Jonathan Cook, The Electronic Intifada 20 April 2010
Two Palestinian citizens of Israel have won $8,000 in damages from Israel's national carrier, El Al, after a court found that their treatment by the company's security staff at a New York airport had been "abusive and unnecessary."
Brothers Abdel Wahab and Abdel Aziz Shalabi were assigned a female security guard who watched over them at the airport's departure gate for nearly two hours, in full view of hundreds of fellow passengers, after they had passed the security and baggage checks.
Later, El Al's head of security threatened to bar Abdel Wahab, 43, from the flight if he did not apologize to the guard for going to the toilet without first getting her approval. Abdel Aziz said he had been humiliated and "cried like I've never cried before in public."
Although surveys of Palestinian Arab citizens, who comprise one-fifth of Israel's population, show that most have suffered degrading treatment when flying with Israeli carriers, few bring cases to the Israeli courts.
The brothers are now planning to sue El Al and its New York staff in the United States over Israel's racial profiling of passengers in a country where the practice is illegal.
"I'd rather go to New York by donkey than fly with El Al again," said Abdel Aziz, 44. "We will keep fighting this case until Israel is embarrassed into stopping its policy of discriminating against its Arab citizens."
The brothers, who live in northern Israel, were the only Arabs in a party of 17 Israeli insurance agents on a two-week business trip to Canada and New York in 2007.
They arrived four hours early at John F. Kennedy airport in New York for their return flight with Israir, an Israeli charter company, to allow time for the additional checks they expected from El Al's security staff.
El Al has special agreements with most countries' airports to carry out its own security checks for passengers flying with Israeli airlines.
The brothers said they were questioned, searched and had to wait two hours while their bags and carry-on luggage were subjected to lengthy inspections.
"The Jews with us went through in minutes," said Abdel Aziz, in his home in the village of Iksal, near Nazareth. "The difference in treatment was very clear."
After they had passed the checks, an El Al security guard, Keren Weinberg, was assigned to them until they boarded the plane. They were told to make sure she could see them at all times.
When Abdel Wahab visited a toilet without her permission, a noisy argument broke out between the two, with Weinberg accusing him of "roaming freely." He said he told her to "either arrest me or go away."
Ilan Or, the head of El Al security, was then called and issued him an ultimatum that he apologize or be prevented from catching the flight. Abdel Wahab told a magistrate's court in Haifa this month that he broke down in tears and finally said he was sorry.
"I was in shock. One minute I was made to feel like a terrorist and then the next like a naughty child," he said.
Judge Amir Toubi said the security staff had admitted that neither brother was deemed a security threat and that Israeli law did not allow checks to continue after passengers had passed the security area.
"With all due understanding of security needs, there is no justification for ignoring the dignity, freedom and basic rights of a citizen under the mantle of the sacred cow of security," the judge ruled.
El Al told the court that it had been "asked by the state to conduct security checks abroad on behalf of [charter companies] Arkia and Israir airlines, and is acting under the security guidelines set by official bodies of the state."
Abdel Wahab praised the court's decision but said the damages were minor and would not act as a deterrent against El Al repeating such behavior in the future. He said the brothers would appeal to a higher court in Israel and were planning to initiate a legal action in New York, too.
"I will not rest until we get an apology from El Al and they acknowledge that what they did is wrong," he said. He called on all Arab citizens to boycott El Al until it committed to stop its discriminatory policy.
A 2007 report on racial profiling by Israeli carriers, published by the Arab Association for Human Rights and the Centre Against Racism, concluded: "This phenomenon is so widespread that it is hard to find any Arab citizen who travels abroad by air and who has not experienced a discriminatory security check at least once."
The two groups found that Arab and Muslim passengers typically faced long interrogations and extensive luggage searches, and were also regularly subjected to body and strip searches, had items including computers confiscated, were kept in holding areas and were escorted directly on to the plane.
The report noted that foreign countries that allowed Israel to carry out its own security checks at their airports failed to supervise them and preferred to "ignore their discriminatory nature and the human rights violations committed on their own soil."
New York's JFK airport was one of the airports that refused to answer questions from the groups about incidents of discriminatory treatment of Arabs and Muslims.
Israel has also come under harsh criticism for the standard racial profiling policies it uses against its own Arab citizens and foreign Arab nationals at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv.
The practice of putting different color-coded stickers on Jewish and Arab passengers' luggage ended three years ago. However, airport guards still write a number on uniform white stickers indicating the level of security threat. Critics say higher numbers are reserved for non-Jews.
Faced with a lawsuit from Israeli human rights groups, Menachem Mazuz, the attorney general at the time, instructed the airports authority in early 2008 to implement "visible equality" by ending discriminatory screening policies.
However, observers have noticed no change in practice. "This was a very cynical exercise. 'Visible equality' simply means making it look like there's equality when the inequality persists," said Mohammed Zeidan, director of the Association for Human Rights, based in Nazareth.
In December an airport official told the right-wing Jerusalem Post newspaper: "Profiling makes the biggest difference. A man with the name of Umar flying out of Tel Aviv, whether he is American or British, is going to get checked seven times."
Two years ago Israel's racial profiling policy made headlines when a member of an American dance troupe with a Muslim-sounding name was forced to dance at the airport to prove he was who he claimed.
The incident with the Shalabi brothers follows on the heels of a diplomatic crisis between Israel and South Africa over revelations that spies posing as El Al staff have been operating at Johannesburg airport, gathering information on non-Jewish passengers visiting Israel.
El Al has threatened to close the route after South African officials stopped providing the airport guards with diplomatic immunity.
South African TV reported last month that two of the Mossad assassins suspected of killing a Hamas commander in Dubai in January may have used Johannesburg airport to fly back to Israel.
Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel's Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). His website is www.jkcook.net.
A version of this article originally appeared in The National, published in Abu Dhabi.
Israeli intelligence illegally profiling travelers in South Africa
Sayed Dhansay, The Electronic Intifada 16 October 2009
Despite our relatively recent struggle against apartheid, I highlighted in a previous article the disturbing level of bilateral trade and cooperation between the South African government and Israel. Bearing our own history in mind, one would expect South Africa to be at the forefront of political efforts to bring Israel in line with international law -- and perhaps even be championing economic isolation of Israel -- as this was a major factor in ending white minority rule in our country.
Unfortunately, however, this appears to not be the case. In the latest example of Israeli entrenchment in South Africa, it has been discovered that Israeli intelligence, or Shin Bet, agents are illegally profiling and detaining South African citizens in Johannesburg's O.R. Tambo International Airport.
This was brought to light last month by South Africa's premier investigative journalism TV show, Carte Blanche, following allegations that security personnel from Israel's national carrier, El Al Airlines, were acting dubiously at the airport. Carte Blanche then decided to conduct an experiment, sending an undercover reporter into the airport, expecting him to be targeted simply because he was Muslim.
Caught on hidden camera, it didn't take long before he was approached by El Al representatives who claimed to be "airport security" and demanded to see the man's passport or ID. The El Al representatives then fired a barrage of questions at him, falsely claiming this to be part of "airport regulations," before informing him that "only passengers were allowed to enter that area" -- despite the fact that he was standing in a public space.
Jonathan Garb, a former El Al security employee, decided to expose this practice after what he says was an unfair dismissal by his former employer. "This here is a secret service operating above the law in South Africa. We pull the wool over everyone's eyes. We do exactly as we please -- the local authorities do not know what we are doing," he says in the TV interview.
Though he claims local authorities are oblivious to the practice, it is highly unlikely that airport authorities are unaware of foreign intelligence agents operating on their property. According to Garb, these men are neither airport security nor El Al employees, but rather agents working for Israel's General Security Service, referred to as the Shin Bet.
The undercover footage thus shows a South African citizen, standing in a public place in his own country, being grilled by an Israeli intelligence agent -- in full view of other passengers.
"You know what the joke is -- the way they are behaving here, they can't do it in Israel! They wouldn't dare do it in Israel. They would be taken to the Israeli courts by the employees and for the way they treat passengers," Garb says in the expose. But at O.R. Tambo, these Israeli agents, under the guise of El Al security, are profiling, detaining and harassing South Africans unhindered.
Garb was recruited by El Al 19 years ago, after which he underwent secret training in Israel. After working for the airline as an armed undercover guard for eight years, his role changed to that of a profiler. "What we are trained is to look for the immediate threat -- Muslim guy -- you can think he is a suicide bomber, he is collecting information. The crazy thing is that we are profiling people racially, ethnically and even on religious grounds ... this is what we do."
One of the more than 40,000 individuals Garb has profiled is Middle East politics expert Dr. Virginia Tilley. Tilley is currently on a two-year research assignment at South Africa's Human Sciences Research Council -- the think tank that recently published a report accusing Israel of occupation, colonialism and apartheid in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
According to Garb, "The decision was she should be checked in the harshest way because of her connections." When Tilley flew to South Africa she was separated from her belongings for 45 minutes by these agents. "She had like a portfolio. She couldn't see what we were doing and we photocopied all the documentation and then forwarded it on to Israel," Garb says. When questioned by the show's presenter regarding who that information would be passed on to, Garb confirmed that it would be for Israel's intelligence services as the airline had no use for it. "It's like the CIA or the FBI or MI5, but they are hiding behind the guise of the airline," he says.
Another South African, Isaac Mgidi was so incensed by his treatment at the hands of El Al that he has taken the matter to the South African embassy in Israel. He has a small non-governmental organization that assists women's groups to produce food in South Africa. Knowing Israel to be advanced in the field of hydroponics, he planned a knowledge-sharing trip to Israel in June.
Upon arriving at El Al's check-in at O.R. Tambo, Isaac and his colleague were taken to a small room, told to remove their shoes and pants and face the wall with their hands up. According to South African law, only South African police or defense force officials can conduct this kind of search. Garb explains that black people receive a harsher profiling process than whites. Isaac and his colleague were forced by these agents to leave their laptops and shaving kits in Johannesburg, as well as a pair of shoes.
Isaac's story is not much different to Xolile Nxu's. He was invited to an international conference which examined ways Palestinians could achieve democracy through peaceful demonstrations. According to Nxu, he was taken to the same interrogation room, searched and stripped down to his pants. Nxu says in the program that during his interrogation -- on South African soil -- the Israeli agents said "You are not going to fucking go to this country [Israel] -- we will make sure that we follow you."
Garb, who was an agent at the time, corroborates Nxu's story, saying that he was specifically targeted because he was black and because he was traveling to the occupied West Bank for some meetings. "We were told that we had to give him the harshest procedure and we had to search him."
According to the TV show's producers, their investigation has also confirmed that the arms carried by these so-called El Al security guards, are in fact licensed to the Israeli embassy in South Africa, adding to the suspicion that these men are in fact Israeli government agents and not airline security personnel.
It is difficult to believe that these activities are being conducted on a daily basis at South Africa's main international airport without the knowledge of South Africa's airport authorities. It then follows that if the authorities are aware of these illegal and discriminatory practices being perpetrated against South African citizens and have not put a stop to them, our airport authorities must tacitly approve of these subversive activities.
It is infuriating that an accused war criminal like Lieutenant Colonel David Benjamin, an Israeli army legal advisor during Operation Cast Lead, can travel through South Africa's airports unhindered, while ordinary and innocent citizens of this country are subjected to blatant racial and religious profiling by foreign agents who are acting above the law. One can only hope for the day when the flowery words of support for Palestine from South Africa's leadership turns into concrete action, and the correct individuals are harassed, interrogated and detained.
Sayed Dhansay is a South African writer and political activist who volunteered for the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in the Israeli-occupied West Bank in 2006-2007.
"This issue of recognition [of Israel] is naive and is childish. You see for the Palestinians its impossible to recognise that what happened to them in 1948 was legitimate, was right. We were dispossessed, the Jews came from Europe to solve their own problem in Europe and to solve the European problem at the expense of the Palestinians. My mother was dispossessed of her home, my father of his land, and millions of Palestinians suffered the same fate. How can it be right? We cannot recognise that as being legitimate."