by Jonathon Cook in Nazareth
Africa deported an Israeli airline official last week following
allegations that Israel’s secret police, the Shin Bet, had infiltrated
Johannesburg international airport in an effort to gather information
on South African citizens, particularly black and Muslim travellers.
move by the South African government followed an investigation by local
TV showing an undercover reporter being illegally interrogated by an
official with El Al, Israel’s national carrier, in a public area of
Johannesburg’s OR Tambo airport.
programme also featured testimony from Jonathan Garb, a former El Al
guard, who claimed that the airline company had been a front for the
Shin Bet in South Africa for many years.
the footage of the undercover reporter’s questioning, he commented:
“Here is a secret service operating above the law in South Africa. We
pull the wool over everyone’s eyes. We do exactly what we want. The
local authorities do not know what we are doing.”
Israeli foreign ministry is reported to have sent a team to South
Africa to try to defuse the diplomatic crisis after the government in
Johannesburg threatened to deport all of El Al’s security staff.
Mr Garb’s accusations have been supported by an investigation by the regulator for South Africa’s private security industries.
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have also been confirmed by human rights groups in Israel, which report
that Israeli security staff are carrying out racial profiling at many
airports around the world, apparently out of sight of local
in South Africa about the activities of El Al staff has been growing
since August, when South Africa’s leading investigative news show,
Carte Blanche, went undercover to test Mr Garb’s allegations.
hidden camera captured an El Al official in the departure hall claiming
to be from “airport security” and demanding that the undercover
reporter hand over his passport or ID as part of “airport regulations”.
When the reporter protested that he was not flying but waiting for a
friend, El Al’s security manager, identified as Golan Rice, arrived to
interrogate him further. Mr Rice then warned him that he was in a
restricted area and must leave.
Garb commented on the show: “What we are trained is to look for the
immediate threat – the Muslim guy. You can think he is a suicide
bomber, he is collecting information. The crazy thing is that we are
profiling people racially, ethnically and even on religious grounds …
This is what we do.”
Garb and two other fired workers have told the South African media that
Shin Bet agents routinely detain Muslim and black passengers, a claim
that has ignited controversy in a society still suffering with the
legacy of decades of apartheid rule.
individuals, the former workers say, are held in an annex room, where
they are interrogated, often on matters unrelated to airport security,
and can be subjected to strip searches while their luggage is taken
apart. Clandestine searches of their belongings and laptops are also
carried out to identify useful documents and information.
of this is done in violation of South African law, which authorises
only the police, armed forces or personnel appointed by the transport
minister to carry out searches.
former staff also accuse El Al of smuggling weapons – licensed to the
local Israeli embassy – into the airport for use by the secret agents.
Mr Garb went public after he was dismissed over a campaign he led for better pay and medical benefits for El Al staff.
South African Jew, he said he was recruited 19 years ago by the Shin
Bet. “We were trained at a secret camp [in Israel] where they train
Israeli special forces and they train you how to use handguns,
submachine guns and in unarmed combat.”
added that he was assigned to “armed security” in the early 1990s.
“Armed security is being undercover, carrying a weapon, a handgun and
at that time as well, sounds crazy but we carried Samsonite briefcases
with an Uzi submachine gun in it.”
Garb claimed to have profiled 40,000 people for Israel over the past 20
years, including recently Virginia Tilley, a Middle East expert who is
the chief researcher at South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council.
The think tank recently published a report accusing Israel of apartheid
and colonialism in the Palestinian territories.
“The decision was she should be checked in the harshest way because of her connections,” Mr Garb said.
Tilley confirmed that she had been detained at the airport by El Al
staff and separated from her luggage. Mr Garb said that during this
period an agent “photocopied all [her] documentation and then he
forwarded it on to Israel” – Mr Garb believes for use by the Shin Bet.
officials have refused to comment on the allegations. A letter produced
by Mr Garb – signed by Roz Bukris, El Al’s general manager in South
Africa – suggests that he was employed by the Shin Bet rather than the
airline. Ms Bukris, according to the programme, refused to confirm or
deny the letter’s validity.
Israeli Embassy in South Africa declined to discuss evidence that it,
rather than El Al, had licensed guns issued to the airline’s security
managers. Questioned last week by Ynet, Israel’s largest news website,
about the deportation of the airline official, Yossi Levy, an Israeli
foreign ministry spokesman, said he could not “comment on security
report published in 2007 by two Israeli human rights organisations, the
Nazareth-based Arab Association for Human Rights and the Centre Against
Racism, found that Israeli airline staff used racial profiling at most
major airports around the world, subjecting Arab and Muslim passengers
to discriminatory and degrading treatment in violation both of
international law and the host country’s laws.
research showed that the checks conducted by El Al at foreign airports
had all the hallmarks of Shin Bet interrogations,” said Mohammed
Zeidan, the director of the Human Rights Association. “Usually the
questions were less about the safety of the flight and more aimed at
gathering information on the political activities or sympathies of the
human rights groups approached four international airports – in New
York, Paris, Vienna and Geneva – where passengers said they had been
subjected to discriminatory treatment, to ask under what authority the
Israeli security services were operating. The first two airports
refused to respond, while Vienna and Geneva said it was not possible to
oversee El Al’s procedures.
is remarkable that these countries make no effort to supervise the
actions of Israeli security personnel present on their territory,
particularly in light of the discriminatory and humiliating procedures
they apply,” the report states.
Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. His latest
books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the
Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing
Palestine: Israel's Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His
website is www.jkcook.net.