My Interesting Experience With Secondary Security At Ben Gurion Airport

Yesterday my trip to Israel came to an end, and I flew EL AL first class from Tel Aviv to London. I’ll have more on that very interesting flight shortly, but in the meantime I wanted to share my experience with security at Ben Gurion Airport, which is known for having the tightest security in the world.

I shared my experience with security at Newark Airport before boarding an EL AL flight, though I knew that security is tightest for flights when you’re departing Tel Aviv, rather than flying to it (that seems a bit backwards to me, but I guess they want to be 100% sure nothing happens under their watch).

Let me say going in that based on everything I’ve heard, the security questioning here is all about behavior detection. They don’t really care what you say in response to the questions, they just want to see your behaviors as you answer. At least that’s what I’ve been told.

Before even being allowed to check-in, all passengers have to go through an interview. I handed the lady interviewing me both my US and German passport (since before my flight to Israel they asked if I had any other passports).

“Which one do you want me to use?”
“I entered with my US passport, but on the way out they asked if I had any other passports, so I figured I’d give them both to you.”

She quickly looked through my German passport, and then started thumbing through my US passport.

“Is your name Hebrew?”
“I think it’s Prussian, or something.”
“Do you speak Hebrew?”
“Unfortunately not, other than ‘shalom.'”

“What was the purpose of your trip?”
“Sightseeing. I spent a week here with my parents, and they flew out this morning back to Orlando.”
“What are your parents’ names?”

“Why did you go to Indonesia?”
“Bali is one of my favorite relaxation places in the world.”
“Do you know anyone there?”
“No, not really.”

“Do you know anyone in the United Arab Emirates?”
“I have some friends there. None of them are actually Emirati, but rather they live and work there.”

“Why did you go to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan?”
“I’m trying to visit as many countries as I can, and those were ones I hadn’t visited that were pretty easy to reach.”
“Do you know anyone there?”
“No.”

“Do you know anyone in Qatar?”
“No, not well.”

As you can imagine, the line of questioning continued in a repetitive way for almost every country I’ve been to.

“Do you know anyone in any of these countries?”
“I mean, I don’t want to lie. I can’t say I don’t know anyone in any of these countries. I do know some people in some of these countries.”

“Please wait here.”

She left me alone for about 10 minutes and walked away. I’m not sure if this is true or not, but someone suggested that they leave you alone and then watch you on camera to see if you act nervous, etc. It’s entirely possible that’s not true, as I guess she could have also been calling someone to look me up in a database, or something.

After that I was given a sticker and I headed to EL AL first class check-in. The lady at the counter got on the phone, and said “we’re going to try to make this as easy as possible, just have a seat there for a few minutes and we’ll have someone from security come over.”

I sat there for a few minutes, at which point an American guy in a sharp-looking suit introduced himself.

“Okay, let’s get you on your way as quickly as possible.”

He asked me a few questions about my trip. Not “do you have a bomb?” or “why have you been to so many weird countries?” but rather it came across as genuine interest in what I did while In Israel (though I suspect this was behavior detection). While this was all going on he kept scrolling on his phone. I don’t know what he was scrolling through, but he just kept reading and scrolling.

After a few minutes he said “follow me.” I figured every millimeter of me and my belongings was about to be searched.

We walked towards a security checkpoint, and then we went to a lane that wasn’t otherwise staffed, so we really got to skip the queue even. I was expecting this would be like getting secondary security in the US, where they hand search all your belongings.

“Do you have a laptop?”
“Yes, and an iPad. I can take them out.”
“Nah, leave them in there, that’s fine.”

My bag had tons of cords, liquids, etc., and there was no extra search (even under normal circumstances it’s sometimes pulled aside). On the other side of security he said “you’re good to go, let me just update something quickly. I’m happy you enjoyed Israel.”

I found the whole process to be fascinating. I get that the lady who did the first round of questioning was probably more focused on my behavior than anything, and probably couldn’t in good conscience not send me to some sort of secondary given all the countries I’ve been to. But it’s the second guy I was fascinated by. I wonder if he just did some sort of a quick behavior detection “test” on me, and what he was looking at on his phone. I don’t know if he Googled me or if they have some sort of database and he used that to determine I wasn’t a threat, or what.

At a minimum I was expecting I’d get a really intense search of my bags, and that didn’t happen.

Truly fascinating (at least to me)!

Comments

  1. Its 100% Behavior Detection.

    You also got escorted as an F passenger (El AL offers that). Liquids are no issue in TLV.

  2. That is real security. We talk about the TSA and security theater all the time in the US. Intelligence gathering and behavior analysis are far more effective than having a barley trained employee check for exsplosives.

  3. As an Israeli I’m a little concerned by this. Israel is trying to open itself to non-Jewish tourists who are not pilgrims or LGBTQ around Tel Aviv Pride in June (quite the contrast, I know), and experiences like these, which you deemed fascinating, can make someone else decide to never visit the country again.

    Because your passport is filled with stamps you are probably not the average traveller, but its frustrating nonetheless, because Israel is a really fun country to just visit.

    Hope you enjoyed your time!

  4. Something really similar happened to me last month while boarding a flight from AMS to the US. I was told I was selected at random for a secondary screening and got all those types of questions as well. They also searched every inch on my bag and my shoes, watch, belt, etc… AMS has an weird check-in where all Delta passengers are directed by the terminal screens to gate E1 or something like that and that is a primary screening where if you pass you are then handed a little piece of paper with the real gate you will board. Then at that gate you may be selected for secondary screening before boarding the plane. They have private booths at the gate so you can be searched in a more private way.

  5. I’ve literally had a worse experience trying to get into Calgary. It’s a relief to see that the process isn’t as scary as some people would have you believe.

  6. Thanks for sharing the experience. 100% behavior detection (i suppose there are some ‘wrong’ answers you couldve given) which I expect is far more efficient than being screened by people making $12/hour looking for bottled water and snow globes.

  7. @pavel: Had the same experience every time I get to Canada. Why? They ask really weird questions and act like you are planning to stay in the country illegally. They don’t seem to get American citizens who have family in the US will probably want to get back home after the trip to Canada.

  8. @Uri – why would you be concerned? Because El Al uses the most effective security screening procedures? That’s a weird thing to be concerned about or feel the need to apologise for.

    Are you less concerned when a TSA agent hassles you about a pair a tweezers and you then find out that one of your fellow passengers was able to check in a gun?

    Get real.

  9. I wonder if the American was really Israeli security but trained to speak English with an American accent as part of some sort of behavioral cue. Like, maybe you’d be more relaxed around another (seemingly) American and your behavior would change, possibly providing further clues as to your intentions.

    In general, though, I think I’d prefer this at US airports because I feel like it actually does something.

  10. I flew out of TLV last year after a sensational week there with my partner. Our flight was at 9am and we had the genius idea the night before of staying out partying all night and then going straight to the airport without sleep. This included watching the sunrise while skinny dipping in the ocean with the new friends we had made I’ve the course of the week. Needless to say we were very much ‘tired and emotional’ when we got to the airport.
    Before we could check in we had to go through our interview and the very first question that was fired at us was ‘What is your relationship?’ We panicked briefly because we couldn’t remember if homosexuality was allowed in israel. In terms of behaviour detection how we passed still amazes me.
    We had an incredible week but I’m not sure if stay out all night before the flight again!

  11. The success of a website is usually directly conversely related to how heavy-handed the comment moderator is.

  12. For all the folks that are critical of the TSA (and I am sure we all agree that they can and should do better), trying to compare what Israel is able to do at one airport in a country with a population of 8 million folks vs what we deal with in the US with 323 million is really a folly.

    The cost of this much staffing and training in our system would be simply astronomical. Air travel would be much more expensive and the number of flights would be drastically reduced. Most airports wouldn’t have anywhere near the space and/or facilities to support and still support the same number of passengers/flights.

    Ultimately, its a choice a society has to make. Do we want the pay the freight on this level of security and accept the trade offs on cost and inconvenience or do we prioritize other things and do it the same way as always?

  13. Is this what they do for every passenger? The amount of security personnel must be enormous in order to get pax thru in any reasonable amount of time.

  14. @Santastico and pavel:

    I also have the same feeling. Immigration in Canada always make you feel like you are doing something wrong. Or about to. I would like to think that they are been cautious, but the last time the guy could not have been more rude.

  15. I work in healthcare/Medicine in the US and this reminds me of a question I hear frequently: why can’t we be more like the Scandinavian countries” with their perfect healthcare… The issue is that Scandinavian countries are small- the whole population of Denmark is less than New York City. So what works perfectly in a small country may be close to impossible to implement in a country as large and diverse as the US

    Same seems to apply to security. Israel may have the best and most detailed security procedures in the world, but it would be close to impossible to apply something similar in the US. As @DougG said above, it’s ultimately a choice we have to make.

  16. @DougG,

    Totally agree, the Israeli system could never be applied in the States, it wouldn’t be practical at all.

    That doesn’t mean the TSA couldn’t be vastly improved. I find security in the UK for example much tighter and more effective and yet also more polite and efficient than in the US. On my recent flights from both LHR and LGW probably half of bags going through the scanners have been selected for secondary, while most people are asked to go through the “nude-o-scope”, and get they keep things moving without shouting and screaming at customers. The US should be aiming for something more like this.

  17. The TSA is interested in Americans getting the impression that they’re secure. (That’s why we call it “security theatre.”)

    Israelis don’t care as much about your impressions as they do about actual security. If anything, the mystery and unpredictability of their security measures is very much an asset. (I’m guessing that it many situations, what is actually happening behind the scenes is less complicated than we imagine. And they’re perfectly fine with that.)

  18. Like someone else suggested, the guy was probably scrolling through your blog. If their security is as good as you suggest it is, I’m sure they knew who you were – he was probably making sure you didn’t say anything bad about Israel.

  19. @ adi_T on the healthcare front, perhaps you could compare the US to Japan for example (130mil population – much closer than Scandinavia, also has near 100% literacy despite one of the most difficult written scripts in the world). You can’t blame everything on population size.

    TSA has a wealth of issues – absolute lack of any sort of courtesy aside – and something like behavioural detection screening for high-risk individuals would be worthwhile. As a UK citizen, the amount of paperwork needed for an ESTA to enter the US is enormous (and expensive), and they can surely improve their security given all this information at their disposal. It’s the only country I’ve been to which always makes you remove shoes but managed to miss a bottle of water.
    Israel seems to understand that security isn’t just about the contents of the bag, it’s about the owner of the bag too.

  20. @ Lucky

    “They don’t really care how you answer, they just want to see how you answer.”

    Is that really what you meant to write? 😉

  21. @Uri “experiences like these, which you deemed fascinating, can make someone else decide to never visit the country again. ” Are you kidding? Everyone experiences some version of this out of TLV. I wasn’t even flying on El Al, and I was given the third degree.

    I don’t think it is particularly professional, as some posters claim. It is rote stuff, they do it precisely to develop a reputation for doing it, and will think “This is real security”.

    Now of course I do not have a Muslim name, or they would do a thorough auto detailing on my body.

  22. Even the US immigration guys ask questions to see how you answer them rather than what the answer is. They probably have access to how you answered questions before (e.g. do you have fairly there?) and want to see consistent answers (lies are hard to remember).

    Does it work? In Israel, yes. But in the US . . . ?

  23. PS In post above, when I said “Everyone experiences some version of this”, of course citizens of Israel who are Jewish do not experience this.

  24. There are absolutely more complications implementing a security regimen in the US, where most passengers are domestic and privacy concerns prevent the establishment of the all-encompassing databases that would be needed for TLV-level security. I disagree, however, that implementing REAL security in the US would be too difficult. I’m thinking about the staff at UK airports that wander about the immigration queue asking people about their trips and what they’re looking forward to seeing. They come across as chatting up passengers out of friendliness but are 100% behavior detection.

  25. Definitely behavior detection. Sometimes when I’ve left Israel, they’ve asked the most random questions about my background and where I grew up, just to see if my tone or mood changes. Those agents are incredibly skilled in reading people — they often aren’t even anticipating a specific answer to your question. Best thing you can do is cooperate.

  26. It’s counterintelligence as much as it is aviation security.

    There’s much more to what they are doing in those interviews (and the other layers of the process, some unseen, at TLV) than just making sure you aren’t a threat to the aircraft/airport.

  27. I’ve been through secondary in several countries including Israel and Israel wasn’t the most thorough. Switzerland was by far the worst and I’ve been through that twice. Everything is hand searched – both checked and carryon, full body search, regular metal detector screening and then one more screening prior to boarding (after regular security) where carryon bags are again opened and searched. And in each case, security questioning.

  28. What was the first number on your sticker. When I travelled I got a “1”. I am Jewish. My friend who are not got “6” and had an experience much like yours. Like previous posters this lead them to not really want to come back to Israel.

  29. @Chuck Lesker: the results speak for themselves. You’re free to take your wilfully blind worldview to another airline, of course.

  30. These don’t seem very noteworthy. I once checked in at AA Flagship check-in at LHR and was quizzed by the ground agent guy. “Where do you work?” Why? “I own a car service and am looking for corporate clients” I don’t have anything to do with procurement. “You need to tell me where yo work” etc.. Finally I did just to shut him up, having no idea what was going on.

    It was a bit hamfisted and deceitful. At least they didn’t lie to do.

  31. I think they focus on the right stuff, and it works – they found a bomb in a bag of a lady who didn’t know she had one because her answers to questions just didn’t tally up… Beyond clever! We also were taken round the outside of the queue after round one, thought it was just us that short-cutted!!

  32. I’ve been in and out of Israel several times on El Al, and have gotten a very mild secondary screening departing Tel Aviv every time. But flying to Tel Aviv from Paris once I got a screening so invasive that I actually missed my flight. They checked EVERYTHING including requiring me to strip down to my underwear, going through every item in my wallet and asking me about all the loyalty cards, etc. It was a miserable experience.

  33. @Charles747

    When departing TLV for PHL back in Summer 09 I received a #5. However, TLV did away with the numbered stickers since then and have a different system in place as in 11 when departing I did not get a numbered sticker on my bags but instead received a tag on my passport that meant something to them but not to me. I echo the same sentiments as many other posters regarding not wanting to go back because security is so invasive. I’m scheduled to fly to TLV via IST next year and am loathing the airport experience both in and out because no matter who you are, the invasive approaches they have rattle me to where I get paranoid they’ll think I’m a threat just because I’m nervous due to the amount of questions they ask and then repeatedly ask in different forms from person-to-person.

  34. Charles S, it’s not having a “barely trained employee”, rather most of them are either badly trained, or just stupid, since there’ve been cases of them missing over 90% of weapons lol

  35. Was just there two weeks ago and we were nervous about the security process at TLV too. We got to the airport just over 3 hours early, got to the first security screener who said our flight wasn’t up yet, but that if we only had carry on we should just go right in and skip the check in line. The kiosk wouldn’t give us passes yet, so we ended up back with her. She asked a couple of basic questions about trip duration/purpose, noticed we had been to Jordan and asked if we knew anyone, didn’t ask about our one day venture to Doha, and then randomly asked me my parents’ names (to see how I would react? I was surprised that she might have that info to verify, but maybe she just asked to see what I did?). Then she sent us to check in at the business class line. Went through the next checks with no questions or issues. We noticed during our stop in Zurich that my wife had an SSSSS on her ZUR-LAX pass (despite having Global Entry) which got her the extra screening at our departure gate. Based on that I’m surprised we didn’t get more scrutiny at TLV. But, overall, I was very pleasantly surprised at how easy it was. We had prepared for a long process. I guess the issue is that you can’t count on it, so still worth getting there early.

  36. Honestly, they would not be very good security if they didn’t at least try to Google the people they need more information on, so my guess is they were reading your blog to see if you had anything negative to say about Israel.

  37. It can be easy on your first time departing TLV to feel overwhelmed with all the security stuff but really happy to hear the attitude you brought to the experience. Definitely fascinating stuff, although even when I have nothing to hide they make me feel pretty nervous.

    Also, considering your passport you definitely got off easy compared to most 🙂

  38. I’m curious, as somebody who has loved in and visited a lot of Arab countries. If you say you do have friends in these countries, do they start askiing for names? and what would happen if you did not want to disclose all the names?

  39. This is all a set up. The airline knew he was flying. He’s getting the same treatment any celebrity would get. They know who he is.

    Any average traveler with the stamps he has leaving Israel would not have such an easy time going through security. Not ever.

    And someone above said they had to apologize for that security? For what? Asking him questions?

  40. It’s funny how little you guys understand about scale.

    Surely we could do the same as Israel – they’re a lot fewer people to pay for it, too. We just don’t have the culture for it and frankly, most of the TSA staff is too stupid to work security like the Israelis do. It’s not like we’d need to hire more people – there’s PLENTY, go check your local airport – they’re just not qualified for this.

    And yeah, we could be like the Scandinavian countries …

    … if we were as homogenous as they are. Watch what’ll happen soon there. First you’ll get angry at me for writing this (as if somehow words have magic powers), and in a couple of years you’ll think “that a$$hole was right”.

  41. Behavior analysis is just fancy profiling. In the U.S. we would never tolerate sanctioned profiling, so we’ll just continue to pretend that we are safe.

    I have seen numerous times when a white, teenage girl will be scrutinized while the olive skinned man will be waived through. How likely is it that a white girl from Oregon is going to be a threat?

    I am as liberal as they come, but the fact is that there are profiles of terrorists and people who “fit” the profile should be scrutinized a bit more.

  42. @Mark–Having more than one passport would often mean that you are LESS of a threat. While a government employee, I had between 3 and 5 passports at once…I still have them, but most have been punched.

    Also, many dual citizens have more than one. This is not an indicator of being higher risk. Where the passports are from..may mean something.

  43. I’m an American who goes to Israel every year for up to 3 months, then I pick a spot in Europe and plunk myself down there for about 5 weeks. Because of the Europe Leg, I fly any European Line or American line that stops off there, which suits my needs best for that year’s visit, via Business or First class travel.
    During the Israel part of the trip, I am often on various military bases, and have had my luggage tossed, and by that I mean, pretty much dumped and searched thru, with extreme diligence, and then on other occasions, they just smile and let me take for free, extra luggage ( admittedly, I am both a shopper and a heavy packer, because I rent apartments, so never know for sure what I will find when I get there, and I bring my own linens, pillows, even favorite Penzey Spices in plastic baggies – hey, I like to be comfortable when I’m away for 4 months at a time).
    Anyhow, on the occasions where they have seriously searched my luggage, they have found my little baggies of spices, ( which could easily be mistaken, by sight, for illegal substances), and paid zero attention to them. Instead, they would pull out my sneakers, because there might be residue on the treads from stuff picked up on the ground on military bases.
    Israeli flight security is truly the bare minimum for what it needs to be, and if you’ve ever flown via Frankfurt or Heathrow, you realize just how far removed from ALL the other Airlines you will be, usually with an additional security pass thru, to boot. It may be a hassle, but it’s a very necessary reality. As a middle aged American Jewish Woman, I still get the barrage of questions, but every year, it gets a little bit less. I figure they probably have a pretty thorough file on me and my doings while there, that comes up on their smart phone or check in computer, so it gets easier, as a History is established, sans any security problems incurred on my annual visits.
    For those that have never been….just go…it’s an amazing country, small, but it packs a great wallop, on many different and positive levels. Don’t let bad press or worries about it being over-militarized stop you. It’s THAT incredible of an experience, every time!

  44. Its not “100% behavior detection”. The first thing they want to know is whether you are Jewish. So when asking if you have family in Israel, if you speak any Hebrew, if you are involved with the community, if you go to a synagogue, which holidays you celebrate – the answers very much do matter.

  45. We visited Israel on a cruise ship.
    My husband and I also had an interview before anyone could get their passports and stamps ( not in our PP )
    The situation is we live in Dubai and he works for the Govt.
    Basically they asked same questions and if bringing any gifts into the country.
    I agree they watch your body language more than the answers.

  46. I am fairly certain he was looking up your blog online.
    Last time I came through, I also got sent to the secondary interview at a desk. Half way through, the guy took his phone and flipped it around and said, “I am on your employer’s website (a small business), but I don’t see your name. Is it listed on here anywhere that you are actually employed there?” When I showed him, he said, “thank you, now tell me your favorite thing in all of Israel that you visited.”

    But finally, he said, “you have a lot of activity on Twitter – thank you for your strong pro-Israel stance.”

    I hadn’t tweeted about Israel in months – and when I had it was about Netanyahu’s speech to congress. Amazing that he had found it. Finally, the strangest thing was exactly what Ben noticed. He walked me through security, shoved suitcase through without flinching and sent me on my way.

  47. Yea no interest in ever going to a country where I’m seen as guilty of being god knows what until proven innocent. Thanks but no thanks.

  48. I’ve been to Israel quite a few times and I totally relate with this post. I always find it so interesting. As a travel experience curator, I sometimes lead groups on adventures, Pilgrimages to Israel being one of them. Did they screen your bag contents? Sometimes they bring out everything in your bag one after the other and use different chemical strips to test them.

    Just like you, I find them quite interesting

  49. What is the number (1-6) or letter (H F K S T) on your sticker? The lower the digit/letter, the less of a security threat you were recognized

  50. Maybe it’s because I was traveling with my wife, or maybe it’s because I’m ethnically Asian, but TLV was way more mellow than some domestic hellhole like ORD or DFW. It felt like they could not get rid of us fast enough. Entering the country, we got maybe 3 or 4 questions, from an officer who looked very bored. As we were walking out of baggage claim, the security guy pointed in my direction, and I thought, “oh okay, finally, the renowned Israeli airport security,” so I started walking over to him with my bags in tow, totally ready for the third degree. But he started shaking his head vigorously, like “no no, get out of here, not you, don’t waste my time” and I pointed at myself, “me?” And he kept shaking his head, “no no no” and started pointing emphatically toward the exit. I think he was three seconds away from physically shoving me out the door. (My wife said he was pointing at someone behind me.)

    The flight out of TLV was the same. It was super-standard “did you pack your own bags, where did you go” questions, maybe 3 or 4 questions, max. We even told the guy we visited Palestine, but not even a vague flicker of interest. The feeling I got the whole time is that he was waiting impatiently for us to finish describing our itinerary. The line at passport control was way too long, but that had nothing to do with us.

    Maybe a dumpy married middle-aged Asian guy is perceived as zero threat? If so, I wish TSA would hurry up and reach the same conclusion. Anyway, great country to visit, tons to see, everyone spoke English, even the food was better than we expected.

  51. “He was probably browsing this blog”

    100% guarantee they’d already Googled you by this point and determined your answers were all truthful.

    As to the other “behavioral detection” stuff recently launched, the questions prior to my AA flight out of Madrid a few days ago were comical. They first asked what I did for a living. After I answered then the guy asked what I was doing in Spain. Uh tourism. No questions at all about my job or how I do it. And he apparently ignored the 40 other stamps in the passport I’d acquired in recent months. End of interview. I mean, what’s the point? Why even bother? But then again Spain is still one of those countries where you have to ask the immigration officer (I did ask) to put my passport in the computer so I would be registered as having departed Schengen so I wouldn’t be considered an overstay when I return in a few months. Go figure.

  52. @The nice Paul

    re: “They don’t really care how you answer, they just want to see how you answer.”

    I also had to re-read this sentence, and then the whole article. It’s actually simple, they want to see your behaviour (“the answer”) rather than Hear how you answer their question/s … Or… ? 😉

  53. Having two passports is normal, yes, but having two passports from the same country at the same time– how is that possible?
    I thought you when you order a new passport the old one gets instantly invalidated.

  54. @ Adi Talati — Many countries (the US included) let you have a second (or third) passport if you’re a very frequent traveler. They aren’t valid for as long as the original, but are useful if you frequently have to send your passport off to get visas, etc.

  55. Pretty standard really for Israel.

    @Adi – I have six passports from my country since I ran out of pages while they still have valid visas.

  56. @Adi Talati: Additionally, all service or diplomatic passports are secondary passports by definition. The holder is only entitled to use them for official travel. For private travel they are supposed to use their private passport. (I know this is not always done in practice, but in theory this is the case).

  57. My experience was similar but far worse during secondary search. It was pure discrimination simply because of my name and place of birth, despite carrying an American passport. I loved visiting Israel and have lots of Israeli friends, however, due to that nasty experience, I would never spend a penny in that country again.

  58. @Uri

    You don’t have to worry, I think most of us are reassured by Israeli security procedures and wish all countries would be as diligent.

    As for visiting Israel, if I was only allowed to visit one more country in my life it would be Israel. It looks a wonderful place to visit. Not only are the people meant to be so welcoming and warm, the food great and the nightlife active, but the history is incredible. There is so much to see and it’s all within easy reach.

    Ben’s trip report has just made me want to visit even more.

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