Head to Head / Civil Rights Lawyer Auni Bana, Is There a Logic to the Security at Ben-Gurion?

Four years ago, attorney Auni Bana of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel submitted a petition to the High Court of Justice. He demanded clarifications on security checks and the labeling of Arab citizens at Ben-Gurion International Airport. Bana talks about meticulous and humiliating checks, which he says he himself has experienced.

This week the High Court issued an order instructing the state to explain why there should not be security checks according to equal criteria; Bana thinks this is already a significant step. He says he and the ACRI do not oppose the principle of security checks, they object to the method and the labeling. They expect the High Court to hand down a ruling making the security check uniform for all Israeli citizens, both Jews and Arabs.

Auni Bana
Gil Cohen-Magan

Attorney Bana, have you yourself had a bad experience at the airport?

Of course, every time I fly I have such an experience. It begins with the entry barrier to Ben-Gurion Airport with a special lane for Arabs, up to the terminal entrance, and of course the meticulous security check. During one trip the security check ended only at the door of the plane.

Why do you think it happens - because you're an Arab? Maybe every young person traveling alone is under suspicion?

That argument is long gone - today it's already clear to everyone, even to the court. And the state admitted that the strict checks are because these people are Arabs. When we submitted the petition we couldn't decide how much of an effort we had to make for the state to admit this, but we were surprised when the state clearly admitted that it uses the criterion of nationality as a means for a more meticulous security check.

So it may be said that the petition is based on a personal matter?

I have experienced it, but the petition is a matter of principle, and we hope and expect the High Court of Justice to get the state to the point where it will explain the lack of equality in security checks at the airport when it comes to Israeli citizens. In the petition they used quite a few examples of Arab citizens who went through a humiliating check and profiling, showing that the very fact you're an Arab means you're a security risk. All those questions about where you're going and who you're meeting with are all questions unconnected to the security of the flight itself.

So is the goal simply to humiliate?

The outcome of the check is certainly humiliation when it comes to Arab citizens.

Don't you think there's a kind of logic to all this, because who has carried out attacks on planes? Mainly Arabs.

I'm clarifying, I'm not representing Arabs or Jews, I'm speaking mainly about citizens of the State of Israel. And no one I represent has been involved in a security incident. The main issue is the state's attitude toward its Arab citizens. If we have equal rights, that has to be translated into the way the state treats its Arab citizens.

You don't expect to board a flight without a security check?

There's an attempt here by the state to mislead. We have never said that we are opposed to a security check; I never board a flight if there's no check. We are opposed to the method of checking and how the level of the security check is decided according to the citizen's origin.

Are you also talking about the profiling system?

First of all, there's no proof that this method prevents attacks. Second, what kind of message is the state sending to its Jewish citizens? The state is saying that the Arabs are dangerous and I have to check them more carefully, so the message that all Arabs are dangerous begins at the airport and spills over into other places, and is reflected in a hostile attitude and racist beliefs.

And there's a short distance between the airport and the declaration that renting homes to Arabs is forbidden. We should recall and remind everyone that it was Jews who were involved in the most significant and serious security incident in Israel - the assassination of a prime minister for whose security the Shin Bet security service is responsible. The murderer was a Jew. Would it be acceptable for all the Jews to be labeled as dangerous?

But what can we do, we're in a very tense region, not in Switzerland or Sweden.

Even in places with complex populations we have to be strict about human rights and civil rights. I'm convinced that the security procedure doesn't stem from a genuine security need. There's an entirely different issue here, the desire of the majority to control the minority and keep track of it, a kind of control complex to maintain the harmony of the majority.

Do you have alternative suggestions, a concrete suggestion for a security check?

I'm not an expert on security checks, I'm an expert on human rights, and I know when human rights are being undermined. I want the Arabs and Jews to undergo the same security check, and it makes no difference whether we're talking about technological or other means. The main thing is that the attitude be egalitarian.

On your trips abroad, have you experienced equal treatment when the security check is not done by Israelis?

Yes, definitely, I've been in Europe and the United States, and everyone does the same security check. You take off your shoes and belt and go through the little gate. I didn't feel humiliated because everyone was in the same line, they don't take you aside and ask who you're meeting with. It may be that the American-style security check is strict and invades privacy, but there's no discrimination and labeling.

Are you satisfied with the High Court's order?

I'm very satisfied with the High Court decision; it marks an important step to eliminate the humiliation. I don't know what the High Court will rule in the end, but there is significant progress and I welcome it.

But do you think the High Court will hand down a more final decision even though this is a sensitive issue?

I think that already now we can chalk up an achievement, because nobody is hiding or being evasive because of the sensitivity of the security issue. And the High Court has to touch on the main point: whether it is justified to label Arab citizens. It took us four years before we managed to frame and sharpen the arguments, and the High Court can't ignore that.