El Al planes
El Al planes at Ben-Gurion International Airport in July 2009. Photo by Tomer Appelbaum
Text size

Here is a story known to only some of the citizens of Israel. A few weeks ago a 43-year-old lecturer in sociology at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who serves as a member of the prestigious academic journal Sociology, packed a suitcase and went to Ben-Gurion International Airport. From there he was supposed to take off for the journal's annual editorial board meeting in London. He stood in line, showed his passport and his ticket and was immediately directed to a separate line.

The lecturer, whose name is Nabil Khattab and who lives in Beit Safafa, was not surprised. He says he accepts with understanding the lengthy security check, including the opening of his suitcases and rummaging in his carry-ons and laptop computer. He even accepts the detailed questioning (Where is he going? With whom will he meet? Where is the invitation? Who is the person who invited him? Give names of people. Are there representatives of enemy countries there? Who? ), though the connection between that and the security of the flight is not clear to him.

In recent years the security check has become a severe and exhausting hassle, which reaches its climax in the side room. The person being investigated is taken to the room and there he undergoes a thorough body check - head hair, ears, neck, armpits, every centimeter down to the soles of his feet, including private parts. Even this humiliating check Khattab accepts submissively.

This time, however, the examiner probed the lower part of his body with a cloth-covered stick and began to insert it under Khattab's trousers.

"That was already intolerable," he said. "I couldn't keep quiet. With the greatest possible restraint I asked the examiner to stop. This has no connection to security, I said to him. If there is a suspicion that I am carrying explosives or metal on my body - let me go through the metal detector and if the machine beeps I will come back for examination."

The examiner replied that if he did not agree to the examination with the stick he would not be allowed to board the plane. Khattab explained that he represents The Hebrew University on an important academic journal and that he cannot be absent from the meeting.

In vain. Angry and insulted, he took his suitcase and left. Ten minutes later, Khattab changed his mind but when he tried to go back to the side room he was told that because he had left the passenger terminal he would have to go through the whole check again, from the beginning. When he finally reached the room the examiner demanded he remove his trousers. "I will take them off only if they demand this of all passengers," he said, and went home.

His wife persuaded him not to give in. He found a seat on the next flight to London, paid the difference and went back to the airport. The check was completed relatively quickly and included a body check. Without a stick.

The question arises as to whether an intrusive check with a stick is necessary. If so - why didn't they do it the second time? If not - why did they want to do it?

However, even without sticks, the security check of Arab citizens of Israel is markedly different. Even the authorities in the United States, who have gotten carried away with paranoia since 9/11, have realized that it is impossible to do security checks by "profiling" and have determined to carry out random checks of all passengers. In Britain and Germany they do a thorough check of everyone: This is more expensive and it takes more time, but it avoids violations of civil rights.

At this time it is hard to convince the Jewish public in Israel that what happens at Ben-Gurion International Airport is a systematic injustice, if not worse. The ethnocentric panic undermines the principle of civil equality. Perhaps if they also opened the Levys' suitcases and the Cohens' suitcases, asked them innumerable personal questions and probed their bodies with a stick, the system would have to reexamine the security check.

Today there isn't a Knesset that will decide this. Perhaps the High Court of Justice, where there is a petition pending on this issue, will be able to do so.