There was a time when security checks at Ben-Gurion International Airport were designed solely to block terrorist threats to Israel.

In recent years the checks have taken on a different role, expanding to identify people whose travel plans include a trip to the West Bank for a range of purposes from family visits, humanitarian work or non-violent protests against the Israeli occupation.

The security measures recently attracted renewed attention when American tourists with Arab names, who were suspected of being pro-Palestinian activists, were asked by security agents to open their Gmail accounts, a legally questionable practice.

A former security inspector who left his job at the airport several months ago recently described to me how measures there have taken on new dimensions. He declined to be identified by name, concerned he would be recognized by his former employers.  

The airport security measures are calibrated "to the geo-political situation” in the region, he said. The criteria for treatment of certain suspect travelers are "clearly political," he added, and intended “simply to deter” people from traveling to the Palestinian territories.

“For a long time now this has included non-violent political activity, even humanitarian work,” he said. 

A major focus of security checks upon arrival is to pinpoint foreign activists with a history of pro-Palestinian activities or plans to visit the West Bank.  People subjected to tougher checks, he said, are those defined as “identifying” with the Palestinians.

The term is applied to people suspected of planning to participate in a range of activities – from volunteer work to non-violent demonstrations or protest actions that pose no security threat to Israelis. Even people not intending to take part in such actions are swept up in the net.

“If you say you are going to the West Bank you’re finished,” the former inspector said. “It doesn’t matter why you came. The avowed policy is to make your life difficult. And there’s no security justification. These people are not endangering anybody.”

Ethnic profiling, a system shunned in the U.S., is the guiding principle of the Israeli airport security system, in which Jewish travelers are treated differently than gentile tourists, Israeli Arabs or East Jerusalem residents. Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip are generally barred from flying out of Ben-Gurion, except with special permits from the Israeli authorities.

Tourists discovered to have visited the West Bank in any capacity are often delayed prior to their departure from Israel, with detailed examinations of their personal effects that go well beyond the requirements of normal security checks done with electronic scanners, the former inspector said. 

“Every object in the bag is checked,” he said. “It has no operational security justification. The examination is supposed to be uncomfortable, with the aim of delaying people.”

The former inspector recalled one case he witnessed in which a group of American retirees who had come to do volunteer work in a children’s hospital in the West Bank were held up for several hours before their departing flight. “When they left they were put through the wringer,” he said.     

Under the security guidelines at the airport, any departing traveler who "had contact with a hostile population, whether minorities in Israel or residents of the territories,” was a potential suspect and therefore a target for delay, the former security inspector said. The apparent aim is to discourage return visits.     

Despite the broadening of the security focus from suspected terrorists to suspected pro-Palestinian activists, many of the airport security staff readily accepted the expanded criteria, their former colleague said. As former soldiers, he explained, many of the security personnel see their work as “a continuation of their military service.”