Ben Gurion Airport Nir Kafri 13.9.2010
Passengers waiting at Ben Gurion International Airport, September 13, 2010. Photo by Nir Kafri
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As Americans fume at ever more intrusive airport patdowns and screenings, some are looking to Israel for answers on how to make aviation security both strict and streamlined.

The possibility of adopting Israeli security methods has become a hot topic in the U.S. media as millions prepare to travel by air for the Thanksgiving holiday this weekend.

But while Israelis may enjoy the resulting prestige and commercial payoffs, there are those who doubt their methods would translate to places like the United States.

Differences in scale, budgets and sensitivity to accusations of "racial profiling" may be insuperable, they say. "

"We're not the smartest in the world, and I'm not sure I would even describe ours as the absolute best security in the world," a senior Israeli transport official said. "What we do have, though, is suited for our needs -- and that's enough."

Those needs centre on Ben-Gurion Airport, Israel's core international gateway. There's no full-body scanner yet -- one is to be installed next year -- and while staff are empowered to frisk and even strip-search passengers, most generally endure only the standard walk-through metal detectors.

Yet this overall painlessness is the end-product of a powerful, probing and often unseen screening system that kicks in before travelers have even set foot in Ben-Gurion.

Israeli intelligence agencies, working in lock-step with airport security, flag travelers deemed potentially dangerous -- a designation applied most readily, and controversially, to Arabs who make up 20 percent of the Jewish state's population.

Commensurate scrutiny follows: from the rifle-carrying guards that question the drivers of incoming cars, to the unsmiling sentries who eye passengers as they wheel in their luggage, to the security interrogations in the check-in lines.

As a last resort, on Israeli airlines at least, undercover sky marshals can be seated next to passengers seen as risky.

Budgets at U.S. airports -- especially international hubs that dwarf the mid-sized Ben-Gurion -- may not allow for qualified security personnel in such numbers, said Shlomo Dror, an Israeli defence official with extensive aviation experience.

Out of Place

"The question is, are they willing to invest in the right people, those who can spot suspicious nuances in language, who can develop an instinct for what's out of place?" he said.

Ben-Gurion security staff, most of them recent veterans of Israel's conscript military, go through a year of training and earn competitive salaries, Dror said. They also have access to intelligence briefings that guide their searches in real time.

"The degree to which these officers are made privy to classified information is pretty unique," Dror said. Such quick trickle-down would be unthinkable in the United States, with its vast, removed and sometimes factionalised intelligence agencies.

Yet it is this very focus evinced by Israeli security staff, in contrast to the more generic attentions of their American counterparts, that galls Arab and other non-Jews who complain of "racial profiling" at Ben-Gurion. Israel's emergency laws allow it, but in the United States civil liberties may hold more sway.

Ben-Gurion appears to be trying to allay such sensitivities.

By 2012, it plans to issue biometric identity cards that will spare passengers much of the discomfort of face-to-face interviews. It will also search all bags in out-of-sight holds.

Jafar Farah, an Israeli Arab rights activist, poured scorn on these efforts and called for the airport "to be like it is in New York, where all passengers are screened equally".

"Why should I be happy about an identity card that still intrudes on my privacy, or separate baggage searches when, I'm certain, I'll still be singled out?" he said. "The whole idea at Ben-Gurion is to create a deterrent atmosphere against Arabs."

Dror agreed that the Israelis sought "to drain any ambition on the part of terrorists to attack, because it's so hard
".
But he said Ben-Gurion profiling went far beyond race, to a range of criteria including the possibility of innocent passengers being used as hapless carriers of hidden bombs.

"I don't think there is any doubt that the Americans already accord extra screening to people coming in from the Middle East, though they may not admit this," Dror said. "It remains to be seen whether they can institute smart measures more broadly."