Suspected Citizens: Racial Profiling against Arab Passengers by Israeli Airports and Airlines

The following is the introduction to the report “Suspected Citizens: Racial Profiling against Arab Passengers by Israeli Airports and Airlines”, issued in December 2006

Salah Ya’aqubi is an Arab citizen of Israel who lives in the village of Reineh, close to Nazareth. He is a cum laude student in the Department of Nursing in Tel Aviv University. In 2005, Tel Aviv University chose Ya’aqubi as one of its representatives at an international conference held in London. Three other students from the institution were also selected to participate in the conference. The four students served as representatives of the State of Israel at the event.

On the day of their flight, Ya’aqubi and the three Jewish students arrived together at Ben Gurion Airport. The four were due to fly with the Israeli air carrier Israir. During the routine security inspection, the security staff inspected the baggage of all four students using x-ray scanners. The Jewish students then moved on and their passports were stamped, while Ya’aqubi was obliged to undergo a special security inspection. The security personnel stated that they intended to undertake a manual search of his baggage. During the course of the manual inspection, the security personnel overturned Ya’aqubi’s bag with all his belongings in it, and then asked him to accompany them to a side room so that they could ask him some questions. When Ya’aqubi attempted to ascertain the reason for this special interrogation, which his Jewish friends were not required to undergo, one security guard replied that “these are our instructions, and they come from high up.” The security personnel asked Ya’aqubi numerous questions: where he was going, what the purpose of his visit was, and so on. After completing the questioning, the security personnel ordered Ya’aqubi to accompany them to another room, where he was again asked the same questions. When he commented that he had already answered these questions, and that his baggage had already been examined, one of the security personnel told him that these were their instructions, adding, “I don’t care what they asked you before.” The security guards did not claim that there were any specific suspicions against Ya’aqubi or that he presented any danger.

Eventually, after the additional security inspections were completed, Ya’aqubi got on the airplane and flew to the conference. His feeling was that he had been required to undergo a special security inspection because of his national origin, i.e. because he is an Arab. At the end of the conference, as the students headed back to Israel, the phenomenon repeated itself. Ya’aqubi and the Jewish members of the delegation went through the routine inspections at the inspection points of the British authorities. Their baggage was examined and they were politely asked a number of questions. After this inspection was completed, Ya’aqubi was again asked to undergo an additional inspection by Israeli security personnel. After his baggage was examined in an x-ray scanner, the Israeli security personnel demanded to perform a manual search, claiming that there was suspicion that his case contained “molecules of explosives.” Ya’aqubi stated that he had no doubt that his baggage contained nothing other than his personal belongings. The security personnel also insisted on carrying out a manual search of Ya’aqubi’s hand baggage.

After the inspections were completed, the Israeli security personnel informed Ya’aqubi that his large bag would be held at the airport for several days and then sent to Reineh, his home village. Ya’aqubi was then taken into a side room and asked to remove his clothes and shoes, on the grounds that there was “suspicion of the presence of an explosive.” Ya’aqubi then underwent a body search and was asked a number of questions.

After taking his bag, Ya’aqubi was given his shoes back and permitted to proceed to the duty free shops. However, half and hour before the flight was due to depart, an Israeli security guard approached Ya’aqubi and asked him to accompany him to a side room for a further inspection. Ya’aqubi noted that he had already undergone several inspections and his bag had been taken from him, but received the reply that “these are our instructions.” Ya’aqubi eventually boarded the flight fifteen minutes late, after all the other passengers had already taken their seats. When he entered, many passengers looked at him suspiciously, having witnessed his last questioning.

Ya’aqubi described his feelings about the intrusive and humiliating series of inspections and interrogations he was forced to endure in the following terms:

This is the most offensive and humiliating experience I have ever had. I was immediately suspect just because I am Arab. The fact that I am an outstanding student, was traveling as a representative of an academic institution, and was selected to represent Israel at an international conference didn’t help me at all. I sensed the lack of esteem and respect and the contempt the security guards felt toward me. It was particularly offense since I saw with my own eyes that the security personnel let my Jewish friends proceed without hindrance, without being interrogated, without being taken into a side room, and without offending them in front of hundreds of passengers who flew with us on the plane.

The experience related by Salah Ya’aqubi is a classic example of the treatment encountered by Arab citizens of Israel when they come to Ben Gurion Airport in order to board international flights. Any Arab citizen who is planning to travel abroad, whether for vacation, family visits, or work, makes sure they arrive at the airport four hours before the scheduled departure, due to the series of delays and humiliating interrogations they can expect because of their national origin (hereinafter: discriminatory security inspection).1 The delays range from three to four hours. Jewish passengers are only rarely forced to undergo such a rigorous process This phenomenon is so widespread that it is hard to find any Arab citizen who travels abroad by air and who has not experienced a discriminatory security check at least once.2

The Arab Association for Human Rights (HRA) and the Center Against Racism (hereinafter “the investigating organizations”) have accumulated numerous complaints submitted by Arab citizens relating to discriminatory security inspections they have undergone at the hands of security personnel, despite the fact that they did not pose the slightest security risk to the other passengers. These travelers have never been suspected of security offenses and nothing in their past could justify such special treatment. The complainants report that the discriminatory attitude of the security personnel began as soon as they realized that the people in front of them were Arab citizens - whether by means of their external appearance, their accent, their place of residence, or after the travelers identified as Arabs - and solely for this reason. The complaints also show that the discriminatory security inspection takes place in various stages, beginning at the main entrance to the airport, continuing in the line for check in, and culminating at the border crossings and passport booths. Sometimes the security inspection even continues in the shopping area, as a security guard accompanies the Arab passenger through to the departure gate, waiting until they actually board the plane.

The discriminatory security inspection undergone by Arab citizens is not confined to Ben Gurion Airport or to other airports and border crossing in Israel. Arab citizens who choose to use Israeli airlines, such as El- Al, Israir, and Arkia, also encounter such inspections at international airports in foreign countries, undertaken by Israeli security personnel. An examination by the investigating organizations regarding the source of authority for the use of Israeli security personnel on the territory of foreign countries showed that the inspections undertaken by the Israeli companies are in addition to the local security arrangements. It also emerged that the countries in which these inspections take place do not supervise them, and prefer to ignore their discriminatory nature and the human rights violations committed on their own soil. The demand to reveal the nature of these arrangements was rejected on the grounds that this is confidential information.

These discriminatory security inspections, whether in Israel or abroad, are only imposed on Jewish passengers in rare cases.3 Many Arab passengers have reported undergoing a series of humiliating inspections such as that experienced by Salah Ya’aqubi, with repeated checks, while their Jewish fellow passengers proceeded after routine inspections. Many Arab passengers described being led by Israeli security personnel at foreign airports into side rooms for interrogation. In most of the testimonies, the passengers noted that other passengers were also in these rooms, almost all of them Arabs or foreigners wishing to enter Israel.

The Airports Authority and the Israeli airlines have persistently rejected the claims of discriminatory inspections by Arab citizens, stating security reasons as the excuse for the series of inspections. They claim that there is no standing procedure for “processing” Arabs per se, without reference to specific suspicions or intelligence information. The authorities claim that the inspections are undertaken in accordance with confidential procedures determined by the General Security Service, and are implemented on a routine basis, and not with special reference to Arab passengers.4

In practice, however, the treatment of Arab passengers is sharply distinctive, and forms part of the accepted approach since the establishment of the State of Israel that the Arab citizens are not entitled to genuine equality of rights and constitute a “security threat” to the Jewish state. According to this approach, a person of Arab nationality belongs to a category of security risk justifying special security actions and inspections and close supervision, regardless of their past or of their profiling by the security services. In practice, the impression received is that the security inspections, and particularly the interrogations, are not intended solely to ensure the safety of the passengers, as the authorities claim, but also to collect intelligence information relating to each Arab passenger, in order to enhance the monitoring of these citizens. Technological advances in recent decades make it possible to ensure close scrutiny preventing the introduction of objects or substances liable to endanger the passengers. Despite this, these advances have not altered the reliance on human inspections. Indeed, in recent years, following the installation of new scanners in the airport, the inspections are now implemented in two stages - technological scanning, which is imposed on all passengers, followed by manual inspections, imposed on the Arab passengers.

It is important to note that discriminatory inspections are not imposed on every Arab passenger or in the course of every single journey they undertake. However, the large number of complaints shows that Arab citizens are subject to a distinctive and discriminatory approach on the basis of their national origin. They are collectively, and almost automatically, subject to a security inspection that is not imposed on Jewish passengers, and is based on a security perception that persistently views them as a threat.

Given the large number of complaints,5 a joint working team was established for the first time in April 2006 to bring together the Airports Authority and representatives of Arab citizens in order “to examine jointly ways to improve the nature of the service and the behavior toward Arab citizens at the airports and border crossings.”6 The Airports Authority also established a “special committee to examine the security inspection for the Arab population” in 2005, but the conclusions of this committee, which effectively constituted an internal audit mechanism examining problems relating to the security inspection for Arab passengers,7 were never made public.

This report will detail the manner in which the discriminatory inspection is imposed on Arab citizens as a national group all of whose members are spuriously perceived as a “security threat” to the state, and will expose the true purpose of this inspection: To monitor Arab citizens under the guise of security needs as part of a systemic and deliberate policy on the part of the state authorities.

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  1. This method of inspection is known as “racial profiling.” Amnesty International USA defines racial profiling as “the targeting of individuals and groups by law enforcement officials, even partially, on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, or religion, except where there is trustworthy information, relevant to the locality and timeframe, that links persons belonging to one of the aforementioned groups to an identified criminal incident or scheme.” See: Amnesty International, U.S. Domestic Human Rights Program, “Threat and Humiliation: Racial Profiling, Domestic Security, and Human Rights in the United States,” (October 2004). The report is available at the address (last accessed September 21, 2006). ↩︎

  2. Discriminatory security checks on Arab citizens are not confined to Ben Gurion Airport, but also take place at domestic airports and border crossings. This report will focus on the discriminatory security check at Ben Gurion Airport and at foreign airports. ↩︎

  3. Such inspections are imposed mainly on Jewish left-wing activists. See Aviv Lavi, “Enemies on the Left,” Ha’aretz Supplement, January 30, 2004; “Enemies on the Left (2),” Ha’aretz Supplement, February 13, 2004. See also Tova Zimuki, “The Blacklist of Left-Wing Activists,” Yediot Acharonot, March 17, 2004. ↩︎

  4. Reply from the Airports Authority dated December 8, 2005, in response to the request of the investigating organizations for information; response of El-Al Airlines dated April 3, 2006 in response to the request of the investigating organizations for information. ↩︎

  5. According to information provided to the investigating organizations by the Airports Authority, 206 complaints were filed in 2005; 178 in 2004; 230 in 2003; 253 in 2002; and 144 in 2001. These figures include all the complaints presented to the Airports Authority, not only those from Arab citizens. Many Arab citizens, however, do not bother to submit complaints to the Airports Authority due to their sense that such complaints will not help secure any change in the policy of discriminatory security inspections. The investigating organizations estimate that hundreds of Arab citizens undergo discriminatory security inspections each year. ↩︎

  6. “An End to Discrimination against Arabs at Ben Gurion Airport?”, Ma’ariv website (, April 9, 2006. ↩︎

  7. “The Solution to Complaints about Checks on Arabs at Ben Gurion Airport: A Terminal in Nazareth,” Ha’aretz, September 21, 2005. ↩︎