Israel's Top Court Rejects Petition to Stop Discriminatory Airport Security Checks

High Court cites changes made to Ben Gurion Airport's security mechanism as reason for rejecting petition against discriminatory checks.

David Bachar

The High Court of Justice rejected a petition Wednesday to annul the ethnic profiling of Arab passengers at Israeli airports, but left the door open for further such requests.

The three-justice panel ruled that the Association for Civil Rights in Israel petition filed in 2007 is no longer relevant because of recent changes to airport security procedures, but said the advocacy group has the right to go back to the High Court if the changes do not bring about the “desired result.”

The petition, filed in 2007, sought to annul the criterion of Arab ethnicity as part of the process of determining the severity of the security check to which travelers at Israeli airports are subject, and to apply the same criteria to all travelers.

About a year ago, a new system for automatically checking all luggage at Ben-Gurion International Airport went into operation. Since then, the luggage checks in the departure terminal have ended.

Auni Banna, the lawyer who heads the Arab minority rights department at ACRI and represented the organization in court, said the ruling meant Arab citizens would continue to associate airports with humiliation.

“As long as the High Court of Justice does not make it decisively clear that discrimination on an ethnic basis is improper, Arab citizens will continue to fear the humiliation every time they come to any airport,” said Banna.

The court ordered the state to pay ACRI 30,000 shekels in court costs, in light of “the petition’s contribution to promoting the changes in security checks in Israeli airports.” But those changes aren’t enough, said Banna.

“The High Court missed out on the opportunity to stop the formal ethnic discrimination at the airports in Israel,” he said. “Arab citizens are labeled as suspects and go through a separate and humiliating process solely because of ethnic identity. True, our suit led to an improvement in the security check procedure and some relief for Arab passengers, but Arab citizens continue to experience discrimination involved in a different and discriminatory security check.”

ACRI has said it is improper to discriminate among passengers based on ethnicity, but the justices ruled that the alternative of a strict security check for all passengers raises a number of difficulties.

In the years since the petition was filed, the media have reported many incidents about Arab passengers being humiliated during security checks, both in Israel and abroad. There have been reports of luggage items being confiscated or damaged, and delays that have prevented passengers from making their planes. The Israel Airports Authority has said the security checks are carried out in accordance with the instructions of the security services.

The petition sought to prohibit airport security personnel from requiring stricter security checks for Arab passengers at Israeli airports. The ACRI also asked for uniform criteria for security checks.

Justices Miriam Naor, Asher Grunis and Elyakim Rubinstein said it was difficult to find a good balance between protecting passengers’ safety and protecting their individual rights.

The judges ruled that it was still too early to evaluate how the recent changes in security procedures will affect passengers’ rights and reduce discrimination. They said they were not ruling on the principle of the issue, adding that “the gates of the court are open” to the plaintiffs if they find that the changes “do not lead to the desired results.”

ACRI also said the fees awarded to it by the court are meant to cover eight years of hearings. In 2012, Justice Grunis imposed NIS 45,000 in fees on the association for a petition it filed together with other organizations against the privatization of the new hospital in Ashdod. In that case, the ruling was given just five months after the petition was submitted.