Israeli airliners are a target of choice for Islamist terrorists, yet attacks are very rare. The last reported assault took place in 2002, when Tawfiq Fukra, a 23-year-old Israeli-Arab student, tried to hijack El Al flight 581 from Tel Aviv to Istanbul.
Two sky marshals aboard the Boeing 757 quickly overpowered Fukra, who was armed with a knife. None of the other 169 passengers were harmed, and the plane landed safely at Istanbul’s Atatürk International Airport.
Israel began adopting strict security measures at its airports and on its planes after the 1968 hijacking of a Rome-Tel Aviv El Al flight. No Israeli aircraft has been hijacked since then. Israeli planes carry sky marshals and have armored cargo compartments and cockpits that are virtually impregnable.
More recently, planes are being equipped with anti-missile technology. In November 2002, an Israeli Boeing 757 was targeted by two surface-to-air missiles launched by suspected al Qaeda terrorists as it took off from the Mombassa airport in Tanzania for Tel Aviv with 261 passengers on board. Both missiles missed. In December 2005, Swiss intelligence agents foiled a plot to shoot down an El Al airliner at the Geneva airport with rockets. Police arrested seven suspects of North African origin.
A key reason for Israel’s excellent air-safety record, many security experts agree, is stringent screening of passengers before they even approach check-in counters. However, this procedure is being changed, because the Israeli Supreme Court ruled in April that security screens were discriminatory.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) filed suit in Israel’s supreme court in May 2007, arguing that airport security procedures wrongfully discriminate against Israeli Arabs, who make up 23 percent of Israel’s population of 7.1 million.
“This is an issue that we found across the board for Arab citizens. They are searched in a disproportionate way regardless of anything,” says Melanie Takefman, ACRI’s international media coordinator.
Security procedures begin as passengers approach the airport. Vehicles deemed to be a risk are ordered to stop for a search. At the terminal, agents closely question each passenger and run their names through databases. They tag passports and luggage with coded labels, according to each passenger’s ethnicity, essentially identifying Israeli Arabs as security risks.
Guards usually order more intensive searches for these passengers before they can proceed to check-in counters. Guards then escort them straight to their aircraft. The problem is that while few Israeli Jews are subjected to the extra scrutiny, nearly all Israeli Arabs have to undergo exhaustive checks, which can include body searches.
Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza are not even permitted to use Israeli airports. They must travel through Jordan instead.
Israeli security staff use similar security measures at check-in counters in foreign airports, because assailants have targeted El Al in Europe and the United States. The last such attack took place on July 4, 2002, when an Egyptian immigrant to the United States opened fire at the El Al ticket counter at the Los Angeles Airport, killing two people before an airline security guard shot and killed him. Nothing was found to link the incident to terrorist groups and the attacker’s motive remains unknown.
“We think the criteria [for searches] should be on security-related criteria, such as suspicious behavior or carrying suspicious luggage. We are not naïve about security risks in Israel, but we believe it’s up to the authorities to find a way to check people that is equitable,” says Takefman.
Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, a commando in the 1976 rescue of Israeli hostages in Entebbe, announced that in the light of the court ruling, security staff would have to ensure a “feeling of equity” between Israeli Jews and Arabs at airports. As part of the new system, airline employees will no longer mark luggage belonging to non-Jews with colored tags. Instead, their luggage will be stamped with the same color sticker as the Jewish passengers, only with a different code number.
Critics say the changes are cosmetic and have not ended profiling or what they allege is a wider pattern of official anti-Arab racism. “It’s institutionalized discrimination by law, and it happens not just at airports. It’s everywhere,” says Orna Kohn, a Jewish senior attorney at Adalah, a civil rights organization set up by Israeli Arabs. Israeli Arabs generally have fewer opportunities and are poorer than Israeli Jews.
But Israeli experts say screening has served the country well and should not be fundamentally changed. “It is not foolproof, but it is effective, and our record for safety shows that,” says Ariel Merari, a specialist on political violence and terrorism at Tel Aviv University.
“The method is justified. I do not see a moral or legal problem. Because the evidence is that danger comes from a specific group of people, so I think that there is a good reason to select this group of people for more meticulous searches,” he says. “I think it is immoral to ignore these facts.”
Merari says Israel should not give up screening Israeli Arabs more stringently just “because people complain about political correctness.” He does not deny that it is discriminatory, stating simply: “But yes, you do have to discriminate.”