11 March 2022
I got strip searched at Ben Gurion Airport. Thinking about it now, I could tell it was coming. I just didn’t want to believe it. Luckily, I arrived at the airport two and a half hours in advance of my flight to be safely on time with all of the COVID-related measures.
I walked into the airport with my excessive baggage – four suitcases to be exact – all at maximum sizes and weights allowed. I was flying Turkish Airlines, one of the remaining airlines to allow two suitcases of 50lbs each for international economy flights, and I was taking advantage of all that they had to offer. Truth is, I panic-packed when I flew to Israel nearly six months ago. The thought of buying something while abroad when I already have it at home always irritates me, so I brought everything I need and then some.
Pushing pretty much everything I own up the check-in aisle, I finally made approached the airport agent, a young lady in her twenties. She spoke in Hebrew, and I replied in English. It was way too early for language practice. It was just after 7:00 and I’ve been up since 4:00 to catch the train from Haifa to Ben Gurion Airport.
Airport Agent 1: “Ok, who packed your bags?”
Me: “I did.”
Airport Agent 1: “Have your bags been with you the entire time since you packed them?”
Airport Agent 1: “Has anyone given you anything to carry for them on this flight?”
Standard. I just need to make it through security. There aren’t that many people, I’ll have a lot of time to sit at the gate, maybe too much. I should’ve slept a bit longer. Never mind, I have a lot of emails, I’ll make some phone calls, maybe check out the overpriced duty free store…
Airport Agent 1: “Ok.”
The young lady has my attention again. She’s scanning my passport, looking at the computer, my passport, the computer, my passport, the computer, then leans over to the other young woman to her left and whispers something. I can’t make out what she is saying, but I hear “her father” and “this is the last name” in Hebrew and I’m curious. “Ask her” says the girl on the left.
Airport Agent 1: “Ok, I have a few more questions. How do you pronounce your last name?”
Airport Agent 1: “Say it again please.”
Airport Agent 1: “One more time.”
She leans over to the girl on her left and whispers something again. The other one just finished checking in another traveler and turns to question me.
Airport Agent 2: “Ok, could you please pronounce your last name for us?”
Me: Weird. “Ok. Mooy-kah-noh-vich.”
Airport Agent 2: “Are there any other ways your last name is pronounced?”
Me: Weird. “Not that I know of. This is how I’ve always pronounced it.”
Airport Agent 2: “And where are you from?”
Me: That’s a really tough question. I wish I knew. “I’m American, but I was born in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it’s written on my passport.”
Airport Agent 2: “Ok, what is your father’s name?”
Me: How is this relevant? “Senad.”
Airport Agent 2: “Say it again please.”
Airport Agent 2: “And what is your mother’s name?”
Me: Oh, this one might be a trigger. “Đemila.”
Airport Agent 2: “Say it again.”
Me: Yep, exactly what you heard. “Jeh-mee-lah.”
Airport Agent 2: “And where are they from?”
Me: “Bosnia. Bosnia all the way down” I joke and laugh. They’re not entertained.
Airport Agent 2: “What about your siblings, what are their names?”
Me: Wow, it’s way too early for memory games. I haven’t had my coffee yet. “Ok, sure. De-yahn (Dejan), Nehr-mee-nah (Nermina), and Sah-shkah (Saška).”
Airport Agent 2: “And where are they from?”
Me: Is this a trick question? “Bosnia, we’re all from Bosnia, as far as we can trace it.”
Airport Agent 2: “Ok, and what about your grandparents, what are their names?”
Me: How does this help you? “Alright. Heel-mee-yah (Hilmija) is my grandfather on my mom’s side, Sha-chah (Šaha) is my grandmother. On my dad’s side, Ham-dee-yah (Hamdija) is my grandfather and Aasee-yah (Asija) is my grandmother.”
Airport Agent 2: “And where are they from?”
Me: Jesus. “Bosnia.”
Airport Agent 2: “And what do you do in Israel?”
Me: As if you don’t already know. “I’m a researcher, conducting fieldwork in Israel for my dissertation. I study conflict.”
Airport Agent 2: “OK.” Whispers something to the other one. “Please wait here.”
Me: Where would I go? “Ok.”
The two walk over to another two, older and seemingly more experienced, agents. They show them my passport exchange some words. My interrogators return.
Airport Agent 2: “Ok, you can proceed over to check in,” she says and smiles for the first time.
Me: Relieved. “Thank you!” I begin to walk over to the Turkish Airlines desk.
Airport Agent 2: “By the way, how did you end up in Israel?” she says smiling as though we just met at a bar in Tel Aviv while enjoying a nice cocktail.
Me: I smile in return. “Ahm. My partner was Israeli. We met in the USA and came here together. I lived here for a few years and then went back to the USA to do my doctoral studies.” I’m oversharing, it’s what I do when I’m nervous. I don’t want her to see me as a threat and I know this gives me leverage. I’m annoyed with myself for doing it.
I proceed to the check-in counter and stand in what is supposed to be a line but looks more like an ant hill. People are pushing their way to the surface as though they will otherwise be buried behind. I am next but can see the man on my right inching closer, ready to step in. When the couple in front of me moved, I jump forward and utter loudly while looking back at the man: “Excuse me!” He steps back and utters something under his breath. My small victory.
The airline agent is friendly but doesn’t smile. She takes my passport and asks where I’m going. “Pittsburgh, United States,” I say. I place my bag on the conveyor belt and then place the other. Exactly fifty pounds each. That’s right, no space wasted.
Airline Agent: “And what are you taking on board the flight?”
Me: Pulling forward my remaining two bags. “My carry on and personal item.”
Airline Agent: Looks suspiciously at my personal item. “The personal item must fit underneath the seat.”
Me: “I know. It does.”
Airline Agent: “Please place your carry on item on the scale.”
Me: I dreadfully oblige knowing it’s overweight. “Here you go.”
Airline Agent: Looks at the scale showing 3 extra pounds. “It’s overweight” she whispers. “Just be mindful when transferring, they might check again.”
Me: Relieved. “Ok, thank you!”
Airline Agent: “Here are your boarding passes and your passport. Please proceed to your gate.”
Finally, I can move forward. Wow, it’s so much easier to move with these two small bags. I’ll never pack so much again. I’m tired. I might just take a nap at the gate when I arrive. I still need to send some emails.
Now I am at the security check-in. The security agent looks at my passport and says, please proceed with me to the left. She walks me over to the alternate security check-in and leaves me there with several people in front of me. This is never going to end, no emails and no naps.
There were only 3 people in front of me when I first arrived, but it took me around 45 minutes to be called inside the security area and place my stuff on the table. In front of us, there was a security gate operated only from inside the security area. The security agents moved at snail pace, occasionally stopping to chat with one another and laugh. As my boarding time was getting closer, I approach the security agent operating the gate.
Me: “My flight boards in 20 minutes, just so you know.”
Security Agent 1: “Yes, we know that.”
I stand back in line. The line behind me has extended. It consists predominantly of Arabic speakers, mostly Palestinians, and some other foreigners. Another line on the right has opened and is moving faster. For every one person they allow from our line, two to three individuals proceed from theirs. No Arabic speakers in their lane, just some happy German and Polish tourists. The agent operating the security gate chats with them, they laugh. No small talk with us.
I have 15 minutes until boarding, and I’m finally called inside the security area. They send my carry on through the x-ray machine and call me to the other side, where I am greeted by two security agents in their early twenties. One of them is obviously training the other and I realize that this is going to literally take forever.
Security Agent 2: “Please open your bags.”
Me: “Ok. Both of them?”
Security Agent 2: “Yes.”
Me: I unzip both my bags. “Here you go.”
Security Agent 2: “Do you have any liquids?”
Me: “Yes, but they are all in containers under 3 ounces.”
Security Agent 2: “Where are they? Please show them to me.”
Me: I open the purse carrying all of my cosmetics and then another one with makeup. “Here.”
Security Agent 2: “Do you have any electronics?”
Me: “Yes, my laptop and a tab. I have a recorder, not sure if that counts.”
Security Agent 2: “Yes, please take them out. Also, pull out any chargers and cables.”
Me: “Ok, I have a lot of those.” I pull out my laptop, my ReMarkable tab, and then my cables and chargers. I empty all the contents into the bin.
The security agent in training begins to examine and wipe every tiny item. She digs into my computer bag, reaches inside every pocket, takes of the cover from my ReMarkable tab to wipe underneath, examines each and every cable, then begins to open each of my clothing bags. She reaches into the small bag with my undergarments, the one with my shirts, then the rest. She pulls out Alaska, the husky puppy toy my friends bought me after my dog passed away and examines it confusedly. For a moment I am terrified that they might try pulling it apart. Would I protest? I realize that I don’t know my rights at the airport. Can I refuse to let them do that if I so chose? I never thought to check. I bet people who deal with this regularly know the answer.
Security Agent 3: “Everything?”
Security Agent 2: “Yes, check everything.”
The former continues to rummage through my things. They move away from the table and leave me there waiting on the other side looking at my exposed underwear. They discuss something quietly then come back.
Security Agent 2: “Ok, we will move your stuff over to the other side. Please grab it and come with me.”
I’m confused where we are going but I start grabbing my stuff. I’m worried something will be left behind. I hate that I packed so many things I can’t keep track of now. I will never pack so much. The overseer and her trainee walk into another sectioned-off area where four other young women wait for their stuff to be checked. Three of them appear to be Palestinian, one is foreign. I follow the security agents’ lead and place my stuff on the table to be examined. Then they proceed with the tedious process of wiping and checking each item inside of my personal luggage. The testing machine for the wipes is backed up and not operating. This is literally taking forever, and I realize the time.
Me: “Excuse me. My flight is boarding as we speak.” I look at both agents.
Security Agent 2: “We know, they have been informed.”
Security Agent 3: “Yes, they know. It’s OK, you will get on your flight.”
What does that even mean? Who knows and what do they know? I don’t even know what is going on. Now I am stressed, even a little afraid. In all my many years of going in and out of Israel, 7 years to be exact, I have never dealt with this kind of treatment. I don’t know what triggered it and wish someone would just tell me. Most importantly, I don’t know how much I am obliged to comply. Should I refuse and make a scene? That might make things worse, and I might really miss my flight. I just want to leave, why is it so hard to leave this place? Is it supposed to deter me from coming back? They don’t know that I have short memory. In fact, I’m writing it all down right now just so I’ll remember.
Security Agent 3: “Please come and sit here.”
Me: I move over to the left and point to a seat close to the other foreign-looking girl. “Here?”
Security Agent 3: “Yes, here. We will call you.”
The foreign girl on my left smirks under her mask. She seems experienced and talks to the security agents as though she knows them. Actually, she does know them, it appears. She is now arguing with a group of them.
Foreign Girl: “No, I’m sorry, I’m complying with everything else you are asking me to do, but I will not step into the x-ray machine. I travel through here every month to see my family and I don’t want to be exposed to the x-ray machine so frequently because it is harmful to my health. Please speak to your supervisor because I will not go inside.”
The young security agents whom she addressed look perplexed, not knowing how to respond. They call over the older security agent who addresses the foreign girl.
Security Agent 4: “Ok, why are you being difficult? I have already been flexible with you about the other issue, what is the problem now?”
Foreign Girl: “I don’t want to do the x-ray. We do this every time I travel. They told me I won’t have to do this again. It’s not good for my health. I will not put my health at risk.”
Security Agent 4: “This is standard procedure, and everyone has to do it.”
Foreign Girl: “I’m not going in there.”
Security Agent 4: Visibly frustrated and now raising her voice. “This is not optional.”
Foreign Girl: “I’m not going in there. Who is your supervisor?”
Security Agent 4: “I will get you their information as soon as we are done.”
Foreign Girl: “No, I would like to have it now. And what is your name?”
Security Agent 4: Provides her name and mutters under her breath agitated. “Ok, you will then be examined right now.”
Foreign Girl: “Ok, fine.” She follows the two young agents into a small, curtained room next to the x-ray machine and steps in. She knows the drill.
The two agents examining my stuff approach me, and I am hoping it is all over, but at this point I think I understand the process and know that there is more. I’m not sure what happens in the curtained room, but I’m probably going to have to do the x-ray.
Security Agent 3: “Ok, you will now go into the x-ray machine while the rest of your stuff is being checked.”
Me: “Ok.” I move to the x-ray machine eagerly, ready to get it over with so I can finally leave.
Done. I sit back down. My two interrogators move over to the phone booth to make a call. I hear them talking to someone on the other side in Hebrew as I wait patiently. “Yes, she did the x-ray. What...? Ok.” They hang up and the security agent in training approaches me almost apologetically.
Security Agent 3: “Ahm. We will now examine you in the room over there. We would like to ask you to step inside that room with us.”
Me: Okayyy. “Ok.”
We walk over to the curtained room. I step inside and the other two follow. It’s really tight in here. I can almost feel their breaths on my skin. It’s weird being in close proximity with strangers in such an intimate space. So much for personal space.
Security Agent 3: “Ok, I will now examine you.”
Me: I don’t know what that means. “Ok.”
She then proceeds to run her hands over every inch of my body. Now, this is really uncomfortable. I’m beginning to feel genuinely violated and I don’t know how to respond. I just stand there compliant. She runs her security wand over the rim of my jeans, my pockets, and then literally my private parts. This is really disturbing. It’s like I’m watching it all happen to someone else.
Security Agent 3: “Just a minute.”
They step out of the curtained room, leaving me with my arms and legs spread. Then they come back a moment later and bring in the other security agent that argued with the foreign girl. Now there are 4 of us occupying a space the size of a small bathroom stall. I’m trying to anticipate what comes next.
Security Agent 4: “We would like to ask you to pull down your pants to your knees.”
Me: Not where I thought this was going. Is this a joke? “To take down my pants?”
Security Agent 4: “Yes, so we can examine you.”
Me: I laugh nervously and pause unsure what to do. “Ok.” I unbutton my jeans hesitantly and pull them down.
I am exposed. I look down at my underwear then at the three security agents in front of me. The agent in training scans the inside of the rim of my jeans, the button, and the zipper with her little wand. Then she runs the wand over my underwear and scans my private parts. No joke, she scanned my private parts, again.
I feel humiliated. Two hours of progressive harassment, for what? I can’t tell if I’ve been randomly singled out or if I am being punished for associations I’ve made during my research in Israel. Perhaps it was my trips to E. Jerusalem? Perhaps I spoke with individuals they’ve been monitoring? A lot of thoughts are going through my head but the most salient among them is – WTF, how is this acceptable?
My thoughts are interrupted when one of them tells me we are done and that I can get dressed. I don’t respond or look at them. I just pull up my jeans and zip them up. I walk out of the curtained room and the foreign girl looks at me with understanding. Standard procedure.
Me: I walk over to the table holding my stuff and address the agent in training. “Excuse me, what is the time?”
Security Agent 3: “It’s 9:40. They know you are coming. Do you need us to help you pack?”
Me: I don’t look up at her. I might cry. “No, I’m ok. I’ll do it myself.”
My flight leaves in exactly 10 minutes but I don't even care. I slowly organize my stuff into bags and hope that nothing is left behind. I make sure that my main items are in place: laptop, ReMarkable, and Alaska. The rest, well, hopefully it’ll all turn up. I finish packing my stuff, put on my shoes, and start walking over to my gate.
Now my passport won’t scant . Jesus, what now? I call over the passport control agent.
Me: I nearly yell. “My passport won’t scan.”
Passport Control: “Try the other one.”
Nope, not that one either. Or that one. Seriously?! Ok, scanned, good.
Finally, I walk down the ramp, make my way through the circular corridor, and arrive at my gate. Everyone has already boarded. At least there is no line. I step over to the airline agent and she greets me with a smile. She looks at my seemingly oversized bags, pauses, looks back up at me and says: “Have a nice flight!” It’s enough for today, she can tell. I thank her, walk unto the bridge, and get on my flight. The flight attendants greet me, and I find my seat. My bags fit overhead and underneath the seat – great! I sit down and breathe.
WTF was that about?