Should Israel be a model for U.S. airport security

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As U.S. officials try to figure out how to improve airport security in the aftermath of the failed Christmas Day bombing attempt of a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight, many North Americans are looking to Israel as a model.

The New York Times opened a forum for readers to discuss the pros and cons of Israeli airport security. The Toronto Star interviewed an Israeli airport security expert who said the best way to nab a terrorist is to “look them in the eye.” Chris Matthews addressed the topic on “Hardball with Chris Matthews” last week, asking his guests “How many Nigerians want to fly El Al?” and “Do you think the American people would stand for an Israeli-style [airport security] situation?”

Passengers at the Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv wait to go through security checkpoints that include a new biometrics identification system. photo/ap/ariel schalitDavid Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, wrote a piece for the Huffington Post about the lessons U.S. airport security officials can learn from their counterparts in Israel.

“From the perspective of security, one is in a class by itself: Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport,” Harris wrote. “In the wake of the thwarted terrorist attempt on Northwest Flight 253, it’s time to revisit the Israeli model, as other countries ask what more can be done to prevent such near-catastrophes.”

El Al, Israel’s national airline, has been the target of more attacks and specific threats than any other airline in the world. After a number of shootings and hijackings by terrorists during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the government-owned company introduced a set of stringent security measures aimed at thwarting future terrorist attacks.

The enhanced security extended to Ben Gurion International Airport, which also had been the site of terrorist attacks. Security there is composed of a number of rings, only some of which are visible.

Passenger profiling has been a major component of the security success. Security officials question passengers before sending their luggage and screen them based on their answers and backgrounds. Passengers considered a potential risk are taken aside for further questioning and thoroughly searched.

The Israeli approach has fueled the debate about whether it is necessary for U.S. airports to introduce new security checkpoints and sophisticated machinery, including full-body scanners. Whereas U.S. airport security relies primarily on technology, the Israeli system relies primarily on human intelligence and profiling.

Passenger profiling by Israeli airport security has been criticized heavily over the years. Many Arab passengers, including Arab Israelis, have complained of being forced to undergo excessive and demeaning security checks. Israeli civil rights groups and Israeli Arab lawmakers have petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court to ban ethnicity-based profiling as discriminatory.

The failed Northwest Airlines bombing attempt spurred U.S. officials to institute new rules mandating special searches for passengers from 14 nations, raising the ire of U.S. civil liberties groups.

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, founder and head of the Israel Project, a pro-Israel advocacy group, says profiling is not discriminatory. On the contrary, she says, in Israel it has benefited both Jews and Arabs.

“The [West Bank] security fence has also been criticized but has saved lives on both sides, just like the airport measures have saved lives on both sides,” Laszlo Mizrahi said. “There are plenty of Arab citizens that are also being protected by these security measures. They may be inconvenient, but if they save lives, the end result is worth it.”

Meanwhile, on Jan. 5, Israel unveiled a new biometrics system for testing at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv. Instead of waiting in long lines to be checked by inspectors, travellers will swipe smart cards containing their photo, fingerprints and personal details. Officials said the system will reduce intrusive security checks while making flying safer.

The biometrics scanners are similar in size and appearance to cash machines. They are fitted with cameras that snap a picture of the traveller and compare it to the card. Travelers then answer basic security questions on the screen, an official said, and security checkers will stand by to assist with questions.

They are also there to observe body language like excessive sweating and nervousness. Foreign travellers will be allowed to register with the system, Airports Authority spokeswoman Maayan Malchin said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.