Update August 2016:
Security procedures at Ben Gurion Airport continue with the same criteria: if you arouse suspicion, you are thoroughly questioned and your luggage will most likely be inspected on the spot. If you get a good number (see below), you can proceed to passport control, and your luggage will be checked (if needed) apart. To avoid having to leave your suitcases open for inspection, or having to give keys or padlocks code to the Israeli authorities, you can buy an inspection padlock (you find it in suitcases and travel gadgets shops), which can only be opened by the airport authorities.
Update May 2014:
The security procedures at Ben Gurion Airport have changed. Now when you arrive at the area of your flight, you are no longer interrogated while waiting in the queue. You proceed directly to a small counter, where the security officer asks you less questions than before, and definitely less invasive and bizarre. Apart from rare cases when you really arouse suspicions, your luggage is not inspected on the spot. After the questions you proceed to check-in. You hand luggage will be checked only before passport control, like in every airport in the world. The difference now is that your luggage will be inspected after the check-in, in a room with video cameras, so as to ensure maximum safety of your items. Because of this, you are asked not to lock your suitcases, which can make you feel a bit uncomfortable in case you and your luggage have a stop-over during your travel. When I asked to lock my suitcases and give them the code, I was answered that this might delay the arrival of my luggage at destination. Friends who have opted to keep their locks on the suitcases and give security the codes, have collected their luggage at destination with a big paper and the code stuck on them. You still have to be at the airport three hours before the flight takes off.
Claudiaexpat tells us about the security procedures at the Ben Gurion Airport in Israel.
I want to make it absolutely clear that this article is not intended to question the security system at Ben Gurion airport, but simply to prepare you for what will happen when you leave Jerusalem by plane (or any other place in Israel or Palestine). I can’t avoid smiling when I tell my guests that departure from the airport will take at least three hours (and that’s before take off and doesn’t include the travelling time from house or hotel to the airport!). Their reaction is always the same. Vaguely irritated they remark, “come on, two hours will be enough!”. No, it won’t, and this is something that must be taken seriously. Arrival at Ben Gurion should be three full hours before departure, and if possible even a few minutes extra for good measure. The reason is simple. The security procedures take so long the inevitable winding queues you face go on and on.
Hereby a step by step guide to departure. When you arrive, you locate your check-in area on the enormous departures panel. Allocated check-in areas are marked with a letter A, B, C or D, and all on the first floor with the exception of F which is on the ground floor next to arrivals. It’s easily detectable because the letter is attached, in extra large font, on a column. When you reach your check-in area an agent will ask you where you are travelling to, and maybe also ask which airline you intend travelling with. You are then directed to the appropriate queue. While queuing you’ll be approached by another officer who will take your passport and ask you some questions. These are routine questions (they’ll definitely ask you the reason for your visit to Israel and the length of your stay), or sometimes questions which may seem totally bizarre and irrational to you, but those which make complete and utter sense to them. Examples of these questions include “What is your grandmother’s name?”, “Why have your parents named you Angelina”, etc. Please note that these are carefully collated questions designed to gauge your reactions and check if you lie, if you become agitated, nervous or uncomfortable. This ‘interrogation’ can finish in three questions or continue for as long as it takes. From what I gathered, the amount of questions depend on which category you happen to fall in to. Age is particularly suspicious and the younger you are the longer the questions, especially if you’re traveling alone, and you are some sort of official attached to a humanitarian organization. Anyone who has any kind of relationship with Palestinians and/or details in your passport that raise eyebrows (entry visas to Muslim countries attract immediate attention, and it is not uncommon that they ask you why you visited (for example) Indonesia, or if you have friends there).
You’ll understand when they are done with the questions when they change tactics and start asking you about your luggage instead. For example “Has your luggage been with you all the time?”, “Do you have knives and other sharp implements?” or “Has someone in Israel given you a gift to deliver at your destination?”. These questions all end with the statement of explanation that you have been asked these questions because they are afraid someone took advantage of you to put a bomb in your suitcase.
Now comes the time when you are allocated ‘the mark’. This is based on their idea of what they made of you (in their opinion), and your position in relation to Israel. You are given a number ranging from 1 to 6 (or 6T in extreme cases), where 1 is perfect and 6 is very bad. 1 and 2 are given to Israelis only, and 2 to diplomats, 3 to foreigners considered harmless, 4 (which incidentally I have never seen) contains a slight element of risk. 5 means that you are a strong suspect, 6 that you are very risky, not forgetting 6T which means that you represent a serious threat to Israel and you will be controlled meticulously.
You will find which number you have been allocated in a series of figures below a bar code printed on a yellow sticker which is attached to your passport and every piece of luggage in your possession. It’s the first digit you need to take particular note of (if they do not change it, which they often do). Look carefully at the score you receive because this determines what to expect next. If you score 3 it is quite rare that your luggage will be checked further, they might just give it a quick look but if you score 5 or 6 you will be very carefully checked. Score in hand, you move on to the X-ray machine for luggage check (the laptop is placed carefully into a rigid plastic box which shoots out the other side at supersonic speed, leading to a few anxious moments). The security agent looks at your mark, and looks at the contents of your luggage on the monitor and on the basis of these two elements, decides whether or not your luggage needs to be checked.
The luggage control takes place in a totally transparent way, on a series of tables arranged in a horseshoe, on which your suitcase will be happily dismembered. You have to be patient as in some cases they take an object at a time and they pass it under a brush, similar to the one you used to do the washing up after breakfast. It is then taken to the machine that detects any explosive trace on the object that was checked. Suspicious products are paper, ceramics and powders (my son once went through with an hourglass that we had given him at Christmas, which made them flip). Carrying items related to Palestine (a kafeeyah, something that carries the symbol of the crescent, the word “Palestine” or its map) or books and movies about the Palestinian situation, increases the chances of an even more detailed control, and you will probably be asked a few more questions (why you have bought these items, for example).
Once the control is over, you can proceed to check-in. However, if you have a 6 you’ll be taken to a small room where you will remove your shoes and jacket. These items will be whisked away for yet another check while you are left alone, waiting patiently. Some people have been undressed and left in their underwear, while they keep on asking you the same questions over again. This treatment however, is reserved only for those who show obvious links to Palestinians (for example, by having a number of informative materials).
When this procedure is complete, you go to the check-in. If you had 6, you’ll be lucky enough to be accompanied by a guard to the end of all controls (passport and hand luggage), otherwise you will go alone. If you had 5, just after accessing the passenger area, you will be sent to a special row, where you’ll remove your shoes and belt, and your hand luggage will be sifted through once more. With less than 5, controls are like those of all other airports of the world. The last stop is passport control where they’ll access your file on computer before letting you go to the departure hall, where you can finally relax.
A few things to point out:
- It can happen (it happened to more than one of my friends, and to my son) that they decide not to let you bring some items in the cabin – such as headphones for music, iPad or laptop – and that you must put them in your checked in baggage, or they place them into a cardboard box, which you will recover upon arrival. The iPad of a Finnish friend of mine was taken away and sent on a flight the next day. Be prepared for this, too, even though it happens rarely.
- I have recently heard of women who have been forbidden to bring their handbag in the cabin, which was sent separately, while the unfortunate soul boarded the plane just holding their passport.
- You will be impressed by the professionalism and cold kindness of all of the security personnel. Even if you start screaming (which in any case I would not advise you to do) they remain totally impassive.
- I once had (to me and other mothers with children in their twenties) to wait whilst my son went through ironclad long controls without being given the opportunity to explain that he wanted to spend his last moments in Israel together with his Mum to say goodbye properly. This helplessness situation of waiting can cause a lot of anxiety and stress; moreover, if controls are this long and strict, it means your child will inevitably be given a 5 or 6, and will probably be accompanied by a guard to the passenger area and you’ll have to greet him/her under the cold gaze of a guard who does not take kindly to being approached by passengers after the checks. A really bad situation, which is best to be prepared for because for some it will be very tough, is seeing two guards take away your child, then come back with his shoes and jacket which they pass several times through the X ray machine. It’s a very unpleasant experience indeed. Besides, there is absolutely nothing you can do, because any kind of protest does not help your cause, in fact it may even make things worse.
- The subject of airport controls, as well as the intrusive adventures at checkpoints, is often debated among expatriates. They like to exchange life stories, listening to others, and often (thankfully) laugh about it. You’ll soon get used to the fact that if a dinner guest unfortunately utters the words “do you want to know what happened to me last week at Ben Gurion?”, seventy five percent of the evening will be spent talking about this same topic. But in the end it’s all about living in this crazy corner of the world, absurd, charming and absolutely extra-ordinary.