You Won't Believe What People Try to Smuggle Into Israel

Giant snails, straw brooms, pine trees and dates – lots of dates – are just some of the items confiscated at Ben-Gurion International Airport. Haaretz spends a day on the beet, sorry, beat with the 'plant police.'

This is either a giant African snail or the most disturbing urine sample of all time.
Ofer Vaknin

It’s noon and Israel’s international airport is buzzing. From our vantage point we can practically smell the duty-free shops. But we aren’t traveling abroad: our destination is the Arrivals hall. A flight just landed from St. Petersburg and our host, Shuki Kedmi – the head of the Plant Protection and Inspection Services at Ben-Gurion International Airport – is on the prowl.

After 20 years on the job, he knows what he’s looking for. He tugs on his muttonchop whiskers and studies the arrivers. They, meanwhile, are looking for their luggage on the carousel and then heading for the exit.

Kedmi zeroes in on a 60-ish-year-old woman with two suitcases. She thinks she has reached the Promised Land beyond the gate, but Kedmi stops her. Sheepishly, she removes four containers from her bag – each with a different sort of berry – and hands them over. I look at Kedmi admiringly. Some might call it intuition. I prefer “predatory instinct.”

He’s not looking for drugs, explosives or arms – he couldn’t care less about those. He’s here with but one purpose: To protect Israel’s plant life from travelers who irresponsibly bring mites, moth eggs, fungi and other forms of life alien to Israel. It’s hidden in fresh fruit and vegetables grown overseas, and could wreak havoc on the local agriculture and natural plants.

The woman squirms. She’s a naturalized Russian who’d gone back to her homeland to visit family. “This is smorodina, this is kroznik...” she says, listing the fruit she brought over, all unknown in Israel. “After 23 years here, we still miss them,” she adds, apologetically explaining her motive.

Kedmi relishes telling horror stories that sound rather too much like those disaster movies about viruses emerging out of some armpit in Africa or Asia and wiping out humanity in a week. “Most of the pecan trees in Israel are turning black, right?” he asks, reminding me of the black dust that would coat my hands when I’d pick nuts from my grandmother’s tree. “It happened because 30 years ago some farmer brought back a pecan branch to graft, which bore a few pecan mites. And remember the plague of Khomeini beetles that overran us in the 1980s? It began with a single beetle that reached Israel from Iran, from a student at the end of the Shah’s era. He brought a houseplant back to Israel for his mother.”

Shuki Kedmi with the straw brooms. Although they look innocuous, the brooms contained seeds with a virus that attacks wide-leaved trees.
Ofer Vaknin

Kedmi now exhibits a giant African snail housed in a jar in the Agriculture Ministry’s little zone at the airport. My stomach turns. It turns out the snail is a housepet in some places in Africa, and that in 2009, a woman called the Agriculture Ministry to complain that gigantic mollusks were “running” amok in her building’s garden in Tel Aviv.

Israeli snails are cute critters that don’t pass 4 centimeters (1.5 inches) in size. The residents of that Tel Aviv building woke up one morning to find about 50 African snails, which can, while devouring the garden, easily reach 22 centimeters.

All it takes to cause a plague is one person not thinking ahead.

“People coming from France and Belgium constantly bring mushrooms and endives,” says Kedmi. “Foreign workers bring huge amounts of seeds for fruit and vegetables. The Thai, for instance, bring roots, bulbs and edible snails, which carry the risk of viral meningitis.”

It’s awful to be caught smuggling. I once landed in Los Angeles with two apples in a bag for the flight, which I never ate. Right after passport control, I was accosted by a sniffer dog and my fruit was confiscated.

The Tel Aviv airport doesn’t use dogs to catch illicit produce, even though, Kedmi admits, “One dog could replace four inspectors.” Why? For the same reason dogs aren’t deployed in security at Israel Railways: “The Plant Protection manager at Ben-Gurion Airport, years ago, was a Holocaust survivor,” Kedmi explains. “He always argued that dogs have bad connotations for Jews.”

Shuki Kedmi tells a couple why their bottled drink won't be allowed into Israel.
Ofer Vaknin

Christmas tree in a matza box

The more time I spend with Kedmi, the more I start to wonder if the airport’s plant security isn’t a sort of floral racism. Is this fear of pests not in practice merely fear of the other – that some foreign pine tree will take the work from the Israeli version? Isn’t variety a good thing?

Sure, when it comes to friends and molecular genetics. In plant lice, it’s a whole other thing.

Naturally, some of the plant smuggling isn’t motivated by the heart yearning for gooseberries, but for a bargain. Blackberries in St. Petersburg or, say, a pineapple in the Dominican Republic, cost a fraction of their price in Israel. In 2015, the plant police caught no less than 16,000 kilograms (17.6 tons) of tropical fruit, of which 12,000 kilograms hailed from the Far East.

Of course, some try to smuggle in produce that costs pretty much the same here and there. Why? Just because they do.

If anything, though, most of the fruit and vegetables they proudly show me in the Confiscations room just makes me feel sorry for the perps. These aren’t commercial quantities and clearly weren’t being smuggled for the sake of filthy lucre, but because people are homesick for the flavors of the homeland.

Fruit and vegetables found in a suitcase at Ben-Gurion International Airport by the "plant police."
Ofer Vaknin

For instance, Kedmi shows me two tomatoes that arrived from Russia. They are rounder, bigger and paler than their Israeli cousins. They don’t look terribly inviting. All the “smuggler” wanted was for his mother, here in Israel, to eat something that grew in Grandma’s garden, which she remembers so fondly from childhood. Apricots from Moldova and yellow figs from Ukraine arrived under similar circumstances. They’re very different in size and color from the sort sold in Israel.

“Yesterday, a girl arrived from Moldova with a suitcase full of fruit covered in fly bites. Two weeks ago, a woman came from Russia with a box of matza,” recounts Kedmi. “I thought that strange – a box of matza in the middle of summer. I asked her to open it.” Her husband tried to push the inspector away, but Kedmi wasn’t having any of it. Inside the matza box, he says, “was a small pine tree.”

And it wasn’t even the first he’d seen. Seasonality plays a role in smuggling. Around last Christmas, he says, the inspectors caught 15 pine trees. Around Sukkot, they confiscated 650 etrogs. Come the Tu Bishvat holiday, confiscations of fresh produce and dates spike.

Yes, it is illegal to bring in dates. Other dried fruits are inspected by eye, to make sure they aren’t fungoid, but dates have pits that can harbor revolting life forms. In 2015 alone, the inspectors caught nearly 8,500 kilograms of dates. People seem obsessed with smuggling dates.

But pests that could eat Israel aren’t confined to fresh fruit and veg. They can hide in seemingly innocuous items.

“Yesterday, a couple flew in from Kyrgyzstan,” Kedmi relates. “They brought two straw brooms – that had seeds with a virus that attacks wide-leaved trees.”

The broom smugglers prompt the thought that people moving continent find themselves pining for not only the etiolated tomatoes that grew in Grandma’s garden or exotic berries, but humble cleaning products. I know housecleaning professionals who moved to an alien land and would pay an arm and a leg for Ama, the traditional Israeli brand of soap. It smells like a hospital corridor and can’t be found in California. But somehow, the local products just won’t do.