Tough Israeli airport security can be insulting

Ben Gurion airport security check Photo: Einat Levron

"Globes" looks into the humiliations inflicted on 'suspicious' passengers at Ben Gurion airport in the name of security and asks if it is really necessary.

"Instead of writing a post about a wonderful two weeks that I had in Tel Aviv, I'm writing about a terrible experience that I had at the airport on the way home." This is what the head of the Estonian delegation to the Eurovision Song Contest, Liam Clark from Australia, wrote to Channel 13 correspondent Amir Kotler on his way home. He had his laptop confiscated by security officials at Ben Gurion airport because it aroused suspicions. Now after being examined, the laptop will be flown home to him in Melbourne. Clark says that he was questioned for two hours and asked, among other things, why as an Australian he was part of the Estonian delegation and why he had visited Qatar for a day in 2016.

The head of another delegation wrote to Kotler,  "Before the experience that I underwent at the airport I felt sure that I would return to Israel soon because I was so busy and didn't get to see very much. Now I ask myself whether I would want to undergo such an interrogation again for no reason."

A member of the Montenegro delegation added, "It seems that I'm a problematic person who arouses suspicion. Even though I was part of the official Eurovision delegation and arrived with an EBU tag, I was questioned for half an hour and my suitcase was thoroughly checked."

A dancer accompanying Madonna reported that she also underwent exhausting questioning and stories like these are not new. They have appeared on blogs, and tourist websites worldwide and reveal passengers who have undergone similar unpleasant, discomforting and humiliating experiences during the interrogation before leaving Israel.

The insult is taken personally and cuts deep and compels people to express their frustration. This includes people here on vacation who happened to have visited a neighboring country, business passengers who as part of their jobs have visited an 'enemy' country, or just a tourist who arouses suspicion for this or that reason - either when entering or especially when leaving. Some of them decide, "we won't come back to Israel."

Experts believe that it is very difficult to repair the damage to Israel's image created by the impression left on such tourists who had a great time until they came to the airport to leave. Are the security procedures at Ben Gurion airport spoiling the tourist industry for everybody or are they a source of pride for a small country forced to cope with uncompromising threats?

"There isn't a country that doesn't send representatives to learn from us"

Former Israel Airport Authority deputy director general and head of security at Ben Gurion Airport Pini Schiff said, "If we were to work differently than the way we do today then we might harm all passengers." Today Schiff is Israel Security Association CEO.

Schiff stresses that if some passengers are inconvenienced, then this is a marginal price to pay and the complaints are dwarfed by the rigorous procedures required.

He said, "There is no other airport in the world that carries out security checks of the quality, the professionalism, the common sense and the logic that are applied at Ben Gurion airport. It is no coincidence that that it is known as the safest airport in the world. There isn't a country that doesn't send representatives to learn from Israel's airport security doctrine. 23 million passengers pass through Ben Gurion airport annually and it is not reasonable that there won't be complaints from a passenger that didn't like the security check - and that's fine. But against the complaint, you must understand what we are doing and how we go about preventing terror attacks."

Do they undertake such checks at the airports in London and New York in order to prevent terror attacks?

"Yes, but using different methods, and I don't want to express an opinion about them. As somebody who knows the airports around the world, I can tell you that security in Israel is unmatched. I say that from 30 years of familiarity with the Israel Airports Authority and after being the person responsible for security but having no personal interest in the matter today. There is no other security body that invests so much so that procedures will have minimum friction. Several years ago we integrated a science fiction-type system that checks all hand baggage after check-in without touching it. So the main part of the check is carried out without touching passengers and their baggage."

But perhaps you need to reduce contact in terms of questioning passengers?

"You must have contact with the passengers even if it's only to exchange a few words. We hire and train the best security people and teach them how to do their work in the best way and to identify those that arouse suspicion."

And what about service and courtesy during the process so that the passenger feels comfortable and to prevent media repercussions and severe damage to our image?

"Service awareness is ingrained in the security employees and it is deep in their blood, and we analyze every incident.

"True there are mishaps here and there, but in Israel people like to complain. A passenger who is required to take off his shoes and belt in New York and throw away a bottle of water does not complain - even if his undergoes a physical check when there. There, as in Europe, they operate on an automatic and indiscriminate basis."

And in Israel a selective profiling method is used. Some passengers are asked two questions and others are called in for an investigation. People are labelled. Would it not be preferable to put everybody through the same process?

"What's wrong with asking a few questions? The selection process is swift, there are no flaws, unless the passenger arouses suspicions and then from my point of view, they can ask him 50 questions in order to prove that the suspicions are groundless. The profiling method is that out of millions of people, we will try to find the one for whom it is necessary to invest in a thorough investigation, unlike in Europe, where every passenger, no matter who he is or what he is and where he is from, must take off his belt and shoes. It's stupid."

But it lets the passenger feel that those are the procedures and and that the suspicion is not towards a specific passenger.

"If we were to check every passenger to the same degree, then that's being clever in a way that makes no sense from any point of view. There is no point in putting efforts into passengers that don't need it. It's a waste of time, it's a low level of service, and it's not the right method because that you'll miss the person that is worth looking at."

Or you find somebody you're not looking for and question them needlessly until they are humiliated?

"What does it mean to be humiliated? Anyone can say what they want and certainly in the era of fake news. And if somebody does feel that way, then they are one out of the millions that prove the rule. When I was in the job, I personally checked every complaint that was received. There were times when I found lies and antisemitism and terrible distortions, and there were other times when I found that the complaint was justified and we dealt with it in order to prevent it happening again."

Like the laptop taken from the spokesperson of the Eurovision delegation?

"If a passenger has a laptop that responds to a chemical test, does that mean  we don't need to check it for explosives just because he worked at the Eurovision Song Contest? We must check, and if everything is okay the computer will be sent to him."

The congestion at airports will continue to grow and security delays will cause a chain reaction of flight delays. It's an area that requires streamlining.

"The streamlining comes from technology. There is machinery that does automatic checking, for example, but you still have to put millions of people through a system of security checks and be convinced that every plane taking off from here will reach its destination in one piece."

Can it be done differently?

For whoever is surprised that the security emphasis is mainly on those leaving Israel and less on those entering regardless of what airline they are flying on, Schiff explains that, "Entering passengers have already undergone a security check at their airport of departure. Here there is a plane about to take off, and that is a huge responsibility."

Security procedures at the airport are set by the Israel Security Agency (Shabak), which revises them from time to time according to international developments. The procedures apply at Ben Gurion airport and to passengers travelling on Israeli airlines from other airports worldwide. This is one of the reasons why planes to Israel often taken off from the most remote part of airports overseas.

"These are Israel's requirements and there are some airports that forego flights to Israel because of these procedures," Schiff said. "We cannot compromise on security issues, and yes, even if somebody gets insulted on the way."

It seems that the topic of security at airports is justifiably a sacred cow. But one still wonders if it would not be possible to process 'suspicious passengers' differently, in a more respectful and service-oriented manner, and to be both security-minded and sensitive.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on May 26, 2019

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2019

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Ben Gurion airport security check Photo: Einat Levron
Ben Gurion airport security check Photo: Einat Levron
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