A step by step account of what it was like for us, being held at Israeli immigration, at Tel Aviv Ben Gurion Airport, for five hours. And it might happen to you, too.
Landing at Tel Aviv Yafo Airport, thinking about falafel
We land at 10pm, keen to make up for lost time. Outside the plane, we’re smoothed with that cold heat, night-warmth of the Middle East. We are here, after much umming and ahing. I was dubious about our trip to Israel, as you can imagine, and made more so by the Lebanese girl, in Delhi, who said to me directly, ‘Do not go to Israel. You would not go to a zoo, so why would you go to Israel?’ Well, yes.
Our flight was delayed by a day because of a nuisance airline. That was fine because they put us in a 120EUR/night room in Lisbon and gave us lunchmoney, but it was still a bummer. So, when we do get to Tel Aviv Yafo, we want to hit the ground running, so to speak. It is 10pm and we want, probably more than anything, to eat hummus and falafel. We approach the immigration desk, passports in hand.
It is a strange thing, holding a UK passport. Travelling within Europe is so seamless it is possible to change country without even realising it. Passing in and out of Sri Lanka or India is typically painless, often smiley. Most countries, it seems, are happy to have us — our money, at least. We enjoy many of the same freedoms as our European friends. Only occasionally is our ‘special relationship’ with the US an active hindrance (as with Iran). We are used to being treated as trustworthy.
Having a Lebanese stamp is incredibly naughty
Perhaps I was lackadaisical in my approach, (I read that a Lebanese stamp might slow the process down), complacent in my expectation that if I tell the truth, and am polite, it would be a relatively smooth entry. This is what one is taught. I went on the internet; I prepared.
At first we are told to sit in a waiting area, penned off from the main immigration room. Well, no, not exactly. At first, we are actually told to go to the office, and waved away from the immigration queue. It takes some time, waiting at an empty reception desk, before we are told which waiting area we should sit in. The pen is lined with chairs. Perhaps five or six other seats are occupied.
Hipsters in charge — devils in designer stubble
At its mouth stand a number of security guards. Young, bearded and jocular, these appear incongruent with the guards one imagines guarding Israeli outposts in, for example, Palestine. They laugh with each other and make jokes while watching the television. There is a football match on. Perhaps, I think, their good humour with each other is an indicator of how they might treat us, their wards.
Unfortunately this interview was not written by Seth Rogen
After an hour of waiting without any explanation, I am interviewed, alone, by a man with an American accent. A woman sits with him. She has curly hair and wears glasses. The man asks me about what I do — which can be difficult to explain. He asks me about my father and his job, about where I plan to go in Israel and why I am visiting. Then he asks me about Lebanon. He asks me why I went there, where exactly I went, if I went to the south of the country, why I didn’t go to the south of the country (this is a very political decision, from an Israeli perspective), if it was my first time, if I went alone, why, why, why, and so on.
This is known as an Israeli breakfast. Now I’ll switch to past tense.
It was written by Israel Immigration officials
In the end the mood was positive. He gave me a chance to confess any other transgressions, should anything come to mind, “because our security checks are quite thorough”. I’m sure they are, Mr. Man. The woman spoke for the first time: “parking fines, that sort of thing”. What? Why would you need to know about parking fines? Are parking violations indicative of anti-Israel sentiment? Heaven forbid I should have an overdue TV license bill — they might accuse me of being a terrorist.
No, I’m being sarcastic. But that really was her only interjection.
Waiting for four hours in a pen made for humans
I was excused from my interview and told my passport would be returned in due course. In due course… those three words. During the four hours which followed (approx 11pm to 3am), we saw two dozen people come and go — be interviewed, security checked and let in. At several points we remarked on the high percentage of single, young women among the people held. At one point, there were 13 women, most very young, three of them pregnant, four of them with infants or young children, five of them in tears.
Sat nearby was a French woman, heavily pregnant. She was distraught. She had spoken on the phone with a man we presumed to be her partner, and was sobbing loudly, inconsolably. We did what we could to comfort her but our words were useless. She then called her advisor, or lawyer, who required to speak with the immigration desk. The security personnel refused to even look at her, let alone talk to her — they would not tell her how to get the information her advisor required. When I suggested to one of them that it might be easiest if they just speak to the advisor directly, I was told, ‘It might be easiest if you sit down and be quiet’. It was shocking. It was a blatant display of collective disregard for this heavily pregnant woman’s emotional state. There was nothing. This went on for 45 minutes.
Trying to make it nicer; failing
There were times when, glancing cursorily around the room, my eye would sought out another’s. Women were upset, a man with broad shoulders spoke peremptorily into his phone, girls looked to the guards for hope. But no one looked at each other. I looked around and wanted to build some kind of clan — to express to the others, waiting there, that we were all clearly lumped in this thing together and should treat each other as teammates. But everyone was so subdued and defeated that eye contact was nearly impossible.
It was a bizarre experience. It wasn’t traumatising, but it secured a negative mindset towards a country rich in culinary and cultural history. Naturally, we came with preconceptions — we understand. But this was our very first experience on Israeli soil, and it concretised an already burgeoning sentiment of negativity and incomprehension.
And my guess is that it can happen to anyone — a big Saudi businessman, a petite Russian teen, a French mother-to-be, me. A four hour social media security check really does scrape the bucket dry.
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