Airline security faced a legal challenge yesterday from a civil rights group charging that its practice of ethnic profiling is racist because it singles out Arabs for tougher treatment.
At a Supreme Court hearing, civil rights lawyers demanded an end to the policy, which they say violates Israeli law. Such profiling is illegal in the U.S., where passengers must be singled out for security checks on a random basis.
But some terrorism experts say Israel's measures are effective precisely because they take ethnicity into account - and warn that equality at the airport could cost lives.
No attacks in decades
Israel is considered a prime target for hijackers and other attackers because of the Israel-Palestinian conflict and extremist Islamic rejection of the existence of a Jewish state in the Middle East.
Despite that, there hasn't been a successful attack on an Israeli airliner in decades, and experts point to Israel's security procedures as a key factor.
Many of the measures are kept secret, but known precautions on Israeli airliners include armored luggage compartments, armed sky marshals and reinforced cockpits.
But a key to preventing attacks, experts say, is the screening process on the ground, and that is the focus of the civil rights complaint.
Israeli Jews and Arabs get dramatically different treatment when boarding Israeli planes, as anyone who's ever stood in line at Ben-Gurion International Airport has seen.
Hanna Swaid, an Israeli Arab, remembers being strip-searched by gruff security guards and having his luggage taken apart piece by piece 20 years ago before he flew from Israel to London, where he was a post-doctoral student.
Today Swaid is an Israeli-Arab lawmaker, and he regularly receives complaints from Arab citizens about similar treatment.
Swaid said last year a relative, a 25-year-old computer programmer, was not allowed to take his cell phone on a domestic flight, even though Jewish passengers were.
He also said he knows of cases in which Arabs who serve in Israel's police or military have been singled out for extra scrutiny.
Refusal to discuss
But the court appeal by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel - and any public debate of the policy - are hobbled by the government's refusal to discuss any of the policy's details.
Proponents of Israel's approach say checking all passengers equally would require manpower and resources many times greater than are needed today and would needlessly extend the time passengers spend waiting for flights.
Ariel Merari, an Israeli terrorism expert who has written about aviation security, said ethnic profiling is both effective and unavoidable.
Israeli security personnel must learn to be more courteous, he said, but there is no denying that the policy has played a central role in Israel's enviable record: The only time an El Al airplane was hijacked was in 1968, and the last time hijackers succeeded in boarding one of its planes was in 1970.
Then the hijackers, a Palestinian woman and a Nicaraguan, were foiled by sky marshals, an innovation at the time.
"It's foolishness not to use profiles when you know that most terrorists come from certain ethnic groups and certain age groups," he said.
"A bomber on a plane is likely to be Muslim and young, not an elderly Holocaust survivor. We're talking about preventing a lot of casualties, and that justifies inconveniencing a certain ethnic group."
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