Questions of profile
Hind Rejwan, a dark-haired woman in her 30s, will never forget the afternoon she and her husband set out to fly to Italy from Israel.
At the time, both were Israeli government employees in their late 20s.
“When we arrived, we were treated with suspicion by security. I was three months pregnant at the time, and I remember I told them that I didn’t want to go near any X-ray machines,” she says.
But this isn’t what interested security. Instead, after a cursory series of questions and an examination of their passports, they were taken to a large horseshoe-shaped table away from the other passengers.
“There, in front of several other people who had been detained, they began to remove roughly all my belongings from my luggage. They took out my underwear and bras and held them up in front of everyone to examine them individually. They took out a bottle of water my husband had in a bag and told him to drink it, as if to prove it was not poisoned.”
The screening and questions went on for more than two hours.
“They discovered a bag of candies we had brought that was sealed and made us open it and eat the candies in front of them,” she says.
She tried to explain again and again that they were both government employees. “I pleaded with them just to look up our names.”
However, the security personnel didn’t want to listen. Instead they took the couple through ticketing to another room. “It seemed at some point they just needed to find something to do to waste time, so they made us empty our wallets and they went through each shekel individually to make sure it wasn’t fake.”
Finally, five minutes before their flight was due to depart, the Rejwans were taken to the gate and escorted directly onto the aircraft.
A decade later, the experience remains seared into Hind’s memory, and she is visibly shaken as she recalls it. She and her husband are still government employees, although they have embarked on a lawsuit against the airport security for the treatment they received.
“We never understood what we did wrong, why we were security threats, except that we had Arab names,” she says. “We are citizens of Israel, government employees working for the country, and even though we can be trusted to work next to the Knesset, we cannot be trusted to fly through the country’s airport?” THEIR STORY reflects a pattern of complaints against the security at Ben-Gurion Airport regarding what some travelers say are invasive, humiliating and long security searches directed at Arabs, foreign tourists and Jewish visitors. The airport is the country’s primary connection to the outside world, as the Egyptian and Jordanian borders are not major points of entry. Some travelers report that the experience of Israeli security, either here or at airports in their home countries, is a Kafkaesque series of questions and screening. Most Israelis and many foreign Jews are unaware of the issue, because the country’s security personnel practice a form of profiling that is both lauded and critiqued throughout the world.
According to a recent report on Channel 2, the airport will be inaugurating a new baggage screening system that is supposed to cut down on wait times and may decrease the need for hand searches of luggage.
However, it does not appear that the new system will change the profiling system and physical searches that some travelers complain about.
Ben-Gurion Airport’s Terminal 3, which hosts all international flights, opened in 2004 to great fanfare.
With 110 check-in counters, the massive 10,000-squaremeter departure hall can handle a large volume of traffic, and the terminal serves around 12 million passengers a year on 95,000 commercial flights. Around 3.5 million tourists used the airport in 2012.
Rafi Sela, the 65-year-old president of consulting firm AR Challenges and an international transportation security expert, remembers working with the Israel Airports Authority and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) during the design of Terminal 3. He explains that he thinks the security system at the airport is superior to those abroad.
According to the IAA, the authority is “the only organization that performs security checks that are based on security needs and according to professional guidelines set by [the Shin Bet] and the Israel Police.”
Passengers arriving at the airport face an initial series of questions that can sometimes lead to much longer questioning sessions.
“We don’t care about your body, we care about your intent,” Sela says, noting that Israel faces unique security threats. “We as Israelis, who are really under the highest threat, need to take severe measures. And our system works. It has worked for many years. There has never been in the last 30 years a single attack [against Israeli airlines] that has not been stopped.”
Sela sees the real issue as making sure security staff is trained correctly.
“Those who do the questioning are very well trained, drilled in proficiency, constantly being watched; really one of the best systems in the world.
However, at the end of the rope is standing a human being, usually a very young one. We employ students and ex-military people in their 20s, and these are not very mature and well-groomed people. And they have their own subjective influence on what is going on. So it is extremely difficult to impose what we call a very polite interrogation for people who are suspects.”
As for the profiled suspects, Sela is blunt: “They are usually either very extreme Left or Arabs… [who fit the] dangerous profile of a terrorist.”
The profiling may not include all Arabs, but he notes that if there is a hamula (large family clan) and one or more people from the clan are in prison as terrorists, then everyone is suspect. “They are flagged immediately, and they go through a very rigorous interrogation and it is not very nice, I agree, and they feel humiliated and it is painful to the people.”
The reactions from those whom security staffers have profiled as threats vary from feelings of emotional collapse to joking about the procedure as a “personal massage.”
Yara Dowani, a 21-year-old Palestinian born in east Jerusalem, studies business administration and sport management at the European University in Barcelona.
She travels back and forth to her studies about three times a year.
“It starts even before the airport at the security checkpoint [1 km. away], where if you say you are from an Arab area, they check your car and luggage for up to 30 minutes,” she says. “Then, every time I enter the airport, they see I have an Israeli travel document and Jordanian passport issued in east Jerusalem and proceed to ask me 100 questions – how I get to and from school and who owns my apartment – and they say, ‘We are doing this for your security,’ which doesn’t make sense at all!” Most traumatizing for her are physical searches.
“The worst is when it comes to body searching, when the [security] girl puts her hand all over my body on the most sensitive areas while she knows perfectly well I am not carrying anything, and they know how uncomfortable it is, and they do it just to make you feel insecure, weak and controlled.”
After the lengthy check, Dowani says, security usually tells her that she may not bring her iPod or computer with her on the flight, and it must go in cargo. “Then I go to the plane and see everyone else has a laptop.”
She feels angry and humiliated about her experience.
“It doesn’t make sense how in 2013, people are still being treated this way… you just want to go home, and they stop you for hours [on the return]. Sometimes I just wish I didn’t have to travel, or prefer to travel through Jordan. They could talk to you nicely while they check your bag, but they don’t… some security is understandable, but the whole thing is crazy.”
She doesn’t think it makes people safer, either.
“A person who wants to attack or hurt someone can do it anywhere,” she says, adding that it also harms her view of Israelis. “It makes you assume all Jewish and Israeli people are like this.”
Would people care if they knew more about it? “If they heard it, they would say, ‘Good, good,’” she asserts.
Areen A., a 23-year-old woman who also hails from east Jerusalem and who travels to China on business for her family’s stores, remembers being most annoyed that the security took out all her items from her suitcase and left them in a pile. “He tells me to put it back, and I say, ‘You took it out, you should put it back.’” She also felt annoyed by the pat-down she received from female security, which takes place in a private room. “They touch my body and my bra and my legs, and they reach up [my legs]. They ask to take off my shoes and they touch my feet.”
But she is more upbeat, noting that “they are polite, and sometimes they even laugh with us… It isn’t that bad. We are used to it. We go to the airport three hours before in case they want to search us… But I always put it in my mind that I should be in a good mood, that if they shout at me, I should laugh and smile.”
Ibtisam Mara’ana is a 38-year-old filmmaker and producer whose film 77 Steps won plaudits for documenting her journey from Fureidis, near Zichron Ya’acov, to living in Tel Aviv. She travels about six times a year for her work.
“Every time, I have to wait on the side [while other passengers continue],” she says. “I have to wait while they look up my name and they see it is Arab…. In the end, another security person comes, because one person isn’t enough – sometimes more than three or four people will stand and look at me. After that and many questions, they put a special notation sticker on my passport. Then they look through every item in the luggage. Even if I come three hours before, I only barely make it.”
On the way back to Israel from Amsterdam on El Al, she had a stressful experience in which they made her remove her shirt, and she was once the last person to board her flight because of screening.
“I don’t ask for special treatment. I am a citizen, like every person. But it is a very harsh feeling,” she says.
“Getting on the plane after this harassment, you want to die. You don’t have a desire to be there. It is like they harass you because you are Arab, not because I did something bad to the country.”
She thinks the Israeli public has little understanding of what goes on. “There are those who don’t know.
There are some who don’t want to believe there is racism. There are some who think that Arabs deserve it and that Arabs are terrorists and that it is logical.”
The public, she says, “lives in peace with racism.”
Over the years, the country’s airport security procedures have been in the news due to controversies about profiling. In 2007, Foreign Ministry cadet Rania Joubran, the daughter of Supreme Court justice Salim Joubran, was on a trip to Barcelona when she was labeled a “high security risk” at the airport. In an article in Yediot Aharonot, she related being treated in a “rude and disrespectful manner.”
Mira Awad from the Galilee town of Rama, who represented Israel in the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest and is an actress on the hit Channel 2 show Arab Labor, recalls encountering discrimination many times. One time a security guard recognized her from the contest and categorized her as a non-threat because of it.
“I am sure the security guy who did it was thinking he was helping me, and he was! Only it exposed the ugly face of the ‘profiling system’ in airport security,” she says. “I never claim security checks should be canceled altogether… but I do think there are more civil ways… and the system should be changed to rely on technology already existing for x-raying luggage, and a less obviously racist questioning [system].”
MANY FOREIGN travelers also report falling afoul of security.
In October 2010, Indiana University professor Heather Bradshaw, on her way to an academic conference, reported being subjected to a physical examination that lasted more than an hour. In a response to the accusation, El Al noted, “The airline acts according to the instructions of the defense authorities.” Former US health and human services secretary Donna Shalala, now president of the University of Miami, was detained while leaving Israel after a trip with the American Jewish Committee. According to a university statement, she was “delayed by questions and a full luggage search that lasted almost three hours.” Still, she told reporters at the time that “while I was inconvenienced, Israel’s security and the security of travelers is far more important.”
Foreign tourists and those attending programs in Israel have felt the same way.
Samantha K., 24, came in 2012 on a 10-month MASA volunteer program and recalled long questioning sessions the two times she left.
“I was traveling alone and answered all the questions how I thought they should be answered, but they still sent me to empty my bags and have them both scanned,” she remembers. “After that, I had to go through a special security area, which took ages, and they made me empty the contents of my carry-on backpack. In total, it took me over an hour and 45 minutes to get through security.”
Samantha feels that she might have been included as a random foreigner to “balance out the number of Arabs they select,” but in the end she was upbeat. “I just have the understanding that they have tighter security, and while it is annoying, it is also okay.”
One participant in a Birthright trip recalls security escorting some members to the gate. “They were not allowed to sit with the group or do icebreaker stuff.”
Another traveler, named Jake, recalls that security “didn’t believe I was Jewish. They kept pulling Judaica out of my bags and being like, ‘See, he is Jewish,’ but one officer wouldn’t believe it.”
Malaika Martin, an African-American woman from New York, came to Israel in 1995. She recalls that the first time she came, the security officers didn’t believe she was coming for a semester abroad at Ben-Gurion University, even though the director of American Friends of BGU was there to vouch for her.
“It is blatantly obvious that if one ‘looks like a Jew’ and has a ‘Jewish name,’ you get by security much more quickly,” she says, adding that her mother, too, was made to feel like she was coming to Israel as a foreign worker.
“The questioning they put my mother through indicates that the State of Israel thinks way too highly of itself if they think an educated black professional in a place like New York is going to chuck all of it to clean toilets in Tel Aviv.”
These experiences have left negative impressions.
One Christian Zionist who studied at Bar-Ilan University says he was deeply offended, and 76-yearold Anna Bock of Germany claims she no longer wants to come to Israel to visit her family because of the hour-long questioning she receives.
Women seem to be especially profiled. Eva Tapiero, a 29-year-old French lawyer studying to be a journalist, came to Israel as an intern and was shocked by the procedures.
“This makes me feel like the whole country is paranoid and that you see terrorists and mean people in everyone,” she says. “I do feel degraded. It is the fact that they don’t tell you before. You don’t know what is going to happen, [and] suddenly they are telling you to take your pants down and there are three people looking at you and you are pulling your clothes off….
I felt so weak, and you are alone and they are three [security women] – they can do what they want.”
Many of the experts interviewed suggest this is because security views women as susceptible to being influenced by terrorists. In the 1980s, a pregnant woman received a suitcase from her fiancé, Nezar Hindawi, and was dispatched unknowingly to blow up a plane from London.
Almost all the women interviewed for this story say that men they know who went through the screening were screened to a lesser degree.
SOME EXPERTS are beginning to question whether it is time for reform. One, who asks not to be identified, has worked in the field for decades.
“It is time to review Israel’s approach to airport security,” he says. “The Israeli method that the officials are so proud of was instituted back in 1968.”
He says that the Shin Bet created the present screening process on short notice to combat Palestinian terrorism and that the system has fallen behind the times. “This proved very effective, but over the years, more technical means became available.”
In addition, he continues, “the questioning is applied on a very broad basis… and it is applied in a manner to be 1,000-percent effective.”
He says he is worried about the harm this causes individuals. “I have heard of computers confiscated and body searches of foreign academics, it is shameful and terrible in terms of PR, and it is inhumane.”
The expert argues that profiling makes sense, but that strip-searches and three hours of questioning are “silly.” He suggests that the natural tendency to put security above everything is problematic and that it is time for media and politicians to ask serious questions.
“Israeli security is important to me and so is Israel, and [the current method] is counterproductive,” he says. “I am hopeful for reform.”
The usual context of discussions on Israeli security is whether it is more effective than methods used in Europe or the US. In a 2011 article on Salon.com, Brian Palmer asked, “What’s so great about Israeli security?” His answer: “They don’t take naked pictures of you, for one thing.”
This was during the controversy over the US Transportation Security Administration’s use of Rapiscan X-ray body scanners, which USA Today said took “near naked” images of people.
For Sela, the American way is problematic.
“Basically, for many years, we tried very hard to convince the Americans that what they do is totally foolish… checking luggage is useless, it costs them zillions of dollars,” he says.
For him, it is the American public who suffer the real harassment. He recalls schooling one US security officer by explaining that a man wearing orthopedic supports in his shoe could easily conceal plastic explosives in them. “The X-ray machine looks for metal… if the explosive is plastic and the shoe is plastic, you will never find it.”
That is why he thinks profiling and examining intent is the only way to go.
He admits, however, that Israel’s security could do a better job on interpersonal skills: “They should not come with an arrogant approach, and they should be civilized.”
He also thinks that security can do away with body searches once new technologies are accepted.
The developers of those technologies, he says, “have to go through the hoops of convincing the Shin Bet and others” to adopt them. He sees a future in which machines can even handle the initial questions by analyzing psychological reactions.
“If in the past we searched 10% of the passengers more strictly, then it will be 1% [once those technologies are in place],” he says.
In response, the IAA spokesman states that “the IAA provides professional, courteous and prompt service, while strictly maintaining the safety of the passengers and the airplane.”
Furthermore, the checks are done “without distinction of religion, race or sex of the passenger,” the spokesman says. “We hold regular dialogues with the Arab sector in Israel, including tours of the airport.”
Deputy Knesset Speaker and Labor Party secretarygeneral Hilik Bar asserts that the security procedures are necessary.
“Israel faces a very challenging, and in many ways unique, security environment,” he says.
“Unfortunately reality has no regard for propriety or political correctness. It pains me that this reality requires that some people undergo more extensive security screening than others. I genuinely feel for them, and I understand their discomfort and even their feelings of being insulted by such screening.
However, security personnel at the airport are, in my view, extremely professional… I do not believe that they are practicing ‘ill-treatment’ of anybody for reasons of racial or ethnic hatred.”
Security is essential, he continues, because “Israel has experienced terrorist attacks even from women and children… our top priority must be the safety of passengers – not how our security measures look to people overseas, and not even the inconvenience and discomfort of some of those passengers.”
Some of the passenger claims, though, especially those from dignitaries, have raised eyebrows.
“The complaints are not unknown to us and are not new,” says a Foreign Ministry source. “I will grudgingly say that the airport security people are aware of the problem, and it isn’t like it hasn’t been discussed with them. As a result, I understand that because of the tools that are available, there is a new system that is coming down the road, which is using more technology, less human interface.”
According to the IAA, the authority will “soon inaugurate a new [screening] technology system that automatically checks passengers’ luggage.”
The Shin Bet and Tourism Ministry did not respond to inquiries by press time.
However, questions of racial profiling remain. David Rudovsky of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, who is a partner at Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing and Feinberg, argues that not only is racial profiling for security illegal in the US, it isn’t productive.
“When you define the world as possible terrorists and non-terrorists based on race or country, you may miss some people, and to the extent that you subject so many people to intrusive and humiliating actions at the airport, that is unfair and may be counterproductive politically.”
Sela asserts that in reality, few people are actually harmed to meet a greater security need.
“My personal opinion is that a small percentage of people being interrogated at Ben-Gurion are feeling harassment… but at the end of the day, we say if you chop wood, there will be splinters.”
Those impacted by the proverbial splinters, like Mara’ana, prefer the American method: “In the US, everyone is the same at security – the Sudanese, the American, the Arab, everyone goes through together.”
Miriam Sokolow contributed to this report.
Some names have been changed at the request of the interviewees.