Israeli air security is easy on most, intrusive for a few

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By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 27, 2010

JERUSALEM - Israel has long held the reputation as home to the world's most stringent airport security procedures. But most passengers aren't frisked, there are no intimately revealing body-imaging scanners, and security experts dismiss as misguided the new, more intrusive American approach that requires pat-downs or highly detailed scans of every passenger.

"Taking the bottle of water from the 87-year-old woman at JFK, you will never find an explosive material that is coming from bin Laden," said Shlomo Harnoy, head of the Sdema Group, an Israeli security consultancy that advises airports abroad. "You are concentrating on the wrong thing."

Israel's approach allows most travelers to pass through airport security with relative ease. But Israeli personnel do single out small numbers of passengers for extensive searches and screening, based on profiling methods that have so far been rejected in the United States, subjectingArabs and, in some cases, other foreign nationals to an extensive screening that comes with a steep civil liberties price.

"I know personally of people who came to Israel for a conference and were asked if they had met an Arab. After that, they were stripped and their laptop was confiscated," said Ariel Merari, a terrorism expert at Tel Aviv University who has researched aviation security. "There is a lot to be improved in this approach towards innocent, foreign citizens. Also, the attitude towards Israeli Arabs has to be reevaluated.

"The profiling system is good," Merari said. "But it has to be done with more sensitivity.''

Pini Shif, a founder of the security division at Ben Gurion International Airport outside Tel Aviv, estimates that about 2 percent of passengers flying from the airport are subject to the more intensive screening. For the others, the air-travel experience can be a delight, compared with flying in the United States.

"The security here is far more professional," said Sandy Kornhauser, who arrived with her daughter at Ben Gurion from Philadelphia on Wednesday to attend a wedding.

"I think they know who they are looking for," she added. "In the States, they don't know."

Israeli airport security authorities don't disclose the methods by which they single out passengers for extra scrutiny. They say only that they have a list of suspicious signs that they look for.

Sometimes a Muslim-sounding name is enough. Donna Shalala, a 69-year-old American of Lebanese descent who was President Bill Clinton's secretary of health and human services and is now president of the University of Miami, was detained and questioned for 21/2 hours at Ben Gurion in July. The Israeli news media said she was subject to a humiliating security debriefing because of her Arab last name.

In another incident that made headlines here this fall, Heather Bradshaw, an Indiana University professor, was subjected to a body search and forced to turn over her bra to authorities as she tried to board an El Al flight from Britain's London Luton Airport to Tel Aviv to attend an academic conference. All her belongings except her passport and credit cards were taken from her before she was allowed to board. She got them back three days later, after friends in Israel intervened.

Israeli Arabs, who make up about one-fifth of Israel's population, are regularly subjected to a more intensive questioning that goes beyond the routine queries, such as "Where did you just arrive from?" and "Who packed your bags?" They also are subjected to body and bag searches more frequently than Jewish passengers.


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