The infiltration and racial profiling by Israeli undercover agents at OR Tambo International airport has again been thrown into the spotlight, following the interrogation of a Palestinian archaeologist at the weekend. The matter has raised the alarm of South African lobby group Media Review Network (MRN), who will now pressure authorities to expel Israeli agents operating at the busy Johannesburg airport.
Abeer Ahmed Zayyad, a well-known Palestinian academic who visited South Africa on an educational tour, was enroute an El Al flight to Tel Aviv when she and her brother were approached by unidentified plain clothed men. While in the El Al check-in queue, their passports were confiscated and they were taken in for questioning.
According to their South Africa hosts, Salaamedia, some of their staff were also harassed by a senior official who identified himself as “airport security”. He was accompanied by a RAPS security person dressed in brown uniform.
In a telephonic interview with Salaamedia from east Jerusalem this week, Zayyad recounted her last moments before departing South Africa.
“From 4pm to 9pm, they kept us at the airport, interrogating me and my brother. They separated us into different rooms and started to question us and compare the answers. They shook all our bags and made us shake our clothes,” she described.
Zayyad was pressured to give a timeline of her visit to South Africa over the past two weeks. Racial and ethnic profiling, detention and interrogation of travellers is often the modus operandi used by security officials at Israel’s airports.
“They wanted to know who I met each day, what time and what I discussed. I refused to answer these questions. I said I do not remember anything,” Zayyad recalls.
“The security of El Al spoke in Hebrew and I refused….I said I could not speak the language. It was clear that all of them were from Israel as they could all speak Hebrew fluently. They put a security guard on us so we couldn’t move around until we were put on a plane.”
When they arrived at Tel Aviv airport, some items inside their luggage had been ripped and damaged.
“In my personal bag, my laptop was gone. They said they would look for it and send it, but I still have not received it.”
The extreme Israeli security checks at airports are a means of harassment and subjugation. It’s a constant reminder that Palestinians are dehumanised from inside and outside of the Israeli state.
“It was a very difficult time…this is a part of what goes on all the time for Palestinians. Even if we did not get our stuff back, the most important thing is for us to be back home in Jerusalem and close to Al Aqsa mosque.”
Ghost security at OR Tambo
But the matter has again brought into question why passengers continue to be harassed by unidentified “security personnel” at a key security point. In the past, the MRN alerted the authorities of armed foreign “security agents” operating at OR Tambo airport.
“The treatment meted out to Abeer Ahmed Zayyad is a form of terrorism. Our visitors coming to our country are being terrorised by foreign agents…that is a sad indictment on our security services in our country. Why is our government allowing this kind of behavior to continue?” said MRN researcher Ibrahim Vawda.
The scandal surrounding the deployment of Israel’s Shin Bet security agents was featured in an expose’ by Carte Blanche in August 2009. The SA government expelled an Israeli intelligence agent posing as an airline worker, after the discovery of a major Israeli undercover operation at OR Tambo airport. The operation was uncovered by Carte Blanche, based on testimony by Jonathan Garb, a former guard at El Al, Israel’s national airline, who became a whistleblower after being fired from his job.
Garb told Carte Blanche that El Al offices in South Africa and around the world have acted as fronts for Shin Bet, Israel’s General Security Service, for a long time. He also told the program that Shin Bet officers in Johannesburg used their El Al employee cover status to infiltrate the airport and gather information on black and Muslim South African travellers to Israel.
According to the MRN, shortly before the Fifa Soccer World Cup in 2010, there were reports of two South Africans harassed at OR Tambo airport by Israeli security agents. Vawda said the matter was raised with relevant authorities, who gave an undertaking that it would not happen in future.
“South Africans must be made aware that when they go to airports, they are not only being scrutinised by local security but also Israeli security agents. What gives Israel the right to do that to us South Africans in our own country? The use of OR Tambo is not their [Israeli] right… it’s a privilege the SA government affords them.”
The MRN said it would be pressing government to give the South African public the assurance that the security at key security points is “not compromised” by outsourcing it to foreign agencies. A letter will be submitted to the Airports Company of South Africa, the Presidency and then the relevant security clusters.
“We believe that in the absence of such an undertaking there may be an urgent need for an independent commission of inquiry to determine the operational activities of foreign agents at OR Tambo International Airport, especially Israelis.” VOC