Despite our relatively recent struggle against apartheid, I highlighted in a previous article the disturbing level of bilateral trade and cooperation between the South African government and Israel. Bearing our own history in mind, one would expect South Africa to be at the forefront of political efforts to bring Israel in line with international law — and perhaps even be championing economic isolation of Israel — as this was a major factor in ending white minority rule in our country.
Unfortunately, however, this appears to not be the case. In the latest example of Israeli entrenchment in South Africa, it has been discovered that Israeli intelligence, or Shin Bet, agents are illegally profiling and detaining South African citizens in Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport.
This was brought to light last month by South Africa’s premier investigative journalism TV show, Carte Blanche, following allegations that security personnel from Israel’s national carrier, El Al Airlines, were acting dubiously at the airport. Carte Blanche then decided to conduct an experiment, sending an undercover reporter into the airport, expecting him to be targeted simply because he was Muslim.
Caught on hidden camera, it didn’t take long before he was approached by El Al representatives who claimed to be “airport security” and demanded to see the man’s passport or ID. The El Al representatives then fired a barrage of questions at him, falsely claiming this to be part of “airport regulations,” before informing him that “only passengers were allowed to enter that area” — despite the fact that he was standing in a public space.
Jonathan Garb, a former El Al security employee, decided to expose this practice after what he says was an unfair dismissal by his former employer. “This here is a secret service operating above the law in South Africa. We pull the wool over everyone’s eyes. We do exactly as we please — the local authorities do not know what we are doing,” he says in the TV interview.
Though he claims local authorities are oblivious to the practice, it is highly unlikely that airport authorities are unaware of foreign intelligence agents operating on their property. According to Garb, these men are neither airport security nor El Al employees, but rather agents working for Israel’s General Security Service, referred to as the Shin Bet.
The undercover footage thus shows a South African citizen, standing in a public place in his own country, being grilled by an Israeli intelligence agent — in full view of other passengers.
“You know what the joke is — the way they are behaving here, they can’t do it in Israel! They wouldn’t dare do it in Israel. They would be taken to the Israeli courts by the employees and for the way they treat passengers,” Garb says in the expose. But at O.R. Tambo, these Israeli agents, under the guise of El Al security, are profiling, detaining and harassing South Africans unhindered.
Garb was recruited by El Al 19 years ago, after which he underwent secret training in Israel. After working for the airline as an armed undercover guard for eight years, his role changed to that of a profiler. “What we are trained is to look for the immediate threat — Muslim guy — you can think he is a suicide bomber, he is collecting information. The crazy thing is that we are profiling people racially, ethnically and even on religious grounds … this is what we do.”
One of the more than 40,000 individuals Garb has profiled is Middle East politics expert Dr. Virginia Tilley. Tilley is currently on a two-year research assignment at South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council — the think tank that recently published a report accusing Israel of occupation, colonialism and apartheid in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
According to Garb, “The decision was she should be checked in the harshest way because of her connections.” When Tilley flew to South Africa she was separated from her belongings for 45 minutes by these agents. “She had like a portfolio. She couldn’t see what we were doing and we photocopied all the documentation and then forwarded it on to Israel,” Garb says. When questioned by the show’s presenter regarding who that information would be passed on to, Garb confirmed that it would be for Israel’s intelligence services as the airline had no use for it. “It’s like the CIA or the FBI or MI5, but they are hiding behind the guise of the airline,” he says.
Another South African, Isaac Mgidi was so incensed by his treatment at the hands of El Al that he has taken the matter to the South African embassy in Israel. He has a small non-governmental organization that assists women’s groups to produce food in South Africa. Knowing Israel to be advanced in the field of hydroponics, he planned a knowledge-sharing trip to Israel in June.
Upon arriving at El Al’s check-in at O.R. Tambo, Isaac and his colleague were taken to a small room, told to remove their shoes and pants and face the wall with their hands up. According to South African law, only South African police or defense force officials can conduct this kind of search. Garb explains that black people receive a harsher profiling process than whites. Isaac and his colleague were forced by these agents to leave their laptops and shaving kits in Johannesburg, as well as a pair of shoes.
Isaac’s story is not much different to Xolile Nxu’s. He was invited to an international conference which examined ways Palestinians could achieve democracy through peaceful demonstrations. According to Nxu, he was taken to the same interrogation room, searched and stripped down to his pants. Nxu says in the program that during his interrogation — on South African soil — the Israeli agents said “You are not going to fucking go to this country [Israel] — we will make sure that we follow you.”
Garb, who was an agent at the time, corroborates Nxu’s story, saying that he was specifically targeted because he was black and because he was traveling to the occupied West Bank for some meetings. “We were told that we had to give him the harshest procedure and we had to search him.”
According to the TV show’s producers, their investigation has also confirmed that the arms carried by these so-called El Al security guards, are in fact licensed to the Israeli embassy in South Africa, adding to the suspicion that these men are in fact Israeli government agents and not airline security personnel.
It is difficult to believe that these activities are being conducted on a daily basis at South Africa’s main international airport without the knowledge of South Africa’s airport authorities. It then follows that if the authorities are aware of these illegal and discriminatory practices being perpetrated against South African citizens and have not put a stop to them, our airport authorities must tacitly approve of these subversive activities.
It is infuriating that an accused war criminal like Lieutenant Colonel David Benjamin, an Israeli army legal advisor during Operation Cast Lead, can travel through South Africa’s airports unhindered, while ordinary and innocent citizens of this country are subjected to blatant racial and religious profiling by foreign agents who are acting above the law. One can only hope for the day when the flowery words of support for Palestine from South Africa’s leadership turns into concrete action, and the correct individuals are harassed, interrogated and detained.
Sayed Dhansay is a South African writer and political activist who volunteered for the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in the Israeli-occupied West Bank in 2006-2007.