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October 2, 2005 - Safe or Sorry?

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Safe or Sorry?

By Sylvain Ubersfeld

September 29, 2005


As I was going yesterday night to a management dinner in the nightclub and bar district of Tel Aviv and did not want to be bothered with finding a place to park my car, I took a cab from home.  About 300 meters from the area where I was going, the traffic suddenly came to a grinding halt.  I questioned the taxi driver who answered me (while talking on his mobile to his girl friend): "It's nothing, just a traffic light."  Fifteen minutes later, as my cab had managed to move forward about fifty yards, I decided to get out and walk.  I did so for the last 200 meters of my journey only to discover the cause of the traffic jam, blocking the main Tel Aviv artery joining the Northern Quarters to the Arab town of Yafo - cars in the right lane were waiting to go through the security check before entering the Old Harbor area (Nemel Tel Aviv) where it is customary for youngsters to have fun in one of the restaurants or bars located in that interesting area.


Israelis have paid a dear price time and again for the country being targeted for years by terror organizations so the security and safety of the Tel-Avivians and the Israeli public in general is of a major concern to the various government agencies sharing responsibilities in this field of competence.  Security is everywhere, not always well-accepted as it often delays the pace of life of the citizens.  Each supermarket, public building, cinema, concert hall, train station and hospital is generally prepared with a security guard.  From the look of things, and applicable to "regular" security agents jobs (1), it appears that some hiring pre-requisites must exist - one must be either Russian, Falasha (2) or eventually jobless.  The security guard always asks the same question before approaching the hand-held metal detector from your body: "Do you carry a gun?  "My answer is always no, of course, except when the agent asking the question is a female Falasha (3) between 28 and 38, and has bright white teeth, in which case my answer about the gun is quite different (4).  When entering a parking area, any closed parking area that is, the trunk of the car is opened up by the guard to ascertain that no explosives or weapons are carried.  Of course, if the checks are carried in the middle of the afternoon, when most of the Israelis are at work, the loss of time is indeed minimal.  When carried out during rush hours, at shopping time or under the winter rain which further compounds the situation, the result can be dreadful and tensions run high.  What do these people want from me exactly?  How do they dare question my intentions when I enter SuperNetto (the Russian operated supermarket where is I am used to sampling dried fruit do you recall)?


The security at Ben Gurion Airport is extremely tough.  When passing the first check-point in my car two days ago, a female security agent dared to ask me where I was coming from.  My answer to her was extremely polite (4): "I have spent the night at my mistress' apartment".  She laughed and waved me through, probably thinking that someone who spoke such a flawless English could in no way be connected to any terror organization.  But around her, around that particular check point, young men wearing sunglasses, running shoes and short sleeve black shirts, all of them equipped with a fully loaded rifle or an Uzi sub-machine gun, keep watch at all time, ready to challenge potential suspects driving a truck, or a derelict car, or even anyone not looking typically Israeli (5).  Twenty-four hours a day, armed security service personnel patrol both the air side and the land side surrounding the airport, supported by the latest electronic communication equipment, making Ben Gurion Airport the safest of the world - and the only one surrounded by a deep ditch dug in a replica of a medieval castle. The airport terminal has been planned and engineered in such a way that arriving passengers will not cross paths with departing passengers - so that no suspicious items may be exchanged once outbound passengers have undergone security check.


Once your hard earned money has been spent during your Israeli vacation the time will come for you to fly out and return home.  Again, security will be extremely present and inquisitive.  Security agents (6) - specially trained in questioning, observing behavior, matching telltales from luggage stickers, stamps on passport, hotel bills, receipts of all kind - will track your trip in all its detail in order to ascertain that you really are who you claim to be.  Your luggage will be x-rayed, your past will be investigated, your connections will be suspected.  (A few years back, as my father in law was boarding an El Al flight in Paris to come and visit me, the security agent there wanted to ascertain that he was indeed expected in Israel.  In his luggage was a homemade pasta machine that I had ordered.  This weird piece of domestic machinery apparently attracted attention from the security people who called me on the phone to verify the connection between the two of us.  Because the phone call took place in the middle of the night, I answered it in a rather unconventional fashion and as a result, my stepfather was made to strip down to his socks in order to ensure that he was not carrying any additional and lethal equipment in any part of his body!)


Many cameras, visible or hidden (7) monitor, 24 hours a day, the life inside the new Ben Gurion International Terminal 3 (8) while plainclothes additional security agents belonging to different government agencies may be roaming through the various concourses looking for some undesirable faces.  Of course, there are plenty of good reasons for the questioning.  Past experiences and examples have demonstrated time and again that there is always a new way to smuggle a weapon, an explosive device, a knife, or a canister of lethal gas.  And of course, I am fully ready to accept the questioning when I regularly travel out of the country to visit with my family in Europe, but nevertheless I always feel the injustice at being suspected "a priori" of being a potential threat to the Israeli society.  The ideal for me would be to be whisked through "Shar Ha Shalom" (9) in a VIP car, and dropped at the bottom of the passenger stairs, just like a state minister.  One can always have dreams of delusion!  But security checks in Tel Aviv airport have had also a positive effect on me and for that I must certainly be grateful . 


Besides allowing me to fly safe on Air France, sip champagne in plastic glasses while eating Goose liver pate with plastic fork and knife, and in anticipation that my suitcase may be thoroughly inspected by expert hands of a female security agent, I now take far more care in packing my dirty underwear in an effort to offer the image of a clean young man which I pretend to be.  In the same fashion, I will not carry any sexually explicit technical documentation in my luggage nor will I pack any battery operated electrical appliances that may cast a shadow on the intimacy of my private life.  When the time comes to pack Israeli foodstuffs for the kids back home, I even hesitate to pack some of their favorite sweets!  Indeed, I learned not long ago that I had been suspected for a few minutes of carrying a container of tightly packed explosives that had been detected by the X-ray machine - it was just a box of Vanilla flavored Halva! (10)




1. There is a big difference in recruiting and training the security agents. Some of them working for Government agencies are receiving full-fledged military training

2. Jew of Ethiopian origin. Ethiopian women have been known for their natural beauty and fine features.

3. Obviously if she was over fifty - I would not even attempt a move on her!

4. Never confront an "official" security agent in Israel. You would become even more suspicious. A couple of phone calls and you can find yourself in big trouble.

5. There is of course no such a thing as a typical Israeli. That is why security checks are so thorough.

6. Security agents at Ben Gurion go through and intense training and are doing an excellent job at handling reluctant passengers like myself with professionalism and patience.

7. The exact number of cameras is of course not known for security reasons

8. The biggest architectural project since the days of the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

9. The "Gate of the Peace."  The entry point through which had of states or VIP are whisked to and from their private airplane.

10. Sweet paste made of ground sesame seeds mixed with honey, sugar and flavoring. A real danger for those suffering from weight problems. A real delight for children.

Air Moldava docked at Ben Gurion International
Air Moldava docked at Ben Gurion International

Security at Ben Gurion International
Security at Ben Gurion International

Security at Ben Gurion International
Security at Ben Gurion International

Text and Photos Copyright 2005 – Sylvain Ubersfeld


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
for the purpose of illustration and commentary,
as permitted by the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law. 
See the Details page for the relevant citation.

This issue updated and published on...

Paris readers add nine hours....