How do find you find the El Al check-in desk at Heathrow? Just look for the armed police

The idea is, if you take away any signage, a terrorist will wander about lost until he gives up

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The Independent Online

As predicted in last week’s column – my entry into Israel was not entirely uneventful. First, general orientation is a problem. It seems that there is a major new player in the war against terrorism – the sign remover. The idea appears to be that if you take away any signage telling you where a company or organisation is, then a terrorist will wander around lost until he gives up.

I encountered this on a visit to a rival newspaper a week ago. The Daily Telegraph has removed all public indications that its headquarters are where they are. This didn’t stop me finding it because I’d Googled the address but perhaps it prevents the angry spur-of-the-moment attack by a passer-by terrorist from the Tunbridge Wells Liberation Front whom, having spotted the Telegraph nameplate, decides to attack there and then?

El Al, the Israeli national airline, has its own separate check-in area at Heathrow’s Terminal 4 and it is not prominently advertised although relatively easy to find since it’s ringed with armed police. A very unsmiling security woman asked me what other countries I’d visited in the Middle East. As I started to list them she became even more unsmiling and called over several equally unsmiling colleagues to discuss the serious security threat in front of her. It took half an hour for them to accept that I was travelling to Israel to present an award show and nothing more nefarious. Seemingly as way of an apology I was handed an invitation to the El Al business lounge for which I was grateful as it was still a long time until my flight; as the airline insists you arrive three hours before take-off due to their security “extras”. 

The problem was that I couldn’t find the thing. I eventually asked a member of staff and discovered the problem. The El Al business lounge is next to the Gulf Air business lounge and so, I assume to avoid any incidents, the lounge is called something anodyne like the Emerald Platinum Club. This all seemed very weird and I stood outside for several minutes watching fully robed Arab and Orthodox Jewish passengers stare at each other suspiciously as they climbed the same stairs to their respective destinations.

Upon arrival at Ben Gurion airport, a Shin Bet officer interrogated me. She started the interview on the premise that I was a member of Hezbollah and challenged me to prove otherwise. It would be fair to say the Israeli security service don’t do customer service.

After two hours and most of the contents of my iPhone address book being downloaded on to a state computer, I was allowed in. Three hours later I was in Jerusalem, wandering through the beautiful alleys of the Old City. If you need a lesson in why the Middle East is the way it is, visit Jerusalem, where an area not much bigger than a football pitch is claimed by three of the world’s major religions as their epicentre. It’s a recipe for disaster. Fortunately, having flown El Al, I was fully prepared for the experience.