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Monday, December 28, 2009

Doing airport security the Israeli way

Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, they're having a debate over whether the US should implement the security procedures used at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport. Having flown out of Ben Gurion many times, I hope that I can contribute to the debate.

First, it's important to point out that security at Ben Gurion doesn't start when you get to the ticket counter (as is the case in the US) or even when you reach that interview process everyone talks about. It starts when you go through the checkpoint outside the airport. You have to go through a toll-booth like structure, roll down your window, and speak to the police officer there. The police officer is backed up by a machine-gun toting guard who stands behind him or her. Having arrived at the airport numerous times, I can tell you what they're looking for: Arabic accents. As soon as you speak to them in Israeli-accented Hebrew (or in another language which doesn't raise eyebrows), you're waved through. If they're at all suspicious, they will (presumably) notify someone at the terminal to keep an eye out for you, or even pull you over and search you on the spot.

Then you drive to the terminal. When you get out of your car and put your luggage on a handcart, there's security watching you at the door. If you look nervous, they'll ask you questions and size you up. Then you go inside, get online and start the interview process.
It’s true that passengers don’t have to take their shoes off, which a lot of passengers on U.S. flights appear to find annoying. But that’s because government security “profilers” ask extensive questions of each individual passenger until they are satisfied that a passenger does not pose a threat — making the removal of shoes quite beside the point:
They probe, as one profiling supervisor told CBS, for “anything out of the ordinary, anything that does not fit.” Their questions can seem odd or intrusive. . . . Only when the profiler is satisfied that a passenger poses no risk is he or she allowed to proceed to the check-in counter. By that point, there is no need to make him remove his shoes, or to confiscate his bottle of water.
Many passengers are fine with these practices. But as you might guess, some travelers complain that the Israeli practices are unacceptable, much too invasive, add too much delay, and are unnecessary. It’s also interesting to note that the Israelis have increased airport security in response to the Christmas attack for all flights to the United States.
Maybe I've 'gone native,' but I'm rarely asked more than a couple of questions by Ben Gurion security (yes, I packed my own bags, yes, they've been under my control, yes, I know why you're asking these questions. I live in Jerusalem).

It doesn't take any longer than it does at Boston Logan or at JFK. But there are differences that some of the commenters to that Volokh post point out. One person points out that the security screeners at Ben Gurion are much smarter and more professional, an issue I discussed at length here. They also look at your passport - the first of five times your passport is checked. Another commenter says that he thinks Ben Gurion security uses racial profiling. Of course they do. They used to be quite blatant about it, but in August 2007, they were forced to dumb it down and stop tagging Arabs' bags with different color tags than Jews' bags. No matter. They still x-ray most checked bags and if you watch closely who gets asked to open their bag after the machine it's usually not the Israeli Jews. I've been asked to open my bags to check something specific, but they've never removed all my bags' contents as commonly happens to Arab-looking and sounding travelers. So it's more subtle than it used to be, but they definitely do racial profiling. (When I first arrived here in the '90's, we often gave letters to non-Jewish business people that certified the purpose of their trip to Israel, which was found to shorten airport security time).

By the way, you can get away with arriving at the airport two hours before flight time (I do that all the time) and often with even less time regardless of what airline you are flying. But if you arrive early, the area in the picture above is the center of the shops that you find after you clear all the security and passport control.

After you finish the interview, you go to the check-in counter and check in for your flight. They check your passport and ticket and issue your boarding pass. I assume that at least some of the people who do that are trained to handle security, but in any event, there are unarmed security people wandering around the check-in lines.

After you check in, you go to the kind of security you're all used to in the US. It's not that much different except that the people doing it are far more educated than the people who do it in the US - at least in my experience. And you leave your shoes on and show your passport for the third time and your boarding pass.

Then you go to passport control and show your passport again. And there are security people hanging out there too.

Then there's a LONG walk down a ramp until you get to the open area pictured above. The gates are on four spokes coming off that open area.

How good is Israel's record? Bli ayin hara (warding off evil eyes), the last plane hijacked from Ben Gurion was the Air France flight that ended up in Entebbe in 1976. And since Israel handles its own security (at least for El Al) overseas, I don't recall any problems with those flights recently either.

The bottom line is that without racial profiling you can't run an Israeli-style security system. The US and other countries have to decide whether they want to be politically correct or physically safe. That's why Robert Spencer has it wrong:
The Transportation Security Administration has scrambled since Christmas Day to stiffen security procedures, but its effort is foredoomed: jihadis study these procedures carefully, always searching for ways to circumvent them. And such ways exist, even if every passenger were subjected to a full body cavity search - bomb ingredients can be separated and combined mid-flight, or spirited onboard in ways as yet unimagined by the most visionary TSA official.
You're wrong Robert. There is a way to stop it and it certainly won't require body cavity searches on everyone: Look for the terrorists not for their implements. Unless and until you do that, you're going to continue to have problems with the Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's of the world.


At 5:45 PM, Blogger Ashan said...

Actually, security at Ben Gurion also looks for suspicious-looking individuals no matter the color or ethnic background - including Jews.

TSA is not only behind the curve, they're just plain stupid. They hire types who should be excluded - people with probably less than a high-school education, ex-prisoners, Muslim women in hijabs (!!!), people who seem to have an axe to grind. They would arouse suspicion at Ben Gurion as tourists, and never pass muster as security personnel.

TSA is out to punish the traveler. Maybe that's what this miserable administration wants. Kill off air travel. Kill off the travelers. Brilliant.

At 5:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Robert Spencer is the last one to disagree with you. He's saying that everything else is a waste of time.

At 6:32 PM, Blogger NormanF said...

Like I said in the other thread, no amount of focusing on objects will make airline passengers safer. Its people who are the problem. If the US and Europe profiled passengers, about 90% of the passengers could be waived through. Lines would shorten dramatically and airline safety would be tremendously strengthened. But that would mean putting passenger safety ahead of political correctness. Don't look for that to happen any time soon.

At 6:49 PM, Blogger The Matrix said...

"The last plane hijacked from Ben Gurion was the Air France flight that ended up in Entebbe in 1976."

That Air France flight was NOT hijacked from Ben Gurion airport. The flight originated at Ben Gurion, but was hijacked from Athens, by passengers who boarded in Athens. There has never been a plane hijacked out of Ben Gurion. Never.

At 3:43 PM, Blogger Akiva said...

On that passport check they're also looking for interesting visa stamps. Also if a person comes from a "risky" location, they get extra scrutiny.

A friends mother came from Hungary to London (via another airline), and there to Israel via El Al. A 55 year old white woman. They put her through an hour of security checks, including (literally) a strip search.

When she went to leave and they asked her where she was going (Hungary) and where she had been (her son's family lived in the Shomron - West Bank), they did it to her again on the way out.

We had a cousin from the US visit recently, 21 year old white female college student. Because she was Jewish but didn't know a single word of Hebrew, she got quite a bit of extra scrutiny.

Anything out of the ordinary.

Yet this guy had everything out of the ordinary, and it didn't matter.


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