Nazareth – Last July, Maria Jamal, 29, a resident of Haifa, was on her way home from Athens when she found herself assigned a flight with the Israeli national carrier El Al at the last minute, after her Turkish Airlines flight to Ben Gurion airport was cancelled because of an attempted military coup in Turkey.
“I fly many times a year but I always avoid Israeli carriers because of the horror stories I have heard from friends and family,” said Jamal, who is one of the founders of Humanity Crew, an organisation that works with refugees from Middle East conflict zones that are living in camps in Europe.
Once she had completed the Greek security checks, she was singled out by Israeli staff at Athens’ airport for intensive questioning. She was then taken to a secure room, where it was insisted she hand over her hand luggage and strip for a body search.
“When I refused, they told me I would not be allowed on the plane,” she told Al Jazeera. She ended up being barred from her flight. “Their behaviour was shameful,” added Jamal. “And I find it equally disturbing that other countries allow Israel’s racist treatment of Arab passengers to take place on their own soil.”
Many cases, like Jamal’s, involve the fifth of Israel’s population who are Palestinian.
According to a recent report by Adalah, a legal rights group, Israeli airport staff regularly violate Israeli law by subjecting Arab passengers, including Israel’s own Palestinian citizens, to strip searches and other degrading procedures.
Adalah said Israel’s 1977 aviation security law provided no authority for airport staff to implement “practices that violate the privacy and dignity” of Arab passengers.
I find it equally disturbing that other countries allow Israel's racist treatment of Arab passengers to take place on their own soil.
The practices occur at Israel’s international Ben Gurion airport, as well as at many foreign airports where Israeli security officials are entitled to carry out pre-flight checks on behalf of Israeli carriers.
In addition to being forced to undress for body searches, Arab passengers are often detained in secure rooms in the departure area before their flights and escorted on to planes by security staff in full view of other passengers. They may also have their hand luggage confiscated.
However, it is the first time it has been suggested that Israeli security staff are carrying out procedures that break Israeli law. Nadeem Shehadeh, an Adalah lawyer, told Al-Jazeera the organisation had written to Israel’s attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, and the Israel Airports Authority demanding that strip-searches and security escorts be stopped immediately.
Passengers agreed to these practices “under duress”, he said, because staff threatened that they would be prevented from boarding their flight unless they complied. In the absence of any legal authority, airport staff were committing what amounted to a “physical assault” by forcing passengers to remove their clothing.
Adalah has insisted that Israel set up a procedure to compensate “the large numbers of passengers who have had to endure such abuses over the years”.
The latest revelations are likely to fuel further criticism of Israel’s long-standing practice of racially profiling Arab passengers at airports.
Shlomo Harnoy, a former senior officer with Israel’s secret intelligence service, the Shin Bet, which oversees airport security checks, told the Jerusalem Post newspaper in July that Israel was “unique” in profiling passengers. Israel’s supreme court refused last year to outlaw racial profiling, though it expressed discomfort with the policy and urged the Airports Authority to find technological solutions to lessen its impact.
There has also been widespread unease in Europe and the United States with Israel’s treatment of Arab passengers, which violate international law and raise ethical concerns. Last month the US accused Israel of discriminatory treatment against its own citizens after five Arab-Americans were denied entry.
However, as concerns grow in the West about threats to airport safety with the rise of groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), some countries have shown increasing interest in learning about Israeli security arrangements.
In June, 150 airport and homeland security officials from the US, Europe, Africa and Russia were given briefings at Ben Gurion airport. The same month Donald Trump, the Republican challenger in November’s US presidential election, called for the US to “look to Israel” on domestic security matters. “Profiling,” he said, “is something that we’re going to have to start thinking about”.
British media have also reported that Heathrow airport is considering a new Israeli-style security system it has dubbed “ring of steel“.
Shehadeh said it was revealing that, in its response, the airport had sidestepped Adalah’s questions about the legality of searches and escorts. Instead, he noted, it denied carrying out such practices.
Tamar Turjeman, the Airports Authority’s senior legal adviser, rejected that airport staff carried out “any improper practices including stripping passengers and/or obligating them to be escorted by security guards”. Turjeman refused to comment on what takes place at foreign airports, saying that was the responsibility of the Shin Bet intelligence service.
Shehadeh called the Airport Authority’s denial “outrageous”.
Another recent incident involved Samar Qupty, 26, a Palestinian actress from Israel who stars in Junction 48, an award-winning film about two hip-hop artists who use their music to challenge racist attitudes in Israel.
When she arrived at Ben Gurion airport in July to fly to Colombia for a film screening there, she was held by security officials for two hours.
Despite showing them an official invitation, Qupty said she was questioned at length, subjected to a body search and told she could not board with her hand luggage. She wrote on Facebook that the airport’s extra checks “remind me yet again how unwanted I am here and how frightening I can be”.
One of Adalah’s lawyers, Fady Khoury, secretly filmed a recent interview by Israeli airport staff as he checked in, in what appears to be an example of racial profiling. He is asked about the origins of his name and the immigration status of his parents – only Jews and their immediate relatives can immigrate to Israel.
In 2007, two Israeli human rights groups collected testimonies indicating that Palestinian citizens were routinely subjected to racial profiling and degrading treatment at airports, including those overseas.
The Nazareth-based Arab Association for Human Rights and the Centre Against Racism concluded that invasive security checks were “so widespread that it is hard to find any Arab citizen who travels abroad by air and who has not experienced a discriminatory security check at least once”.
Little more than cosmetic changes appear to have taken place since, however.
A long-standing court petition from the Israeli legal rights group ACRI pressured Ben Gurion airport in 2014 to stop opening and searching most Arab passengers’ luggage in the departure hall, close to the check-in counters.
Raghad Jaraisy, head of ACRI’s Arab minority rights unit, said the checks had included emptying bags and inspecting the contents near other passengers. Now new machines inspected the bags after check-in.
“The racial profiling hasn’t ended,” she told Al Jazeera. “The new machines mean that much of it has shifted elsewhere, out of public view.”
Jaraisy said she herself had been put in a secure room, escorted on to her flight by security staff and had her luggage confiscated. “Most of my friends have experienced the same treatment. We are so used to it, we don’t even bother complaining. We know we are viewed as suspects from birth.”
She said complaints received by ACRI suggested that the percentage of Arab passengers subjected to body searches and escorts was actually increasing.
It emerged three years ago that Natour, a major Israeli travel agency, required staff to inform Ben Gurion airport in advance of any Arab passengers joining group tours abroad.
There are indications that Palestinian citizens may be able to win limited compensation from the Israeli courts if they can prove that they have suffered discriminatory or abusive treatment.
Last year a judge awarded Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, a law professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, $1,800 for a three-hour security inspection the judge described as “overly invasive”.
However, Israeli courts have persistently refused to rule on the wider legality of racial profiling.
In 2012, Nazareth district court rejected a class-action suit from three Palestinian citizens over their separate and humiliating security checks. The judge said she would only deal with cases of discriminatory treatment on an individual basis.
Meanwhile, Jamal said she is now preparing to sue the Airports Authority. “Maybe if they start paying a financial price, they will think twice about how they treat us.”