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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Barriers And Bubbles

Before I get into describing the intentions, actions, reactions, etc, of our delegation, I figured I should share some impressions from my experience getting into and out of Israel.

I heard lots of warnings about Israeli security, but compared to my friends' 8+ hours trying to get in at Taba, my entry was easy.  Some aspects were similar, though: getting asked what religion we are, for example; Pam was told that there's no such thing as Unitarian, while I didn't get the same reaction to my being Quaker.

Regardless, the young lass at passport control flagged me as somebody requiring extra questioning.  I suspect it was my brand new passport, being alone and not having friends or family in Israel.  She asked questions like names of my father and mother (I noted she's deceased), what I did for a living, why on earth would I want to come to Israel alone when I didn't know anybody, etc.

Everybody gets some sort of paper slip that clearly indicates the initially-assessed risk.  Most people I saw at the second layer of customs were passed through to baggage claim, but I was taken aside when the lady saw mine.  A Russian and an Irishman were also told to sit in an area away from the exit as a supervisor was called.

More of the same questions, then additional ones about religion and such.  I first ran with the "my wife's pregnant and this is my last chance to travel" gambit, then played the "my family died in the Holocaust" card, which was the trump.  I noted aside from my great-granddad who left Ukraine because of the pogroms, most of my family remained in Kiev during WWII.  We agreed that had been a tactical error, and she let me pass.

So that was all of 15 minutes.  Didn't seem the info they obtained was really enlightening, but what were they really going to do? 

We do know secret police followed us around because the undercover guys who were obvious admitted as much, meaning there were others we didn't see, so perhaps there was further info they gathered later.  Yet none of it came up on my way out of the country.

I arrived at Ben Gurion already expecting multiple layers of security and possible problems given my activities and contacts in the country.  I'm not sure I got to enjoy the Full Hardcore Screening, but it was an hour longer than my entry and I interacted with a lot of people and mechanisms, which will be great examples for my infosec class next semester:

  • Layer 1
    • Before you even check in, you are in a line and questioned by security for an initial risk assessment.
    • Mine was a trainee with a supervisor shadowing her.
    • Since I'd said boker tov (good morning), she asked if I speak Hebrew, which I don't but I try to learn at least some polite phrases for breaking the ice with locals. 
    • The usual why were you here kinds of things, since I was alone she wanted to know if I belong to any "communities", which I deliberately took very literally.  Despite my wearing a Green Mountain Code Pink t-shirt, I said nothing about that "organization" and noted my membership in the Society of Friends.
    • Trainee was taken aside and discussion that I gathered was about how germane the questions have to be, etc.  They came back, trainee said, "you probably understand all of that, huh?"  Nope, but we talked more about why I would even try to know Hebrew, my interest in language, studying Russian and philosophy, Jewish background and family's conversion to Christianity.  This was mostly the super asking, who said it wasn't really official and she was just interested in the historical discussion.  True or not, it was a nice chat.
    • Notes are taken, stickers with circled numbers and Hebrew letters are applied to bags and passport.
  • Layer 2
    • Everybody has their checked and carryon bags scanned by machines like we use in the US after you check in.
    • Based on the notation on your stickers, it appears non-threatening people are sent to the airline counters.  I was told to go over to a central area with lots of security folks and equipment.
  • Layer 3
    • Hand exams of bags, including removing all contents with a focus on potential problem areas identified in the previous scan, which the security guy can call up on a series of LCD panels at his station.
    • I'll note that almost universally those doing the scanning and hand exams are men, supervisors and other layers of interaction almost entirely women.
    • My bag was swabbed for explosive residue testing, as were the contents.
    • Dude found my Arabic phrasebook and "pro-Palestinian" books, like Palestine Inside And Out, and publications I got from ICAHD.  Called his supervisor.
    • Why are you learning Arabic?  I note it's a phrasebook and in fact there are people in Israel who speak Arabic.  Why not Hebrew?  I grab that phrasebook from carryon and note I'm learning everything I can to be able to survive in a multilingual country.
    • Asked what I do.  I'm a telecom prof.  School ID?  Yes!  Oh wait, nope, I took it out of my wallet before I left.
    • Have you been in Gaza?  No (truthful, since their Defense Ministry wouldn't let us in).  Have you been to the West Bank?  Uh...I play dumb and ask whether East Jerusalem is in the WB.  No, she says, so I say no as well (yeah, that was a total lie, and Kant would be dismayed).
    • Have you met any Mullahs?  Did you stay in anybody's home?  Did you make any contacts with people you will continue to contact later?  No, no, no.  True, true, false.
    • Why these books about Palestinian issues?  Why not books about terrorist attacks?  Well, your media and mine cover plenty on the terrorist attacks, and I'm all about empathy and building bridges, so wanted to understand as much as I could about the conflict.
    • Again play the Holocaust card, trying to learn how we can stop killing.  Have a nice flight, she says with a snarl.
  • Layer 4
    • Check in like in the US.
    • Difference: I have a special plastic loop on my bag which clearly indicates special treatment.  Instead of taking the bag on the conveyor belt, I'm directed to "put it on the elevator."
    • Oh no, THE ELEVATOR!  Cue scary music.
  • Layer 5
    • I am escorted to a cargo elevator and told to place my backpack on a luggage cart.
    • Will I see it again? Spoiler: I did.
    • Probably sent for a compression test to set off explosives that might be triggered by pressure changes.
  • Layer 6
    • Shunted to another special line.
    • Place my carryon into the scanner, soon as I do I'm surrounded by 5 security people who mull about and block my access in a studied non-chalant manner.  Seems deliberate.
    • More scans, swabbing passport, feet, bag, contents.  
    • Lady supervisor angrily demands to know if I'd not been asked whether I had sharp objects or anything resembling a weapon in my back.  Shit.  I apologize after she tells me they saw a "Swiss knife".  Then I notice the 2 beefy plainclothes dudes behind me, blocking any escape.
    • As more disassembly of my bag goes on, with multiple scans and swabs of each new set of items, a nice security lady heads for the exit, tells me I have a sticker on my back.  "Kick me?" Even plainclothes grins as I remove the errant control sticker from my shirt.
    • Guy ahead of me has a flight boarding, so they keep his bag, give him a receipt, escort him to his plane and tell him to expect his property to be shipped later.
  • Layer 7
    • Finally to passport control.
    • Because I didn't shave for a week, I guess I look different than my passport photo, so the lady asks for a second form of photo ID.  I look even more different in my driver's license photo, but after a very Soviet-esque process of studying my pictures and glaring at me, my passport's stamped and I can go to my gate.

At most steps I was told to enjoy my flight, presumably to make me relax as I thought I'd finally made it through.  Same goes for the innocuous questions in between more pointed interrogation.

During the hand exams, the agents did apologize for the inconvenience and one even offered to help put stuff back.  I told them I understand they're doing their jobs, and I've been through this before.

I did not elaborate and tell them that it was way easier getting into and out of the Soviet Union both times I visited in '86 and '90.  Astonishing how much Israel really is a police state, despite my intellectually knowing that.

This is a society that has to work very hard to maintain barriers and bubbles.  Physical walls, layers of security, all sorts of separation to keep bad things out.  Mental walls, layers of dissonance, all sorts of lies to maintain the illusion that they are good and safe.

More to come...


PS--US Customs asked me why I'd gone, and when I said it was a peace mission, asked how it went.  'cept for the teargas, it was really good.  Chuckle, stamp, move along.

June 16, 2009 in Pax Americana, Viva Palestina | Permalink


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Hmmm...I wonder how they would've taken my usual religion response: "I'm an agnostic; that's an atheist with an option to buy."

Posted by: Uncle Smokes | Jun 16, 2009 7:58:21 PM

You know, getting INTO Jordan when I went years ago was a breeze. Getting OUT was a pain in the ass, with rifling of baggage and confiscating of my tape recorder batteries but not the recorder or the tapes (WTF?), and questions about all the souvenirs I was bringing back (who I purchased them from, etc, which I could truthfully answer, "some guy in a shop, I dunno.") I had been prepared for a mind-fuck on the way in but the one on the way out surprised me a little. Like, I'm leaving, dude, what do you care what I take with me?

I would love to see Jerusalem someday.


Posted by: Athenae | Jun 16, 2009 9:30:50 PM

Interesting. I got some of those same questions more than 30 years ago, but only one extra layer of questioning, seems they've gotten a lot more sophisticated. And I totally lied when asked about having any Arab friends.
More recently, I didn't have any trouble getting in or out of Jordan.

Posted by: Karin | Jun 17, 2009 8:14:11 AM

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