Only half an hour before her flight from Israel, D. was standing almost completely naked while an Eastern European-looking security inspector touched her arms, legs and hips. “She also put her fingers in the inside top rim of my underwear,” the young and – may I add, brilliant – doctoral student wrote to me.
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I met D. several years ago on one of her research trips to Israel. She is neither Palestinian nor Jewish. She was born in the Middle East, but grew up in the West and carries a Western passport.
D. arrived at Ben-Gurion International Airport three hours ahead of her scheduled departure time. As on all previous visits, she was told to open her suitcase and two carry-ons for a thorough search.
But then, just 45 minutes before takeoff, D. was told she would have to undergo a body search and would not be allowed to board the plane with her laptop.
D. wrote me in an email: “I protested by saying, ‘I refuse to leave my laptop ... this has all of my archival research on it ... How can I trust that it will be returned to me?’” D. asked the young white woman with blue eyes and long, straight hair, and her supervisor, a young, brown-haired man. “A third, slightly older man (also brown-haired) in a suit came to me and said that if I continued to delay the search, I would miss my flight and would be responsible for that.
“I protested again, saying they were the ones who delayed the search of my suitcase, taking their time, getting distracted with other passengers around them, passing on tasks of checking my cellphone charger, my ceramics, my olive oil and such things to their colleagues, doing a lot of small talk and joking in the process.
"I told him that I arrived the full three hours before my flight and they made me wait for long periods while they were searching the suitcase, so if I missed the flight it would be their responsibility. And the three of them began to argue back and say that no, it would be my responsibility.”
None of three identified themselves and D. did not notice if they wore name tags.
I imagine D. with her black eyes staring at her inspectors and, after a quick consideration of the balance of power, softening her face and following them. In this instance, her sharp mind was no advantage.
While waiting to be frisked in a different area, D. overheard a conversation between a woman who spoke with an Arabic accent and an Israeli man.
“Why are you treating me like this?” the woman was saying. “I am an old woman. I am in a wheelchair. I was born in this country. I have citizenship here. Do you think I have a bomb?”
The last question set the young male officer off and he responded aggressively. “You’re not listening to me! We’re doing you a favour,” he snapped. “This way you don’t have to wait in line in the airport.”
D. was required to take off all her clothes except for her underwear. She was also required to remove the Band-Aid from a finger that had been cut a day earlier.
After the “Eastern European-looking” woman traced her gloved fingers over D.’s body, “she was also very interested in my hair,” D. wrote, “and worked her fingers along my scalp to see if there was anything in my hair.”
As the female officer touched her, D. wrote that the woman said, “‘Sorry for the inconvenience, ma’am.’ I told her not to call it an inconvenience. ‘Do not call it that. This is humiliation.’ She responded, ‘I’m sorry this is how you see it.’ I responded: ‘This is not how I see it. This is what you are doing. You are humiliating people.’
"And then, in all seriousness, she responds, ‘Well, now you know what they did to us in Germany.’ At that stage my back was to her. I had to stop and turn around to face her. I just glared at her and said ‘Really? And what does that make you then?’ With a blank face she responded, ‘I don’t know, ma’am.’”
I responded to D. in an email: “The security check, the wasting of your time, the condescension – I believe it all because I have heard similar testimonies. But such a stupid comment? If anyone but you were to tell me such a thing, I wouldn’t have believed it.”
D. wrote back: “I was totally shocked when I heard the comment, because of how candid and revealing it was. And at this point my body was reacting against me and my tears were already beginning to show and flow, despite my strong tone. I had to turn around and face her to make sure she was not joking. When I realized she was speaking in all seriousness, I asked her what I did.”
The body strip search took 20-25 minutes, according to D.’s estimate. There were still 25 minutes before the plane took off. The rest of the journey to the gate passed quickly, even giving the laptop away to the security people in exchange for some sort of receipt.
Several days after landing in the city where she lives, D. went to the airport to collect her laptop. Friends who know about computers checked the laptop and said they suspected that data was downloaded from it - perhaps for future monitoring as well.
I didn’t request a comment from the Israel Airports Authority. They would only give the standard response: “Everything is conducted according to the instructions of security officials [meaning the Shin Bet security service], according to the law, and we regret the discomfort caused the passenger.”
But that’s not the reason I gave up on asking. Both D. and I fear the vindictiveness of the bureaucratic–security apparatus. Openly reporting what happened behind the scenes at Ben-Gurion airport could cost D. in the future. She could be “denied entry for security reasons.”