L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa at the Western Wall. Photo courtesy the Mayor's Office
Last week's emotion-packed visit to Sderot by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, along with a delegation of senior city officials, leaders of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the Israel Leadership Club and several Los Angeles clergy might have received much of the trip's media coverage during the group's weeklong stay in Israel. However, it's the meetings between city and Israeli experts in homeland security, counterterrorism and green technology that could have a significant effect on the way Los Angeles and Israel protect their citizens, institutions and natural resources.
Security and anti-terrorism personnel held working meetings at Ben-Gurion Airport and at the Israeli National Police Training Center, while energy experts shared expertise at Tel Aviv's partially cleaned-up Yarkon River and during a CleanTech roundtable that showcased the best in Israeli green ingenuity.
At Ashdod Port, the clearinghouse for almost all goods imported to and exported from Israel, officials from the Port of Los Angeles explained to their Israeli counterparts how they have significantly reduced air and water pollution.
Although most members of the Los Angeles team began their trip in stiff business attire, the combination of intense heat and the laid-back Israeli style of conducting business prompted many to doff jackets and remove ties.
At Ben-Gurion Airport, the country's bustling hub of incoming and outgoing civilian traffic, Nahum Liss, director of security planning, control and projects for the Israel Airport Authority, noted how two fatal terror attacks at the airport in 1973 and 1976, respectively, led to today's stringent security measures.
"I was sitting about 30 meters away when a terrorist blew himself up, along with one of the women doing a security check," Liss recalled, his ordinarily booming voice growing quiet.
As tragic as this and other attacks have been, they have added to the learning curve, the airport executive stressed.
"We can tell you how to prevent such cases," Liss told Gina Marie Lindsey, director of the Los Angeles World Airport, LAPD Deputy Chief Terry Hara and others. "The challenge is finding ways to minimize the hassle to passengers and disruptions to airport operations."
Liss said Ben-Gurion's new arrivals terminal "was planned from day one with security personnel."
While leading a tour of the sparkling facility, a huge open space with soaring glass windows on the entry side, he pointed out the absence of the kind of armed personnel you see in many major American airports. Starting from the sidewalk and ending with the section where security officers hand-searched the luggage of a youth sports team, Liss noted the absence of armed personnel.
"We're fighting for every tourist and don't want to remind them of what they saw on CNN the day before," he said. Nor are there any sniffer dogs, Liss pointed out, "because they remind many Israelis of concentration camps during the Holocaust."
Instead, Liss said, airport security is almost invisible.
"There are layers of security," Liss said, glancing at a clean-cut plainclothes guard with short, cropped hair loitering just outside one of the entrances to the terminal. "There are personnel stationed outside watching the cars and passengers," he said, as well as structural precautions like concrete balustrades preventing cars from getting too close to the terminal and shatterproof glass enmeshed with steel on the windows.
The airport also employs the most advanced technology, from cameras to luggage scanners, and relies heavily on the intuition of security personnel, who believe someone carrying a bomb behaves differently from other passengers. Which is not to say that even the most innocent of passengers is not occasionally subjected to a thorough interrogation.
"We have much to learn from you," Villaraigosa said, clearly impressed, just before signing a memorandum of understanding that will bring Israeli airport experts to Los Angeles for regular inspections, beginning in the near future.
"It's not lost on us that Michael Chertoff," head of U.S. homeland security, "signed an agreement with Israel to share technology and methods to improve homeland security," the mayor said. Lindsey, however, admitted that Los Angeles International is more difficult to secure than Ben-Gurion Airport.
"We have nine terminals, and whereas Ben-Gurion has one central concourse and the baggage area is more centralized, we have several," Lindsey said. "Even so, we hope the Israelis will share their experience on how to better secure the airport's periphery."
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