What Israel Can Teach Us About Airport Security

I’ve visited Israel many times in my lifetime and have always been impressed with their airport security. In a country surrounded by enemies, they can’t afford to make a single mistake. The last (and only) successful hijacking attempt of an Israeli airline occurred in 1968 when El Al Flight 426 from Rome to Tel Aviv was hijacked by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The flight was diverted to Algiers, negotiations lasted over forty days, and the hijackers and hostages went free. Since then, there’s not been a single incident involving an Israeli airline or airport, mainly due to the intensive security and screening at Ben Gurion Airport and from Israel’s national airline El Al.

I recently returned from my tenth visit to Israel and got to see their security in action from a different perspective, which I’ll address later. As a frequent international traveler, I’m always interested to see how security is addressed in different parts of the world. From the vantage point of this traveler, Israel is always the gold standard. That said, I’ve seen impressive displays in the UK and in China, but Israel adds a few extra touches which I believe go a long way.

Arrival at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv

The first thing one notices upon arrival at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv is that passengers are dropped off and picked up a healthy distance from the entrance to the airport building itself. I imagine that this is done to prevent car bombs and rushing the building by a suicide bomber. In order to enter the arrivals hall, it’s necessary to pass a checkpoint. A friendly security officer asks several polite questions for the purpose of reading your body language. On a past visit, I was dropped off by a friend who lives in Tel Aviv, so he had yellow Israeli license plates quite visible on his car. I was asked questions such as “Who just dropped you off?”, “How do you know him?”, “Where did you stay during your visit?”, “What did you do during your visit?”. Very simple questions, but the security staff is looking for body language. All questions were asked in a relaxed and casual manner, and it felt as though we could have been sitting in a coffee shop talking.

Entering the Departures Hall at Ben Gurion

Once inside, it’s necessary to wait in a line to be questioned yet again prior to proceeding to the check-in counter. This is where things got interesting on my last visit. I was there with my girlfriend and my 79 year old father. My girlfriend is Chinese-American. She was born in China and is now a US citizen and was traveling on a US passport. Both my father and I are caucasion and American. At this point, my girlfriend and I were handed off to a security supervisor. I can only assume this was because our trio was a rather atypical group. My father’s questioning was over, but my girlfriend and I were asked questions such as “How long have you been dating?”, “Where do each of you live?”, “How often do you see one another?”, and “When was the last time you both visited China together?”. After answering these questions, we were instructed to wait while the supervisor walked off with our passports. I would have to guess that he was checking the entry stamps on our passports to see if the dates coincided and was also reading our body language to see if we were nervous or uncomfortable. Again, all questions were asked in a very relaxed manner and it felt as though we could just as easily been chatting in a coffee shop on Dizengoff Street as in the security line at the airport. After just a couple of minutes the supervisor returned and told us we were free to proceed to the check-in counter. We were instructed to leave our bags unlocked. Not even TSA locks were allowed.

ben gurion israeli airport security - arrivals
Exiting the arrival hall of Ben Gurion on the way to pick up our rental car

“Random” Security Checks

All bags are x-rayed, though I’ve seen the occasional random bag check at Ben Gurion. I’m not sure how random it is, though. Israel is known for profiling passengers, just as they profiled me and my girlfriend. It’s not done in a discriminatory manner, but rather simply in response to specific threats. A mixed race couple such as me and my girlfriend is of more interest to security than a 79 year old smartly dressed man who fits the stereotype of a typical American tourist such as my father. It’s not personal, it’s just a specific response to a specific threat. It’s focused and it works. 

I even read an account of an Arab passenger flying to Israel on business. He described how he was even escorted to another room for further questioning. The entire time the security agent was very kind and even apologizing for the extra scrutiny. The waiting room had air conditioning, was clean, had a water cooler, an adjacent bathroom, and even had a WiFi network and password posted on the wall. Rather than being offended, the writer saw this as brilliant. Everyone could be questioned when they’re most comfortable, everyone’s behavior could be monitored, and if necessary their internet browsing could be monitored. I would also imagine that to someone who is truly guilty of plotting something nefarious, the kindness showed to them by the security staff could be disconcerting enough to get them quite nervous.

Technology vs the Human Touch

I don’t know what happens behind the curtain, but my experience flying out of Ben Gurion never involves security staff barking unintelligible orders, removing shoes, or separating liquids in plastic bags. The technology seemed to be fairly minimal compared to the fancy screening machines commonly found in North American airports, and there’s generally very little theatre at the airport in Tel Aviv. Instead, Israel relies on the human touch. An observant questioner can learn a significant amount about the potential threat of a given passenger by reading their body language through a series of well chosen simple questions. Add a touch of strategic profiling and it becomes a system which has been nearly 100% effective for over 50 years. Of course, profiling raises a whole host of issues and baggage if practiced in the US, and I’ll leave that debate in the hands of others. I’m merely writing this as a first hand observation of what I believe to be one of, if not the most effective airport security system in the world. Israel seems to have perfected the art of combining modern technology and the human element of interacting with people one on one. Despite the constant threats to Israel’s existence by many of her neighbors, I always feel completely safe flying in and out of Ben Gurion Airport thanks to the amazing work their security service is performing there.

Should you choose to visit Israel, I’d highly recommend taking time to train at the Caliber-3 Academy for Counter Terror and Security. They offer training for law enforcement, security, and military in tactical training and dealing with terrorist threats. In addition, they offer tourist programs which are designed to give the participant a sense of the complicated nature of identifying threats in a live situation.

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