New York Airport “Blind” to El Al Racial Profiling

Brothers win damages for abusive checks

by Jonathan Cook / April 21st, 2010

Israeli Arab brothers have won $8,000 in damages from Israel’s national
carrier, El Al, after a court found that their treatment by the
company’s security staff at a New York airport had been “abusive and

Abdel Wahab and Abdel Aziz Shalabi were assigned a female security
guard who watched over them at the airport’s departure gate for nearly
two hours, in full view of hundreds of fellow passengers, after they
had passed the security and baggage checks.

 Later, El Al’s head of security threatened to bar Abdel Wahab, 43,
from the flight if he did not apologise to the guard for going to the
toilet without first getting her approval. Abdel Aziz said he had been
humiliated and “cried like I’ve never cried before in public”.

Although surveys of Arab citizens, who comprise one-fifth of
Israel’s population, show that most have suffered degrading treatment
when flying with Israeli carriers, few bring cases to the Israeli

The brothers are now planning to sue El Al and its New York staff in
the United States over Israel’s racial profiling of passengers in a
country where the practice is illegal.  

“I’d rather go to New York by donkey than fly with El Al again,”
said Abdel Aziz, 44. “We will keep fighting this case until Israel is
embarrassed into stopping its policy of discriminating against its Arab

The brothers, who live in northern Israel, were the only Arabs in a
party of 17 Israeli insurance agents on a two-week business trip to
Canada and New York in 2007.  

They arrived four hours early at John F Kennedy airport in New York
for their return flight with Israir, an Israeli charter company, to
allow time for the additional checks they expected from El Al’s
security staff.  

El Al has special agreements with most countries’ airports to carry
out its own security checks for passengers flying with Israeli

The brothers said they were questioned, searched and had to wait two
hours while their bags and carry-on luggage were subjected to lengthy

“The Jews with us went through in minutes,” said Abdel Aziz, in his
home in the village of Iksal, near Nazareth. “The difference in
treatment was very clear.”  

After they had passed the checks, an El Al security guard, Keren
Weinberg, was assigned to them until they boarded the plane. They were
told to make sure she could see them at all times.  

When Abdel Wahab visited a toilet without her permission, a noisy
argument broke out between the two, with Ms Weinberg accusing him of
“roaming freely”. He said he told her to “either arrest me or go away”.

Ilan Or, the head of El Al security, was then called and issued him
an ultimatum that he apologise or be prevented from catching the
flight. Abdul Wahab told a magistrate’s court in Haifa this month that
he broke down in tears and finally said he was sorry.  

“I was in shock. One minute I was made to feel like a terrorist and then the next like a naughty child,” he said.  

Judge Amir Toubi said the security staff had admitted that neither
brother was deemed a security threat and that Israeli law did not allow
checks to continue after passengers had passed the security area.  

“With all due understanding of security needs, there is no
justification for ignoring the dignity, freedom and basic rights of a
citizen under the mantle of the sacred cow of security,” the judge

 El Al told the court that it had been “asked by the state to
conduct security checks abroad on behalf of [charter companies] Arkia
and Israir airlines, and is acting under the security guidelines set by
official bodies of the state.”  

Abdul Wahab praised the court’s decision but said the damages were
minor and would not act as a deterrent against El Al repeating such
behaviour in future. He said the brothers would appeal to a higher
court in Israel and were planning to initiate a legal action in New
York, too.  

“I will not rest until we get an apology from El Al and they
acknowledge that what they did is wrong,” he said. He called on all
Arab citizens to boycott El Al until it committed to stop its
discriminatory policy.  

A 2007 report on racial profiling by Israeli carriers, published by
the Arab Association for Human Rights and the Centre Against Racism,
concluded: “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.”  

The two groups found that Arab and Muslim passengers typically faced
long interrogations and extensive luggage searches, and were also
regularly subjected to body and strip searches, had items including
computers confiscated, were kept in holding areas and were escorted
directly on to the plane.  

The report noted that foreign countries that allowed Israel to carry
out its own security checks at their airports failed to supervise them
and preferred to “ignore their discriminatory nature and the human
rights violations committed on their own soil”.  

New York’s JFK airport was one of the airports that refused to
answer questions from the groups about incidents of discriminatory
treatment of Arabs and Muslims.  

Israel has also come under harsh criticism for the standard racial
profiling policies it uses against its own Arab citizens and foreign
Arab nationals at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv.  

The practice of putting different colour-coded stickers on Jewish
and Arab passengers’ luggage ended three years ago. However, airport
guards still write a number on uniform white stickers indicating the
level of security threat. Critics say higher numbers are reserved for

Faced with a lawsuit from Israeli human rights groups, Menachem
Mazuz, the attorney general at the time, instructed the airports
authority in early 2008 to implement “visible equality” by ending
discriminatory screening policies.  

However, observers have noticed no change in practice. “This was a
very cynical exercise. ‘Visible equality’ simply means making it look
like there’s equality when the inequality persists,” said Mohammed
Zeidan, director of the Association for Human Rights, based in Nazareth.

In December an airport official told the right-wing Jerusalem Post
newspaper: “Profiling makes the biggest difference. A man with the name
of Umar flying out of Tel Aviv, whether he is American or British, is
going to get checked seven times.”  

Two years ago Israel’s racial profiling policy made headlines when a
member of an American dance troupe with a Muslim-sounding name was
forced to dance at the airport to prove he was who he claimed.  

The incident with the Shalabi brothers follows on the heels of a
diplomatic crisis between Israel and South Africa over revelations that
spies posing as El Al staff have been operating at Johannesburg
airport, gathering information on non-Jewish passengers visiting
El Al has threatened to close the route after South African officials
stopped providing the airport guards with diplomatic immunity.  

 South African TV reported last month that two of the Mossad
assassins suspected of killing a Hamas commander in Dubai in January
may have used Johannesburg airport to fly back to Israel.

Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). Read other articles by Jonathan, or visit Jonathan’s website.

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