Australian Tourist: I May Never Return to Israel
Australian tourist writes open letter to Israelis about her experience with airport security.
I am a 24-year-old female Australian law student and first visited Israel last year. I had a really enjoyable trip visiting friends and as such, decided to return for a second trip to visit their newborn baby this year. However, I had an experience with Israeli security at the airport flying from Amsterdam that would make me think twice about traveling to Israel again in the future.
Before checking-in for my flight, passengers were required to undergo a brief security interview. As part of this, I was asked what I was doing in Amsterdam and who I was staying with. My answer: "Visiting two Australian friends from law school currently living in Holland." Security asked for their names. I had nothing to conceal and neither did my friends, so I gave security their names as requested. This should have been a simple affair if it was not for the sole reason that one of my friends, born and raised in Australia, happened to have an Arabic sounding surname.
Immediately and without explanation, my bags and passport were taken from me and further security appeared demanding to know whether this girl was really Australian. I found this question offensive: she is as "Australian" as I am, just without my "stereotypical" blond hair and blue eyes. They started questioning her background, which made me think: if she or I were any type of security threat, would I openly say her name? Of course not. The situation didn’t seem rational to me.
I was directed to a different boarding gate to all other passengers. A lady was waiting for me at the gate and ordered me to follow her into an isolated, underground section of the terminal where I was placed in the custody of approximately five security officers . Needless to say, a very intimidating and confusing situation.
There, security officers spoke between themselves in Hebrew, which I cannot understand, and provided me with no explanation of what was happening even though I kept asking. Again, without any explanation, I was ordered to a private room with two female security officers with the only English instructions being "move over there and bring whatever money you have with you."
This did not clarify things for me. I again tried to enquire what was going on because, but again, they continued to communicate only in Hebrew and still I received no response to my questions. Eventually I received a response when I asked, "Is this a random security check?" One lady paused and barked at me, "No.” I was silent after this.
In this room, I was strip searched. I was ordered to remove my shirt, pants and bra. Again, no explanation was given as to why I was being ordered to remove my clothes. The security officers still spoke in Hebrew on radios between the rooms. I was ordered to put my clothes back on and join the other security officers in the first room. I was given a chair in the corner of the room behind a partial screen to sit and wait while every item of my backpack was examined in detail, my laptop was taken from my sight and the occasional question thrown at me across the room.
By this point, I was feeling very intimidated and uncomfortable. I was alone in a separate underground area of the terminal and surrounded by security officers. I was being treated as if I was guilty of a crime, yet I did not even know what the allegation was nor did I have any idea of what was happening as everyone was speaking in Hebrew and still refusing to answer my questions.
Finally I was declared no risk to security. However, my laptop, camera, iPod were put in a separate box and taken away from me without explanation. I watched all my photos from three months abroad, my laptop with important documents on it and covered only by a small piece of bubble wrap in a cardboard box, and my Australian phone disappearing down the hallway without any explanation after I had just been told I was no security threat.
I boarded the flight, completely bewildered, confused and upset about the situation that had just occurred. I was not offered any kind of apology or explanation. This process had taken over an hour.
Unfortunately, this is not the only negative experience I have had with Israeli security. Upon leaving Tel Aviv last year I underwent a routine search and a keffiyeh I had bought as a souvenir in Jerusalem was jumped upon. A security guard held up the keffiyeh in the air and stated (I remember his exact words): “Do you realize what this is?” I replied, ‘Yes it’s a keffiyeh, they are being sold everywhere in Jerusalem." The disdain in his voice was clear as he asked again, "Yes, but do you realize what this represents? This is a symbol calling for the end of Israel."
I was taken to a separate room and searched extensively. I ultimately lost my laptop battery as I was not allowed to fly with it and it never turned up at my destination (hence my concern for my valuables this time). I was shocked at the way I was treated for buying a keffiyeh and I was shocked at the comments of the security officer in relation to the keffiyeh.
I do understand the importance of airport screening and security measures. However, I am offended that I would be subjected to such degrading treatment solely because I am friends with an Australian woman of Arabic dissent and I was provided with no explanation or apology for this treatment. Furthermore, I found it incredibly inappropriate to refer to the keffiyeh I had in my bag an item of disdain and danger.
Despite having some of my closest friends in Israel and having an enjoyable visit both times, I walked away from the security area simply thinking, "I never want to go through that again even if it means not coming back to Israel." Sure I could have not said my friends’ Arabic sounding surname and it would have saved a lot of hassle. However, when asked a question by security and I have nothing to hide in any way, why should I have to conceal my friends’ name?
The only positive experience in the flight from Amsterdam was one of the young trainee security officers standing uncomfortably to the side during this whole process. After I was declared not a security risk and we were alone, she took one look at me and learned forward and whispered, "I think you need a cup of tea after this."
I hope that in the future, Israeli security officers show more respect in their work. Indeed, my time at the airport heading out of Israel was uneventful and an example of the fact not all security officers are behaving in this way but those that do are indeed having a negative impact on visitors to Israel.
Tens of thousands of tourists are familiar with Nicki's negative experience on her way to the Holy Land. According to figures released by the Prime Minister's Office about half an year ago, some 300,000 people are detained every day while entering Israel, just because their name or personal profile are similar to those of a suspicious person.
A total of 100,000 tourists are detained every year, some of them having to go through the same experience Nicki went through during her two visits.
Amy Cohen's parents, for example, were detained based on "intelligence information" received by the Immigration Authority. "They told them that they were missionaries and had to leave Israel," says Amy. "They were released after 13 hours in custody, not before they were forced to sign a document promising not to engage in any missionary activity."
Apart from potential missionaries or terror activists, airport security has also detained people who seemed to be trying to immigrate to Israel illegally, including some foreign sportsmen who arrived in the Holy Land to join Israeli teams and were deported instead.
"Nicki and I have been good friends for years, and she really loved Israel on her first visit," says Yahli Shereshevsky, 28, a fellow researcher at the Hebrew University's Faculty of Law. "I was amazed and shocked by the treatment given to such a lovely, innocent and kind girl.
"Beyond the shock, such an incident has a negative impact on the State's image and character. I am a proud citizen of the State of Israel, and many times I find myself praising the country in conversations with friends from abroad. I served in a combat unit in the army and I fully understand the State's need to defend itself.
"But the need for security checks has nothing to do with the humiliating way they are implemented. In what way would the State's security have been harmed had they answered Nicki's questions, apologized from the bottom of their hearts for the discomfort she suffered, and considered the need to undress her and invade her privacy by examining the pictures and files on her computer?
"Nicki's case illustrates the damage one single person can cause in his treatment of those arriving at Israel's gates. Unfortunately, in this case it was more than one person, and after I began investigating I discovered that this is a much more widespread phenomenon.
"I don't think this is an intentional policy of the State or airlines, but they are responsible, and in the current situation they are helping damage the State's image and hurting its visitors."
An El Al spokesman said in response, "The passenger was checked in accordance with all security orders. Security is El Al's guiding principle, and the security officers are doing an excellent job under difficult conditions."