I didn’t think that the security staff would care if I missed my flight, and I had no idea what I would do if I didn’t get on that plane.

They honestly seemed less interested in me at the time, it was more about my bags. Everything was unpacked, poked, prodded and practically dissected. Electronics were turned on and used, and everything demanded a special swab. Then a huge guy, refrigerator big, came up to me and said “Come with me,” in a thick Israeli accent. “Your bags will be fine.”

This was it, I thought. I’d seen enough TV shows to tell me that this is how unsuspecting tourists end up disappearing or in jail, never to be seen again. My palms were sweaty and my heart was racing as I followed the huge guy to a back room. Instead of torture equipment or a jail cell though, it was just a metal detector. All of that for a freaking metal detector. He could have at least said so before leading me to my supposed execution.

Finally, we were done and the Israeli security staff were satisfied that I was indeed a boring, middle class guy from a Maryland suburb. The problem was that I still had to get my tickets, navigate yet more levels of security and get through the airport all within a 30-minute time frame before my plane would start boarding. I was dubious.

I mentioned the fact that my two-hour security extravaganza had put in serious jeopardy my ability to make my flight and to my surprise, they reacted swiftly. One of the them escorted me to the ticket agent, obtained my documents in a few seconds and then we skipped the next few security lines altogether. She said because I’d already gone through the extensive screening that I didn’t need to do anything else, so she took me through the bowels of the airport into the super secret elevators and personally led me to my gate. I was dumbfounded. For hours they hadn’t seemed to care at all, but when push came to shove, they went above and beyond to make sure they didn’t screw up my trip.

I can’t say that leaving Israel was my favorite travel experience, but in retrospect it really wasn’t that bad. More than anything, it helped bring home the dangers confronting Israel every day and the need to make sure visitors and citizens alike are as safe as possible.

What was your most ‘interesting’ immigration experience?

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By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer. Also follow Matt on Twitter, Facebook and

17 Responses

  1. Sabina

    Haha – “security extravaganza”. That is hilarious. 🙂 But seriously, when I last left Israel it also took about two hours. After they searched everything – everything – in my luggage, they even took me into a special private room, where I was questioned and personally searched, although the personal search was not extensive at all. They’re so nice and polite and calm, though. Their demeanor makes the experience interesting, not upsetting, to me.

    Reply
  2. RenegadePilgrim

    Matt, I also had a similar experience in Israel….several times. If you really want to have fun, get in the wrong line going from Bethlehem back into Israel….Lord, that was fun! I got to experience what it was like to be a Palestinian trying to get into Israel….good times. Then, when I went to Jordan, I had to return to Israel to get my flight onwart to India and wouldn’t you know it, they didn’t like my response of “One day”, when they asked how long I planned to be in Israel. My bags got searched thoroughly and they found my map of Bethlehem, along with the Palestinian keffiyahs I bought. Even though everytime I go to Israel I get the full security treatment, I feel pretty safe flying out of there. Just be glad you didn’t get a USA-style TSA pat-down aka legalized molestation.

    Reply
  3. Debbie Beardsley @ European Travelista

    I have heard about security in Israel and from this it sounds like every word was true!

    I think the security workers that just got up for their break are union members. Gotta love how union workers are the same around the globe.

    Reply
  4. Erik

    My experience leaving Israel was easier, but I don’t have the exotic stamps that you have. I did get quizzed about why I was bringing so much Dead Sea mud back (my wife asked me to) and about why I stayed in Israel so long by myself without visiting anyone. I also had every item pulled out of my bag and x-rayed separately, including ALL of my dirty clothes (which was just about all of them at that point).
    Also, I arrived at the airport 5 hours early, and hoped to go through security then get a bite to eat before getting on my flight. They wouldn’t even let me get in line until 3 hours before my flight. When i finally cleared security, I had 25 minutes left to catch the flight, so getting something to eat was out of the question.

    Reply
  5. Aaron @ Aaron's Worldwide Adventures

    Haha well I have yet to leave Ben Gurion but I just passed from Jordan through the Allenby crossing back into Israel (well technically into the Palestinian territory). It was a madhouse as I got tied up, like you did, because apparently my bag was suspicious, even though there was nothing new in it since the last TWO times Id passed trough Israeli immigration. I was separated from y bag and passport for 45 minutes before I could even approach the immigration desk. Finally my bag was unceremoniously dumped on the ground by the teenager working there and it was another 5 minutes before my passport came back as part of a large stack. Compared to that, immigration was a breeze! It definitely helped that I have a Jewish sounding last name! Kinda scared about leaving Ben Gurion though!

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      Wow, well luckily it wasn’t that bad. Ben Gurion won’t be a problem, really, it just may take a really long time. LOL

      Reply
      • Aaron @ Aaron's Worldwide Adventures

        Well, I’ve since left Ben Gurion and, much like you, the security procedures took 2 hours. I was able to check in successfully after a thorough searching of my (and everyone else’s) checked luggage. But apparently my initial interview had sparked some skeptisism as the barcode on my passport directed me to a “special” security line that took 45 minutes just to have the 10 people in front of me get through! No questions, just a detailed search of my carryon bag. I have a sneaking suspicion its because I’d been to Egypt on this trip…

  6. Lisa

    I had a very similar experience traveling to Israel. I flew El Al airlines and I was traveling alone. Same long, long baggage check, escort to a back room, long search with repeated questions and a swift walk to the gate. I want sure if I was going to have a good trip after that, but it turned out to be awesome. But it was a hard way to enter.

    Reply
  7. Maria

    My experience were even worse.
    Me, a german tourist, a blonde female, 24 years then, went to Israel for holidays. I was there for like ten days, slept in hotels and hostels and admired the country.
    At the airport on my flight back they questioned me a thousand times (“What were you doing?” “Holidays” “What for?” “To see the old Jerulasem, to lay on the beach?!” etc.) then I had to open my whole luggage. in there: A Bikini, sun-cream, dresses… NOTHING suspicious. Addition: Only stamps in my passport are from USA.
    Nevertheless, they took all my things (including wallet, phone, passport) and I had to got to a room on the side, taking off all the clothes I wore (except underpanties). Than they felt on the side of my underpanties if there would be hidden sth, they searched in my hair (!) for sth. I don`t even know what they thought, I could possibly carry with me!
    Then they went away for 20 Minutes with my clothes, while I was sitting barefoot and naked, arms crossed to cover my breasts in a sterile room on a plastic chair.
    it was then when i realised that i was completely at the mercy of them. no passport, no clothes, no rights.
    finally they decided that I was – after all – a harmless tourist and escorted me right to my seat in the plane with three (!) armed soldiers. the whole plane was looking at me like I was a dangerous criminal.
    never been that humiliated.

    Reply
    • Thomas

      As a German you shouldn’t be too surprised about this special treatment you got. Almost everybody in Israel lost family members to the Nazi regime.

      They just wanted to remind you that you are not exactly welcome.

      Reply
      • Matt Long

        um, I’m not German. So there’s that

    • Matt Long

      Thank you for sharing and I’m so sorry this happened to you

      Reply
  8. Jim

    Matt, I don’t think it was your passport stamp that landed you in the special line but rather that you are single. My wife and I and two of our good friends (both middle-aged females) were in the initial security line together before check-in. My wife and I were sent straight to flight check-in and our two friends, both single women, had to go through the luggage search line.

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      Yeah I agree and thought I said that. The fact that I am male, single-ish and between the ages of 25-45 got me there.

      Reply
  9. Cristian

    Hello,
    I am looking for an advice on what I can do to get a reimbursement for a damaged laptop, which was taken away from me for inspection at the Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv and sent back to me broken. The screen has a huye scracth in the middle and nos id useless

    Nothing I had tried so far had worked and I am hoping to receive
    advices from you on what else I can possibly do.

    My carry-on baggage was inspected by the airport security personnel during my check-in at the airport in Tel aviv on October 30, 2014. The laptop was taken out of my hand baggage by the authorities for an inspection.
    I was told that the laptop would be inspected and safely sent to me on the next flight (I also received a claim ticket for the baggage.)

    I had received the laptop broken on November 1st 2014, one day after my arrival in Argentina.

    The laptop was delivered in a small box, wrapped merely in a couple of cushioned envelopes on side.

    From further inspection I could tell that the laptop must have been
    destroyed during the shipping to muy house, before it was improperly packaged and mishandled during the flight.

    Just today I had received an answer from Alitalia, in which they pretty much said they were sorry to hear about my misfortune, but
    there was nothing they were going to do about it.

    If you have some advice or any number of some agency that can grmp me to solve this situation I will be very grateful.

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      No clue, this is a travel blog. Good luck!

      Reply
  10. Ruth Sheffer

    Good description! Just remember that the Israeli security dudes really ARE the best at what they do. A lot of what they do is not clear to the average traveller. Just know they catch a lot of bad people this wsy. Israelis look on it as a necessary inconvenience.when we see screwups by other security oufits around the world including the US we are impressed with how professional ours are.

    Reply

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