America's next security measure: 'Israelification' of airports?

There are growing calls for sterner airport security checks which combine technical detection with a heavy emphasis on profiling.

The Obama administration's measures to toughen airport and airline security following last month's failed bombing attempt of an American airliner by a 23-year-old Nigerian man are rushing ahead.

Some 450 body-scanning machines have been ordered for airline terminals, more than 10 times the number now in use. Airline passengers coming to the United States from Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and nine other nations are to undergo extra screening. Amid the growing clamour to ratchet up airline security comes the call for one more step: the "Israelification" of US airports. "We could all do a lot worse than to learn from the Israeli model," wrote David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, in The Huffington Post, a widely-read online news magazine.

The enthusiasm has not stopped there. Israel's airline and airport security practices, which combine technical detection with a heavy emphasis on profiling and personal interaction between security personnel and passengers, drew the praise of retired army Lt Gen Thomas McInerney. "Let's use the same procedures that the Israelis use on [the Israeli airline] El Al," Mr McInerney told Fox News, in urging more ethnic, national and behavioural profiling of travellers. All Muslim men between the ages of 18 and 28, he added, should be strip searched at US airports.

It is true that Israel has been successful in preventing attacks on airports and civilian airliners. No plane departing Ben Gurion International Airport has ever been hijacked or attacked in flight. There has been no assault on the airport itself since 1972, when three Japanese Red Army militants stormed the former main terminal, killing 24 people. Still, Israel owes this success to conditions few nations share and methods few nations can impose without legal recrimination or public backlash.

For one thing, Israel has only one international airport, and it serves some 11.5 million travellers a year. In contrast, London's Heathrow Airport serves 67 million passengers annually and New York's John F Kennedy Airport, nearly 50 million. Use of Israeli techniques on such a large scale, with their stress on profiling and questioning, would be a logistical challenge and enormously expensive. Furthermore, the effectiveness of any airport security system must be weighed against its costs. In the case of the Israeli model, that means the denial of human rights to the 3.9 million Palestinian residents of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, who have no freedom of movement and no hope of using Ben Gurion, even though their own airports have been destroyed by Israeli military forces.

Most questions about the ability to transplant the Israeli model, however, centre on ethnic and behavioural profiling, a key feature of the scheme. While posing questions, Israeli security personnel, most in their early 20s, zero in on body language and vocal tone, looking for signs of nervousness, which may itself, they say, betray ill intent. (Never mind that there are many reasons other than deceit why passengers might be anxious at an airport.)

Frustration, anger or an Arabic accent usually prompt more questioning and examination of luggage, even though the bags have already passed through metal detectors and an X-ray machine. Any Israeli Jew or person identified as Jewish usually passes easily through the process. Others - Israeli Arabs, Palestinians with special authorisation to use the airport, foreign reporters and academics, non-Jewish visitors, non-Jewish residents of Israel - are almost guaranteed additional investigation, including demands for friends' names, the identity of people whom the traveller intends to see at their destination and the right to examine the contents of a laptop. Some are strip searched.

Not surprisingly, most Israelis accept or welcome this procedure, while others consider it highly discriminatory. "This is the most offensive and humiliating experience I have ever had. I was immediately suspect just because I am Arab," said Saleh Yaaqubi, whose account of his experience with Israeli airport security is included in a report three years ago by the Arab Association for Human Rights in Nazareth.

As calls for the "Israelification" of airport security have intensified, even Israeli security officials concede that their profiling is selective. "We rely on racial profiling in many of the security checks at Ben Gurion, something which, for political reasons, many governments can't do," Lt Col Eran Tuval of the Israel Defence Forces told the London-based Jewish Chronicle last week. Although a wholesale transfer of Israeli security methods to the US and Europe is unlikely because of practical and legal obstacles, changes in airport security on both continents seem inevitable, given political pressures.

In urging more profiling, Newt Gingrich, one of America's most influential Republicans, accused the Obama administration of being overly constrained by "cultural sensitivities" and sacrificing its obligation to protect American lives on the altar of "political correctness". Although it insists it does not conduct ethnic or religious profiling, the US Transportation Security Administration already has a modestly funded, five-year-old programme of behavioural detection methods called SPOT - "Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques."

Thus, for airline passengers - especially Muslims, Arabs or any citizen of one of the 14 countries - the better-of-two-evils conundrum is likely to become even more acute: what is a greater invasion of privacy? A full-body scan - a technical means of detecting weapons that minimises human discretion and the bias and racism that inevitably accompany it? Or Israeli-style behavioural detection methods, which expand that discretion?