When I told friends I was invited on a press trip to Israel, many expressed caution. The Middle East is a constant source of conflict, and after the latest hostility, many well-known entertainers such as Neil Young, America, and the Backstreet Boys cancelled their tours with the exception of Lady Gaga.
In reality, I relish Israel particularly
Jerusalem, the celebrated epicenter of three major monotheistic religions and where the Bible literally replaces commercial guidebooks. I have never felt more secure than on a previous trip with groups of well-equipped young soldiers located in every tourist area. Military service mandatory at 18, men serve three years; women, 22 months. When they enter post-secondary school afterwards, they tend to be serious students.
El Al Airlines employs rigorous security measures, making it the safest airline in the world. With state-of-the-art defense systems in place, no plane has been hijacked or shot down, and many aircraft are equipped with anti-missile technology.
Ironically, getting out of Israel was harder than getting in. At
Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, all vehicles encounter a preliminary security check (armed guard) before entering the airport compound. (That was impressive.) Armed security personnel stationed at the terminal entrances keep a close watch on all who enter, and plainclothes armed personnel patrol the area with hidden surveillance cameras operating continuously.
The screening area inside is surrounded by blast-proof glass that can handle a detonation of up to 100 kilos of plastic explosive. Only a few dozen people need be removed, and merely to a point a few metres away. If a screener spots a suspect bag, he/she is trained to place it in a blast proof box. The bomb squad will then wheel the box away for further investigation.
On either end, you must arrive at the terminal three hours before your flight as the detailed security procedures can be time-consuming. Departing passengers are questioned by security agents even before arriving at the check-in desk. This interview may last as little as a minute, or as long as an hour if a passenger is selected for additional screening. Luggage and body searches may be conducted. After the search, bags are placed through an X-ray machine before passengers proceed to the check-in counters. My suspect bag was opened because I had packed a hardcover book, and the x-ray machine didn't like its shape. There was no removal of shoes or belts, but you best not appear anxious when interviewed.
At Pearson International Airport, just outside the El Al Israeli check-in area, two hefty policemen equipped with equally bulky guns, stand stolidly at the ready. I check in with a lady clerk who passes me off to Levy, a tall man who introduces himself as head of security. I am impressed by my apparent VIP status, but wonder if it's in a negative context. He photocopies my passport. I show him my itinerary from Israel's Ministry of Tourism.
Levy's main concern is - who packed my bags, were they ever out of my sight and is there anything inside such as a gift that resembles a weapon? At this check-in area, I'm provided with a bag of gifts from Israel's Toronto Tourism office. I recycle a toy plane and a teddy bear, causing an appreciative passing child to exhibit a huge smile. Wait until you go through security, I think.
Later on, at the actual boarding area, we pass through the same security personnel who again check passports. They ask me for a second proof of who I am and seem somewhat concerned. They ask if I have dual citizenship and another passport. Later, I discover that my passport picture is relatively dark. I notice that even the duty-free materials are x-rayed before allowed on board. Unlike my previous trip in both NYC and Tel Aviv, in Toronto, they do not x-ray my carry-on bag. Finally I board the plane.
It's a long flight at 10.5 hours, flown by a retiring El Al pilot - his last flight (with his wife for company) and paranoia sets in after the PA announcement as I worry that he might want to go out with a bang.
At 4 am (+ 7 hours difference from Toronto) we arrive at Ben Gurion International Airport named after
David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973), primary founder and first Prime Minister of Israel. I am whisked through customs by a young lad named Gar who is studying law. Davie, my driver, takes me to Jerusalem, and we enjoy a spirited conversation. As a courtesy, he drives by the residence of
Benjamin Netanyahu, head of the Likud, party, current Israeli PM.
We soon arrive at the Inbal hotel - wow! Lavish, snazzy and in a perfect location near the Old Town. I have several hours before my companions arrive, two New York writers, and the front desk clerk suggests a walk to the nearby train depot which has been converted to eateries, shops and entertainment - which I explore and then head NW to discover an attractive park donated by two Montrealers - the Bloomfield's.
This lush park is a great place to view the eastern wall of the Old City, stretching parallel to its long border. You can saunter undisturbed by crowds in elegant surroundings with sculptures gracing the way. A very peaceful setting. I walk close to three hours then back to Inbal to wait for my travel companions -
Patricia Schultz of
1,000 Places to See Before You Die fame and
Greg Salisbury, editor of two Philly travel mags. They eventually arrive with Iggal Zeevi, our guide, and Niso Saado, our driver, & tomorrow we get started!
A bonus accorded on both trips was a wait in the luxurious El Al Lounge which provides ample free food and drink (alcoholic included) and even a shower area for weary travelers. A real touch of class.
Besides writing for the five Niagara Postmedia newspapers, Mike has been published in every major newspaper across Canada including the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, and Toronto Sun. He has been published in National Geographic Traveler, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City, Seniors Review and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. With hundreds of reviews, photos and helpful votes, he has earned Trip Advisor's "Top Contributor Badge" and is considered an "Expert" in both Hotels and Restaurant reviews. Mike posts photos to Pinterest where he has a following of four thousand viewers.