Airport security and Arab citizens: change in sight?

This week, Israel’s Supreme Court chipped away at one of the most egregious Israeli practices: the infamous security examinations of Palestinian/Arab citizens at Israeli airports.

The Court, responding to a 2007 petition by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel against the Israel Airports Authority, the General Security Services and the Ministry of Transportation, directed the three bodies to justify why they discriminate against an ethnic group, instead of conducting their security examinations based on uniform criteria for all citizens.

The airport experience is one of the most naked examples of brutal inequality in Israel. Its logic, as well as people carrying out the policy appear impenetrable, so even this small step toward change deserves close attention. Therefore, I’ve tried to summarize the developments in some detail.

ACRI’s petition reads like a chronicle of the dark side. Below is just a partial summary of the petition and the developments (Hebrew). Many more relevant documents (in Hebrew) are available.

ACRI gave both general and legal arguments against the current measures (my commentary is in parenthesis):

•    Racial profiling traumatizes and alienates the population against whom such intrusive exams are conducted indiscriminately, based on ethnicity. The document quotes:

“Profiling is the inverse of law enforcement. In law enforcement, a crime is discovered and the police then look for a suspect…Profiling means that a suspect is discovered and the police then look for a crime for the person to have possibly committed” (Steve Martinot, The Rule Of Racialization: Class Identity, Governance (Labor in Crisis) (Temple University Press, 2002, p.  168 (ACRI petition, p. 2)

•    Profiling further stigmatizes the Arab population. (As if relations aren’t already at a nadir due to Lieberman and general nationalist tendencies.)

•    The security measures at present can prevent people from flying or otherwise ruin their experiences. Here are a few of ACRI’s examples:

1. In 2006, the GSS and the Ministry of Transportation directed a local domestic airline not to fly Arab passengers, because of a technical failure of a ertain x-ray machine. There were no directives regarding Jewish passengers (p. 4, item 5).

2. Journalist Ali Waked of YNet (is Israel’s most influential news website) was barred from flying with Foreign Minister Sylvan Shalom in 2004, for an official visit to Egypt. (It’s ironic that on an official trip to one of Israel’s two Arab allies, the delegation left out an Arab journalist.)

3. Dr. Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, a criminologist on her way to a conference in Tunisia, was delayed 40 minutes by security at the airport entrance; once inside, she underwent a three-hour examination during which she was treated “with crude disrespect”– until her flight took off and she finally gave up on the trip altogether. (p. 6, item 8). Security people placed her shoes on her son’s photo; pulled out an article of hers in Arabic and said “what a retarded language,” told her she was not allowed to bring her laptop and took away her cellphone. She explained to a supervisor that she cannot travel without her computer – in response, he mocked her.

4. A Palestinian Arab student and three Jewish students were chosen to represent Israel at an international conference in London. The Arab student was detained, interrogated, separated from his colleagues, and late for the flight. (How does a youth feel about representing Israel after that?)

•    Arab passengers can’t know whether they will make their flights; they routinely plan to arrive at the airport five to six hours ahead of their flights (p. 5, item 7)

•    The ACRI petition refers to a report prepared by the Arab Association for Human Rights, and the Center for the Struggle Against Racism, which points out that racial profiling perpetuates the notion among Jews that Arabs are a clear and present security threat. The AAHR report argues that this perspective encourages a “looser finger on the trigger,” by internal security forces,when an Arab is so much as suspected of anything, and therefore actually endangers the lives of Arabs (probably a muffled reference to the events of October 2000).

Palestinian Arabs may be detained at the outer gates of the airport, by the entrance to the building, or during the security interview prior to check-in. They may be “accompanied” from check-in to the gate, or to the plane itself; on occasion, security even prohibits Arab passengers from speaking to anyone until takeoff (p. 8, item 11.5).  (The AAHR report led to some attention and perhaps progress on the issue.

ACRI’s legal claims include:

•    Racial profiling is being used against Arabs, which is not in accordance with the law

•    Racial profiling violates the right to human dignity; right to equality; privacy, and freedom of movement. It violates the Basic Law of Human Dignity and Freedom, without a legal basis, in a way that is disproportionate and unreasonable.

•    Israel’s Aviation Law states that a person may be examined if assumed to present a danger to the public, or is suspected of carrying a weapon unlawfully – but, ACRI argues, the law does not state any right to examine a person on the basis of ethnic or national identity.

The first of several official responses of the three parties named (Israel Airports Authority, GSS and Ministry of Transportation) describes the awful consequences of a potential air “mega-attack” – giving only international examples – as one of the first justifications (p. 3, item 11a) for the selective security treatment, rather than focusing on how the subjects are chosen. The document does note that security people looks for traits that are correlated with terror involvement. But the details of how security works are classified. The latter claim re-appeared throughout the process.

The first response, however, provides an interesting answer to the case of Dr. Shalhoub-Kevorkian, the criminologist: explosive material or traces of it were found around her computer – which security then asked her to check instead of carry. Well. Sending explosives to the baggage compartment makes me feel Very Safe. Not that I have any doubt; looking at her website from Hebrew University – I guess I’d suspect her too.

The saga goes on – Ronit Sela, ACRI’s spokesperson, explained to me that despite the secrecy claimed by three named parties throughout the process, security experts in Israel were happy to brag openly about Israeli racial profiling to Americans in the post 9/11 era.


This issue has long left me outraged. Foreigners are also victims: Not long ago, a friend from one of Israel’s closest allies visited, eager for his first visit ever to Israel; after the way he was treated during two entries and two exits from the country, I doubt if he’ll ever come back.

Now imagine you’re a native citizen and this is your home. Here are some stories of Palestinian Arab citizens that haven’t made the news – just my friends and colleagues who agreed to discuss the issue.

Adeeb Awad is a top advertising executive, 30-something, living in Tel Aviv. He said his experiences were fairly mild, and maybe not so interesting. I wondered what counts as mild  – I fly regularly and combining the airport entrance, pre-check-in interview and baggage x-ray combined, it takes me about 10 minutes. Adeeb explained that he had only been detained up to an hour.

“You’re left with the feeling… that you have to go through [the experience] just because you’re Arab…[On returning to Israel] If you’re Jewish you go right in even if you’re a dangerous criminal in daily life. And if you’re Arab, it doesn’t matter who or what you are – you have an Arab experience…it’s insufferable…But everything that happens in Ben Gurion pales compared to the return from abroad on an Israeli airline…I only went through it once…and since then I won’t buy tickets from Israeli airlines…They aren’t prepared for these situations abroad…you’re exposed to everyone else on the plane…If your whole office goes on a trip together, to delay one or two or five Arabs when the whole group is flying together for an office vacation is a humiliating experience for all… Those are the mild experiences I’ve had.”

Dr. Taghreed Yahia-Younis has a PhD in sociology; she is a mother and lives near Kfar Ka’ra. She, too, said that her experiences had not been so bad, and others had it much worse – I almost felt like she was apologizing:

I’m always marked – I don’t know why, of course I do know why – it’s because of my color and sometimes my accent…then want to hear every single answer to every single question. Then they refer me to someone higher … that really makes me anxious. I felt like they’ve really spoiled it for me – why don’t they just send me to the highest person right away! [When] I’m going to a conference, I always make sure to take all the papers explaining where I’m going, who invited me… but sometimes not intentionally, I want to just say – it’s your problem to figure things out, to challenge the system [by saying]: ‘I can play your game if you want’…. And the worst is that they do it with such coldness … [the airport] is the arena where they know how to give me the feeling that it’s not my area, not my airport. The coldness, the team, the …supervisors…they are showing that it’s a whole system, these are processes of warning…

Just a week ago, she returned from abroad and waited at length at passport control, only to have the window abruptly closed when she finally arrived. The passport control officer told her there was a staff shortage and she was needed elsewhere. Dr. Yahia-Younis bitterly observed that when a whole team needs to interrogate her on her way to a flight, there is never any staff shortage.

Another 30ish academic friend who asked not to use his name told of a quick weekend getaway some years back.

“I came in [to Sde Dov airport in Ramat Aviv] late that afternoon, tired from work with a little bag packed for a two night vacation with my girlfriend, who was already there…Quickly I was taken aside … After a couple of questions about my trip, I was led to a different building along with two security people and my bag. I spent more than two hours answering the same questions over and over, and over again. They went through my belongings… checking the same items with the X-ray machine…I also [had] a body search. No gloves…he ran his hands over my skin making sure I’m not hiding anything underneath. [Then] I was escorted to the next flight…after I missed my planned departure. Exhausted, tired, humiliated…I [made] my way to sunny Eilat.”

Ronit Sela told of a colleague who went abroad, and not only was the whole family examined – security asked them to wake up the sleeping infant, less than six months old, to be undressed and examined as well.
What can be done? In 2008, Machsom Watch briefly considered setting up shop at the airport in 2007, but the idea was dropped. As far as I know, there are no other similar initiatives.

It’s good the Court took this step; perhaps a class action suit for generations of emotional distress, or professional and financial damages, will be next.

UPDATE (21 March): For a new post from ACRI on the topic, see here – posted on the International Day for the Elimination of Racism.