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Regularly confronting discrimination at Ben Gurion Airport

By Aziz Abu Sarah

The recent Supreme Court rebuke of the Airport Authorities in Israel came as a shining light of hope. The treatment of Arabs at Ben Gurion Airport has caused many controversies over the last few years. For me, this is not something I simply read about in the newspaper — being  a Palestinian resident of Jerusalem and a frequent business flyer I regularly experience discrimination at Ben Gurion. This discrimination takes a variety of forms, from extra security checks and humiliating requests such as taking off undershirts and pants to invasive personal questions about my relationships that have nothing to do with security.

Arabs undergo these procedures both when departing via Ben Gurion Airport and upon reentering the country, which is something most Israelis don’t know. While other passengers entering Israel claim their baggage and meet their loved ones after passport control, many Arabs undergo a different procedure. After getting my travel document stamped after a long wait, I am normally asked to accompany a security official to a special screening room. There I have to undergo another body search and my luggage is searched piece by piece, despite the fact that my luggage has already been searched prior to boarding the flight in the U.S.

The searches are not half as bad, however, as the attitudes of the personnel who perform the screenings. For instance, once security personnel mistook a bottle of alcohol I was bringing as a gift in my bag for a bomb. I was detained by security, forced against a wall, and forced to stand there for almost an hour until they realized they had made a mistake. No apology was offered.

A few days after the famous letter forbidding Jews in Israel from dating Arabs or renting to them, I experienced another example of discrimination at Ben Gurion. On this occasion, a female intern for George Mason University’s Center for World Religions Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution accompanied me to pick up one of our colleagues from the airport. Upon arriving at the checkpoint outside the airport, our car was pulled aside. The intern, who happened to be an Israeli Jew, was asked to sit in a rest area while security proceeded to check me based on my ethnicity, despite the fact that we were traveling together. Unfortunately the story didn’t end there. While our intern waited, she was questioned by a security guard who demanded to know why she was with an Arab man. He asked her why she was spending time with me, and if we were dating. When she explained she was interning for me in Jerusalem, the security official only became more upset and asked “Aren’t there enough Jews you can work for?”

Having said this, it is important to mention that not all of the airport personnel are racist. I have also met some fine and nice people, some of whom are themselves uncomfortable with these procedures.The problem stems from a system that creates these situations and makes separation and profiling acceptable. As a result, although the Supreme Court’s rebuke to security agencies is a good start toward fixing this system, the real test is still ahead. In particular, the government must decide if it is willing to make major changes in its treatment of minorities.

For the last 60 years Israel has claimed to be the only true democracy in the Middle East. However, the true test of a democracy is not just whether its people have the freedom to vote or the freedom of speech — a real democracy is judged by how it treats its minorities. By this standard Israeli democracy has a long battle ahead, because as long as Arabs in Israel are treated as inferior to Jewish citizens, Israel’s democracy remains fundamentally flawed.

Aziz Abu Sarah is a Palestinian resident of Jerusalem who divides his time between Jerusalem and Washington D.C. Aziz is a columnist with Al Quds newspaper and is the director of the Middle East Projects at the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University. Aziz runs alternative tours to Israel and the West-Bank through MEJDI a social enterprise he co-founded. His blog can be found at http://azizabusarah.wordpress.com

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    1. Amin Nusseibeh

      Why do you fly out of Ben Gurion at all? As British General Evelyn Barker stated in 1947 “Hit those people where it hurts-in their pockets”
      fly out of Amman instead

      Reply to Comment
    2. aziz

      Amin, I used to travel through Jordan, however the process of coming back from Jordan into Jericho was not much better than Ben Gurion Airport. Eventually, It was less efficient with the same discrimination, as for finances… I still had to pay hundreds of shekels for border taxes so it doesn’t make a difference financially whether you travel from Ben Gurion or Jericho

      Reply to Comment
    3. piotr

      There is something wrong in Israeli society, at least judging on readers’ comments in ynetnews.

      There is a story about strip searching Dan Rather’s crew before an interview with an Israeli minister. He complained that it never happened in his carrier, and he interviewed personages as paranoid as Saddam Hussein. Comments in something like 50 to 1 proportion expressed joy that Rather was humiliated, given how bad enemy of Israel he is. I did not really see people trying to justify the stripping of the crew on “security grounds”, humiliation was what appealed to ynetnews readers. Some comments had title “Ha ha ha!”.

      Reply to Comment
    4. The situation you describe is terrible and has to improve. But you fail to mention the fact that Israelis cannot even enter most Arab countries and Jews from America, for example when permitted to enter are advised not to wear garments that identify them as Jewish.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Granted there may be over-zealous security officials at Israeli airports, but it is natural when seeing that the majority of violence today is originated by Muslims. Also, when Jews are allowed to enter Muslim countries quite a few are imprisoned on suspicion of spying.

      Reply to Comment