Israel's renowned airline security faced a legal challenge Wednesday from a civil rights group charging that its practice of ethnic profiling is racist because it singles out Arabs for tougher treatment.
At a Supreme Court hearing, civil rights lawyers demanded an end to the policy, which they say violates Israeli law. Such profiling is illegal in the U.S., where passengers must be singled out for security checks on a random basis.
But some terrorism experts say Israel's measures are effective precisely because they take ethnicity into account — and warn that equality at the airport could cost lives.
Israel is considered a prime target for hijackers and other attackers because of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Despite that, there hasn't been a successful attack on an Israeli airliner in decades, and experts point to Israel's security procedures as a key factor.
Many of the measures are kept secret, but known precautions on Israeli airliners include armored luggage compartments, armed sky marshals and reinforced cockpits. But a key to preventing attacks, experts say, is the screening process on the ground.
Israeli Jews and Arabs get dramatically different treatment when boarding Israeli planes.
Hanna Swaid, an Israeli Arab, remembers being strip-searched by gruff security guards and having his luggage taken apart piece by piece 20 years ago before he flew from Israel to London, where he was a post-doctoral student.
Today, Swaid is an Israeli Arab lawmaker, and he regularly receives complaints from Arab citizens about similar treatment.
The court appeal by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel — and any public debate of the policy — are hobbled by the government's refusal to discuss any of the policy's details.
Security checks understandable
In court, the government's attorneys would not reveal the screening criteria or acknowledge that ethnicity was one of them. They agreed to divulge the information only in a closed session that excluded everyone but the judges and themselves.
Representatives of Israel's Transport Ministry, Ben-Gurion International Airport and the Israel Airports Authority said Wednesday they would not comment before the end of legal proceedings. The next hearing is scheduled for May, and any decision in the case is at least months away.
Swaid says he understands the need for security checks. "It's in my interest and that of all the other travelers," he said. But the screening should be done equally for both Arabs and Jews, he said.
Proponents of Israel's approach say checking all passengers equally would require manpower and resources many times greater than are needed today and would needlessly extend the time passengers spend waiting for flights.
Ariel Merari, an Israeli terrorism expert who has written about aviation security, said ethnic profiling is both effective and unavoidable.
"It's foolishness not to use profiles when you know that most terrorists come from certain ethnic groups and certain age groups," he said. "A bomber on a plane is likely to be Muslim and young, not an elderly Holocaust survivor. We're talking about preventing a lot of casualties, and that justifies inconveniencing a certain ethnic group."