Think about it

I have at least six foreign friends and acquaintances who have declared that they will never again come to Israel following a nasty security check.

people at the airport 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
people at the airport 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)

Several days ago I was present when one of my daughters was talking on Skype with a friend of hers in London, a French scientist in her mid-30s. At some point the friend commented that the weather in London was miserable, to which my daughter retorted by suggesting that she come to Tel Aviv for a long weekend. Suddenly, the friend, who invariably has a smile on her face and a soft demeanor, assumed a stern expression and said: “no.”

After the conversation was over I asked my daughter why her friend had reacted so harshly. My daughter answered that a year or two ago her friend had come for a visit to Israel, and upon entering the country underwent a rather nasty security check – apparently because her French passport was a new one.
In order to avoid a repetition of the experience, my daughter provided her friend with a letter, in which she wrote that this woman was an old colleague and friend, and gave her own cellphone number, in case the security people wanted to receive more information. The letter didn’t help, no one called my daughter, and the friend was once again put through a nasty security check, following which she swore she would never set foot in Israel again.
I have at least six foreign friends and acquaintances who have declared that they will never again come to Israel for the very same reason.
This saddens me greatly because while I fully appreciate Israel’s security concerns (I myself have had at least six narrow escapes from terrorist attacks) and maintain that our system of profiling potential terrorists is fully justifiable under the circumstances (even though it is rejected in all other democracies because it is considered anti-democratic), I believe that there is a serious problem in the implementation of security checks.
The insensitive and frequently callous behavior and attitude of the personnel carrying out the security checks (mostly youngsters, immediately after military service) much too frequently alienates totally innocent persons who had nothing against Israel to start off with.
Naturally, the worst cases concern Palestinians – both Israeli citizens and non-Israelis. The security check for Palestinians, especially those aged 20-30, are especially unpleasant, and frequently humiliating, but no Palestinian goes scotfree.
I remembered being shocked when former Christian Arab MK Nadia Hillu (Labor) described to me the security checks she was subjected to, even though as a Histadrut activist for many years she spent much of her life working for Arab-Jewish reconciliation and coexistence.
The most recent case concerning a Palestinian was reported in the press just over a week ago. A 22 year old Palestinian from east Jerusalem – Mohammad Juda – was about to fly to South Korea to participate in a one-month course in Taekwondo. During the security check he was asked to remove most of his clothes, and was subsequently sent to his flight without his coat, shoes (the only pair he had), hand luggage, camera and personal computer, which were to follow the next day (but which a week later had not yet reached him).
Mohammad arrived in South Korea, where the temperatures were low, without his coat and wearing flimsy flip-flops. According to the Airport Authority security, there was a suspicion that Mohammad’s possessions included explosives (apparently something to do with density of material, which applies to all coats and solid shoes, but certainly not to cameras and computers).
That Palestinians frequently are not allowed to fly with their computers is a well known fact, and many an Arab Israeli academic has been forced to arrive at a conference abroad without the text of the lecture he/ she was supposed to deliver, or the accompanying slideshow.
(Incidentally, not surprisingly Mohammad’s possessions were found to be explosive free.)

I amnot saying that the security check is superfluous.

I am merely saying that the regulations are applied with inexplicable severity, and in the long term it undoubtedly causes greater harm to Israel’s security (especially in the case of Palestinians), in addition to harming its image.
I can report from personal experience how insulting and humiliating the attitude of the security personnel can be. On three occasions – twice in 2008, and once in 2011 – the profiling system singled me out at Ben-Gurion airport. I will not go into the details of the incidents, though all the incidents ended with apologies for the unpleasantness and an admission by the senior security officers I spoke to after my return to Israel that the security personnel who had “interrogated” me had not used plain common sense, and were acting like robots.
Incidentally, on all three occasions the problem was that my name is not a standard one – not anything to do with my views or political affiliation. The fact that I had security clearance from the Knesset didn’t interest anyone. It was simply that there were security alerts, and it was believed by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) that terrorist organizations might use Israeli passports with “outlandish” names to carry out acts of terror.
The way the security personnel were told to deal with this problem was to ask “suspects” to provide the addresses of immediate relatives living in Israel.
Unfortunately, in 2008 (when I was on my way to Vienna to represent the Knesset at a parliamentary conference) my two living daughters were both studying abroad, and since my brother lives in the US I had to report that the only residents of Israel among my immediate relatives were my eldest daughter, who was killed in 1995 and is buried in Jerusalem, and my maternal grandparents and parents who are buried in Rehovot. Needless to say, the whole experience – which occurred in the presence of other persons standing in line for the security check, who could hear every word – was humiliating, painful and totally superfluous.
When the occurrence repeated itself in 2011, I simply refused to answer as a matter of principle, blurted out that I was not connected to any terrorist organization, and was finally allowed to continue to the check-in – but not before being treated insolently by a succession of security personnel, the last of whom asked to see my ID card, which I never take abroad with me in accordance with Interior Ministry regulations. I managed to regain my composure after filling a complaint form addressed to the Airport Authority at the information desk in the duty-free compound. I was pleased to hear from a security officer from the Authority, after my return to Israel, that my complaint was being taken seriously.
My conclusion? Besides the need to revamp some of the regulations, the way the security checks are carried out today ought also to be reviewed, and special emphasis placed on the training of security personnel on human sensitivity, and using common sense, as much as possible. I would go as far as simulating some of the current practices on trainees, where they play the role of “suspects,” including callous verbal confrontations, being stripped, and having belongings and items of clothing confiscated. I sincerely believe there is room for change, without Israel’s security being compromised.
The writer is a retired Knesset employee.