Three-hour airport security check: Run of the mill or just plain racist?
Dr. Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, a criminologist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was prevented from delivering a lecture at a women's rights conference in Tunisia last month. She maintains she was subjected to humiliating investigations at Ben-Gurion International Airport that lasted three hours. Finally, she was told that she could not board the plane with her laptop computer, which she needed for the lecture.
Shalhoub-Kevorkian's story is not unusual. Yesterday, the Arab Association for Human Rights and the Center for the Campaign Against Racism published a report on airline security checks of Arab citizens. "Treatment of Arab passengers is part of an accepted perception in Israel since its creation, that Arabs represent a security risk. This perception is one of the dominant themes in the establishment's racist treatment of the Arab public," the report states.
The report relies on testimony provided by many Arab passengers who were subjected to humiliating security checks, "with no indication that they represented any security risk. They were never suspected of security violations." The collected complaints indicate that security officials behaved in a discriminatory fashion as soon as external appearance, accent, place of residence, or self-identification revealed that they were Arabs.
Center for the Campaign Against Racism director, Baher Awdeh, says that in one case, a young Arab woman was forced to strip in the presence of male security guards. "We do not object to security checks - we object to humiliating examinations that employ different parameters for Arabs and Jews," said Mohammed Zidan, head of the Arab Association for Human Rights.
Zidan says that the report was delivered to the State Comptroller and all relevant ministries.
Dr. Shalhoub-Kevorkian's travails began at the entrance to the airport, where guards told her and her taxi driver, a resident of East Jerusalem, to pull over. The investigation lasted 40 minutes, during which the cab and her personal possessions were examined. She was later examined in the terminal and forbidden from using her mobile phone.
"They treated me as if I have no identity or voice. I felt completely naked in front of the examiners, though anyone of them could have been one of my students," she said.
In a letter she wrote following the event, Shalhoub-Kevorkian outlined the security checks she underwent. She said that a staff of four investigators emptied her suitcases and exchanged comments while examining her lingerie. Her reading material was scattered, her shoes were placed on a photograph of her small daughter, and the shift manager responded rudely when she protested that she was not previously informed that she could not take her laptop aboard.
Members of the Mossawa Center, the Advocacy Center for the Arab Citizens of Israel, tried to assist Shalhoub-Kevorkian at the airport, but Airport Authority public relations officials were unavailable. The Airport Authority reports, "Kevorkian passed through security checks as required by protocol. During the examination, her hand-held items, including her laptop computer, raised suspicion, and she was asked to store it in the hold of the plane. At that point, the passenger decided not to fly."
After the report was released yesterday, Shuweiki Hatib, chair of the Follow-up Committee for Arab Citizens in Israel, called on all relevant bodies to promote change in policy regarding the Arab public. "We know that these are not isolated decisions made by one security official or another, but policy. The establishment and the Jewish public perceive Arabs as a problem that must be handled rather than citizens entitled to equal rights - that is the root of the problem."
The Airport Authority responded to the report stating that the authority, "treats all passengers with respect, and rejects claims of inappropriate or discriminatory treatment of the Arab population. Security checks are implemented in accordance with the law that applies to all passengers at Ben-Gurion International Airport, in keeping with guidelines supplied by government bodies in Israel and under their supervision. Representatives of the liaison unit to the Arab public are present in Ben-Gurion International Airport, 24 hours a day, to attempt to assist passengers. We regret that steps are occasionally taken that cause discomfort. These steps are taken to assure the safety of millions of passengers."