Israeli security at Paphos airport on Tuesday promised to investigate the allegedly degrading treatment of a Cypriot man, who is half Palestinian, by Greek Cypriot security personnel working for them, but categorically denied any form of racism had occurred prior to the Tel Aviv flight operated by Israeli airline Arkia.
Travel agent, Stelios Ode, 36, who was born in Paphos to a Cypriot mother and Christian Palestinian father, said he was singled out for additional security checks on the September 29 evening flight and was subjected to abusive and degrading treatment including having to pull down his pants in a backroom shortly after he arrived for check-in.
He also said that during the two-hour detention the two Greek Cypriots, a man and a woman, laughed at the fact he had halloumi and other Cypriot foods in his bag and scattered his clothes and items all over the floor. He was eventually told he could fly but without his bag, not even if it was in the hold of the aircraft.
The latter is not an isolated policy. The Cyprus Mail is aware of another case where a Cypriot of Palestinian origin on one side, was ordered to leave his bag – but not his belongings – behind or not fly at all to Tel Aviv. For both passengers who expected, due to their origins to be grilled in Israel, what was most egregious was being singled out and interrogated extensively in their own country, prior to check-in, by a foreign security apparatus.
The commander of police security at Paphos airport Giorgos Agathocleous was immediately adamant that the incident had nothing to do with Cyprus police and that these additional checks for Israeli carriers were done by an Israeli security team, which often hires locals.
The checks are done prior to normal departure-gate security and begin at check-in where those singled out are asked a raft of personal questions and details about their business. The Cypriot police commander said he had passed on Ode’s complaint, which was emailed to him by the Cyprus Mail, to the Israeli security team, which responded later in the day.
“This had nothing to do with my people,” Agathocleous said. He confirmed the additional checks happened before security when it came to Israeli carriers but did not know, when asked, which Cypriot authorities the Israeli team were accountable to – if anyone – in case any passengers felt they needed recourse as in Ode’s case.
Speaking from Jerusalem on Tuesday, Ode told the Cyprus Mail it was the first time he had used Arkia as it was a direct flight to Paphos and normally he would fly with Greece’s Aegean to and from Larnaca and Tel Aviv, and had never had a problem. In fact, he said that as a travel agent, who has gone through security in the US and Germany, nothing like it had ever happened to him before.
“I knew already that I would go through high levels of security due to the fact that I was flying on an Israeli airline but having this only done to me out of all of the passengers… throwing my things and talking to me like a criminal in my own home, that is what I can’t accept,” said Ode.
Ode said when he arrived at the check-in counter he was met by a Cypriot lady who took his passport and without saying a word called an Israeli security guard and another Cypriot security officer.
He said the Cypriot guard then questioned him extensively about who his relatives were in Paphos and other personal details that he did not object to as he understood it was for security reasons. Then he was questioned for another 15 minutes by the Israeli guard who wanted names and addresses of his relatives and other people he knew in Cyprus. He was then told he would have to undergo a physical security check and was taken to a back office, which had a scanning machine.
“They asked me to remove everything from my pockets, take off my belt and my shoes, and of course I obliged,” he said. They then ran a body scan. “But then to my surprise they told me I needed to pull my pants down. I stood there completely in shock. I have been through many airport security checks, but this was the first time I was asked to pull my pants down,” Ode said.
“When I asked why was that necessary, they said if I don’t agree to take my pants down I will not be able to fly. I was so humiliated at that point I lost my words and I just did it.”
He was then asked to sit and wait as they went through his bag. The woman guard, he said, started laughing at the fact he had halloumi, and though he spoke to the two Cypriots in Greek, they would answer him in English.
“Then they started removing my things from the bag and throwing them in plastic boxes. The woman took the things to the scan machine and started throwing my shirts and trousers right on the scanner. I told her in Greek ‘please you can see the scanner is dirty, please use the plastic box to pass my things through the scanner’. She didn’t reply but instead whispered something into the ear of the Israeli guy who then came to me and said that I needed to sit outside the room in the hallway,” Ode said.
Outside the room under guard, he said everyone was looking at him as if he was a terrorist. He asked to go outside for smoke and was accompanied by another Greek Cypriot guard, even though he was officially not checked in for any flight.
After two hours of “investigation, harassment and rudeness”, the woman guard told him he could fly but not with his bag. “She was laughing while looking at me and I said to her in Greek ‘shame that you are a Cypriot and you do this to your fellow Cypriots’,” Ode said.
“Eventually I told them that I refuse to travel if my bag isn’t going with me. They said ok and told me to quickly pack my bag and leave. My things were thrown on the floor, my pants, my t-shirts, the food, was scattered all around,” he added.
Ode said he knows, from being well-travelled, the difference between security checks and racism “and that is what happened to me. From 100 passengers who just walked freely to check-in, I was the only one with Arab roots who was targeted. I am a holder of a European passport who was humiliated based on race on European soil,” he said.
Ode bought a new ticket from a Greek airline and travelled from Larnaca to Tel Aviv without any issues. He has forwarded his complaint to various Cypriot authorities but they are not technically responsible. Given that Israeli security has permission from the government, the Cyprus Mail attempted to contact the foreign ministry but repeated calls were not returned.
Boris Aihenbaum, Chief Security Manager for the Israeli Aviation Security Division told the Cyprus Mail additional security exists at all airports around the world from which Israeli airlines operate.
“Unfortunately, based on previous experience our security procedures are of great importance to all our passengers as our flights are defined as high-risk flights, which demands additional security checks,” Aihenbaum said in an email.
“These approved security procedures are not unique to Cyprus and have no connection to racism. In fact, the attempt to portray our working process as racist is inappropriate and unjustified,” he added.
Aihenbaum said it was unfortunate that Ode felt he had had “such unsatisfactory experiences” and that the aviation security division was “very eager to improve our customer relations in connection to our inevitable security procedures in order to guarantee safe flights to our passengers and flight crew”.
“Therefore, we will continue investigating this customer service-related complaint and appropriate measures will be taken,” he added.