Israel airport security too tough for the UK

Israeli security experts are sceptical of talk in America and Europe about the need to “Israelify” airport security, following the attempt to blow up a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day.

In an Israeli-style system, they say, security in the airport itself is only one component of an entire framework for combating terror. It would also require the political will to use controversial methods such as racial profiling.

“The main terror risk for Israel is not a bomb smuggled on to a plane in Ben-Gurion Airport, as that requires a sophisticated operation to evade the high-tech sensors and multi-layered security system,” explains one former security official, “but a bomb going off in a coffee shop in Jerusalem or Tel-Aviv. All that requires is getting the bomb through the barriers between Israel and the West Bank and past the lone security guard at the entrance.”

Since its foundation, Israel’s security organisations have preferred to focus on the sources of the terrorist threat rather than on their targets. This increasingly has meant taking the battle to the headquarters of the groups sending the would-be bombers, in a series of small operations, many of them secret, and higher-profile ones, such as Operation Cast Lead against Hamas in Gaza last year.

In addition, Israel carries out continuous interdiction efforts on the routes through which terrorists could try to smuggle weapons into Israel.

The closeness of Ben-Gurion Airport to the West Bank’s hilltops also means that the IDF pays careful attention to areas from which a hand-held missile could be launched against an airliner.

Another issue is air-control procedures to prevent a case in which a hijacked airliner could be crashed into the urban area around Tel-Aviv. Israel Air Force fighter jets are on 24-hour alert to scramble to identify planes which fail to identify properly when approaching Israeli airspace.

Well-rehearsed procedures include notifying the PM or Defence Minister in case they need to give authorisation for shooting down a civilian airliner.

These procedures do not in themselves mean that Israel’s airports are secured to the highest level. The airport’s security begins at the entry road barrier where every car and passenger is quickly examined. The guards concentrate primarily on the passengers themselves, before their luggage. This means looking for anything suspicious in their behaviour or their backgrounds. Key questions are used to assess each individual’s risk potential.

The questions asked before check-in are designed both to detect nervous passengers and to make sure they are not acting as unwitting “mules” for terror organisations.

This emphasis on personal inspection will remain even after the introduction of biometric check-in machines this week in a pilot project, as a security guard will be positioned by the machines, watching the passengers answering the questions on screen.

“The risk of blowing up an airliner using homemade substances and liquids is very real,” says Lieutenant Colonel Eran Tuval of the IDF’s Ground Command’s Substances Laboratory, one of Israel’s leading experts on explosive devices.

The reason passengers at Ben-Gurion are not prevented from taking liquids onboard is simple, he says. “We rely on racial profiling in many of the security checks at Ben-Gurion, something which, for political reasons, many governments can’t do.”

So while cutting-edge sensors are used, the emphasis will always be personal. This means that while Jewish Israeli citizens and most foreign travellers can expect to go through relatively quickly, Muslims and other passengers who are tagged in the various databases as being involved in way in pro-Palestinian organisations are frequently subjected to rigorous questioning and body searches.

“This does mean that a minority of passengers are inconvenienced, mostly through no fault of their own,” says one security officer, “but we do this to allow the large majority to travel comfortably. And, of course, to prevent terror.”

Last updated: 5:11pm, January 7 2010