By Khaled Diab
Tuesday 4 November 2014
Although I like to travel light, when it comes to Israel, I always seem to be weighed down by generations of excess political baggage. And being a frequent flyer does not seem to provide me with any extra allowances or concessions.
This was driven home to me, yet again, when I recently went on a short, work-related trip to London from Jerusalem, where I currently live. Though I found myself surrounded by a large tourist group entering Ben-Gurion airport, the hawk-eyed security guard outside the terminal caught sight of my complexion and asked to see my passport.
His suspicions were confirmed when he read my Arab name, even though it was cunningly disguised inside the pages of a European passport. When I asked him in feigned innocence, as I sometimes do, why he had stopped me and no-one else, he gave me the standard response: “I’m just doing my job.”
After his boss deigned to allow me into the terminal, the security interviewers who act as the check-in’s gatekeeper also did their jobs and gave me a number six security label – the highest – which [currently] means that all my hand baggage is searched with a fine-tooth comb and high-tech gadgetry, I must stand in a body scanner, and get a complimentary security massage.
For those who are not convinced that this is a part of ethnic or racial profiling, consider the fact that when I travel to or from Israel with my European wife and/or blond son, I am not exposed to this level of scrutiny.
But in terms of intrusiveness, my return from London several days later was possibly the worst since I first started living in Jerusalem in 2011, though the wait was far longer on my first visit in 2007. After tapping at her computer and whispering into her phone, the passport control officer told me I had to wait.
Though I have become familiar with this drill, and I usually bear through it in silence, I informed her politely that the visa in my passport had already come with a security clearance. She too told me that she was just doing her job.
As I dawdled a little outside the designated area – for those familiar with the procedure, by the drinks vending machines in a darker corner of the arrivals hall – a heavily built plain-clothed officer full of rage and hostility approached me and yelled: “Stand inside. Now!”
Taken aback by this uncustomary aggression – usually, my interlocutors are polite but distant, even cold but sometimes friendly – I asked him politely to speak to me with respect. He repeated his order and I repeated my request, whereupon he threatened to deport me if I did not take the two steps back into the designated area within 10 seconds. I acquiesced while noting that I did not appreciate his tone.
A little while later, he returned in a calmer mood and led me into a non-descript office. “Do you know where you are?” he asked cryptically.
“An interrogation room,” I offered.
“And do you know why you’re here?” he continued mysteriously.
“Because I asked you to be respectful outside,” I suggested.
“You were rude to me but that’s not the reason,” my questioner said. He then proceeded to interrogate me about my work and about my wife’s work.
“And what makes you a journalist?” he asked, his voice dripping cynicism and derision.
I responded simply that I’d been working as one for over 15 years. The officer then did something which I have personally never witnessed in the many times I have entered and exited Israel, though I have heard of others who have. He turned to his computer and presumably Googled my name, quoting from one of my articles doubtfully.
“Do you believe this?”
“I did when I wrote it, but I am not here to discuss my journalism or opinions,” I countered.
Changing track, he asked me about who I knew and who my friends were, adding his trademark, “Do you know why I’m asking?”
Miffed and offended by his question, I sidestepped answering it by admitting I hadn’t a clue. “If you’re trying to work out whether I have Israeli as well as Palestinian friends, well I have both and from many different walks of life,” I volunteered.
After asking me to write down my Israeli and European phone numbers and my e-mail address (another intrusion to which I objected but acquiesced), he told me I was free to go. By way of a farewell, he informed me that they reserved the right to stop me and my wife for questioning at any point on entry and exit in the future.
I don’t know if this greater scrutiny has anything to do with the recent Israel-Gaza war or whether I had been flagged personally, or whether it was purely random based on my ethnicity.
Whatever the case, it is a violation of my fundamental rights (such as equality before the law and freedom of expression) and an encroachment of my privacy, as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Israel is a signatory.
I fully understand Israel’s need to protect the security of its citizens, especially on something as potentially vulnerable as airlines. But its gruelling and exacting airport security, unmatched anywhere in the world, is more than up to that task.
An Israeli friend pointed out that she and her family underwent similar interrogations in America. To my mind, that is equally unacceptable. Governments have no right to intrude into our private lives – and when they do, it usually ends badly.
There is no justification for racial, ethnic or other forms of profiling, nor for intrusive questioning. Granting the state and its officials with arbitrary powers often means they will be exercised or abused arbitrarily. Ultimately, this is not about state security – but the state’s insecurity.
This article first appeared in Haaretz on 30 October 2014.