Treatment of Israeli official spurs look at airport security

JERUSALEM—By almost any measure, Rania Joubran is an Israeli role model. At 26, she's the youngest daughter of a sitting Supreme Court justice and an established lawyer who works for Israel's Foreign Ministry and speaks three languages.

She's also Christian Arab, not Jewish.

That distinction hit home for her a few weeks ago when she set off for a short vacation to Spain. What was supposed to be five days of fun began with a grilling by Israeli airport security and ended with a personal apology from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who pledged to look into long-standing complaints that the country condones a racist policy of treating all Arab travelers as possible terrorists.

"There is no doubt that the time for the current policy ran out a long time ago and has no place in an Israel which has raised the banner of equality between Arab and Jewish citizens," Joubran wrote to Olmert after being singled out for extra questioning by security when she left and when she returned to Israel. "It is not enough for the country to recruit Arab citizens to its service; the real test of the state's democracy is the treatment and respect it gives these citizens."

Her experience was hardly unusual. Even before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, security at Israel's Ben-Gurion airport was among the toughest in the world. It's difficult to find Palestinians or Arab-Israelis who don't have at least one story about a humiliating airport security check. For many, the screening, which can include strip searches and security escorts to the gate, is seen as an unavoidable inconvenience.

Israeli officials refuse to say whether, as a matter of policy, Arabs routinely are required to go through higher security checks than Jews are. But the government tacitly acknowledges the problem and is vowing to make some changes.

Israel's Shin Bet, the agency akin to the FBI and in charge of airport security, has pledged to install new technology in a year or two that could make questioning less onerous. But that will do nothing to address the problems now.

Airport officials said the current system was necessary to protect passengers.

"Israelis have been doing this for 60 years," said Shmuel Chafets, a representative of the Israel Airports Authority. "Security has always been tight. We know how to do it, and there's a lot of effort and emphasis in doing it in the least offensive way."

Chafets suggested that the issue has been blown out of proportion by noting that, of the 9 million passengers last year at Ben-Gurion Airport, only 623 people—including 32 Arab-Israelis—filed complaints about everything from lost luggage to rude treatment.

Privately, some Israeli officials said there was little that could be done in the short term. Some admitted that Arabs get higher scrutiny and officials cast a wide net because there's no established profile for terrorists. Everyone from grandmothers to teenagers, they noted, has taken part in attacking Israelis.

But after 60 years, some critics say, Israel should be able to ensure that passengers such as Joubran aren't treated as suspected terrorists.

Joubran comes from a pioneering Arab-Israeli family. Her father is the first Arab-Israeli to receive a permanent appointment to the Supreme Court. Her older brother was a trailblazing Arab-Israeli airline attendant for Israel's El Al airlines and the first Arab-Israeli director with the country's electric company. Rania Joubran is the first Arab-Israeli to be trained as a diplomat in the Foreign Ministry's highly competitive apprenticeship program.

Joubran's problems began in mid-February when she arrived at Ben-Gurion airport for her trip. To her surprise, she was tagged as a possible security risk and asked to step aside for extra screening.

Inspectors disregarded her Israeli government identification card, went through her luggage and cleared her to board her flight only after a Foreign Ministry official at the airport intervened.

Joubran might have let the matter slide had she not faced a tougher security check on the way home. With other passengers watching, security for Israel's El Al airlines in Barcelona expressed suspicions about Joubran's Foreign Ministry ID and refused to let her board the flight until they could check her story.

"At that moment I felt humiliated and couldn't avoid feeling that they clearly thought I was an impersonator and the way I was treated could not be defined as anything but the treatment of an Arab enemy," Joubran wrote to Olmert.

Before being allowed to board the plane, she said, she asked the senior inspector whether she'd be treated the same way if she were Jewish. The answer: "No."

Joubran's letter prompted an unusual personal apology from Olmert and a pledge to revise the security system.

"I read your letter with great interest and am sorry about what happened to you at Ben-Gurion Airport," Olmert wrote to Joubran. "I intend to expend great efforts to learn about every aspect of how Arabs are treated at the airport and I see great importance in taking care of the problems found in order to make sure they do not reoccur."

Nadia Hilou is among those who want to make sure that Olmert lives up to his word. The Arab-Israeli member of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, has her own stories of humiliating treatment at the airport and wants to make sure the issue is taken seriously.

"We have to find the balance between human rights and dignity and security," said Hilou, a lawmaker with the left-leaning Labor Party who recently met with the head of Israel's internal security agency to demand changes. "If we were in the United States and its citizens were put in another line because they were Jewish, how would you feel?"

Other groups have tried to take on the cause. Machsom Watch, an Israeli civil rights group that monitors Israeli military checkpoints in the predominantly Palestinian West Bank, wants to set up a similar system at Ben-Gurion, but its request has been rebuffed. In December, the Arab Association for Human Rights, in Nazareth, released a report in which it argued that the screening is designed not only to protect passengers but also to collect intelligence information.

When the report was released, the Israeli intelligence service told the daily newspaper Haaretz that "the checks and the questioning are only connected to the security of the passengers and not in order to gain information about the passengers."

"All questions directed at passengers have the sole goal of increasing flight security," it said.

Joubran, who declined to discuss her case in detail, said she was still waiting for an official response from the airport authority.


(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed to this report.)


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