Lemme tell you something, Tel Aviv is the hardest party in the world to get into. My girlfriend has been trying to get me to go to Israel for as long as I can remember, but I had safety concerns. Which looking back on it was pretty ridiculous considering how extensive and thorough the security in Israel is. The Israeli security experience is one of the most intimidating and invasive processes I’ve ever experienced. This is what it was like.
Flying into Tel Aviv on El Al
Our first brush with the intensity of Israeli security was when we were checking into our flight on the Israeli national airline, El Al. At the Prague Airport, the airline has an entire section to itself patrolled by dudes in tactical gear carrying assault rifles. Periodically someone scans the nooks and crannies in the area with a metal detector.
Before you can even check into your flight, you go through an interview process with airline employees. These aren’t the usual “what’s the purpose of your trip” questions. This was a fucking counterintelligence interrogation. They separated my girlfriend and I, and proceeded to ask anything and everything you can imagine. From the place of our first date to the name of her roommates and details about travel we’ve done together. Then they cross checked our answers to see if they matched.
Even though admittedly I had the sweetest looking girl, she was intimidating as fuck and I was a wreck. I accidentally said we spent Christmas together, and when she went to confer with her colleague who had been interrogating my girlfriend, she came back with more questions to clarify.
While we were being questioned, dozens of other passengers came and went, experiencing far shorter interviews and getting ushered to the check-in counter. The interviewee left with my passport periodically, leaving me standing there anxiously. One guy next to me was even asked to show communications with someone on his phone. So I knew that if I so much as texted my girlfriend to say “lol wtf,” we would get taken to a private room.
After about 30 minutes of personal questions about my work, my relationship, and what my girlfriend and I got each other for Christmas, she finally asked about the trip to Israel – where we were staying, what we were going to do. One of the things I was more nervous about was being asked if I would be going to Palestinian territories like the West Bank, which I had read sometimes flags you for additional security checks. Some people suggest omitting that information to avoid the scrutiny. And though she didn’t ask directly, by the time she inquired about our plans, I was so terrified, I gave her our whole damn itinerary including Jerusalem and Bethlehem. She followed up by asking whose idea that was as though trying to determine which one of us needed to be strip searched upon arrival in Tel Aviv.
After they felt satisfied with our responses, they proceeded to check our carry on bags. They took them to another room and unpacked and searched everything. Then they covered our bags and passports with stickers to signal God knows what to other members of the security team. I spent the next two hours freaking out about what the letter we had circled on our security tags meant and why no one else had the same one.
At the gate, which is where you go through security at the Prague airport, I had my laptop sleeve out of my bag, and since it didn’t have its own “cleared to fly” tags, they radioed the check-in counter to make sure my sleeve had already been checked. There was even someone at the door of the plane checking to make sure all bags were properly tagged, also in communication with ground staff. The level of coordination is staggering. By the time you board your aircraft, you feel like this is the safest flight you’ll ever take. Because who could possibly get past that level of security with so much as tweezers.
Arriving at the Tel Aviv Airport
Surprisingly, there was no further scrutiny upon entering. The passport checkpoint is like any other airport. They asked a couple of questions about why we were in town and handed us an arrival card which you’re supposed to keep with you until you depart. They don’t stamp your passport going in or out of Israel.
Departing from the Tel Aviv airport
I was surprised that we got an email from the airline allowing us to check in online. We were able to obtain our boarding passes, so we didn’t have to go to the counter to check in. Before you’re allowed to go through passport control, you’re still interviewed by a security team. I had been told that the process was always worse on the way out as they want to know what you did on your trip in Israel. However my girlfriend had been here twice and didn’t remember such an interview.
We were spoken to jointly this time by the security team. They asked what our relationship was and whether we stayed together the whole time, but nothing invasive. They didn’t search our bags. They put a sticker on our passport, which is supposed to contain a code designating your perceived level of threat. No one really knows what the code means, but according to some people, the first number from 1-6 indicates how the rest of your day at the airport will go. Only Jewish Israelis ever get a 1, and we got a 2. If you get a 5 or 6, hold on to your butts; you’re in for a rough time. Sure enough, when we handed our passport to have our barcode scanned in, the man glanced at it and said “very good” and waved us through.
It’s kind of a shame because I had been mentally preparing for another grueling security interview and I didn’t get to discuss our trip to the West Bank in the most benign way possible. I worked on that wording for days!