The Israeli model: What airport safety looks like, and what it costs travelers

Security measures at Israel's main airport, one of the world's safest, are vastly different from those in Brussels. But there is a tradeoff.

Ariel Schalit/AP
An Israeli airport security guard patrols with a dog in Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, Tuesday, March 22, 2016. After the Brussels attacks, Israel briefly announced that all Israeli flights from Europe were canceled, then reinstated the flights, Israel Airports Authority spokesman Ofer Leffler said. Pini Schiff, former director of security at Ben-Gurion Airport, said the attack in the Brussels airport was 'a colossal failure' of Belgian security, and he said 'the chances are very low' that such a bombing could take place in Israel’s airport. Israel's Ben-Gurion Airport is considered among the most secure in the world, an outcome stemming from several Palestinian attacks on Israeli planes and travelers in the 1970s.

For prospective air travelers, this is what one of the world’s safest airports looks like.

The queues at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport begin when travelers are still in their vehicles, shortly after getting off the highway, at what appears to be a multi-lane toll booth.

Instead of a toll collector, however, two security guards greet travelers. One asks where they’re coming from, and another stands nearby with a finger on the trigger of a machine gun.

That welcome is the first of at least five layers of security personnel who scrutinize, interrogate, and often search passengers before they reach the gangway to board their plane. The personnel include members of Israel’s police and border patrol as well as uniformed airport guards and armed plainclothes officers.

The measures also include a system of racial profiling techniques that have raised allegations of anti-Arab discrimination from Israeli civil rights advocates. But security experts say that has helped prevent a major terrorist attack from being carried out at the airport for more than 40 years.

"We can’t afford an attack. We aren’t a superpower. A terrorist attack at an airport is more than an attack, it’s a hit on the reputation of the entire country,’’ says Pinni Schiff, a former security chief for Israel’s Airport Authority.

Tuesday’s bomb attacks in Brussels and at its airport renewed criticism among Israelis who say Europeans are too lax in the fight against terrorism and too “liberal’’ in their approach to security.

"You can’t have 100 percent protection of privacy and human rights and not have terror attacks,’’ says Mr. Schiff. “You can’t have both. It doesn’t go together. Europe has to improve on this.”

The enhanced security at Ben Gurion means the extra inconvenience for all travelers, regardless of ethnicity, of having to arrive 30 minutes to an hour earlier than at other airports. It can also mean enduring the anxiety of getting stuck in long security queues when rushing to make a plane.

For Arab and Muslim passengers mainly, it can mean awkward interrogations and sometimes body searches.

“We have to get here three hours before departure. The security checks can take a long time, but the security is good,’’ says Khader Attoun, a 55-year-old Palestinian health-care administrative cleric from East Jerusalem who was flying to Istanbul Friday. “I didn’t sense any discrimination. Maybe for the young generation this is a problem.”

Layers of scrutiny

Security guards with Israeli flag patches on their sleeves are also posted outside the sliding doors leading to the main departure terminal at the airport. Some travelers pass through with no questions, while others are asked to present identification documents.

Once inside the departure check-in hall, a new line snakes to and fro. Passengers and families lugging large suitcases slowly approach another security agent, who begins with a set script of questions about the luggage that veteran travelers can recite by rote:

“Where are you coming from? Where do you live? Who packed your bags? Who was watching the bags since you packed them?”

Security agents behind podia scrutinize passengers’ passports, itineraries, reactions, and accents. Sometimes the questioning can continue for several minutes. Arab passengers are frequently subjected to body searches and more intensive interrogation.

Still, the stress affects everyone: At a security podium Friday an agent asked a flustered New York traveler to take out the contents of a backpack and half accused, “Are you nervous?”

And though that’s the main checkpoint, security officials at Ben Gurion check travel documents twice more before passengers get to relax near the duty free shops.

“It’s annoying. You stand in many lines. If you look suspicious, they might open your suitcases and dismantle it piece by piece. I’ve seen it happen,” says Gal El, a 40-year-old airport employee from Jerusalem on a work break. “They don’t take any chances. We accept it. The problem is people from abroad don’t understand.”

'Democracy should protect itself'

The profiling methods, which are rejected by many in the West, have also stirred debate in Israel, and a major case on profiling was heard by Israel’s Supreme Court. The case reportedly prompted security authorities to relax the checks of Arab and Muslim passengers on their own, but the court did not side with the rights groups that brought the petition.

"The Supreme Court once said democracy should protect itself," says Nerri Yarkoni, the former head of Israel’s Aviation Authority and an expert on aviation security. "Aviation should protect itself. If you don’t profile, you’ll lose aviation.’’

Even so, many of the heavy-handed security methods at Ben Gurion Airport – with 15 million passengers a year – will be more difficult and expensive to replicate in larger hubs like Brussels, where 22 million passengers passed through in 2014 en route to a myriad of countries, says Mr. Yarkoni.

Israel’s checks may be too blunt and unjust by singling out too many Arabs, Yarkoni says, but Europe is too lax. If the Brussels bombers had been subjected to screening, he says, they might have been detected.

While some profiling is necessary, he says, Israel needs to refine its methods to hassle fewer passengers. He advocates a more sophisticated process that relies less on people’s accents and more on intelligence databases.

"Don’t waste your time, and don’t waste my time," Yarkoni says. “Check someone else who is risky.”

[Editor's note: A previous version of this story understated how many passengers a year pass through Ben Gurion Airport.]

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