I’m a “lucky” Palestinian: instead of being jailed, I’m subjected to racial profiling

The new security routine at Ben Gurion airport attempts — but fails — to disguise racial profiling.

Oren Ziv ActiveStills

As a Palestinian citizen of present-day Israel, I have an Israeli passport and am allowed to fly in and out of Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. That is as far as Israeli courtesy has been extended to me. Each time I use this airport, I am subjected to racial profiling.

When I was younger and lived in Jerusalem, we would often fly to the UK to visit my mother’s family. I still vividly remember the ordeal that we would go through at the airport.

“Wrong” queue

We would always have to leave for the airport ridiculously early to be sure that the extensive security checks wouldn’t make us miss our flight. When we arrived at the check-in area, there would be two queues for each flight. A queue for Israeli nationals and a queue for foreigners.

Naturally we would stand in the Israeli national queue because despite our staunch Palestinian identity we wanted to be treated as equal citizens of the country. Airport security workers would make their way through the Israeli queue, checking passports and briefly questioning people about their luggage. When they reached us my father would address them in Hebrew (he has mastered the Israeli accent, after studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem).

But it wouldn’t take them long to register that he was, as they like to call us, an Israeli Arab. His name and place of registration (the village of Tarshiha in the Galilee) were obvious indicators, as was the fact that my mother, brother and I did not speak Hebrew. We would then be asked to move to the foreigners’ queue.

I remember several occasions when my father made loud protests at this request and the people in the foreigners’ queue would back him up. The accusations of racism and apartheid were always ignored and so we would reluctantly have to stand in the foreigners’ queue.

Designed to humiliate

If this wasn’t unfair enough we would then be subjected to an intense “security check.” Our belongings would be taken out of our suitcases, displayed so the whole airport could see, and scrutinized. We would be asked questions that had nothing to done with flight security but rather were designed to humiliate and frustrate us.

Our fellow Israeli passengers who witnessed our public security check would look on with a hostility that would continue on the actual flight. As children, my brother and I didn’t understand the gravity of our treatment; in fact, we considered it normal. The awareness of this racial profiling grew over the years, especially after using other airports where we were not subjected to anything like this.

In more recent years, the Israeli authorities decided that the airport needed a massive facelift to accommodate an increased number of passengers. So in 2004 a new state-of-the-art terminal was opened. This terminal included a new security routine that attempted to disguise the racial profiling that is imbedded in Israeli society.

Now Palestinian citizens of Israel are allowed to stand in the Israeli queue. They have a new system of security checks that lead to one being classified with numbers ranging from one to six, six being considered the highest security threat.

When you are standing in a queue someone from the airport security team will check your passport and ask you a few basic security questions such as: Did you pack your bag yourself? Do you have anything sharp in your hand luggage?

Then you will proceed to the x-ray machine for your bags. After this, you are either directed to the “security lab” — as I like to call it — or the check-in desks. Very few people make it straight to the check-in desks.

This “security lab” consists of about nine stations which have surfaces for the suitcases and computer screens with the x-ray images of your luggage. The lab also has a variety of machines to detect residues of explosive substances, among other things. This is the standard procedure for all passengers flying out of Ben Gurion.

Questions reserved for Arabs

Let me now explain my experience as a Palestinian with an Israeli passport. In the queue, waiting for my bags to be x-rayed, I am approached by a member of Israeli airport security. The member of staff begins speaking to me in Hebrew and I explain that I don’t speak Hebrew, much to his or her confusion. The staff member then opens my passport, noticing my name.

Then I get the “special” questions reserved only for Arabs:

“What were you doing here?” Visiting family.

“Where do your family live?” Tarshiha.

“What are their names?” What, all of their names? I have a very big family.

“Some of their names.” Haneen, Abed, Fadi, Majd, Mayse …

“That’s fine. Where do you live?” Oxford, England.

“But you used to live here?” Yes. “OK, wait here.”

The staff member then goes to speak to the head of security who tends to be milling around. Some pointing at me ensues, along with a nod of the head. They come back and put stickers on my bags. They discreetly give me a level six, reserved only for those who are considered a potential security check. I get my bags x-rayed and proceed to the lab where I am assigned two members of the security team (everyone else gets only one). They then proceed to go through everything in my suitcase, dirty clothes included. Every now and then, they ask me what this or that is, where I got it from, showing items to colleagues.

To most tourists, my special treatment goes unnoticed as they are subjected to a very watered-down version of this procedure.

After an hour or so, I am then asked to follow one of them to the “special room” for a body check. To my knowledge, most Arabs and Palestinians go into this room, and occasionally the odd foreigner as well. Despite Israeli insistence that this process is random, it is not. I have been going to the “special room” every time since I turned 15.

This “special room” consists of cubicles where you are patted down and prodded to make sure you aren’t hiding anything. Recently, they have begun checking in between my toes and combing through my hair. The whole process is degrading and frustrating, especially when you know that most other passengers are not subjected to this.

What’s worse is that during this procedure they continue to ask me questions but in a more off-the-record fashion. I am always asked why I don’t speak Hebrew and why I have an Israeli passport. As it isn’t enough that I have to sit in a dingy cubicle, essentially being felt up, I am subjected to ignorant questions about my identity.

Nothing to do with security

As with many security measures in Israel, the airport procedures are aimed at making life difficult for Palestinians and have little to do with security. On various occasions, I have notice lapses in their security which have confirmed my accusations of harassment for the sake of harassment.

Once I was listening to my iPod as they rummaged through my stuff. When they finished, I closed all my bags, popping my iPod inside one of them and proceeded to the “special room” for my body search. The same happened with a book I was reading once.

Both times I could have easily hidden an item considered as a security threat. I also noticed that many Israeli Jews can bypass the security lab. Are Israeli Jews incapable of any kind of threat?

Remaining sane through resistance

Throughout this treatment I am able to retain a bit of sanity by committing my own acts of resistance. For example when they are going through my luggage I like to read an appropriate book in front of them. Something on the Nakba (the systematic ethnic cleansing that led to Israel’s foundation) or Palestinian identity usually does the trick.

Often when they open my suitcase, they’ll find a traditional checkered scarf — or kuffiyeh — and an “I love Palestine” t-shirt spread out on the top. Also, when they ask me for the names of family members, I have taken to reciting various different groups of people. Once it was the Rightly Guided Caliphs, last time it was Lebanese pop singers (Nancy, Elissa etc.). I think next time I’ll go for The Spice Girls.

Despite these attempts to lighten the airport experience, it is still completely humiliating and upsetting. However, it is simply another thing the Palestinians endure on a day-to-day basis. The very fact that I get to fly out of Tel Aviv makes me one of the lucky ones.

As I write, thousands of Palestinians are stuck in Israeli prisons without hope of being released — and even more are stuck in the great outdoor prisons of the West Bank and Gaza. Yes, I am one of the lucky ones. But how awful that I am considered as such when I have to go through such a public ordeal of racial profiling.

Yara Hawari is a masters student in Palestine Studies at Exeter University (England) and will be commencing her PhD later this year. Her research focuses on Nakba memory and oral history inside historic Palestine. Yara is a Palestinian from the Galilee, and although she left Palestine ten years ago, she frequently visits family and conducts research back home.