JERUSALEM – Jack Angelides was about to board a flight out of Israel’s international airport when he was given a curious choice that baffles him to this day. Traveling with a laptop and a stack of printed reading material, he was told to part with one or the other, due to unspecified security concerns.
The Israel-based British-Cypriot businessman says he negotiated a compromise in which he kept the computer and several pages, checking in the rest of the documents.
“It was a very unpleasant, very uncomfortable” experience, said Angelides, the general manager of the Israeli soccer team Maccabi Tel Aviv.
While standing in long lines, walking through scanners and removing belts and shoes are a fact of post-Sept. 11 travel worldwide, Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport seems to stand alone in the developed world with its security techniques, often leaving travellers dumbfounded. Though Israel denies profiling travellers, business executives, journalists and especially Arabs and visitors to Palestinian areas seem prone to being targeted with aggressive questioning, long luggage examinations and even strip searches.
The tough security is not new, but it is stirring debate. On one side stand those concerned about Israel’s good name, tourism potential and moral standing. On the other are those for whom security arguments can seem close to sacrosanct in a country hit with decades of attacks by Palestinian militants, a series of hijackings in the 1960s and ’70s, and whose travellers abroad are targeted in terrorist attacks.
The issue recently burst onto the national agenda after an Arab schoolteacher who teaches at a Jewish high school was strip-searched at Israel’s airport in the southern resort town of Eilat during a class trip with her students. Israeli Arab citizens, including lawmakers and other community leaders, complain of frequent discrimination when travelling.
Aryeh Shaham, the Airports Authority’s legal adviser, told a parliamentary hearing that there is no ethnic profiling at the airport.
“The inspection is not done according to population groups,” Shaham said. Instead, it is done according to criteria set by security officials “and I can’t disclose those.”
He said fewer than 5 per cent of Arab travellers are inspected in Ben-Gurion Airport, and said the authority receives more complaints from Jewish travellers than Christian or Muslim Arabs.
In response to emailed questions, the Airports Authority said its inspection process is “anchored” in Israeli and international law. It said the high level of security threats facing the airport “demands a severe level of inspection,” including questioning, scanning of luggage and inspections of handbags and travellers.
But it acknowledged that with 20 million travelling through the airport, “there are extraordinary events that we regret.” And it is not clear whether terrorists have ever been caught as a result of the airport interrogations.
Adi Kol, the lawmaker who chaired Monday’s parliamentary hearing, said she found the responses by security officials “frustrating,” particularly their denial that there is a problem. Kol, whose Yesh Atid party is a member of the governing centre-right coalition, said she is now trying to set up a training program in which Arab community leaders will give awareness training to airport security workers.
Security authorities “can use the proper technological equipment” to find explosives “and spare us all this disgrace,” said opposition Labor Party lawmaker Nachman Shai. “It is simply a disgrace.”
In an editorial, the Haaretz newspaper wrote that the incident involving the teacher “proves that the religion of security drives the authorities out of their senses” and called for checks “devoid of racism and humiliation.”
In some cases, pro-Palestinian activists have been asked to open their email or Facebook accounts for inspections, and a small number have been barred from entering the country.
Diana Buttu, an Arab lawyer who holds Canadian and Israeli citizenship, said she has travelled out of Ben-Gurion dozens of times and has gone through intense security checks each time. This includes questions about what holidays she celebrates, the names of her parents and grandparents, why she doesn’t speak Hebrew, as well as the unloading the contents of her bags, passing through metal detectors and undressing.
“I get the same exact treatment since I was 17 or 18 years old. It’s clearly not random,” she said.
American Michael Silberling said he was removed from the immigration line, “left to stew” for 20 minutes and then quizzed aggressively about why he came and why the person he was visiting worked in a different industry than his.
“It makes one think twice about where to visit,” Silberling said.
Journalists also appear to be a target.
Several weeks ago, a senior executive from Sky News was detained for two hours of questioning as he entered the country.
In another recent case, an Associated Press manager who is a British national almost missed a return flight to Cairo after facing a prolonged barrage of questions. Officials ran his socks and individual bank notes through an anti-explosives machine and demanded he lower his pants and be further scanned. He said he was asked three times by different people about a small hole in his carry-on bag.
“Why do you not have more luggage? Why did you choose to stay in Israel for just three days? Why did you not come overland?” he was asked. Also: “What is the ethnic makeup of the people in your office in Egypt?”
“If they are using security as an excuse to abuse journalists I condemn that,” said Nitzan Chen, the head of the Government Press Office. He said that path can be smoothed by new procedures enabling journalists to co-ordinate their arrival ahead of time. He also said some accounts might be exaggerated.
Jeff Price, an aviation security expert, said there is some logic to ethnic profiling in a place with a long history of conflict with the Arab world, and that odd and random questions are part of a strategy: “Once you understand how people respond to ‘normal’ questions that they should know the answers to and have no reason to lie about, you’ll be able to spot the lie when asked other questions.”
Price, owner of the consulting firm Leading Edge Strategies in Denver, said Israel is generally considered the “gold standard” for airport security – but added that “security questioning should never demean or degrade an individual.”
Associated Press writer Ian Deitch contributed to this report.
Josef Federman, the AP’s news editor based in Jerusalem who has covered Israel since 2003, can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/joseffederman.