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After Brussels Attacks, Will Europe Adopt Israeli-Style Airport Security?

  • Daniella Cheslow

TEL AVIV -- European countries are consulting Israeli security experts for advice after the deadly attacks on the main airport and the subway system in Brussels, according to a spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

“There is an increased interest in Europe in Israeli know-how and technology,” said Emmanuel Nahshon.

Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport is among the most secure in the world. About 16 million passengers travel through the Tel Aviv airport a year, according to Airports Authority Spokesman Ofer Lefler. A string of hijackings and a shooting at the airport in the 1970s prompted Israel to undertake stringent measures based on layers of protection, meaning each passenger must pass through multiple levels of scrutiny before he or she even reaches the check-in hall.

The perimeter of Ben-Gurion Airport is secured with radar, security forces, cameras and automatic license-plate scanners that check every vehicle entering the area. Security officers in uniform and undercover monitor the doorways to the terminal. Cameras, hidden and in plain sight, provide extra surveillance. And inside, airport staff ask travelers exhaustive questions about their itineraries, their personal backgrounds, and their luggage.

Pini Schiff, former director of security at Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport, said the Brussels attacks showed serious gaps in Belgian security and intelligence. Had the three assailants approached the Tel Aviv airport, “they would be stopped where the vehicles are entering Ben-Gurion area. And this is 11 kilometers before the terminal building.”

In Brussels, the March 21 attack “was done easily,” he said.

At least 31 people were killed and 270 injured in the attacks on the Brussels airport and a subway station on March 22.

At least 31 people were killed and 270 injured in the attacks on the Brussels airport and a subway station on March 22.

In the wake of the Brussels attacks that killed at least 31 people, airports in Europe and the United States tightened their security. Israel did not have to tighten its airport security, Lefler said. Flights from Europe to Tel Aviv were briefly suspended on March 22 and then quickly reinstated.

Israel’s airport -- named after the nation’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion -- is a lifeline for a nation with two hostile neighbors, Syria and Lebanon, and a cold peace with Egypt and Jordan. Most Israelis travel further afield, to Europe, North America, and other countries.

In the summer of 2014, during Israel’s war with Hamas, the Islamic group notched a victory when American and European airlines suspended flights to Tel Aviv after a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip hit a home near the airport. During that war, militants in Gaza fired thousands of rockets into Israel, while Israel responded with air strikes and a ground invasion. More than 2,200 Palestinians died in the 50-day war, the majority of whom were civilians, while 67 Israeli soldiers and six civilians were killed.

Schiff said he has consulted a European nation on airport security in the past. He declined to name the country. He said that many of Israel’s methods could be applied in Europe, though they would require adjustments to be effective on a large number of passengers. Last year, more than 23 million passengers traveled through Zaventem, the Brussels airport targeted by suicide bombers. London, Paris, and Amsterdam each handle more than double that volume.

However, Arab travelers, journalists, pro-Palestinian activists, and others have complained Israeli security policy is too rigorous and rests on racial profiling.

Diana Buttu, a lawyer and Israeli citizen of Palestinian descent, said security officers always take her aside for about two hours of extra questioning. They carefully examine the contents of her luggage, usually subject her to a strip search, and inquire about her life and work before continuing on to examine her hair, ears, and mouth, she said.

Buttu, who holds dual Canadian citizenship, said she has never faced such checks in other airports outside of Israel.

Israeli security guards at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv

Israeli security guards at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv

“I fear that by Europe instituting the same rules that Israel is instituting, it’s going to lead down the same path that Israel has led down to, which is wholesale racism,” she said. “I am profiled in Israel because I am not Jewish in what is classified as a Jewish state.”

Airports Authority Spokesman Lefler said “every action we take here is for one goal: the securing of passengers and aircraft.

“The check is equal for all, without a difference of religion, color, race, or gender,” Lefler added.

Schiff, the former security head, acknowledged that Israel profiles passengers for more intensive searches. “Profiling as we do it in Israel -- we can’t copy it to Europe because of the number of passengers, but it can be done in other ways.”

In 2014, an Israeli parliament panel inquired into complaints that the airport was too invasive in its security checks, which can include reading passengers’ e-mails and entering their Facebook accounts. At the time, the airport authority’s legal adviser, Aryeh Shaham, told AP that fewer than 5 percent of Arab travelers are inspected in Ben-Gurion Airport, and said the authority receives more complaints from Jewish travelers than Christian or Muslim Arabs.

With Israeli technical help, however, European countries should also brace themselves for bravado.

Transportation and Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz told Israel Radio on March 23, “If the Belgians continue to eat chocolate and enjoy the good life and to look like big democrats and liberals and not decide that some of the Muslims there are terror organizers -- they will not be able to fight them.”

His comment sparked ridicule from opposition lawmaker Shelly Yechimovich of the Labor party, who tweeted, “The government has announced a solution to minimizing terrorism: stop eating chocolate.”

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