Stereotyping security

Racism or necessity? Security checks at Israeli airports raise ire among Arabs and visiting pilgrims.

ben gurion security chec (photo credit: )
ben gurion security chec
(photo credit: )
Rania Jubran is the first-ever Israeli Arab cadet, or diplomatic intern, in the Foreign Ministry, and she is also the daughter of Supreme Court Justice Salim Jubran. In mid-February, before boarding a flight to Barcelona, Jubran, 26, showed passenger security examiners at Ben-Gurion Airport her Foreign Ministry ID card, but it didn't help. They took her aside and told her to open her suitcases, which they tagged as a high security risk. Then the questioning got going in earnest. "At that point I asked to clarify the matter with the security officer in charge," she wrote to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in a letter that found its way into Yediot Aharonot. "As a result, two senior security officers came over. I showed them my Foreign Ministry employee's card, but they ignored it and began asking me the same questions I was asked by the junior security officer. The questioning was inconsiderate, disrespectful and rude toward me as an Israeli citizen, and certainly as a Foreign Ministry employee." It was only after Jubran contacted a Foreign Ministry official at the airport that she was allowed to board the plane. But then when her trip was over and she was about to get on a return flight to Ben-Gurion, overseas Israeli airport security officials put her through the same, or maybe even a little worse, ordeal. Taken aside again, she produced not only her Foreign Ministry ID, but her father's Supreme Court calling card as well. "This only worsened the situation and increased the suspicions," she wrote in the letter. "The security officer began to interrogate me about my Foreign Ministry employee's card and about the location of the Foreign Ministry, as if I was pretending to be someone I wasn't." At first the El Al security officer in charge would not allow Jubran to board the plane, but she finally convinced him that she presented no terrorist threat and was allowed to come home. Jubran told me that the details in the story were accurate, but that the Foreign Ministry would not permit her to be interviewed about the incident. There are countless other stories not only from Israeli Arabs, but also from non-Arab gentiles, and even from wildly pro-Israel Christian evangelists, about excessively suspicious, insensitive, humiliating treatment at the hands of Israeli airport security examiners. Dr. Rajai Dajani, 68, a gynecologist in Jerusalem's Beit Hanina neighborhood, travels with his wife to Europe or North America about three times a year to see their children and grandchildren or take vacations, and each time the inspection of their bags at Ben-Gurion, and sometimes of their bodies as well, takes "a minimum of two hours," he says. "Once they nearly undressed my daughter completely; another time they made my wife take her bra off." (Body checks, i.e. strip searches, at the airport are conducted in a closed room by security inspectors of the passenger's gender. Examiners can ask passengers to strip down as far as their undershorts or panties.) "Some of the security people are very decent; the last time we traveled one of them spoke to us in Arabic and was very apologetic," Dajani continues. "But sometimes they're very nasty. Once I asked the examiner for a chair because a man of my age can't stand for two hours, and he said it wasn't his job to give me a chair. Another time my daughter was a nervous wreck after being examined, and I told them, 'This is no way to treat people,' and they told me if I didn't like it, I didn't have to fly." Els van Diggele, 40, an Amsterdam author who lived and wrote here for a decade before returning home last year, describes herself as "the only non-evangelical Christian I know of who defends Israel," yet she had to endure nearly hour-long security examinations whenever she flew out of Ben-Gurion. The examiners were never rude to her, van Diggele notes, describing them as "friendly in a businesslike way." But they typically went through every item in her bags. Once, she says, they made her read aloud from notes for a book she was writing. Another time they didn't allow her to take her laptop computer on board. She recalls one of the inspections in which she had to take off her jewelry: "I couldn't get my ring off, maybe because I was so hot and miserable and tense, so I had to go over to a machine where they checked my ring while it was on my finger. I told them, 'This is going too far.' You can't imagine how relieved you feel when they finally let you go." THESE SORTS of accounts from Ben-Gurion Airport are anything but new. The official response all along has invariably been to point out the grave terror threat this country faces, and to insist laconically that the questioning, baggage examinations and body checks of passengers are for security's sake alone, that there is no racism or xenophobia involved, that improvements in service are constantly being made, and that any passenger complaints of maltreatment are thoroughly investigated. In recent months, however, the controversy has come to the surface as several highly reputable, thoroughly peaceable Israeli Arabs have gone public with charges of being harassed at the airport. Labor MK Nadia Hilou, who says she and her family went through an experience at Ben-Gurion about a year ago that she "won't forget," is pressing Knesset, security and airport officials to change the examination policy. The liberal New Israel Fund has been doing the same, spurred by the treatment suffered at the airport over the last year by several of its Israeli Arab activists. Machsom Watch, whose members monitor IDF treatment of Palestinians at West Bank checkpoints, is after the Israel Airports Authority to allow it to post a monitor at Ben-Gurion's security stations - a request that was turned down, but which Machsom Watch hasn't dropped. In December, two Israeli Arab organizations, the Arab Association for Human Rights and the Center Against Racism, published a study about the treatment of Israeli Arab passengers by airport authorities, describing it as "racial profiling" accompanied by frequently degrading treatment. "This offensive practice accentuates the sense of discrimination felt by Arab citizens, reinforcing their feeling that they are considered second-class citizens by the state," the report concluded. THERE IS no arguing that security officials scrutinize Arabs, including Israeli Arabs, much more carefully than they do Jews. Less risky than Arabs but riskier than Jews, in the eyes of security, are non-Arab gentile passengers. An airport official admitted as much to me off-the-record, while "Jackie," a former airport security examiner, states plainly that this is the policy. "Ultimately, it's a question of [ascertaining a passenger's] loyalty to Israel," says Jackie, who worked at Atarot, Ben-Gurion and Eilat airports as well as Israeli airline terminals abroad for a few years during the last decade. "A Jew would only be coming here because he loves Israel, and he wouldn't commit a terrorist act. You can't make that same assumption about Israeli Arabs or non-Jews." He adds, however, that according to policy, an Israeli Arab who's served in the IDF is considered no higher a security risk than a Jew. Furthermore, he says, the level of suspicion - and thus the rigor of the airport examination - varies according to the individual Arab or gentile, with the greatest suspicion falling on males between their late teens and mid-30s who are traveling alone. And even if security examiners become satisfied that an Arab or gentile is not himself a terrorist, they have to determine if his bags might have been tampered with by a terrorist without his knowledge. This second line of questioning is also put to Jewish passengers, and answers that sound fishy, or unidentifiable objects in a suitcase that turn up on the X-ray, will likely mean further questioning of a Jewish passenger and inspection of the contents of his bag - but Jewish passengers go through this much, much less frequently than do Arabs and gentiles. Jackie thinks the ethnic profiling system, with all the purely personal profiling it also entails, is legitimate and necessary because it accurately reflects the demographics of anti-Israeli terror. Making everyone go through the same examination, regardless of whether they're Jewish, Arab or non-Arab gentile, would make Israeli air travel prohibitively slow and expensive, he says, and also would be illogical from a security standpoint. He says he wouldn't change the profiling system. What he says he would change, though, is the behavior of the minority of airport security examiners who conduct their questioning and baggage inspection of non-Jewish passengers, especially Arabs, "with rudeness, a rough manner of speech, manhandling their possessions, being overly suspicious and sometimes even vindictive. Say there was a suicide bombing the day before - an Arab passenger comes through and [some examiners] are deliberately going to give him a hard time." Jackie says the security staff at Atarot treated Arabs and gentiles respectfully. The worst treatment he saw was at Eilat airport, with Ben-Gurion falling somewhere in between. Asked to explain the difference, he suggests that the examiners at Atarot were mainly English-speaking college students with a "worldly" upbringing, while those at Eilat tended to be a little younger and just out of the army, not fully decompressed yet. The problem at Ben-Gurion, he says, is that it's a high-pressure security "factory" - so many examiners are checking so many passengers that consideration often goes by the board. "I sort of got the feeling at certain airports that [improper treatment of Arab or gentile passengers] wasn't frowned upon, that what was important was that the planes left on time and didn't blow up," he says. And while security inspectors who mistreat Arab or gentile airline passengers are in the minority, he notes, "even if there are only three [bad apples] working on a given day, just multiply that by the number of flights and passengers they're handling." THE ISRAELI style of airport security, it must be understood, didn't come out of nowhere. The challenges facing airport examiners are severe. The claim that Israeli passenger planes face an unusually high threat of terror isn't made up, after all. Also undeniable is that security checks of passengers have given Ben-Gurion the reputation as the world's safest, most secure airport, borne out most recently by an October 2006 Conde Nast Traveler magazine poll of international air passengers. The Israeli method has proved itself as a protector of human life - the most important criterion. In 1986 a pregnant Irishwoman named Anne Murray made it past Heathrow airport security and was going to board an El Al plane to Ben-Gurion, but El Al security officers questioned her further, didn't like her answers and had her open her suitcase. In a secret compartment they found a bomb, placed there without her knowledge by her fiance, Jordanian Nezar Hindawi, who is now serving a 45-year prison sentence in Britain. Yet another undeniable fact is that a hijacker or bomber of an Israeli or Israeli-bound airplane is extremely likely to be an Arab or Muslim, while the chance of his being a Jew is infinitesimal. So as long as human judgment is required in airport security, at least some measure of ethnic profiling is probably going to be unavoidable. But there is still one more undeniable fact: All those countless Arabs and gentiles who get the third degree from Israeli airport security examiners are at least 99.9999% guaranteed not to be hijackers or bombers. So while some measure of ethnic profiling is probably necessary, the experience of Rania Jubran and many other Israeli Arabs and gentiles indicates that Israel's policy, at least in practice, could stand more flexibility. The policy of checking passengers for security at Israeli airports and Israeli terminals abroad is set by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) - which refused to be interviewed. Attempts to interview Gabi Ophir, general manager of IAA, were unsuccessful. Rafi Ron, a former security chief at Ben-Gurion who spoke with UpFront some months ago about the thinking behind airport security, declined to be interviewed about the subject of this article. IAA spokesman Shmuel Hefetz deferred all questions about security to the Shin Bet, but noted that in the last year more efforts were being made to placate Israeli Arabs about their treatment by airport examiners. An IAA unit staffed by three Israeli Arabs was set up to provide Arab passengers with a more familiar "address" for their concerns. Also, Ophir has been meeting in a regular forum with representatives of the Israeli Arab community. Out of the 9 million passengers who passed through Israeli airports last year, there were 635 complaints about the security inspections. "Obviously, every complaint is checked out very seriously," maintains Hefetz. Jackie, however, says that while he doesn't have first-hand knowledge of how complaints against security examiners are followed up, his assumption, given the airport officials' attitude toward security, is that they are not taken very seriously. Noting that he never heard of a security examiner being disciplined as a result of a passenger's complaint, he says, "I imagine it would have to be a case of overwhelmingly bad behavior, or somebody whose name keeps coming up. But passengers [going through extensive questioning and baggage inspection] get impatient, it's an awful thing to go through, and I would think that the people handling the complaints would tend to discount them for that reason, and say that this is just the nature of what happens." HILOU SAYS she assumes that every Israeli Arab who has flown overseas has been through the experience of being taken aside by security examiners, questioned at length, having his bags opened and gone through by hand and, very possibly, taken into a closed room and asked to take off anything from his belt and shoes to his shirt and pants. "First they take you out of line and put you in a different line, and everybody's looking at you, wondering what you did," says Hilou, adding that this used to happen to her regularly before she got elected to the Knesset a year ago. "Some of them talk to you like you're stupid. They don't want to ask you right out, 'Are you an Arab?' so they ask you what's your name, why were you given that name, what does the name mean, and finally I would tell them, 'Yes, I am an Arab, so you can stop pretending.'" Not long before her election, Hilou, her daughters and even her grandchildren were put through a security check at Ben-Gurion that she found "humiliating. I won't forget that. The body checks. They even went through my granddaughter's porridge. I said to them, 'Do you think there's a bomb hidden in an infant's porridge?'" Since the end of last month, when the media publicized her meeting with Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin, Hilou says she's received "40 to 50" calls and letters from Israeli Arabs with distressing accounts of their treatment by airport security. One account came from a leading doctor at Jerusalem's Hadassah University Medical Center, another from a prominent Jerusalem lawyer. Hilou says Diskin told her that in a few months, a new screening technology will be introduced at Ben-Gurion allowing all passengers - Jews, Arabs and non-Arab gentiles - to go through the same, easy, inoffensive security check before boarding planes. She says Diskin told her the system should be installed permanently in about 18 to 24 months. She says she believes there might be a purely technological solution to the problems posed by ethnic profiling. "Diskin said he knows the situation, he realizes it has to change, that you need a balance between security and the dignity of the traveler. I think he was sincere, I have no doubt about it, he was very candid," she says. However, the point made by Rafi Ron and other security experts in UpFront's story, "The sabra approach to preventing a new 9/11" (September 8, 2006), was that a key reason for the success of Israeli airport security is precisely that it relies on security inspectors' judgment more than on machines. Off the record, an airport official tells me he doesn't think any new technology will "revolutionize" the security approach to Arab passengers. "If you think some young guy on his own from [the West Bank town of] Jaljulya is going to be able to waltz onto a plane without being searched - that's not going to happen," he says. Hilou also asked Diskin why Jewish and Arab passengers couldn't be treated the same way right now, without having to wait for the new screening technology to arrive. "He said if we do that, no one will fly because it will take so long, the lines will never move," she notes. Nevertheless, the MK says she wants ethnic profiling to end. At the same time, though, she says she does not want to interfere with the Shin Bet's personal profiling. The dilemma, unfortunately, is that the two go hand in hand. Hilou has her work cut out trying to convince the Shin Bet to treat a given Arab passenger the same as a given Jewish one, seeing as how even evangelical Christian pilgrims radiating love for Israel are liable to be put through the wringer at Ben-Gurion. "There are plenty of nightmare stories out there," says David Parsons, spokesman for Jerusalem's Christian Embassy, which brings some 6,000 pilgrims here each Succot for its Feast of the Tabernacles. "I've been in and out of Israel 25 times and I never know what [sort of security treatment] I'll get," he adds good-naturedly. Parsons, who has lived here for a decade, is more than understanding of the reasons given for the close scrutiny of all non-Jews, no matter how pro-Israel they might seem. "I don't blame my government, I blame the terrorists," he says, adding that most evangelical pilgrims seem to share his view and appreciate that they're flying in safety. He also notes that El Al now has a liaison to the evangelical community who is trying to ease their entree at the airport. "We're trying to tinker with the criteria [for passenger profiling]," Parsons says, stressing that airport officials "are trying to do a better job." But still, it can be rough at Ben-Gurion for pilgrims coming to bless Israel - especially if they're traveling alone or as a couple instead of in an organized group or with children. "Even if you're a Christian who flies all the time with El Al, and you show them your El Al gold card, it's not going to help you if you're not a Jewish Israeli citizen," he says. While he doesn't think airport security examiners have turned any evangelical Christians against Israel, it has sent some of them home with an unpleasant parting memory. Careful not to sound like he's complaining, Parsons suggests, "It may be that it needs to be impressed upon these folks in their training that they should work a little harder to make sure these [pilgrims] are going back as goodwill ambassadors for Israel." YET WHATEVER hardships evangelical Christians or other non-Arab gentiles have in getting through airport security, Israeli Arabs are in a completely different league. "Obviously, the treatment given to [gentile] tourists and to Israeli Arabs is like night and day," says Jackie. If a tourist isn't found to be lying or in possession of a suspicious object, he's considered safe and the only question left to answer is whether he was in a position to be unwittingly used by a terrorist to bring a bomb on board, Jackie explains. "But with Israeli Arabs," he says, "you want to know whether this person is loyal to Israel or not, who is he going to trust with his belongings, and even if he is a good guy, does he live in some village where [a terrorist] might know he was traveling and plant something on him?" Of the many thousands of passengers he checked, Jackie says, none of them turned out to be dangerous. He knows that the chance of an Israeli Arab or any other sort of passenger being a terrorist is close to nil. "But no matter how impossible, nobody wants to take the chance that it'll happen and he'll be responsible. I'd imagine watching the story on the news after it happened - that's how I was able to justify to myself what I was doing." Also crucial to Jackie's attitude was his belief that in principle, it was right to check Arabs more closely than non-Arabs. "Even if he's a perfectly respectable lawyer or businessman or whatever, he doesn't know about the [Arab] taxi driver who handled his bags, and even if he thinks everyone who saw him off is all right, maybe his brother-in-law isn't as all right as he thinks," Jackie explains. "I have to be more suspicious than the passenger standing in front of me. I can't leave any stone unturned. I have to play devil's advocate." But he also feels for the people he has to question with suspicion, whose bags he may open and examine, and whose clothes he may ask them to take off. And Jackie isn't unique in this way. "I had conversations like this with a lot of the people I worked with. We would talk about what a shame it is putting someone through such misery, how awful it is for these people," he recalls. He also, however, has other recollections of security examiners he worked with. "I saw some examiners at some airports, and their attitude was 'f-- 'em.'" Next week Eliezer Ya'ari, national director of New Israel Fund, and Maya Bailey, a Machsom Watch activist, are scheduled to meet IAA's head of security to discuss ethnic profiling and the treatment of non-Jewish airline passengers. "I understand all the security arguments, but it's mainly a question of attitude," says Ya'ari. "There needs to be constant guidance given to those doing the work, and as much as possible there has to be equal treatment for everybody." Hilou says she has found a receptive ear in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office and the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Ya'ari points to the letter Olmert wrote a month ago to Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz: "We must balance between the need to inspect the passengers who go through the various border crossings and the desire to allow every passenger to pass through the terminal quickly and with dignity." This all may turn out to be no more than lip service, but Hilou, Ya'ari and Bailey are optimistic that the time is ripe, finally, for liberalizing the policy. Showing more empathy for non-Jewish passengers might not be a bad place to start. The interrogations, suitcase checks and strip searches - to whatever degree they're necessary for security - are imposed on Israeli Arabs and, to a much lesser degree, on other non-Jews who are innocent of any intention to blow up the airplanes they board. It bears understanding that if ethnic profiling can't be helped, the ethnics being profiled can't help the way they take it. "How does it make me feel? I feel miserable, does that tell you enough?" says Dr. Rajai Dajani, the elderly Beit Hanina gynecologist. "I feel I don't deserve it. I'm saying to myself, 'Why am I being put through this whole thing again, for no reason, just because I was born with this name.' It's like you're cursed by God just because of your name."