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Profiling a fact of Palestinian life - World - Profiling a fact of Palestinian life Screening is widely condemned as discriminatory but for Israelis, it's just a matter of common sense


July 09, 2008

Oakland Ross

Middle East Bureau



JERUSALEM–A Canadian journalist and a local colleague were returning to Jerusalem one recent afternoon, following a day spent working in the West Bank.


At an Israeli security checkpoint on Highway 60 just south of Jerusalem, the Canadian eased the car to a halt, as required, and rolled down his window.


"Let me see your identification," said the border guard.


The light-skinned Canadian promptly reached for his papers, but the guard waved him off.


"Not you," the officer said. He gestured at the middle-aged man in the passenger seat, whose darker complexion and general demeanour had caught the guard's eye. "Him."


The individual in question was a Palestinian, who has lived most of his life in Jerusalem and is a legal resident of Israel, with the documents to prove it.


But to the guard, the man in the passenger seat was an Arab, plain and simple, and therefore someone who warranted closer attention – in short, a potential terrorist.


This admittedly minor episode ended without further difficulty, as most such incidents here do, but that telltale flick of the border guard's hand, along with his almost dismissive use of the third-person pronoun – "Him" – suggests volumes about the way police and other officials conduct themselves in Israel, in contrast to the practices promoted, if not always followed, in much of the Western world.


What the Israeli border guard did that day – what police and other officials in this country do countless times every day – was an unmistakable instance of racial profiling, if a relatively innocuous one.


In Canada, the United States and much of Europe, such behaviour by authorities – while it certainly happens – is widely condemned as both discriminatory and unjust, as well as a legitimate cause for public outrage and often legal redress.


In Israel, most people don't see things that way. What people in many other parts of the world call racial profiling, most Israelis regard as just plain common sense


"This is a North American obsession," said Yoram Dinstein, former president of Tel Aviv University, where he now teaches international law.


"In the name of some principle that is unbeknownst to me, North Americans treat this as a matter of political correctness. It makes no sense to me at all."


In Israel, racial profiling is not treated as an insidious and corrupting tendency on the part of those wielding power. Instead, it is viewed as one of the central pillars for the defence of national security.


"We live at a time when Al Qaeda is 100 per cent Muslim," said Dinstein. "Have you heard of a terrorist since 9/11 who was not Muslim? If the terrorist is likely to be an Arab, then Arabs pay the price."


As for non-Arabs, Dinstein says that when it comes to security matters, they can safely be left alone.


"Why harass the innocent?"


At many Israeli army checkpoints in the West Bank, there are two queues – one for Jewish settlers and one for Palestinians.


One moves swiftly, while the other sometimes seems to barely move at all. The reason is simple – racial profiling.


Dinstein says Americans have slowly been coming around to Israel's way of thinking since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, an assessment that would surely be echoed by many air travellers in the United States who have found they now fit some anonymous official's physical stereotype of a potential terrorist.


Canadian novelist Rohinton Mistry abandoned travelling to the United States several years ago for precisely this reason.


"They are slowly awakening since 9/11," said Dinstein. "It's typical of Americans that they sometimes overdo it."


Asked to defend racial profiling, Israelis tend to rely on one answer before all others. The practice is acceptable because it works – or at least it seems to.


Consider El Al, Israel's flagship airline, regarded by some as the most secure air carrier in the world, thanks to its stringent security measures. Those measures include the regular use of racial profiling. Certain passengers – including Arabs – are singled out for particularly invasive pre-flight interviews and other checks.


"El Al is probably the safest airline to fly on," said Dinstein. "It uses measures that have been copied all over the world."


Still, those on the short end of the racial profiler's stick can hardly be expected to welcome the practice, and they don't.


"Israel regards itself as a Western country, but does not abide by the norms of most Western countries," said George Giacaman, director of the program in democracy at Birzeit University in the West Bank.


"If every Arab is a suspect, this raises fundamental issues of human rights. The Israelis should rely on details relating to specific individuals."


As for the hardship that racial profiling undoubtedly inflicts on mainly innocent Palestinians, Dinstein said the reaction of many Israelis could be summed up in two words: "That's life."







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