January 5, 2010
Should Israel be a model for U.S. airport security?
As U.S. officials try to figure out how to improve airport security in the aftermath of the failed Christmas Day bombing attempt of a Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit, many North Americans are looking to Israel as a model.
The New York Times opened a forum for readers to discuss the pros and cons of Israeli airport security. The Toronto Star interviewed an Israeli airport security expert who said the best way to nab a terrorist is to “look them in the eye.”
David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, wrote a piece for The Huffington Post about the lessons U.S. airport security officials can learn from their counterparts in Israel.
“From the perspective of security, one is in a class by itself: Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport,” Harris wrote. “In the wake of the thwarted terrorist attempt on Northwest Flight 253, it’s time to revisit the Israeli model, as other countries ask what more can be done to prevent such near-catastrophes.”
El Al, Israel’s national airline, has been the target of more attacks and specific threats than any other airline in the world. After a number of shootings and hijackings by terrorists during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the government-owned company introduced a set of stringent security measures aimed at thwarting future terrorist attacks.
The enhanced security extended to Ben Gurion International Airport, which also had been the site of terrorist attacks. Security there is comprised of a number of rings, only some of which are visible.
Passenger profiling has been a major component of the security success. Security officials question passengers before sending their luggage and screen them based on their answers and backgrounds. Passengers considered a potential risk are taken aside for further questioning and thoroughly searched.
The Israeli approach has fueled the debate about whether it is necessary for U.S. airports to introduce new security checkpoints and sophisticated machinery, including full-body scanners. Whereas U.S. airport security relies primarily on technology, the Israeli system relies primarily on human intelligence and profiling.
Passenger profiling by Israeli airport security has been criticized heavily over the years. Many Arab passengers, including Arab Israelis, have complained of being forced to undergo excessive and demeaning security checks. Israeli civil rights groups and Israeli-Arab lawmakers have petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court asking that it ban ethnicity-based profiling as discriminatory.
The failed Northwest Airlines bombing attempt spurred U.S. officials to institute new rules mandating special searches for passengers from 14 nations, raising the ire of U.S. civil liberties groups.
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, founder and head of The Israel Project, a pro-Israel advocacy group, says profiling is not discriminatory. On the contrary, she says, in Israel it has benefited both Jews and Arabs.
Laszlo Mizrahi draws a parallel with the West Bank security fence, which she credits with drastically reducing terrorist attacks in Israel.
“The security fence has also been criticized but has saved lives on both sides, just like the airport measures have saved lives on both sides,” she told JTA. “There are plenty of Arab citizens that are also being protected by these security measures. They may be inconvenient but if they save lives, the end result is worth it.”