Rattling the Cage: Beware of flying Arabs!

The whole world has gone crazy with fear of terror in the air, but Israel stands out for its treatment of Arabs at the airport.

Ben Gurion airport 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Ben Gurion airport 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Do you know that Israeli Arabs are getting on crowded buses every day, sitting among Jews, and no one is checking to see if they’re terrorists? Hundreds of thousands of Israeli Arabs are riding these mixed buses every day, many of them carrying bags and wearing coats, and nobody’s checking their ID, making them go through a metal detector or asking them a single question. If this isn’t an existential threat, I don’t know what is.
But that’s not all – they’re getting on trains, too. Trains crowded with Jewish passengers, and all these Israeli Arabs are circulating among them. Sure, they go through metal detectors at the entrance to the station like everyone else, but we know that mere metal detectors can’t stop determined terrorists. How long are we going to put up with this?
And the craziest thing of all – Israeli Arabs are driving their cars into underground parking lots! They park in the middle of rows of Jewish cars, underneath huge buildings where thousands of Jews innocently go about their business, and what are we doing about it? We’ve got some security guard opening everybody’s trunk, checking to see that Osama Bin Laden isn’t curled up inside, then letting everybody through. It’s so damned easy to park a massive car bomb under a shopping mall that’s sitting underneath an office tower, yet we let untold numbers of Israeli Arabs do it every hour, every minute. This is mass suicide, nothing less.
I’M KIDDING, you should know. I’m mentioning all this to highlight the ludicrousness, the shamefulness of the way we put Israeli Arab airline passengers through hell at Ben-Gurion Airport. Routinely. The stories are well-known – of law-abiding citizens and their families being pulled out of line as “suspects,” strip searched, given the third degree for hours, having every particle of their belongings examined, sometimes being kept off the plane.
Nadia Hilou, a former Labor Party MK from Jaffa, told me she was traveling with her family a few years ago and the airport inspectors actually examined her grandchild’s porridge. A former airport inspector told me that while most of his colleagues put Arab passengers through the mill in a businesslike way, some were at times insulting, but none was ever reprimanded, let alone fired.
Frequently, gentile tourists also undergo a grueling experience at the airport, but not as consistently as this country’s Arab citizens – or certainly the rare Arab from overseas.
Last July, Donna Shalala, president of the University of Miami and former US Secretary of Health and Human Services, was questioned for over two hours by airport security before being allowed to fly home – solely because of her Arab last name. Shalala, 69, the American-born daughter of Lebanese immigrants, was hosted by the American Jewish Congress on a visit to boost ties between US and Israeli universities. One of her last meetings before the ordeal at Ben-Gurion was with President Shimon Peres.
If that’s what they do to Nadia Hilou and Donna Shalala, imagine what Israeli airport inspectors are liable to do to an ordinary Arab family from Nazareth trying to go on vacation.
MEANWHILE, HAS anybody ever heard of an Israeli Arab being caught attempting to sabotage a plane? I discovered exactly one case: In November 2002, an Israeli Arab who’d somehow smuggled a pocket knife onto an El Al flight to Istanbul made a run for the cockpit before being tackled by plainclothes guards.
Not much of a terror trail. Last October, an Israeli Jew on a Qantas flight from Australia to Hong Kong threatened to open the emergency exits and kill everyone before guards subdued him. Should Australia now start treating Israeli Jewish air travelers like we treat Israeli Arab ones?
I know – airline terrorists, certainly those who might attack an Israeli plane, are very likely to be Muslims. But the chance of an attack is infinitesimal, and in Israel it’s effectively zero – Israeli Arabs don’t blow up airplanes, yet every one is treated at Ben-Gurion as if he just might.
Still, there’s no denying that this strict ethnic profiling pays off in increased safety. Does it ever. Worldwide, a passenger’s chance of being on a plane that gets sabotaged is reportedly one in 10 million. But on an Israeli flight, it’s no doubt smaller. And if that added microgram of security means Israel’s Arab citizens, who are 20% of the population, all have to be treated like potential al Qaida operatives, well, it’s worth it, don’t you think?
What we’re doing is disgusting. Israeli Arabs are not a terrorist population. Some of them are worth keeping an eye on, but very, very few – and whatever the degree of the threat of terrorism from the Arab minority, we of the Jewish majority manage to live with it without making every Israeli Arab’s life miserable.
Jews are exposed to Arabs all the time in crowded public places, yet we don’t harass them – except if they want to sit on the same plane with us, and then we harass them systematically and unapologetically.
Why? It’s not because of the danger; the danger is zilch. It’s because of the fear – the fear that comes from the vulnerability of being up in the skies, from the memories of those extremely rare yet colossal air atrocities; and from the long, traumatic experience of enemy Arab violence.
We’re scared stiff, and we’ve geared our airport security not to the danger of terrorism, which is nil, but to our fear of it, which is boundless. The whole world has gone crazy with fear of terror in the air, but Israel stands out not only for making innocent Arabs routinely pay the price, but for building a whole security doctrine around it.
THERE’S A lawsuit in the High Court of Justice against this doctrine of fear, and early last month President Dorit Beinisch made the startling suggestion that Israeli Arab airline passengers “shouldn’t automatically be tagged as security risks.”
This week the state was due to explain why, as Beinisch put it, “all passengers cannot be inspected using equal, objective and uniform criteria.”
The Airport Authority and Shin Bet warn that if Jews are made to go through the same inspection that Arabs do at Ben-Gurion, it will lengthen the wait to get on planes something awful.
Funny – making innocent Jews show up at the airport a lot earlier is too high a price to pay for security, but making innocent Arabs strip and answer questions for hours is no problem.
So enough. If Arabs have to pass through a Via Dolorosa before boarding a plane, so should Jews. Better yet, nobody should have to. Israel should cut out the third degree, cut out the paranoia, and gear security at Ben-Gurion to the danger of terrorism, not the fear of it.
But one way or the other, we have to treat all passengers – Israelis and foreigners, Jews, Arabs and everyone else – the same. It works on trains, buses and car parks; there’s no reason it shouldn’t on planes, too.