Arabs say they endure degrading airport security checks

Israel is the only country in the world to officially guide its airport security personnel to treat one group of citizens - in this case, Arabs - more aggressively solely due to their nationality.

Adeeb Awad, pictured in his Tel Aviv house, has accused Israeli airport security of conducting a degrading security check.
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TEL AVIV // Yara Mashour got her first bitter taste of Israel's airport screening for the country's Palestinian citizens three decades ago.

Twelve years old, at a New York airport ahead of her family's return flight to Israel, she said agents from the Israeli airline El Al searched through her hair and looked into her father's underwear. Suitcases were torn and several bags went missing following a security check. Finally, a security officer escorted the family to their plane seats and then to a closed room during the London stopover.

Ms Mashour vowed to avoid such treatment again. In February she was interrogated for almost two hours by El Al officers at an Italian airport and separated from her two travel companions. When she was ordered to undergo a full-body search, she refused. The editor of a women's magazine from the Israeli city of Nazareth instead paid €250 (Dh1,220) to return to Israel with Turkish Airways, publicised her ordeal in local media and is seeking to sue El Al.

"It was humiliating," she said during a recent interview at a Tel Aviv cafe ahead of a nearby photo shoot for her publication. "Arab citizens are immediately viewed as a security threat at airports. But we should go through the same procedures as Jewish citizens."

That airport discrimination is at the heart of a five-year-old petition to the Israeli Supreme Court that challenges the harsh security measures targeting Palestinian citizens at airports within Israel as well as by the flagship Israeli airline, El Al, abroad. The court is expected to make a decision on the issue in the next two months.

In legal documents and court hearings, Israel has indicated that it intensifies security checks for Arab citizens in a bid to prevent terror attacks, said Auni Banna, a lawyer for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which had filed the petition.

According to Mr Banna, other countries may also be implementing such harsh aviation security measures against certain citizens.

However, Israel is the only country in the world to officially guide its airport security personnel to treat one group of citizens - in this case, Arabs - more aggressively solely due to their nationality. Israeli Palestinians, accounting for a fifth of Israel's population, view their nationality as Arab or Palestinian and their citizenship as Israeli.

The court ruling is likely to be watched by authorities in other western countries mulling stricter aviation security methods against certain groups such as citizens of Arab origin, Mr Banna said.

Israel says in court documents that its only option for unifying security checks is to toughen them for all its citizens, but that would be too costly and spur long lines. Officials add that technological advances in the airport would minimise contact between passengers and agents and ease the checks for Arab citizens. The Israeli Airport Authority and El Al airline both told The National they "act according to Israeli security authorities' guidelines".

In the meantime, the measures are spurring further hostility among Israeli Palestinians towards the country's Jewish authorities. They are also driving many of them to forgo El Al or even skip flying altogether out of the main Ben-Gurion International airport. Instead, they are opting to reach neighbouring Jordan, a peace partner of Israel, through a land crossing and fly from there.

Some Palestinian citizens have successfully sued El Al. In mid-March, a small claims court in Haifa ruled that the airline pay 9,000 shekels (Dh8,890) to a woman who was ordered by a female security agent last year to stand only in her underwear for an hour and a half at the Israeli airport in the resort city of Eilat while her clothes were screened. The agent then ripped apart the woman's bra and cut off pieces from it.

Adeeb Awad, a 42-year-old marketing consultant from Tel Aviv who flies frequently for business, said he is "fed up" with the intensive checks that took place during each of the 10 times that he has travelled in the past year. Mr Awad, who refuses to fly with El Al, said he has already learnt that airport agents avoid publicly saying the word "Arab" when discovering his nationality and instead use the nickname "kilo" when speaking to each other about his security check. He said the targeting of Arabs at airports is a non-issue among most Israeli Jews.

"It's horrible how normal and legitimate it has become here to discriminate against Arabs in airports," he said. "Jewish people don't see it as a big deal."

Some Israeli Palestinian travellers say their screening verged on sexual harassment.

Mona Bawardi, a 35-year-old high-school teacher from Nazareth and a former Israeli national basketball player, flew with El Al for a two-week holiday in Thailand in December. On her return, female El Al agents in the Thai capital of Bangkok ordered her to strip - including removing her bra - and searched with a cloth-covered stick inside her pants.

Ms Bawardi, also a swimming teacher seeking to organise a Jewish-Arab swimming class for toddlers, said: "Every time I speak about that experience, my whole body shakes. I won't give up on peace between Jews and Arabs, but the coexistence efforts seem to end every time Arabs try to cross a border."