After IS attacks, Israelis and Palestinians caught up in US flight fears
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After IS attacks, Israelis and Palestinians caught up in US flight fears

Arabic speakers and those of Middle Eastern appearance are kept off planes as anxious fellow travelers report ultimately groundless suspicions

Illustrative photo of a customs officer checking a passenger's passport at Washington-Dulles International Airport. (James Tourtellotte/Department of Homeland Security)
Illustrative photo of a customs officer checking a passenger's passport at Washington-Dulles International Airport. (James Tourtellotte/Department of Homeland Security)

NEW YORK, United States — With terror fears running high following the bombing of a Russian passenger jet in the Sinai Peninsula and the last week’s attacks in the French capital, passengers on US domestic flights have been raising the alarm over co-travelers with a Middle Eastern appearance. On at least two occasions, this has apparently involved Israelis or Palestinians.

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility both for killing 224 people on the St. Petersburg-bound plane on October 31 and for the November 13 gun and bomb attacks in Paris that left 130 dead. The group has also made threats against American cities.

In Florida on Thursday, a Spirit Airlines flight en route to Minneapolis turned around and returned to Fort Lauderdale after a young passenger “heard what she believed to be a conversation during which the subject made a remark about blowing up the plane,” according to a police report quoted by the Sun Sentinel newspaper.

Once back on the ground, Yaniv Abotbul, a US citizen born and raised in Israel, was interrogated for five hours, his lawyer Mark Eiglarsh told a news conference.

Abotbul was let go, with the police report quoted by the Sun Sentinel saying “intensive interviews revealed no actual threat was made to the flight and the incident appears to be a miscommunication from a juvenile witness.”

His lawyer has demanded an apology both from the airline and authorities involved. Spirit Airlines did not respond to requests for comment.

Also this week, two men were kept from boarding a flight from Chicago to Philadelphia this week — because they were speaking Arabic.

Maher Khalil and Anas Ayyad were told by a gate agent at Midway Airport that they wouldn’t be allowed on the plane because a fellow passenger had overheard them speaking Arabic, and was afraid to fly with them.

Ultimately, the two friends reportedly of Palestinian origin and in their late 20s, got on the Southwest flight Wednesday night, but only after being questioned by airport security and police, called by Khalil, who told the local NBC television affiliate he didn’t know what else to do.

Once on board, Khalil told NBC 5 that some passengers made him open a white box he was carrying — filled, it turns out, with pastries.

“So I shared my baklava with them,” he was quoted as saying.

Contacted by AFP, Southwest Airlines declined to comment.

Also at Chicago’s Midway Wednesday, six men identified by fellow passengers as being of Middle Eastern descent were removed from a Southwest flight bound for Houston after they asked people around them to switch seats, causing a commotion, the local ABC affiliate reported.

Spirit was also implicated in another incident, in Baltimore, Maryland, on Tuesday.

A woman and three men described by fellow passengers as being of Middle Eastern descent were escorted off a plane headed to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport when a witness reported suspicious activity to the flight crew, the Baltimore Sun reported, citing police.

In the end, police determined that one of the passengers had simply been watching a news report on a smartphone, according to the newspaper.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations said the individuals were racially profiled.

“These passengers were inconvenienced and forced to endure humiliating treatment and invasive questioning for no apparent substantial reason other than because their perceived ethnicity caused alarm in a fellow passenger,” a spokeswoman told the newspaper.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report

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