Friday, October 14, 2011

My Encounter with the Israeli Military

Israel/Jordan Border near the Red Sea
 Traveling overseas is always somewhat of a calculated risk. You are purposely placing yourself outside of your comfort zone (which sometimes is half the fun) and sometimes things go wrong. All the sudden you are faced with a problem that would be manageable at home, but in these new surroundings you know no one, you don’t know the laws, you don’t know the language and you are still recovering from the side effects of whatever the heck you ate from that street vendor who you knew looked sketchy but you threw caution to the wind in what now seems like a horrible lack of judgment. I could tell you that in these situations it’s important to keep your cool and try and rationally think through a solution, but obviously that’s easier said than done.

When I visited Israel in 2010 I had been across the border for less than half a day when I was stopped, accused of being a spy and detained on the side of the road for over an hour in 100 degree weather – and it was all because of a camel. I’m not sure this is the best example of “keeping your cool” but it is a reminder that at some point every traveler will hit a bump in the road. You will get past it, your trip will still be good, and it will make an interesting story when you return home.

 It was our first day in Israel after spending several days in Jordan. We had planned to spend the next week of driving across Israel and back. That morning we had taken a cab to the border, gotten out, walked through the check-points and picked up our rental car. We had been slightly nervous about the whole process and it hadn’t helped that there had been lots of whispered discussions by the guards over my passport. Now that we were safely in our rental car with Israeli tunes blasting, we were feeling awesome and super excited for the week ahead.

Our Car - The Getz...getting some air apparently
Our plan was to drive through the lower part of Israel with stops at some ancient Roman ruins, a local winery and the Mitzpe Ramon Canyon before spending the night in Masada. After a full day of driving, sightseeing, and taking pictures we were on our way. We had been seeing funny “camel crossing” signs all day and finally decided to stop and take a photo us with the sign.

Yes, this sign:

Courtesy of Ian W. Scott via Flickr
Go ahead and keep the ridiculousness of this picture in mind as I explain to you what happened next. So we set up a self timed shoot and took the photo and got back in the car and went on our way. We laughed at how dumb we must have looked to the cars passing by. Whats amazing is that with all the attention we paid to the camel signs we some how missed the multiple signs telling us this was a 'no picture' area.

Well anyway it must be heavily monitored because no more than 15 minutes later we passed a military vehicle going the other way. They pulled a sharp U turn and pulled us over. Keep in mind that at this point I had no idea what we had done - I assumed I had broken some kind of traffic law.

The car was staffed with several members of the Israeli Army, each sporting huge guns. They both got out of their vehicle and one stood on each side of our car.

After asking us the normal questions about what we were doing and where we were going he asked us if we had been taking pictures and requested to have our camera. At this point the pieces started coming together and we did our best to play dumb. Lucky for us it wasn't super hard to act like clueless tourists (since that's pretty much exactly what we were.)

Since we knew the incriminating picture was on my friend's camera which was stowed in her purse, we handed over my camera for review. The officer then reviewed all the photos we had taken on the trip. If our 'dumb tourist' defense needed any back up it was probably helpful that we had a sequence of 15 'failed jump' shot photos for his viewing pleasure:
I'm shocked he managed to keep a strait face
As he was reviewing our many photos I started to panic. I knew his next step would be searching the car and then he would find the other camera. In an act of desperation I started to fan my face and claimed to be overheating. I asked him if it would be possible for me to move the car back into the shade. He shockingly agreed so I rolled up the windows and backed up the car. Luckily  my friend was on the same page and as we backed away she was somehow to reach into her purse and delete the photo in the time it took the officer to walk back towards us.
Sure enough his next step was to search our bags, the car and the other camera. He then took our passports and called for back up.  At one point there were at lest 2 cars and 6 military guys handling our investigation. They took their time filling out paperwork, questioning us about our trip, and oddly giving us advice on the best sites to see in Israel.
After about an hour, they finally gave us back our passports and let us go on our way. They never actually specified if we were cleared of our charges or not. We spent the next two days looking over our shoulder to see if we had somehow attracted their attention again, but luckily that never happened.


Audrey said...

Ahh! What a day! It must've been hilarious for them to find a series of failed jumping shots and no sign of the camel, haha. Glad you got out of it unscathed!

ElizabethJ_Bird said...

Yeah - the bad photos were the most embarassing part but it probably convinced him that we weren't a pair of super smart international spies.

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