We all know Israel is a country under pressure: it cannot be easy to maintain a claim for Jewish land in the middle of more or less hostile Muslim nations.
And yet, entering Israel was one of the easiest things I’ve ever done; it’s leaving the country that was a real pain.
When you live in a country supposedly attractive that has to control immigration, you are used to harsh rules to entry and it’s not uncommon to see people having to answer endless questions or even detained for several hours before they are allowed in. But then they don’t even bother to check your passport as you’re leaving.
But funnily, it’s the opposite that happens in Israel, and I am still trying to understand why.
EXPERIMENT 1: ARRIVAL BY AIR
I entered Israel for the first time after a flight from Paris that took me to Tel Aviv airport.
Step 1: showing my passport.
Step 2: answering a question.
My travel companion, who was ahead of me, had explained we were friends. They cross checked the information by asking me how I knew her: “we studied together”. This simple answer was my gateaway to Israel.
I was very ready to ask firmly to not get a stamp in my passport – I didn’t want to sabotage any future travel plans to Muslim countries. But there was no need; I was delivered something that looked like a voucher that I scanned to open gates and there I was, freely moving around on the promised land.
EXPERIMENT 2: ARRIVAL BY LAND
From my base in Jerusalem, I ventured a couple of times into Palestine and the occupied territories. And was extremely surprised by how easy it was to re-enter Israel, how young the Israeli military agents were, and how little case they seemed to do about a border crossing.
For example, on the way back from Ramallah, our bus was stopped at the border and we didn’t even have to get off, it’s an Israeli teenager soldier who got on.
Step 1: showing my passport.
Step 2: cute young Israeli notices I’m French, smiles and says in French: “Bonjour! Ca va?”
And here I am, in Israel, coming straight from Palestine, without anyone even checking my bag.
EXPERIMENT 3: LEAVING FROM TEL AVIV AIRPORT
I had been told to be at the airport at least 2 hours in advance of my flight, as control can take a long time. Good advice.
Step 1: interrogation. You get approached by agents as soon as you join the check-in queue, who bombard you with questions. They are not really interested in your answers, but apply psychological techniques to figure out how genuine you are – whether you are telling the truth or making up stories.
This consists in asking a lot of questions about previous travels, really fast, sometimes several times. They asked about all the travels that were documented in my passport – luckily I was holding a rather fresh one so it didn’t take too long.
They asked about all these travels, but really insisted on one in particular. Not my 3-month Russian journey; not even the trips in Muslim but non Arab countries like Uzbekistan, or even Iran. No, what they were particularly interested in was a trip I did to the UAE; oh they asked me a lot about that.
Following the questioning, the interrogator determines your ranking on a scale that goes from 1 to 6 and, it seems, indicates your likelihood to be dangerous for the country. They don’t tell you the ranking, and you may not even notice it. It is the first number on a barcode that they stick on your passport.
I had a 5.
I since have read somewhere that only a rabbi could get a 1, an Israeli a 2, a tourist on an organised tour a 3; having been in the UAE made me miss the 4 and I got a 5.
Step 2: the procedure then varies depending on your ranking. Being a 5, I had to go through a very thorough check of literally everything I was carrying on me and in my luggage. Everything was checked in great detail, both manually and using technological equipment. It took a while to check all my person and all items in my bag one by one, that’s when I really understood why I should be really 2 hours in advance at the airport.
Step 3: personal escort to the gate. It probably varies for passengers with a different ranking, personally I was escorted to the gate by yet another cute male 18-year old Israel military agent.
RESULTS OF THE EXPERIMENT
I’m sure the authorities of Israel know what they’re doing, but I am yet to understand why it is so difficult to leave the country; especially when entering it, including from Palestine, is so anecdotal.
But glad I didn’t get a 6 like someone I know who ended up the search in his underwear!