Mondoweiss / August 30, 2023
Israel’s national airline, El Al, has a history of egregious racial profiling and invasive security checks for its flights in foreign airports. But a closer look into how El Al operates shows that Israel uses it as an intelligence front.
On July 18, Palestinian American journalist Noor Wazwaz was denied boarding on the Israeli flag carrier, El Al Airlines. Wazwaz documented on social media that she faced serious discrimination and harassment by agents working for El Al and Israel.
Wazwaz was told that she was under suspicion because of her Palestinian heritage, and because she was planning on visiting Ramallah. According to the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), Wazwaz was forced to undergo extensive and humiliating searching and questioning, unlike other passengers.
The ADC filed a complaint on behalf of Wazwaz against El Al Airlines later that month. “It is unconscionable that a U.S. citizen would be subject to such treatment, let alone having it happen here in the U.S.,” ADC National Executive Director Abed Ayoub said. “There is no justification for the treatment she faced, and we demand an immediate investigation into all of El Al’s policies.” Onderkant formulier
The racial profiling Wazwaz faced is not unique at all, and in fact, can be considered an integral part of the airline’s security model. Samer Hassan, a Palestinian American, was forced to take an El Al flight after his Air France flight to Palestine was canceled. He tells Mondoweiss that he was subject to consistent humiliation.
“They threw me in an interrogation room and told me no electronics were allowed and touched every single part of my body while asking me ridiculous questions that had nothing to do with my trip to Palestine,” Hassan said. “Then when I passed the interrogation I was escorted on the plane and not allowed to sit with my friend, and instead placed me on the far end of the plane.”
“When I went to the bathroom and came back, someone spilled a can of Coke all over my seat and the flight attendant ignored me and told me to sit down when I asked her to do something about it. I was forced to sit in a soaking seat for four hours.”
For others, El Al’s harassment can take on much more extreme forms. Al Shabaka analyst Yara Hawari told Mondoweiss that she took an El Al flight by mistake after not realizing her flight was being operated by the Israeli airline.
“I was taken off to a small room and interrogated by myself. I was asked a lot of questions about my life and in the end, wasn’t allowed to travel with anything on me. I had to be escorted through the airport by an Israeli security agent, even when I wanted to go to the toilet,” Hawari said. Hawari was even forced to take a full body x-ray, and when that wasn’t enough, Israeli security agents assigned two female guards to check her private parts.
“It seems like the Israeli regime is given free rein to treat certain passengers however they want. They are trained to harass and provoke, and I believe it is definitely a play on gendered vulnerabilities. To ask a woman to take off her underwear and to frisk them in certain places is a form of gender violence. The goal is to make us feel vulnerable,” Hawari continued.
The Arab Association for Human Rights and the Center Against Racism have accumulated numerous complaints submitted by Palestinian citizens of Israel relating to discriminatory security inspections on flights flying into Tel Aviv. In all of their cases, the travelers have never been suspected of security offenses, and nothing in their past could justify such violent treatment.
Eric Goldstein responded to Mondoweiss’s request for comment on behalf of Human Rights Watch. He said that while sovereign states, including Israel, “have the right to control who enters its territory, such protocols, however, have to be non-discriminatory in nature.”
“Human Rights Watch has not itself researched the treatment of Palestinian and Arab-Americans by Israel upon boarding flights or at Ben Gurion airport. However, the information we have seen indicates that ethnic/religious profiling plays an important role in deciding who gets subjected to more intensive and sometimes abusive scrutiny. Such discrimination is repugnant,” Goldstein said.
While it is indeed not uncommon for foreign governments to have their own security procedures in international airports, Israel is the only country in the world that has their own military personnel and private security conducting intense interrogations and strip searches while being allowed to perform these compulsory inspections without any supervision from the host country.
Of course, the Airport Authority and the Israeli airlines have persistently rejected the claims of discriminatory inspections of Palestinians, stating instead that “security reasons” underlie all the inspections.
Yet a closer look into how Israeli airlines like El Al operate reveals that not only does racial profiling take place, but Israel uses its airlines as an intelligence front, in which Israeli security services work for the airlines as undercover employees.
Operated by the Shin Bet
An anonymous source within Frankfurt Airport concurs with the undercover investigation conducted by Aljazeera, telling Mondoweiss that Frankfurt Airport is well aware that these discriminatory and extreme security measures take place prior to boarding El Al flights.
“There is a heavy presence of federal police present there with security staff, but there’s even a SWAT tank that follows the plane right when it leaves the tarmac. There have even been rumors and spottings of snipers surrounding the gate position checking the area at all times,” the source said.
“Frankfurt Airport and employees are aware of the level of questioning and just how intense the interrogations are,” they continued.
The stringent security procedures present at international airports are all thanks to the Shin Bet — Israel’s internal security agency. El Al’s security department is the body that directly executes their orders. It is estimated that Israeli aviation security — including undercover security guards on flights and armed security guards at the boarding gate at airports abroad — employs 3,000 people and costs up to one billion shekels per year.
Yet how does Israel make countries comply with their extreme security measures, which include the presence of foreign security at their airports?
In 2013, the Open Skies Agreement with the European Union increased the number of foreign airlines operating within Israel and expanded the number of routes served, which included lower fares that stimulated tourism. Naturally, European countries took advantage of the changes and jumped at the opportunity for their airports to have direct flights into Tel Aviv. Since the agreement’s ratification, the number of airlines, flights, and destinations surged.
Since the Shin Bet has complete control over Israel’s aviation security, it also sets the terms abroad. Earlier this year, Israeli airlines warned the UAE that flights could be halted to Dubai if they did not comply with their security arrangements. The Shin Bet has since reiterated that the original dispute was related to “the standards used at the airport in Dubai.”
A history of racism
Under the guise of global threats against Israel, countries around the world have allowed racial and ethnic profiling of Palestinians and other minorities within their own sovereign lands. There have been numerous racial discrimination lawsuits against the airline since the passing of the Open Skies Agreement, such as a lawsuit from a dark-skinned Dutch passenger of Pakistani descent, and three Palestinian women who sued the airline after they were singled out for a strip search.
Yet there seems to be little controversy over Israeli practices among the mainstream. In fact, there have been numerous calls by politicians to adopt Israel’s racist practices in their own airports that include “widely accepted passenger profiling based on appearance.”
“The goal is never to ban someone from an Israeli flight,” Hawari said, “but it is an intentional strategy to let Palestinians know who’s in charge. It is a power game. An absolute display of power.”
Hebh Jamal is a Palestinian American journalist from New York City now based in Germany