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Israeli Airport Security Inspects Some Travelers' Email: Too Far or Within Gov't Rights?


"complaints appear to be coming from a handful of activists who have a clear political motivation and a clear political agenda."

Earlier this week, Israel's international airport security was making headlines for allegedly racially profiling a few Arab-American woman trying to enter the country, asking them to "log in" to email accounts before eventually denying them entrance. Naturally, the women were upset, but the government maintains its right to deny entry to individuals who it believes "could break the law or be involved in violence."

Sandra Tamari, an American citizen of Palestinian descent, was one of these women. Najwa Doughman and Sasha Al-Sarabi, women from New York City, are two others.

The Associated Press reported that airport security may have suspected Tamari, 42, of involvement in pro-Palestinian activism and wanted to inspect her private email account for incriminating evidence.

According to reports, Israel has begun to require some incoming travelers deemed suspicious to open personal email accounts for inspection. AP stated the practice appears to be aimed at rooting out visitors who have histories of pro-Palestinian activism.

When 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. The Blaze contacted Shin Bet as well received a similar response.

"The actions that General Security Service representatives take in these types of debriefings are in accordance with the General Security Service's authority by law," a Shin Bet spokesperson said in an email.

Israel Hayom also includes government spokesman Mark Regev pointing out the "complaints appear to be coming from a handful of activists who have a clear political motivation and a clear political agenda."

Regev also emphasized the right of any country to deny access to individuals it "believes could break the laws or be involved in violence."

First-hand accounts

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.

Doughman, 25 years old and also a Palestinian American, said she underwent a similar experience when she arrived for a one-week vacation on May 26.

"She typed in gmail.com 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.'"

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

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."

Both women 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.

Tamari and Doughman's cases were first reported on the anti-Israeli 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.

(Related: 'Fly-tilla'report: Only 3 activists make it past Israeli security, as dozens turned away at the airport)

So why the measure?

To be fair, Israel is also constantly under attack, which it has used to justify its aggressive security procedures.

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

The right-wing Israeli blogger Israel Matzav also wrote on the topic that there was "a lot missing" from the perspective posted initially on Mondoweiss. Here's what he writes "they're not telling you:"

First, they don't discuss what those gmail searches produced but I'd bet there were a whole bunch of hits from the "International Solidarity Movement" search. I don't have to tell you all who the ISM is.

Second, a look at Najwa and Sasha's linked-in pages produces some interesting information (Thanks to Stephen L for the inspiration). Najwa worked for UNRWA in Tripoli, Lebanon [corrected, CiJ] from January 2010 through January 2011. I assume that was with a different passport than the one used in her two previous trips to Israel. You can't enter Lebanon with an Israeli stamp in your passport. At the University of Virginia, Najwa was also the President of 'Students for Peace and Justice in Palestine' (sometimes known as 'Students for Justice in Palestine').

Doughman soon after this posting de-activated her LinkedIn account -- or at least removed it from public view.

Matzav also points out that Israel, like any other country, reserves the right to deny entry to some people. He compares it to the U.S. "no fly" lists.

Airports in the U.S. have even begun asking more detailed questions of its travelers. In August 2011, Boston's Logan International Airport was one such airport beginning to use "Israeli-style behavior detection."

 Sharona Schwartz for the Blaze contributed to this report, as did the Associated Press.  

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