A new security system at Ben-Gurion International Airport seems to have suspended the invasive and humiliating security checks that have until now been routine for Palestinian and Israeli Arab travelers.
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For the past two weeks, these passengers say, they have been treated exactly the same as Jewish passengers, instead of being subjected to interrogations, searches and delays.
The change is due to the installation of a new, automated system for checking passengers’ bags.
“The technological [baggage] check systems have replaced the physical security checks, and their goal is to significantly ease the physical security check process,” Israel Airports Authority spokesman Ofer Lefler said in a written statement to Haaretz.
Since the system went into operation on March 9, the practice of selectively and publicly searching the contents of certain suitcases in the departure hall has ceased. Instead, after the routine security interrogation, all passengers are sent straight to the check-in counter, where their baggage is examined in the automated system.
The change in procedure was prompted, in part, by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel’s petition to the High Court of Justice demanding that the airports end the discriminatory practice of treating all Arabs as potential security threats and subjecting them to special security checks.
Israeli Arabs, Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem and Palestinians with foreign passports who have gone through Ben-Gurion Airport in the last few weeks have all reported to Haaretz and ACRI that in contrast to previous trips, this time they weren’t asked invasive and aggressive personal questions; their possessions (including laptop computers) weren’t taken from them to be searched; they weren’t separated from the other passengers; and they weren’t body-searched.
ACRI filed its petition against the Shin Bet security service, the Airports Authority and the Transportation Ministry in 2007. In its response, the state argued that the distinction between passengers was necessitated by reality, and that considerations of time and money made it impossible to subject all passengers to the same stringent security checks.
Attorney Auni Banna of ACRI, who drafted the petition, told Haaretz that after the justices made it clear during the hearing that they didn’t buy this argument – former Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch, for instance, declared that “You can’t label an entire population” – the courtroom debate shifted from the level of principle to that of practical solutions. In the years that have elapsed since then, the Airports Authority has kept ACRI posted on all anticipated changes in its security check procedures, including the introduction of the new baggage check system.
‘System doesn’t go far enough’
But Banna charged that all these practical measures were meant to avoid a decision in principle on the legality of discriminatory checks, adding that the new system still doesn’t fully solve the problem. “Questions remain about other ‘search stations’ during the [security] check – the interrogation, the body search – before the flight, but also on returning to Israel, after landing,” he said.
Moreover, the security checks that Israeli airlines conduct at overseas airports before flights back to Israel – which, like those at Israeli airports, are dictated by the Shin Bet – don’t seem to have changed.
Consequently, ACRI doesn’t intend to withdraw its petition; it wants a ruling forbidding airports from assuming that all Arabs are potential security risks – “an assumption that, based on the state’s brief, isn’t expected to change” without such a ruling, Banna said.
But despite these remaining issues, he added, ACRI is pleased that the petition appears to have led to some positive changes even without a ruling.
Both Haaretz and foreign newspapers have published many stories over the years about the humiliating security checks undergone by Israeli Arabs, East Jerusalem Palestinians or foreign nationals en route to the West Bank and Gaza.
Lefler didn’t respond to Haaretz’s question as to whether security checks would also change on domestic flights, where Arabs passengers have also repeatedly encountered discriminatory and humiliating treatment. The Shin Bet declined to answer any of Haaretz’s questions, referring the paper to Lefler’s response.
The new system hasn’t shortened lines, say station managers of foreign airlines that fly through Ben-Gurion Airport. They report that the lines have simply moved: Instead of people enduring long waits for the security checkers before being sent on to the check-in counter, they now endure long waits at the check-in counter.
Zohar Blumenkrantz contributed to this report