Emails of pro-Palestinians illegally checked by Ben Gurion security staff

June 5, 2012
Sarah Benton

Israel asks Arab visitors to open emails to search
Associated Press/Al Arabiya

When Sandra Tamari arrived at Israel’s international airport, she received an unusual request: A security agent pushed a computer screen in front of her, connected to Gmail and told her to “log in.”

The agent, suspecting Tamari was involved in pro-Palestinian activism, wanted to inspect her private email account for incriminating evidence. The 42-year-old American of Palestinian descent refused and was swiftly expelled from the country.

Tamari’s experience is not unique. In a cyber-age twist on Israel’s vaunted history of airport security, the country has begun to force incoming travelers deemed suspicious to open personal email accounts for inspection, visitors say.

Targeting mainly Muslims or Arabs, the practice appears to be aimed at rooting out visitors who have histories of pro-Palestinian activism, and in recent weeks, has led to the expulsion of at least three American women.

It remains unclear how widespread the practice is.

However, asked about Tamari’s claims, the Shin Bet security agency confirmed she had been interrogated and said its agents acted in accordance with the law.

Israel has a long history of using ethnic profiling, calling it a necessary evil resulting from its bitter experience with terrorist attacks. Arab travelers and anyone else seen as a risk are often subjected to intense questioning and invasive inspections, including strip searches.

The security procedures appear to be getting stricter: Recent searches of journalists at official events have been invasive enough to create a series of mini-uproars and walkouts – a situation that has dovetailed with increasing concerns that the government is trying to stifle dissent.

Diana Butto, a former legal adviser to the Palestinian Authority and a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, said the policy of email checks, once used sporadically, appears to have become more widespread over the past year.

Butto said she has led three tour groups to the region over the past year, and in each case, at least one member of the group was asked to open their email. She said Muslims, Arabs and Indians were typically targeted, and in most cases, were denied entry.

Butto said agents typically want to see people’s itineraries, articles they have written or Facebook status updates.

“The problem is there’s no way to honestly say you’re coming to visit the West Bank without falling into some type of security trap,” she said. “Either you lie and risk being caught in a lie, or you tell the truth … and it’s not clear whether you’ll be allowed in.”

Tamari, who is from St. Louis, said she arrived in Israel on May 21 to participate in an interfaith conference. She described herself as a Quaker peace activist and acknowledged taking part in campaigns calling for boycotts and divestment from Israel.

Given her activism, Tamari said she expected some security delays. But she was caught off guard by the order to open her email account. She said the agents discovered her address while rifling through her personal papers.

“That’s when they turned their (computer) screens around to me and said, “Log in,” she said. When she refused, an interrogator said, “’Well you must be a terrorist. You are hiding something.’”

Tamari said she was searched, placed in a holding cell and flown back to the U.S. the following day. “The idea that somebody my age, a Quaker, on a peace delegation with folks from the U.S., would be denied entry – that never crossed my mind,” she said.

Najwa Doughman, a 25-year-old Palestinian American from New York City, said she underwent a similar experience when she arrived for a one-week vacation on May 26.

A female interrogator ordered Doughman to open her Gmail account, threatening she would be deported if she didn’t.

“She typed in and she turned the keyboard toward me and said, ‘Log in. Log in now,’” Doughman recounted. “I asked, ‘Is this legal?’ She said, ‘Log in.’”

She said the agent searched for keywords like “West Bank” and “Palestine” and made fun of a chat in which Doughman talked of reading graffiti on Israel’s West Bank separation barrier.

“After she read a bunch of stuff, humiliating and mocking me, I said, ‘I think you’ve read enough,’” Doughman said, adding that agents jotted down names and emails of her friends as they inspected her chat history.

Doughman’s traveling companion, Sasha Al-Sarabi, said agents pulled her aside and checked out her Facebook page.

Both women said they were approached because of their Arab family names, and were repeatedly asked about the nature of their visit, and whether they planned to go to the West Bank and participate in anti-Israel demonstrations.

While acknowledging she belonged to Palestinian activist groups when she was in college, Doughman said she insisted the one-week visit was purely for a vacation.

“The interrogator asked me, ‘Do you feel more Arab or more American?’ … Surely you must feel more Arab,” Doughman said. “I told her I was born in the U.S. and studied there, but she didn’t like my answer.”

After hours of questioning, both women were told they would not be allowed in. They said they were subjected to strip searches, placed in a detention center and sent back to the U.S. the following day. Doughman said they weren’t allowed to call the U.S. Embassy.

American Embassy spokesman Kurt Hoyer said the embassy does not comment on specific cases. But he said the embassy is “usually” contacted whenever an American citizen is not allowed to enter Israel, or any other country.

The embassy typically remains in contact with local authorities throughout the process until a decision on entry is made.

He said the U.S. stresses to all governments “to treat American passport holders as Americans, regardless of their ethnic origin … At the same time, any sovereign nation has the right to decide who to let in, and not to let in.”

Tamari and Doughman’s cases were first reported on the left-wing blog Mondoweiss.

Israel has become increasingly strict following a series of run-ins with international activists in recent years, highlighted by a deadly clash two years ago between Israeli naval commandos and a flotilla trying to break Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. Both sides accused the other of provoking the violence in which nine Turkish activists were killed.

Since then, Israel has prevented international activists from arriving on similar flotillas as well as a pair of “fly-ins” by pro-Palestinian activists. Israeli officials acknowledge they used social media accounts, such as Facebook and Twitter, to identify activists ahead of time and prevent them from boarding flights to Israel.

Emanuel Gross, a law professor at Haifa University, said such a practice would seem to be illegal in Israel.

“In Israel, you need a search warrant to go into somebody’s computer,” he said. “I’m skeptical that the security guards asked a judge first for a warrant and I’m skeptical that a judge would give it.”

State Dep’t official’s ‘Are you Jewish?’ question to US citizen keeps rattling Foggy Bottom

By Philip Weiss and Adam Horowitz, Mondoweiss

The deportation of Sandra Tamari at Ben Gurion airport and the American embassy’s response to her case — “Are you Jewish?” — continues to be a news story. The Associated Press’s Matt Lee brings it up with the State Department spokesperson every day. “Let me get the facts,” says he. Yes, let him get the facts.

Here is Tamari’s recollection of the call from the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv. She provided it to us today.

Chris Kane [from the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv] was contacted by the organizers of my delegation visit about my detention, and given a delegation leader’s cell phone number. He phoned at about 6 pm. I had landed at 3:30 pm and was with the delegation leader in the waiting room at the airport.

CK: Hello. I got your number from _____. You are being questioned by the Israeli authorities, I understand.

ST: They are threatening to deny me entry and to deport me.

CK: Are you Jewish?

ST: No

CK: Have you been in contact with the Israeli government or military in the past?

ST: No

CK: Have you been here before?

ST: Yes, several times. I am a Palestinian with family in the West Bank.

CK: Oh, you have family in the West Bank. Then there is nothing I can do to help you. In fact, if I interceded on your behalf, it will hurt your case with the Israelis.

ST: I don’t understand. You are saying you can’t speak with them. You have no influence. They are demanding to access my gmail account.

CK: If they have your gmail address, they can get in without your password.

ST: What do you mean? How?

CK: They’re good!

ST: This is crazy. You mean you know about these requests to access emails and you have no problem with it.

CK: It is in our travel warning. They won’t harm you. You will be sent home on the next flight out.I hope I have been of good service to you.

ST: Frankly, you have done nothing for me.

CK: Well at least you can say I did it kindly.

Here’s the relevant warning, also dug up by Tamari. Note that it says nothing about going into your email.

Security-related delays are not unusual for travelers carrying audio-visual or data storage/processing equipment, and some have had their laptop computers and other electronic equipment confiscated at Ben Gurion Airport. While most items are returned prior to the traveler’s departure, some equipment has been retained by the authorities for lengthy periods and has reportedly been damaged, destroyed, lost or never returned. U.S. citizens who have had personal property damaged due to security procedures at Ben Gurion may contact the Commissioner for Public Complaints at the airport for redress by fax to 972-3-9752387. In such circumstances, travelers should have no expectation of privacy for any data stored on such devices.

Today, Lee pressed the State Department’s Mark Toner on Tamari’s experience :

QUESTION: More on Israel. Yesterday you said you were aware that the Privacy Act waiver had been signed by Ms. Tamari. I’m wondering if you can tell us exactly what the State Department or the Embassy’s version of the conversation was, whether in fact that she was told that they couldn’t help her because she wasn’t Jewish.

MR. TONER: And actually I’m not sure if we’ve released – we should have; I apologize if we haven’t already released the Taken Question on this. But we can confirm that an official from U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv spoke via telephone with this individual to check on her safety and welfare while she was detained at Ben Gurion Airport. We remain in contact with local authorities until a decision was made regarding her entry into Israel. And of course, decisions about entry are the purview of the Israeli Government.

QUESTION: Did this person ask her if she was Jewish?

MR. TONER: Well, I don’t have an answer for you on that. What is very clear is that we would never deny assistance to any American citizen, regardless of their religious or ethnic background.

QUESTION: According to her account, the conversation, which is pretty much a verbatim transcript, he did ask, “Are you Jewish?” She said, “No.” Then she – then he asked, “Have you been here before?” She said, “Yes. Several times. I’m Palestinian. I have family in the West Bank,” to which he replied – and I won’t use his name, but I have it – “Oh, you have family in the West Bank. Then there’s nothing I can do to help you. If in fact I interceded on your behalf it would hurt your case with the Israelis.”

Is that correct? Is it that U.S. intervention on behalf of one of its citizens would actually hurt the case with Israel, a democratic ally?

MR. TONER: Again, I don’t have a transcript of the conversation. I don’t know where you were able to obtain one from.

QUESTION: From her.

MR. TONER: Again, this is a little bit of a —

QUESTION: I’m not trying to —

MR. TONER: — he said, she said. All I can say is that we —

QUESTION: Well, it may be. I want to know, regardless of that, is it correct that if you are a – that the position of the Embassy or the consular officers at the Embassy is that if you are a Palestinian with family in the West Bank and not Jewish that there’s nothing that they can do to help you. The actual verbatim words of the conversation I’m not —

MR. TONER: Verbatim words of what? A transcript that she presented or she produced?

QUESTION: Well, but —

MR. TONER: Again —

QUESTION: — is it correct that there is nothing that you can or nothing that the Embassy can do to help someone —

MR. TONER: That’s not correct.

QUESTION: That is not correct. Okay.

MR. TONER: We certainly stand to – we stand ready to support any American citizen, regardless of their religious or ethnic background.

QUESTION: Okay, okay. And then she says that she told them that they were trying to get into her email account – which goes to a different part of this story – on her laptop. He said that if they have your Gmail address, then they can get into your – they can get into the account anyway. She says, “How can they do that?” He says, “Well, they’re very good at this kind of thing.” And he says that they – that the Embassy is aware that the Israelis go in and check people’s email account – emails on their laptops. She says that she can’t understand why you don’t have a problem. He implies it’s in our Travel Warning.

Okay. Now, it’s not in the Travel Warning. The Travel Warning says that people who are carrying laptops or other audio-visual equipment could – have had these items confiscated. But there’s nothing in the Travel Warning – because I just read it now – that says that people might go into your computer and then demand access to your private email account. So I’m wondering, was I looking at an outdated Travel Warning, or is this just wrong?

MR. TONER: I don’t believe so. I think that’s accurate. But again, I’m not going to speak to a transcript of a conversation that’s unofficial at best.

QUESTION: Okay, well, it’s not so much the actual words that were said. I just want to know whether or not – and you answered the question – it is policy not to help someone —

MR. TONER: That is not our policy.

QUESTION: And also, if you are aware that they’re going into people’s emails, do you plan – would that be something that one – that you would —

MR. TONER: Again, I’d have to speak with our Consular Affairs, but I’m not aware that that’s reflected in our current Travel Warning. It’s not, I don’t think.

QUESTION: No, it isn’t, but I’m wondering if it would be now because this has become an issue quite separate from —

MR. TONER: It’s a hypothetical. I would assume we’d look at it.

Yesterday, Lee had a similar exchange with Toner:

QUESTION: Have you managed to find out what happened with this woman from St. Louis? Was she told by the Embassy that they couldn’t help her because —

MR. TONER: Right.

QUESTION: — she wasn’t Jewish?

MR. TONER: Matt, I tried to get more information on that. I should have – I don’t have it in time for this briefing. My understanding, as I said, is that she did contact the Embassy and the Embassy did provide her with support. But I’m not aware of the exact exchange that she had with the Embassy personnel, so I’ll try to get you details on that.


MR. TONER: I appreciate I should have had it today. I don’t.

QUESTION: And so you do know that she has signed the Privacy Act waiver?

MR. TONER: I do know that and I have duly noted that —

QUESTION: No, but not just for me —

MR. TONER: And I have duly noted that to our friends in the Consular Affairs Bureau.

QUESTION: Okay. So specifically my question then is about that conversation —

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: — that exchange, if she was told that and if that is now a practice of the Embassy to tell people if it —

MR. TONER: Again —

QUESTION: — to ask people what their religion is, and regardless of what it is, to tell them that based on that —

MR. TONER: I’m certain it’s not —

QUESTION: — based on just their religion —

MR. TONER: I’m certain it’s not, but let me get —

QUESTION: Well, she’s —

MR. TONER: Let me get the facts. Let me get the facts before —

QUESTION: — she’s saying —

MR. TONER: Okay. Thank you. I appreciate it.

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