Airport Nightmare, Israel 2008

After my wonderful trip in Israel, I tried to leave.  They almost didn’t let me... Really... Below is a detailed account of my nightmare at the Tel Aviv airport... The pictures below are of the Box they shipped my computer in and my "Souvenir" bag from Israeli Security. To see the other photo albums from the Israel 08 trip, click on the buttons below.
I was feeling good arriving at the airport as I had gotten a pre-clearance security paper from my host which was supposed to allow me to breeze through the tight security. I got in line and waited to be approached by the female security agent. My turn came and I handed her my security paper and passport. She looked puzzled by the paper and called someone over to look at it. The new woman came forward and asked the purpose of visit and the nationality of my last name. I replied that I was on business and that my name was Portuguese as my grandfather was from Portugal. She nodded and said, "wait here". She and the first woman went around to a computer terminal and a discussion began with my passport in hand. I waited a couple of minutes and the two women came back and one of them started tagging my bags with stickers. The other was asking me basic questions about my trip while she fumbled through her pockets that contained several different pads with stickers on them. After the 5th pad she found the "right" one (with a number 5 on it) and put it on the back of my passport. She then motioned me over to a big x-ray machine where I was to put my bags. I was feeling good at this point thinking this was going to go easily. Wow, was I in for a shock.

I got to the x-ray machine and put my big bag up on the machine's belt. "Laptop" asked the man attending the machine and I said yes. He asked me to take it out. I complied and he then proceeded to take it from my hands and roughly open it up and turn it upside down. He then shoved it half open and upside down into a box and dropped it (with a thud) on the x-ray machine. I was distressed as I never handle my 17" Macbook Pro this way. He tagged and then scanned each bag sending it through the x-ray.  All the bags and laptop got to the other side of the machine and I went for my poor laptop and gently restored it to its case. I was then instructed by a woman at the x-ray monitor screen to take my bags to a secondary screening area ahead.

I got to secondary screening and the woman asked me to put my small bag up on the table. She scanned the bag tag and could obviously see the x-ray scan just made on her terminal. After consultation with other staff in Hebrew and more questions about my purpose in Israel and the nationality of my name she opened the bag and two other people started wiping down all in the bag with chemical  wipes and taking them to "the machine" (a chemical scanner) for testing.   A man then came over and asked me to put my large bag on the table next to my carry on and scanned the tag. He again asked me the purpose of my visit and I began to suspect that this question was just a means to pass time. He consulted the scan that came up on his screen and started digging to the bottom of the bag where he pulled out the 4 books on Israel and the persecution of the Jews before and during the Holocaust that I had bought. He opened them and when satisfied they were just books returned to the top of my suitcase where he grabbed a bag of Dead Sea cosmetics I had purchased earlier in the trip.  He pulled out three packs of cosmetic Dead Sea mud and an animated conversation ensued between this guy and a supervisor that had come over to see what was going on. The packages of mud made their way to another x-ray machine and were passed through it several times with a variety of squeezing, rubbing and fondling going on with the packages in between scans. 

While this was all happening the supervisor came over and started asking me another set of questions about where I stayed and went and how long... Oh and he asked the nationality of my name... Do I look Arab?  From somewhere else two more people appeared and started to unpack my bag, dutifully wiping everything with the chemical inspection wipes, periodically swiping them through "the machine". At this point I was a little annoyed but still at normal blood pressure. After "all green" on "the machine" (meaning no bad bomb types of chemicals), the supervisor came over and said I would have to check the packages of mud separately from the rest of my luggage.  They got a white box out and packed the 3 small packages of mud in it. I was allowed to repack my bag but was not given my box of Israeli mud (soil).  I was told it would be brought to me when I checked in. Needless to say I thought this strange and needlessly protective of a little bit of Israeli soil, but I complied.

I got to the check in counter and handed over my passport and explained that I had moved my reservation up a day early. The security girl arrived with my box of mud and the reservations girl looked up my record. She borrowed a cell phone from another agent and made a call. I started to worry. She got off the phone and said I had to pay a $65 itinerary change fee. I replied that I was aware of the fee and got my credit card out. She then told me that I had to pay at the ticket office outside security. I hung my head. The security girl said she would escort me but the mud had to stay with security, as I couldn't touch it. Never let it be said that they don't protect their soil with zeal. We walked out of security and down a hall when the security girl stopped and turned around. She motioned me to follow and said she was going the wrong way for Turkish airlines ticketing agent. We walked a few hundred meters and arrived at the appropriate ticket office. I gave them credit card "V" which didn't work. I switched to credit card "A", which did work and we were off back to the check in counter a few minutes later.

My personal escort retrieved the mud box from the mud guard while I was checking in. After the mud box was tagged by the check in agent, the security agent then took charge of it again and escorted it and me to a special check in area guarded by another security agent. She placed the box of mud here and said it would be escorted to the plane. Never let it be said that they don't protect their soil with zeal.

The security agent left, her duty to the mud box done and I was off to passport control. As I rounded the corner... What a surprise... another security checkpoint. I dutifully took off my jacket, belt and emptied my pockets. I then removed my laptop from it’s case and put it in a separate tray into the x-ray and off through the metal detector I went. Thankfully I didn't beep but I was asked to sit down. As I did, a girl came over and wiped my shoes with a chemical swab and took it over to "the machine". I stood and went to my bags where I was told not to touch them. All of a sudden a loud buzz and red flash emanated from "the machine" and all eyes turned toward me. The security girl turned the buzzer off and asked me to wait there while she called a supervisor. My patient annoyance was being replaced by nervousness at this point. I guess that walking in the footsteps of Jesus had left something on my shoes that "the machine" didn't like.

The supervisor arrived and the questions began... again.  After the now familiar why are you here and where did you stay questions, she asked me if I had a CPAP machine in my bag and I replied yes. A CPAP is a machine that helps me breath well at night. She then stated that someone was coming to escort me back to the original security checkpoint where I would be subjected to "additional screening"... I wasn't looking forward to that after all the difficulty getting up to this point.   I repacked my laptop, put on my belt and jacket and waited. Someone arrived and took me all the way back to the front security post. I felt like a Monopoly piece that had just landed on the wrong space.

We arrived at security and the same questions started again... what a surprise... The guard asked me to take the CPAP out of the bag and he began to look it over while getting on his cell phone. At that point another supervisor showed up and took me aside, my back toward my bag. He again asked me questions about my visit and stay... much more thorough questions. After a few minutes I turned around to see everything out of my bag and being swabbed with chemical wipes that were put into "the machine". No less than 4 people took part in this.... On the same bag it all had been done on a short while before. I prayed for “all green” from “the machine” and was rewarded with no buzzers.  I was asked to remove the battery from my laptop, which I did and was then told I could not take the CPAP on the plane. I explained that I needed it to sleep on the Long Haul leg of my journey and pointed them to the power supply so they could try it out.  They asked a number of questions about the CPAP like, how long I owned it and did I retain control of it my entire stay. They then x-rayed it a bunch if times, animatedly discussing the scans in Hebrew.

Once those questions were complete, another man approached and asked me to follow him for "additional screening".... I was beginning to worry now as several thousand dollars of camera equipment and laptop lay strewn across the counter as I was being led to who knows where. We turned down a corridor and approached a set of impressive double stainless steel doors. Now I was really worried...

I was ushered through the doors and into a curtained off area and was asked to take out any cash I had. Were they shaking me down for money? I was then asked to put my wallet and shoes into a box at my feet, my cash on the counter and to sit down on the seat in the room and wait. I waited a few minutes looking at the double-sided mirror and wondered who was on the other side staring back at me. The guard finally returned empty handed. He asked me to stand up and turn around, which was promptly followed by a hand held metal detector scan over my entire body. No beeps... a small relief.  He then reached for some gloves and my relief disappeared.  He then proceeded to fully (well almost fully) pat me down. I am comfortable with my sexuality so wasn't too frightened, but was very happy that he didn't search everywhere. We waited awkwardly together after our intimate experience for the return of my shoes, belt and wallet. After the first awkward minute he started asking me the standard questions again and I was very relieved to finally see the arrival of my belongings. I put my shoes and belt on, reunited my cash with my wallet and started the walk back to “my” security checkpoint with my new friend leading the way.

As we got closer I saw the dreaded white box on the security desk next to my things... the same type that held my mud hostage and I assumed my CPAP was contained inside. My stuff was spread out on the table and the bag was closed. I was then informed that I could pack everything up in my bag.  I opened the bag to begin and staring at me was my CPAP machine.  What was in the box? Where was my laptop? It was at that moment I lost my cool. They had taken my laptop and boxed it to be checked. I fumed at anyone who would listen that they couldn't force me to check my laptop in with luggage where it might be damaged. I paced back and forth. I resorted to begging and pleading and was ignored and I could tell their annoyance level with me was going up. I didn't even know if my Laptop was actually in the box. Both parts of my blood pressure were well into the 3 digit range but my spider sense kicked in and I shut up as I pictured myself one step from the Israeli version of Guantanamo.

After silently packing everything up, my personal security guard escorted me back to the check in counter where I was asked to put the box containing my laptop on the counter for checking. She then informed me to put my carry on bag up for check in. I lost my patience again and said that I was not informed that I had to put my carry on bag into checked baggage. She got on her radio and a supervisor appeared and informed me that the carry on had to go and that I had reached a security level where I was not allowed any carry on baggage. I explained that I had cameras and lenses that were fragile and cost thousands of dollars in the bag. She was unmoved. I told her that they weren't packed properly to go in with baggage and she suggested I pack them properly.

The pounding in my head told of my blood pressure level and I calmly (Guantanamo visions in my head) explained that I had no padding for the lenses. She told me to come back to security and she would provide some paper for padding. I left the computer box at check-in as they didn't allow me to touch the first white mud box and I expected the same treatment with this white box. As I walked back toward “my” security checkpoint, she screamed at me that she didn't work for me and that I needed to carry my own box. She then told me in a very loud voice that I was very rude. Bewildered, I walked back and picked up the box. I guess my $4000 laptop didn't rate the same guarding and treatment as $10 worth of Israeli soil. I walked back to security for the 5th time and took the paper provided to pack around my cameras and lenses. With the bag open, the supervisor looked in and said I could take my CPAP on board. She even gave me an Israeli security souvenir bag (complete with "Bon Voyage" on it) to put it in. I was without words and know my jaw dropped open.... (those that know me understand what a rare occasion that is). The thing that started my second round of security checks, my CPAP machine, was going with me on the plane while everything else of value was being forced into the belly if the plane. I, unbelievingly, took my CPAP and placed it in the nice canvas bag I was given and headed back to the check in counter.... for the 5th time with my personal security guard in tow. By this time I was well known at the check-in counter and I could see the sympathy in their eyes.

I now had 4 checked bag tickets where I should have had only one. I sheepishly asked my personal guard if I would again have to go through the secondary security checkpoint. Thankfully she replied she would be escorting me past security to passport control. We had to stop at security while they buzzed me through and she ok'd me with the security personnel there. She wished me a pleasant flight and disappeared. Shaken, I stumbled to passport control expecting another nightmare to begin. To my surprise it was painless and I finally looked at my watch. Two plus hours had passed since my first question from security.

I walked blankly past Duty Free down to the airline clubroom and sat in a corner while I tried to collect myself. Soon it was time to get on board my flight and I was overjoyed to get away from there. I sat down in an aisle seat on the first leg of my journey and the plane soon began to fill. The seat next to me remained open and just before the doors closed a buff looking guy with a skin tight t-shirt and military watch on, sat down in the middle seat next to me. My heart sank as I thought... Israeli Security. I sat with my hands in plain view and, despite a filling bladder, I remained seated. Late in the flight he took out a South African Passport and a connecting ticket that said Cape Town. I felt a great relief and then I got up and headed to the bathroom my fear turning into need.  My relief was now complete. To add "insult to injury" the power wasn't working on the long flight leg so I couldn't use my CPAP..... Oh, and I got stuck in a middle seat... Miserable Journey Complete...

Was I singled out for this treatment? No doubt, as I was pretty much the only inhabitant of "my" security station. Was it the security paper, my "evidently Arab looking" name, my US passport (I thought we were allies), the Israeli soil (mud) I wad carrying off, my CPAP or my "dirty" shoes that singled me out for "additional security procedures"... I'll never know. Needless to say it will take a lot of convincing (and valium) for me to go through that again. This horrible experience shook my pride, patience and dignity all in the name of security. To be viewed and treated as a potential terrorist was a sobering and scary experience and has colored my view of the "Holy Land".  Woe be it to any Portuguese people traveling to Israel as names like mine are not "Israeli sounding" and will likely be treated as Arab. For a people who have zero tolerance of an anti-semitism anywhere in the world, I was surprised at the racial profiling I underwent at the airport.  I had expected that a people, so sensitive to discrimination against themselves, would hold those values undeniably sacred to others.  I could not have been profiled so in the US, as that would have been understood as racial discrimination.  Do I feel safer? Hardly... although I do feel harassed, annoyed, discriminated against and humiliated. Never let it be said that they don't protect their land with zeal.... albeit, in my case, misplaced.

Epilogue:  My 4 packages arrived on the baggage claim belt, the white boxes squashed and missing their handles.  My heart sank... I scooped them up and then started the 3.5 hour drive home. After unpacking I was relieved to find that my Laptop and Cameras were OK... “All’s well that ends well”.

Israeli Security's Response to my Blog....

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My Response back to the representative from Israeli Security...

Dear Ms. Beck Helit-Tamara,

I sincerely want to thank you for taking the time to write me back.  I certainly did not expect a response as I did not intend my blog to be shared with anyone but friends and associates, but I do appreciate you taking the time to respond.

To give you a little more perspective about me, I currently fly around 125,000 miles each year and have logged around 1,500,000 miles in my flight travels over the last 20 years.  My travel has included more than 40 countries around the world.  That being said, and understanding that Ben Gurion airport has a reputation for intense security procedures (although London Heathrow comes in high on my scale as well), I was still shaken by my experience at security and needed to write about it for my own sake. 

My reference to “Guantanamo” was a feeling that I felt at the time and was not intended to offend, but only expressed my nervousness and concern and I equated it with something we in the US fear. The references to the heritage of my name were unwelcome and after my my lengthy and emotional visit to Yad Vashem, I was shocked that Israeli's of all people would condone racial profiling by government employees. I have endured countless security checks in my travels and none of them has caused me so much anxiety.

Up to the point where my computer, camera and lenses were forced into checked baggage I was understanding, albeit annoyed with the procedure, but I still don’t accept that this particular action was necessary and it put more than $10,000 of my gear in jeopardy.  The personal search was humiliating, but I understand why it is imposed at various times.... That doesn’t make it any less humiliating though. I much prefer the air sniffer in use in the US now for secondary checks and would even prefer the new “see all” x-ray machines that are on the market to a physical body search like prisoners get.

The security staff was polite and doing their jobs and I could see a reflection of sympathy in their eyes for my plight.  The issue with the white boxes and when I could or could not touch/carry them would have gone much better if the procedure was adequately explained to me.  My anxiety was mostly from a lack of information.  The security people would pull away and have a conversation in Hebrew and then not tell me anything.  On the rare occasion when I have been selected for secondary screening elsewhere in the world, I was typically kept politely informed regarding the process and my anxiety level was much lower.  I don’t know why all the explanations of the “additional security procedures” were vague during my experience in Israel, but it would go a long way in relieving anxiety to have them explained more thoroughly.

If Dead Sea Mud is such a security risk, I am surprised that you haven’t let the people who sell it know so foreign people who buy it could have shipped it home rather than endure confiscation and escalation at the airport.  Without that few dollars worth of Soil, I doubt I would have reached the security “risk” level I did.  I would NEVER have bought it if I had known it would have elevated my risk at the airport. It is well understood that flammables, spray cans, guns, etc. are not to be in baggage although I could not find a list of baggage prohibited items on the ( web site like I can find on the TSA web site (  Why don’t you publish a list, and if it is published somewhere, I apologize but I could not find it.  If there is a list, is Dead Sea Mud on that list? 

In closing, I realize that security is a way of life there in Israel and that you live with the concern for it daily and have become accustom to it.  Many others are not accustom to it and do not see it as a normal day to day fact of life.  Have pity on those of us who are not accustom to it and keep us better informed about what is going on during security procedures.

Best Regards,

Bob Neves