I’m Going to Die in an Israeli Jail

July 2009

That’s what kept running through my mind as I, and only I, was stealthily surrounded by seven armed and severe-looking security guards at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv shortly before I was to board my return flight to Toronto.

A man in a suit stepped forward. “How are you, Stephanie?”  He had my passport and boarding pass in his hand and he was scrutinizing them.

“Fine,” was my automatic answer, after which I quickly replied, “Actually, I pretty stressed right now.” I knew there would be a lot of questions to be asked again and again as I passed through the numerous security points one needed to pass through to get to the actual flight gate. I had correctly anticipated the various x-ray machines, the complete emptying of my backpack, the blue wand that tests for bomb dust to be run over everything I owned, the hurried repacking of all of my dirty laundry, books and souvenirs, more questions, more stares, more security tags. The guys with the guns, though…they were new. They were unexpected.

“I understand,” he said without looking at me. Somehow, I just didn’t believe him. I’m in trouble, I thought. What did I do? What did I forget in my bag? Oh my God, what’s going to happen to me? “What is the purpose of your trip to Israel?” He was looking at me the same way every other guard had looked at me. Like he’s waiting for me to inadvertently blink the wrong way to confirm that I’m a terrorist. Waiting for the tell-tale bead of sweat to roll down my temple. For me to fumble on an answer.

“A Christian pilgrimage.” It was the coached answer, the answer that would lead to the least amount of scrutiny. Or so I was told.  It was the truth but I was also there as a regular tourist, to see a part of the world I hadn’t seen yet. But the “Christian pilgrimage” line didn’t seem to be working, because here I was at the last checkpoint – passport control – and I had a circle of armed men shouting at me in Hebrew and taking preemptive action when I reached for my bag so I could show them there was nothing in it.

“Don’t touch that.”  I whipped my hands back to my side.

“Who were you traveling with?” I explained the same thing that I had explained to the previous five checkpoints. “Please remove the blade from your baggage.” I stared blankly at him. I didn’t have a blade. Why would he think I had a blade? Does he think I’m a complete idiot? I know that nothing even remotely sharp can be taken on board. Especially in a military society such as Israel. There are security checkpoints at every entrance to every mall, at street markets, and bars. Earlier in the trip, others had made the joke that you know you’re in the Middle East when you walk into a bar and they don’t ask for ID, they ask for weapons.

Tracy and I had already experienced two separate 45-minute interrogations before boarding the small domestic flights to Eilat and back to Tel Aviv and we knew how grueling they could be. We had headed to Eilat to swim with dolphins and to visit Petra, Jordan.  We had been intentionally separated in the small domestic airport and each of us had been grilled with questions.  They had even switched airport security guards and cross-examined us.  Then they started outright lying to us about each other, the whole time trying to get us to slip up.  But of course, we had nothing to hide so their questions eventually moved beyond nerve-wracking and became highly frustrating.

Even though I was the subject of such blatant and unfounded suspicion, I could understand the reason behind it. The Middle East is a volatile place. Every citizen in Israel is a soldier, our kibbutz was enclosed with a steel fence and barbed wire, and many people, young and old, spoke of never having peace. While it seems that all three major religions coexisted in a relative and tenuous peace in Jerusalem, the vast majority of Israelis are secular and it seems the bonds of the military community have taken the place of the religious community in other major urban centers like Tel Aviv. Public and national security are first and foremost and therefore there is no such thing as profiling because anyone could be an enemy. And that’s why these scary-looking guards now surrounded me.

“Remove the blade from your bag,” the man in the suit sternly repeated. I was racking my brain trying to figure out which blade he was talking about. He then opened my bag and pulled out my makeup bag.

Oh my God, I know what he’s talking about now.  This is bad.  Really bad. 

He unzipped it, peered in, and with his thumb and forefinger he pulled out a folded up, multi-tool, not unlike a Swiss Army knife but much smaller. I had used the scissors tool and had never opened the knife which is why I had completely forgotten about the blade. I wasn’t allowed to have scissors in my carry-on either but at least they were scissors and not what was, ultimately, a weapon.

They’re going to throw me in jail. I’m going to die a slow, miserable death in a stifling cell with nothing to eat or drink and nobody in the world will know I’m there. Because this is Israel and they have ways.

Which was, of course, an outlandish thing to think since I had three fellow travelers waiting for me on the other side of passport control, watching the unfolding situation from a distance . But when one is surrounded with guns?  Well, it’s not the most unusual thing to run through one’s mind.

“Oh. My scissors.” <gulp>  I gave a little I’m-so-screwed chuckle. “I forgot about those.” I had kept them in my makeup case and I had my makeup case in my carry-on because I had planned on taking my contacts out, brushing my teeth, and freshening up before landing back in my home and native land. “I’m really sorry.” I’ve never realized just how weak that sounds. “I forgot.”

There was some Hebrew thrown around. Then some arms (body parts, not guns) being waved in the air. And after another ten minutes of not knowing what was happening, they were all gone, as stealthily as they had appeared, and I was left with the original female guard who had first spotted the tool and the other male guard who started the routine search of the rest of my baggage. As I stood there speechless and in shock at what had just happened, he was making random comments about how cute the stuffed camels were and asking who I had bought the olive wood chess set for. Then he handed me my passport, smiled and said, “Thank you for your cooperation. Have a nice flight.”

And just like that, I was free to go on my way, without my multi-tool. To get on the plane that would bring me home.

And away from the scariest airport security I’ve ever encountered.

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