For Arab travelers through Israel’s Ben Gurion airport, it is common knowledge that lengthy questioning and strip searches come before boarding. As it turns out, forcing passengers into airport back rooms and requiring them to remove clothing is illegal under Israeli law, says the legal rights group Adalah.
Adalah lawyer Fadi Khoury found Israel’s policies on flight security stem from a 1977 law that, “does not authorize Israeli airline security personnel to ask passengers to strip naked and to conduct searches or to escort them to the boarding gates,” he said.
Khoury filed a complaint earlier this month with Israel’s Airline Authority, which is tasked with enforcing security at Ben Gurion airport. The agency responded in writing that it does not conduct “any improper practices including stripping passengers and/or obligating them to be escorted by security guards following the conclusion of the security procedures they are required to undergo.”
Yet Adalah spokesperson Mati Milstein said anecdotal evidence shows otherwise. He commented the practice is “widespread” and “systematic,” although indicated no official master count exists of strip searches, his group has found numerous complaints.
There is also reported examples in media, including an apology from the Israeli state-owned El Al airlines for strip searching an American professor flying into Israel as an invited guest to Hebrew University in 2010. The following year Israel’s ministry of foreign affairs denounced the strip search of a Spanish traveler invited by the Israeli government to participate in that year’s gay pride parade.
Tourism blogs are full of anecdotal tales of horrors: requests to remove clothes and the dreaded so-called “Arab room,” a side quarter where incoming flyers of predominately Arab or Muslims backgrounds are made to wait for additional screens.
Mondoweiss has reported on the practice extensively, so have most major newspapers.
Last month a 17-year old American of Moroccan heritage wrote for Mondoweiss of her being made to remove her bra during a strip search. In a 2010 case Nabil Khattab, a Palestinian lecturer at the Hebrew University, was asked to undergo a strip search. Security officials probed beneath his underwear with a baton. “That was already intolerable,” Khattab told Haaretz. He then left the airport and returned days later for another flight, this time undergoing another strip search but without the device.
The Arab American Institute has an online a self-reporting system for American citizens of Arab and non-Arab backgrounds subjected to undue searches while traveling through Ben Gurion. Of their 46 documented cases, 13 of the complaints included strip searches.
“I was well aware of this problem,” Communications Director of the Arab American Institute Jennifer Salan told Mondoweiss, “It’s something that has been on-going for years. From all of the stories over the years, it’s sort of like ‘this is what they [Israeli airport security agents] do.’”
And there is video evidence. Khoury recorded the audio of his questioning on a recent trip from Greece to Israel where Israeli security officials probed him over his Arab background. Khoury is an Israeli citizen.
“The Israel Airports Authority is denying the multiple accounts by individuals testifying to use of these practices,” Khoury said, explaining that while the practice has been going on for years, most who submit to strip searches assume the measure was legal but discriminatory in application to majority Arab travelers.
“The ability of an individual private citizen to stand up to such practices is limited, and that is due both to the mistaken assumption on the part of the citizen that these practices have a legal basis and justification, as well as to the declared consequences of refusing to comply, such as being forbidden to board one’s flight,” he said.
“In most cases, therefore, [the passenger’s] consent to a strip search as part of a security check or submitting to the demand to be escorted by security personnel through the airport is consent that is obtained under duress,” Khoury said.
Legal council for Airports Authority Aryeh Shaham once told a Knesset committee in 2014 that five percent of Arab travelers were taken for additional checks, noting “the inspection is not done according to population groups,” reported the AP at the time.
The concept of additional searches is so common to Arabs traveling in and out of Israel regularly that when they are not searched, it makes headlines.
In 2013 Palestinian pop-star Mira Awad who is an Israeli citizen and represented the country in the Eurovision Song Contest wrote on Facebook of an incident where airport security recognized her from her celebrity and allowed her to bypass additional checks. “Can’t you see it’s Mira Awad?” she wrote one official told another, winking and swapping out a small sticker that denotes additional searches generally given to Arabs.
Over years these practices of Israel’s border crossings units have caught notice from foreign governments. The State Department has a long-standing warning for Americans of Arab origins on the Jerusalem consulate’s website, reading:
“Those whom Israeli authorities suspect of being of Arab, Middle Eastern, or Muslim origin; those who have been involved in missionary work or activism; and those who ask that Israeli stamps not be entered into their passports may face additional, often time-consuming, and probing questioning by immigration and border authorities, or may even be denied entry into Israel or the West Bank.”
In 2011 Turkey’s ministry of foreign affairs said, “Many Turkish businesspeople and tourists have complained about this in the past. This humiliation ceremony of Turkish citizens is a routine matter.”
The statement was made after 20 Israeli passengers flying out Turkey were strip searched in apparent retaliation of Israel’s practices. At the time Israel complained to Turkey the strip searches of its citizens were a violation of their rights.