If you think international airport security is cumbersome and slow then you’ve seen nothing until you experience Ben Gurion Airport security in Israel. Located south of Tel Aviv near the city of Lod, Ben Gurion Airport (Code: TLV) is Israel’s largest and busiest airport, and the point of entry for the majority of tourists into the country.
It is also one of the world’s most secure airports and it’s this high security status, unfamiliar to international passengers, which prompts this separate blog post, meant as a guide for first-timers to Israel and not as a criticism.
Ben Gurion Airport began life in the 1930s as a British military base during the British Mandate of Palestine. In 1948, it became known as Lod Airport in the newly-formed State of Israel. In 1973, it was re-named after David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister.
ARRIVAL AT BEN GURION AIRPORT
Firstly, air passengers must remain seated while flying in Israeli airspace. With the airport in sight, our flight rapidly pulled up and only after a few minutes of circling in the sky did the captain explain that the airport was temporarily closed.
A few rows behind me a man in Jewish Orthodox attire stood up and started praying out loud, much to the annoyance of the cabin crew. Fully aware that Hamas rockets launched from Gaza can reach Tel Aviv, it wasn’t until the flight captain elaborated on the airport closure (a flock of birds) did my panic begin to subside.
Our flight was met by the usual ground crew although one was armed with a handgun. We were bussed to the terminal where we queued for Passport Control. I’ll be honest, I was nervous about this part.
While I didn’t need a visa to enter Israel, my entrance into the country was entirely at the discretion of border control personnel. Diplomatic relations between Ireland and Israel have been fraught for many years – both this Irish Times article and my What Does it Mean to Be Irish blog post elaborate on this.
When I finally arrived at the Passport Control desk after a half hour queue, my passport was examined for a number of minutes by a Ben Gurion airport security official. I was asked three questions (Purpose of travel, who I was travelling with, if I had ever changed my name). The official handed me my entry card and welcomed me to Israel.
The process of entry into Israel was not the hassle I expected although two female solo travellers (one German, one Austrian travelling separately) I met during my time in Israel said they were brought to a room and questioned upon arrival.
DEPARTURE FROM BEN GURION AIRPORT
And now comes the tricky bit. I travelled to Ben Gurion Airport via the train from Savidor railway station. X-ray scanners check passengers and luggage prior to platform access. The train arrived into Terminal 3 but, as I was departing from Terminal 1, I needed to get the shuttle bus which was packed to the ceiling…in low season! You’ve been warned.
Upon entering Terminal 1 I was instructed by staff to join a specific queue based on my pre-printed boarding card. At the top of this queue were young plain-clothed staff who asked questions and examined my passport placing a yellow barcoded sticker on the back, a barcode that would dictate the remainder of my experience at the airport. These staff members are the Israeli security services and apparently use profiling to decipher your security risk.
The first number of the barcode will inform other staff of your security risk. Number 1 is the lowest risk with number 6 the highest security risk. Have a look at my barcode below.
I’m twice Garda vetted (police vetted) for both my day job and for my professional qualification in Ireland. And I still got a 5! Why? Because I was travelling solo, more than likely.
Security check number 3 was the area where passengers and their hand luggage went through the usual x-ray scan. I was asked to join a separate queue where passengers (all travelling solo) had all items from their hand luggage removed and swabbed for explosives. It was my first time both seeing and experiencing this type of security technique, a technique which has become standard practice in airports since then.
Before me in the queue were three males (US, Serbian, Hungarian) who had neatly packed luggage contrasting with my last-minute disordered cramming. The US passenger was asked to switch on his laptop so that his files and software could be examined. Behind me were three more males and six women. Nobody in the queue wore a wedding ring. And how was I able to note all of this detail? Because I was 45 minutes waiting for my turn to have my luggage swabbed.
After swabbing, my luggage went through the usual x-ray machine and subsequently for a second round of swabbing. Interestingly, unlike regular security checks, my bottle of water breezed through the process having forgotten to remove it prior to security.
BEN GURION AIRPORT SECURITY – CONCLUSION
The edition of the Lonely Planet I used said Israeli security place young, unmarried Western women near the top of the profiling list. What I witnessed at Ben Gurion Airport confirms this. Out of the 13 passengers pulled aside for extra screening, 7 were Western women and all appeared to be travelling solo and under the age of forty.
I travelled with hand luggage only and still the process entailed 3 hours so allow 3.5 to 4 hours if travelling with checked baggage. Spare a thought for the US doctor I met in Bethlehem who spent 7 hours crossing from Jordan at the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge.
Anyone with a scintilla of knowledge about the history and political situation of Israel and the Middle East will understand the necessity of Ben Gurion Airport’s stringent security.
I have fond memories of my trip to Israel and would love to return but, to be honest, is that elaborate security process something I want to experience more than once in a lifetime? I’ll have to have a careful think about that.
Further travel information on the region can be found in my Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territory Travel Guide post.