Israeli profiling airport security system targets Arabs, Muslims

Israel has long held the reputation as home to the world’s most stringent airport security procedures. But most passengers aren’t frisked, there are no intimately revealing body-imaging scanners, and security experts dismiss as misguided the new, more intrusive American approach that requires pat-downs or highly detailed scans of every passenger.

“Taking the bottle of water from the 87-year-old woman at JFK, you will never find an explosive material that is coming from bin Laden,” said Shlomo Harnoy, head of the Sdema Group, an Israeli security consultancy that advises airports abroad. “You are concentrating on the wrong thing.”

Israel’s approach allows most travelers to pass through airport security with relative ease. But Israeli personnel do single out small numbers of passengers for extensive searches and screening, based on profiling methods that have so far been rejected in the United States, subjecting Arabs and, in some cases, other foreign nationals to an extensive screening that comes with a steep civil liberties price.

“I know personally of people who came to Israel for a conference and were asked if they had met an Arab. After that, they were stripped and their laptop was confiscated,” said Ariel Merari, a terrorism expert at Tel Aviv University who has researched aviation security. “There is a lot to be improved in this approach towards innocent, foreign citizens. Also, the attitude towards Israeli Arabs has to be reevaluated.

“The profiling system is good,” Merari said. “But it has to be done with more sensitivity.”

Pini Shif, a founder of the security division at Ben Gurion International Airport outside Tel Aviv, estimates that about 2 percent of passengers flying from the airport are subject to the more intensive screening. For the others, the air-travel experience can be a delight, compared with flying in the United States.

“The security here is far more professional,” said Sandy Kornhauser, who arrived with her daughter at Ben Gurion from Philadelphia on Wednesday to attend a wedding.

“I think they know who they are looking for,” she added. “In the States, they don’t know.”

Israeli airport security authorities don’t disclose the methods by which they single out passengers for extra scrutiny. They say only that they have a list of suspicious signs that they look for.

Sometimes a Muslim-sounding name is enough. Donna Shalala, a 69-year-old American of Lebanese descent who was President Bill Clinton’s secretary of health and human services and is now president of the University of Miami, was detained and questioned for 21/2 hours at Ben Gurion in July. The Israeli news media said she was subject to a humiliating security debriefing because of her Arab last name.

In another incident that made headlines here this fall, Heather Bradshaw, an Indiana University professor, was subjected to a body search and forced to turn over her bra to authorities as she tried to board an El Al flight from Britain’s London Luton Airport to Tel Aviv to attend an academic conference. All her belongings except her passport and credit cards were taken from her before she was allowed to board. She got them back three days later, after friends in Israel intervened.

Israeli Arabs, who make up about one-fifth of Israel’s population, are regularly subjected to a more intensive questioning that goes beyond the routine queries, such as “Where did you just arrive from?” and “Who packed your bags?” They also are subjected to body and bag searches more frequently than Jewish passengers.

“They began with my hair, even though it is only two centimeters long. They began feeling through it, then examining behind my ears, the neck, the shoulders. They began feeling me under my bra, and then continued on to my tummy. I felt as though I was under a sexual assault,” Hunaida Ghanem, an Israeli Arab resident of Jerusalem who has a PhD from Hebrew University in sociology and a postdoctoral degree from Harvard, said as she recalled an incident at the airport in June 2009.

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“I have been through searches in the U.S. But what they did here was very different. It was very humiliating,” she added.

Since then, Ghanem has declined six invitations to attend conferences abroad, saying she finds it emotionally difficult to go to the airport.

Israeli civil rights organizations have repeatedly appealed to Israel’s High Court of Justice to end the alleged discrimination against Israel’s Arab citizens. The court is scheduled to hear another appeal Dec. 22.

“If you are a Jew, you can celebrate your journey. You can go to the duty-free,” said Amnon Be’eri, co-executive director of the Abraham Fund, an organization that works to advance coexistence between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. “If you are an Arab, you are discriminated against, separated, humiliated.”

Be’eri says he believes that in addition to violating basic equal rights, Israel is feeding a longer-term security problem by “creating generations of citizens who feel alienated from the state.”

However uncomfortable the procedures are for some, Israeli security experts insist that Israel’s methods are better at preventing terrorist attacks than the U.S. Transportation Security Administration’s reliance on technology or pat-downs. Israeli experts say that even advanced scanners can fail to detect explosives.

Profiling may be too politically controversial and time-consuming to implement at much busier American airports. Still, Israeli experts say they believe it is inevitable that the United States will move in their direction, rather than continuing to evaluate millions of passengers as if they are potential threats.

“The profile system gives you the right, logical way to know who to check,” Shif said.

  • İ am an Israeli and most of the time I was going through the airport security in Ben Gurion with no problem. However, since June 2010 İ am being subjected to long interrogations and personal checks, because my boyfriend is a Turkish citizen. Last time I was held there for 2 hours, they confiscated my camera, saying that they could not identify whether it could potentially be a bomb and I almost missed my flight. Now my camera is still in the airport, I feel being dıscriminated and humiliated from the way they treated me and although I fınd it emotionally difficult to go through this check over and over again, I have no choice since my family live in Israel. Now, about their so-called smart singling-out passengers: I am not so sure about 2 percent, it seems much more. Secondly, the logic behind it is absolutely unclear. If I was working for Turks İ am not likely to blow off a Turkish Airlines (!) plane; and even if I am why would İ reveal that I have Turkish friends in Istanbul? I could have just passed easily with and Israeli passport saying that I am going there as a tourist and will stay there in a hotel. If they think that a 29-years old Israeli woman with a child can blow off a Turkish Airlines plane by hiding a bomb in a Nikon D90 camera, then, I am sorry, but I would never call such people smart or likely to know what they are looking for. About the efficiency: with all the equipment that they have I estimate that it is possible to check the camera in 2 hours. Either they are not efficient or they simply want to abuse the rights of the passengers like me and do it on purpose. I was told that my camera was being confiscated 15 minutes before my flight was supposed to leave, so I didn’t have much time for debates. But now I regret that I gave up and let them treating me like this, which among other things costed me another 500 dollars – the price of a new camera, as I needed a camera during these 4 weeks in Turkey.

    • Hannibal

      Are you Jewish if I may ask?

    • welcome to WW3, if you don’t like it or can’t deal with it, don’t travel

    • 5thDrawer

      You obviously have made the big mistake of actually being friendly or falling in love with a person of a different tribe. In the first place, that ‘race’ issue is alive and well everywhere. But if your name is David and you have a boyfriend, I can’t tell you how many mental borders you have crossed over with that issue. Meet the wrong ‘inspector’ on the ‘assembly-line of conformance’, and you will be severely punished because that one person HAS ‘The Power’ to punish your thinking.
      Hell, I have been grilled simply for smiling. !!

  • İ am an Israeli and most of the time I was going through the airport security in Ben Gurion with no problem. However, since June 2010 İ am being subjected to long interrogations and personal checks, because my boyfriend is a Turkish citizen. Last time I was held there for 2 hours, they confiscated my camera, saying that they could not identify whether it could potentially be a bomb and I almost missed my flight. Now my camera is still in the airport, I feel being dıscriminated and humiliated from the way they treated me and although I fınd it emotionally difficult to go through this check over and over again, I have no choice since my family live in Israel. Now, about their so-called smart singling-out passengers: I am not so sure about 2 percent, it seems much more. Secondly, the logic behind it is absolutely unclear. If I was working for Turks İ am not likely to blow off a Turkish Airlines (!) plane; and even if I am why would İ reveal that I have Turkish friends in Istanbul? I could have just passed easily with and Israeli passport saying that I am going there as a tourist and will stay there in a hotel. If they think that a 29-years old Israeli woman with a child can blow off a Turkish Airlines plane by hiding a bomb in a Nikon D90 camera, then, I am sorry, but I would never call such people smart or likely to know what they are looking for. About the efficiency: with all the equipment that they have I estimate that it is possible to check the camera in 2 hours. Either they are not efficient or they simply want to abuse the rights of the passengers like me and do it on purpose. I was told that my camera was being confiscated 15 minutes before my flight was supposed to leave, so I didn’t have much time for debates. But now I regret that I gave up and let them treating me like this, which among other things costed me another 500 dollars – the price of a new camera, as I needed a camera during these 4 weeks in Turkey.

    • Are you Jewish if I may ask?

    • welcome to WW3, if you don’t like it or can’t deal with it, don’t travel

    • Anonymous

      You obviously have made the big mistake of actually being friendly or falling in love with a person of a different tribe. In the first place, that ‘race’ issue is alive and well everywhere. But if your name is David and you have a boyfriend, I can’t tell you how many mental borders you have crossed over with that issue. Meet the wrong ‘inspector’ on the ‘assembly-line of conformance’, and you will be severely punished because that one person HAS ‘The Power’ to punish your thinking.
      Hell, I have been grilled simply for smiling. !!

  • LucyintheSkywithDiamonds

    First of all, they have a set of questions which they ask everyone – Israelis, Jews and all others – among these, is the question “did you pack your bags yourself, and have they been with you all the time since you packed until you came here, etc, etc.”

    Their system is very simple: they use numbers for potential level of threat. Israelis born in the country obviously have the easiest time. If you are only Jewish though, you still will go through questioning. I had two friends from Germany – Jewish girls – they even searched through their cameras, where they found pictures of younger male soldiers which my friends obviously have a fetish for and took them on their trip here. At this point, according to my friends, the officials flipped over the pictures, asking them if they were spies, etc etc and they got full body searches. Remember, they were Jewish. I have many other friends from developed Western countries who are Christians and lived here and each time they get searched and/or questioned extensively. What is illogical for me is that they search people as they leave Israel, I’ve never heard of anyone being searched at arrival.

    When the Ipads came out they confiscated all of them at Ben Gurion – regardless who the owner was.

    Bottomline is, of course their system works – they question everyone, some more and some less! This system is indeed very discriminatory, humiliating and just wrong. Merari was a professor of mine and I believe him. However, 21/2 hour search is a new low, it’s just beyond my imagination! Israel is far from perfect (like most countries), and I am sorry – but there ARE many terrorists who would try to blow up Israeli things, it’s not easy from a security perspective, it’s been a decades and decades struggle!! But this being said, the airport security system is in my view, one of the worst Israeli security policies. But as you can see, many people in Israel think the same as me so it will change hopefully.

    • Hannibal

      They confiscated the iPads because they were so cool and wanted to play with them. 😉
      The threat however can come from a born Israeli Jew who was radicalized and turned Islamist.
      Thomas Jefferson said: If you sacrifice freedom for security you will get neither.
      There is another way out. Comprehensive just Peace with the Palestinians. May be we can all get peace after all.

      • LucyintheSkywithDiamonds

        Of course it’s possible, hence Israeli born Jews still get questioned too. There is always a risk when it comes to security, no matter how low, but this group is classified as “least threatening.”

        Thomas Jefferson was a genius, and I agree with him (you). It really is not easy to maintain the balance between strategic and security concerns and democratic principles. But I believe that we should find that delicate balance. I always talk about the importance of preserving democracy which we always swear by, regardless of the fact that no democratic system is perfect in practice (yet). Especially when you declare war on a phenomenon only because it is a dirty means to achieve an end, you cannot win it by using non-democratic means yourself.

        So for immediate security concerns – there has to be another way, and if there isn’t we have to invent one. As for peace with the Palestinians – obviously it’s a complicated situation, but it will happen some day, and I hope it’s just too…We needed Tzipi Livni she would have been better than Netanyahu, and many more people voted for her. But even with her center opinions she still couldn’t form the coalition she needed with all the right-wing ex military (male) generals and the somewhat religious leaders of one party (also men).

        • JadM

          isreal will always be threatened and the jews in Isreal will never feel safe and secure within the boarders of Isreal becuase they have no right to be there, it is as simple as that.

          You cannot have peace by breaking the skulls of palestinians the rightfull owners of palestine. A time will come where you will thrown out of Isreal and into the sea and you will be treated in the same exact way you have treated the palestinians…

        • Hannibal

          To JadM
          Palestine had Jews LOOOOOONG before Arabs came out of their peninsula. War begets war. If you think that one day the Jews will be thrown out of Palestine I assure it won’t be during your time. Your bones will be withered and your flesh food for worms before they will be defeated. They too have the resolve to cling to the land. Best to come to a comprehensive settlement and give everyone a chance.

  • Anonymous

    First of all, they have a set of questions which they ask everyone – Israelis, Jews and all others – among these, is the question “did you pack your bags yourself, and have they been with you all the time since you packed until you came here, etc, etc.”

    Their system is very simple: they use numbers for potential level of threat. Israelis born in the country obviously have the easiest time. If you are only Jewish though, you still will go through questioning. I had two friends from Germany – Jewish girls – they even searched through their cameras, where they found pictures of younger male soldiers which my friends obviously have a fetish for and took them on their trip here. At this point, according to my friends, the officials flipped over the pictures, asking them if they were spies, etc etc and they got full body searches. Remember, they were Jewish. I have many other friends from developed Western countries who are Christians and lived here and each time they get searched and/or questioned extensively. What is illogical for me is that they search people as they leave Israel, I’ve never heard of anyone being searched at arrival.

    When the Ipads came out they confiscated all of them at Ben Gurion – regardless who the owner was.

    Bottomline is, of course their system works – they question everyone, some more and some less! This system is indeed very discriminatory, humiliating and just wrong. Merari was a professor of mine and I believe him. However, 21/2 hour search is a new low, it’s just beyond my imagination! Israel is far from perfect (like most countries), and I am sorry – but there ARE many terrorists who would try to blow up Israeli things, it’s not easy from a security perspective, it’s been a decades and decades struggle!! But this being said, the airport security system is in my view, one of the worst Israeli security policies. But as you can see, many people in Israel think the same as me so it will change hopefully.

    • They confiscated the iPads because they were so cool and wanted to play with them. 😉
      The threat however can come from a born Israeli Jew who was radicalized and turned Islamist.
      Thomas Jefferson said: If you sacrifice freedom for security you will get neither.
      There is another way out. Comprehensive just Peace with the Palestinians. May be we can all get peace after all.

      • Anonymous

        Of course it’s possible, hence Israeli born Jews still get questioned too. There is always a risk when it comes to security, no matter how low, but this group is classified as “least threatening.”

        Thomas Jefferson was a genius, and I agree with him (you). It really is not easy to maintain the balance between strategic and security concerns and democratic principles. But I believe that we should find that delicate balance. I always talk about the importance of preserving democracy which we always swear by, regardless of the fact that no democratic system is perfect in practice (yet). Especially when you declare war on a phenomenon only because it is a dirty means to achieve an end, you cannot win it by using non-democratic means yourself.

        So for immediate security concerns – there has to be another way, and if there isn’t we have to invent one. As for peace with the Palestinians – obviously it’s a complicated situation, but it will happen some day, and I hope it’s just too…We needed Tzipi Livni she would have been better than Netanyahu, and many more people voted for her. But even with her center opinions she still couldn’t form the coalition she needed with all the right-wing ex military (male) generals and the somewhat religious leaders of one party (also men).

        • JadM

          isreal will always be threatened and the jews in Isreal will never feel safe and secure within the boarders of Isreal becuase they have no right to be there, it is as simple as that.

          You cannot have peace by breaking the skulls of palestinians the rightfull owners of palestine. A time will come where you will thrown out of Isreal and into the sea and you will be treated in the same exact way you have treated the palestinians…

        • To JadM
          Palestine had Jews LOOOOOONG before Arabs came out of their peninsula. War begets war. If you think that one day the Jews will be thrown out of Palestine I assure it won’t be during your time. Your bones will be withered and your flesh food for worms before they will be defeated. They too have the resolve to cling to the land. Best to come to a comprehensive settlement and give everyone a chance.

  • 5thDrawer

    Thanks to all the idiots who think blowing themselves and others up is a great way to make a statement.
    Let’s hear it for the internet, which has become the best way to see the world without experiencing the discomforts.
    Travel by car to discover your own country.
    Let the Big World Business types get stressed out … simple justice. 🙂

  • Anonymous

    Thanks to all the idiots who think blowing themselves and others up is a great way to make a statement.
    Let’s hear it for the internet, which has become the best way to see the world without experiencing the discomforts.
    Travel by car to discover your own country.
    Let the Big World Business types get stressed out … simple justice. 🙂