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Monday, September 25, 2006

Not a hammer, but some nails

A recent news story that may have escaped your notice involves not so much a clash of cultures as a cultural disconnect.  In fact, if not for the fact that the fate/liberty of a young Israeli backpacker named Noa Haviv hangs in the balance, this would actually be a funny story.

Allow me to bring you up to speed.

As is quite popular with the post-army set here in Israel, a young woman recently decided to spend some time between her national service and the rest of her life, backpacking around India. 

Ho hum, this couldn't possibly be of less interest.  Except for the small wrinkle.  You see, upon landing in India she was promptly arrested... and if convicted, faces a very lengthy spell in an Indian hoosegow.

It seems that before her trip this young woman asked her brother if she could borrow his backpack/duffel for her trip.  He said, "No problem" and Noa proceeded to pack the usual collection of stuff one needs for an extended trip abroad.  What she didn't count upon was a little something her brother had accidentally left in one of the inside pockets of the bag.

I know... you're probably thinking 'drugs', right?  Guess again.

I have to stop here for a moment and explain a bit about the cultural disconnect that led to this young woman's unfortunate detention.

Israel is a country where it is truly a rare family that doesn't have someone serving on active duty in the army or on the reserve rolls.  Add to that the fact that many (although certainly not most) Israelis keep or have access to firearms for personal protection or security-related work, and you have a rather odd phenomenon of bullets being scattered throughout homes, cars and personal belongings.

Before the uninitiated reader gets the idea that we Israelis live in a 'wild west' environment, let me assure you that gun control here is much stricter than most places in the world.  For instance, during army service it is literally pounded into every soldier that they will spend serious time in jail if they ever let their personal weapon out of their sight or have it stolen due to not properly securing it.  Likewise, anyone with a pistol has it drilled into them each time they renew their licenses that whenever their personal weapons are not physically on their person they must be 'double locked'... meaning secured behind not one, but two layers of locks (e.g. in a locked safe inside a locked room/house), otherwise if it is stolen you are going to jail, full-stop.

Just as an example... one of my regular hitchhikers was actually kicked out of officer's school a couple of weeks before graduation because he left his M-16 unattended for 30 seconds in a classroom while he stepped into the hallway to get a drink of water.

Another aspect of the stringency of Israeli gun control is that a license is related directly to a single  weapon by the serial number.  Unlike in the U.S. where a gun license would allow a citizen to purchase a small arsenal of 'personal weapons', here you are licensed for a specific weapon and are only allowed to possess the single gun for which you are registered.

My point is that even though guns are an ubiquitous part of the Israeli landscape, they are extremely well controlled.

However, bullets are another story. 

Like nearly all army equipment, people tend to hoard bullets out of all proportion to their actual need.  A typical home with an active duty soldier or reservist probably contains lots of extra 'kit' including uniforms, equipment vests (with the straps adjusted just so), helmet liners, and 101 other essential items that the army issues... but which seem to invariably go astray the moment you really need them.

In households where someone has access to, or need of, a gun (even for infrequent reserve duty), it is not at all uncommon to find boxes of bullets in the back of desk drawers, on closet shelves and in the trunk of cars.  Likewise, 'extra' magazines... especially the temperamental ones used in the M-16... are often squirreled away for the inevitable event that one becomes damaged or lost. 

Zahava can testify to the fact that I have extra M-16 magazines sitting on the ledge under the coat rack, on top of my dresser and in the closet.   And I also have extra magazines for my pistol in the storage slot of the car door as well as in several coat pockets. 

The idea behind the relative laxity regarding bullets is that they can't really cause much harm without a gun.  Quite simply, they figure that nails aren't much use without a hammer.

So this brings us back to our backpacker, Noa.

When she was packing up her bag to leave for India, she failed to notice that one of her brother's pistol magazines containing sixteen bullets (picture something about the size of a large candy bar or a cell phone) was stuffed deep inside an inner pocket of the duffel. 

She arrived at the airport and answered the security questions truthfully that she had packed her own bag... and that since then it had not been out of her possession.  This was good enough for El Al security and they cleared the bag for the flight.

However, upon arrival the pack was X-Rayed by the Indian authorities and the unmistakable image of a full magazine of sixteen bullets led to the young woman being immediately arrested.

There have been some incorrect reports in the international media that the woman was also in possession of a pistol.  I can assure you, after indirect contact with the family, that this is completely untrue and is not among the charges pending against her.  However in India, there seems to be little differentiation between bullets and guns... with both considered serious contraband carrying nearly equally stiff penalties.

Simply put, in India the penalty for posession of nails is a stiff as for hammers.

Needless to say, the family of this young woman is beyond distraught over the idea that instead of having a brief vacation followed by university... their daughter might be spending the next few years (at very least!) in an Indian prison.  And unfortunately, a previous case where a stiff jail sentence was handed down to another backpacker who was found in possession of a single bullet offers little in the way of hope.

I am telling you this story today in hopes that readers will take a few minutes from their busy day to communicate their concerns to the nearest Indian diplomatic mission.  It doesn't matter if it is an email, fax, phone call or snail-mail letter.  What is important is the content:

1.  Make sure to be respectful and non-confrontational.

2.  Express deep respect for the Indian judicial system as well as for the rule of law.

3.  Explain in a straightforward manner how, while Indian laws were certainly broken, it was never the intention of this young woman to do so.

4.  Mention the strong ties between Israel and India and the large number of young Israeli tourists who visit India every year.

5.  Point out that the young woman was not in possession of a firearm and in fact knows nobody in India who has one (which supports her claim that possession was completely unintentional).

5.  Bring up your opinion of how Israel's unique security situation (mandatory conscription/reserve duty, etc.) likely led to the oversight of the full magazine being forgotten in a backpack/duffel that had been used by an active-duty soldier prior to the young woman's trip.

6.  DO NOT say or write anything that would imply (even obliquely) that India's laws and/or judicial system are not equipped to justly deal with this issue.  On the contrary, you should go out of your way to point out India's long history of sophisticated jurisprudence and rule of law.

We can debate gun control.  We can argue over respecting the laws of sovereign nations and where responsibility falls in this particular case.  But the bottom line is that a young life is about to be senselessly derailed... and possibly ruined... over a truly innocent oversight.  There is nothing to indicate that anything we say will help, but it is certain that our silence can only hurt.


Posted by David Bogner on September 25, 2006 | Permalink


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» BlogAlert: Israeli backpacker needs YOUR help! from On the Contrary: Don's Mideast Musings
David Bogner of Treppenwitz has posted an important alert: a young Israeli backpacker has been arrested in India for possession of a pistol magazine, which had been left in the duffel bag she borrowed from her brother. While we Israelis are quite ...... [Read More]

Tracked on Sep 25, 2006 6:55:22 PM

» One Mistake And Your Life Changes from A Barbaric Yawp
Treppenwitz has the rundown on an Israeli backpacker who has found herself in a very uncomfortable position. Needless to say, the family of this young woman is beyond distraught over the idea that instead of having a brief vacation followed by u... [Read More]

Tracked on Sep 25, 2006 7:29:04 PM


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I was a little surprised once when after landing in NY and doing the laundry that I had a few bullets in a pair of pants that I had forgotten.

But that is nothing compared to my friend who flew out the day he got his 2 week leave from the army (some 10 years ago or so).

He got home and quickly stuffed his clothes into his bags and zoomed to the airport.

During the flight he opened his bag to get out a book and out fell 5 fully loaded M-16 magazines right onto the floor of the airplane!!!!

Needless to say he was surprised, as were the passengers next to him (who apparently thought he was their inflight air marshal).

He quickly shoved them back in, but wondered the rest of the flight what he was going to do now and worse, how was he going to get them back into Israel, because he did sign off on them after all.

Scary. Five full M-16 magazines in his carry-on and the x-ray guy did not catch them.

Posted by: JoeSettler | Sep 25, 2006 1:32:36 PM

bless you

Posted by: marallyn | Sep 25, 2006 1:38:25 PM

Will Do. I have good ties with the Singhs… :-)

Posted by: pk | Sep 25, 2006 5:29:16 PM

Y'all need to police your amunition. When I was 4 or 5 my little buddy and I found a loose 22 round. We promptly took it out to the sidewalk .... stuck it in a little hole in the concrete and hit it with a hammer. Both of us were splattered with little chunks of concrete. One hit me in the corner of the eye but luckilly my sight was not damaged.

Hope the Israeli gubmint can get this poor girl out of her jamb. One supposes that SOMEONE in the bureaucracy still cares about people.

Posted by: Scott | Sep 25, 2006 6:42:28 PM

Hi Dave -

I've blogged it with links here. I've also sent you a TrackBack ping, but I don't know if your TrackBack is really working.

Shana tova!


Posted by: Don Radlauer | Sep 25, 2006 7:02:24 PM

You might want to run this through some Indian blogs (indiauncut.blogspot.com) and the Indian media (www.rediff.com and www.timesofindia.com)

All the best!

Posted by: Prath | Sep 25, 2006 7:33:17 PM

To send a letter to the Indian Government we need the name of the young lady in trouble. A link to a news article would help, too.

While you're at it, how about a list of consulates and embassies?

Posted by: Warren | Sep 25, 2006 9:39:10 PM

What a sad, sad story. Hopefully, all these e-mails will reach reasonable people, who will know better than to make an example out of someone's misfortune and her lack of knowledge will prove a sufficient justification.

Posted by: Irina | Sep 25, 2006 10:28:54 PM

I know someone who was once arrested in Egypt (Sinai) with a bullet or two left over from his reserve duty in his bag. He told of several extremely unpleasant days spent in a-Tur prison, until money was sent from Israel for bail and/or he managed to persuade the judge of his innocence (I can't remember the precise details).

I think it happened at a time when we were on better relations with the Egyptians - during the Oslo years. I doubt they would be as understanding today.

Posted by: Imshin | Sep 25, 2006 10:40:39 PM

And here I thought I was the only one whose husband has three full clips in his dresser drawers...but at least my kids know DON'T TOUCH!

Posted by: westbankmama | Sep 26, 2006 9:25:02 AM

Joe Settler... Not to incriminate myself or anything, but I have flown both ways to and from the states and only when emptying out my suitcase did I find a full magazine of bullets in one of the pockets. Yikes.

Marallyn... I'm just the messenger.

pk... I hope it does some good. Thanks.

Scott... there is very little that will protect little boys from their curiosity... especially when it comes to stuff that can burn or be blown up.

Don... Thanks, yes they work but I have to approve them since getting slammed with trackback spam.

Prath... Good idea, thanks.

Warran... Good point. Done.

Irina... You should know better than most that ignorance of is rarely a good defense. I just hope the lack of intent is taken into account.

Imshin... I have yet to mention this story to someone without them telling a story about a friend or family member such as the one you shared.

Westbankmama... case in point. Thanks. :-)

Posted by: treppenwitz | Sep 26, 2006 11:35:28 AM

Just announced she was released on bail.

Posted by: Dave (Balashon) | Sep 26, 2006 2:03:40 PM

Recently I flew to and from the United States and Canada (meaning I went through 3 airports, 4 flights, ostensibly 8 security checks) with the following in my bag: hypodermic needles, syringes, vials of saline (though I suppose I could have injected something else into the vials) and a small scalpel. I didn't notice these things were in the bag I take with me to the hospital every day, until I got home. X-ray should have caught the needles and scalpel - and yes, these items were in my carry-on!

Posted by: Noa | Sep 26, 2006 2:54:35 PM

Am I the only one disturbed by the idea that El AL security didnt catch this?? A few questions was enough?? Sure, don't x-ray the bag, but why didn't they at least *go through it*? People pay good money for an El Al flight to be sure that the security is tighter, and had it been, this girl would have been saved a lot of grief. Was just being Israeli enough for El Al security??

Perhaps I'm just bitter because lil ole Canadian me got severely raked over the coals (including having my non-functioning camera seized) when I went through. lol

Posted by: celestial blue | Sep 26, 2006 3:50:58 PM

When I was a kid (9ys. old) in India, our neighbor-friend the Principal's son had a pellet rifle. We (me, my brother and him) went to buy some pellets in order to shoot at crows and had to produce some kind of a license to buy pellets, and each was sold individually.
Later we were sent down South India to boarding school, there was the an older boy who went hunting in the hills and accidentally shot and killed someone. His parents had to pay a lot of money to resolve the case and get him free.
I'm not terribly impressed by what I've heard of Indian jurisprudance. The stories I'm most familiar with are about civil-cases and collusion between both prosecutor and defending lawyers, arbitrated by a judge willing to be paid by each side to prolong the case and extract more money - which seems to be the case-deciding issue - payouts.
But that's all hearsay, good luck to the poor girl!

Posted by: DirtCrashr | Sep 26, 2006 6:29:10 PM

I blogged this onto FlyerTalk and will stick it on IndiaMike as well.

I've gotten through security several times in the states with a loose round in my pocket - there is not enough metal to set off the magnetomoenter. A clip though?

Posted by: AC | Sep 26, 2006 8:36:39 PM

Good luck Noa you will need it.. Shows no security check in Israel's El L.. I feel so safe..

Posted by: Knutz Cracka | Sep 26, 2006 9:35:47 PM

For what it's worth, El Al's security claims they focus (in the case of the non-carry-ons*) on finding things which can bring down the plane; a few bullets in a bag in the cargo hold aren't going to do anything.

*Carry-on luggage is x-rayed, as I can attest from recent personal experience.

Posted by: Eyal | Sep 26, 2006 10:37:34 PM

Ignorance of the law is certainly not an excuse. However, in many cases, ignorance of the FACT can be used as a justification if you can prove that any reasonable person IN YOUR POSITION could have made the same mistake.

Posted by: Irina | Sep 26, 2006 10:45:47 PM

I don't it very comforting that it could be reasoned that it's fine to let someone through because the bullets are no good without a gun. What if an entirely different security guard was letting someone else through with an empty gun thinking it was safe enough because hey, it has no bullets, and what good is a gun without bullets? And then poof! you have a loaded weapon in no time.

Again, we PAY El Al to take no chances. I got raked over the coals in the Israeli airport for taking a picture (in the bathroom no less. don't ask! lol), yet bullets are no big deal.

Perhaps I'm overreacting, but as I said, had they been more thorough, it could have been found by (more understanding) Israelis and not those in another country who aren't quite so lenient.

Posted by: celestial blue | Sep 27, 2006 3:21:59 PM

Dave... Yeah, but out on bail is a long way from having the charges dropped. It sounds like they have treated her fairly well (i.e. keeping her in the airport lock-up instead of the regular prison, etc.) but she doesn't have a passport and is not free to leave until this is resolved.

Noa... Now that you've kicked the drinking and gambling problems maybe it's time you thought about getting that drug problem under control. :-)

Celestial Blue... I shared your anger initially, but upon further reflection the job of El Al security is to screen out the people who would do harm, not catch every objectionable object. I'd say they have a very good track record if you look at it that way.

DirtCrashr... Please don't confuse reality with what I encouraged people to say in their correspondence. :-)

AC... thanks, much appreciated.

Knutz Cracka... As I said to Celestial, they are screening people more than bags. The point is not to keep a knife off the plane but to identify someone who is likely to use any weapon if given the opportunity.

Eyal... Good point.

Irina... Thanks for clarifying that. No further questions. ;-)

Celestial... again, they raked YOU over the coals (and likely many others on your flight. But they didn't check the luggage nearly as closely. It's just not practical to do so. the threat comes from people, not things.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Sep 27, 2006 5:26:34 PM

I feel horrible for this girl. Hopefully things will turn out OK. I remember the first time I went ot Israel in High School I brought empy bullet shells back with me as a souvenier from a shooting range I went to. Are used bullets considered the same as un used bullets? I also had a bullet necklace that I got in Israel which I am not sure if it was a live bullet or not.

Posted by: FrumWithQuestions | Sep 27, 2006 7:35:11 PM

Seems that by the time I got to this post, the young lady has been released. Good work, David....

Posted by: mcaryeh | Sep 28, 2006 8:01:14 AM

Actually they DID rake my luggage over the coals, THREE TIMES in fact.... for reasons that are unclear. Was it the 5'3" white Canadian Jewish girl that seemed like a threat? They went through my luggage, squeezed my toothpaste tube even, closed it all up.... and then at the last minute did it all over again while they walked me away and took me into another room to take my shoes off and put me through my 4th metal detector. I can't possibly imagine what I did to warrant all that, but there ya have it. They emptied my luggage and took it away to x-ray it, on top of everything else.

El Al has some crazy-ass rules, I tells ya.

Posted by: celestial blue | Sep 28, 2006 3:12:46 PM

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