JERUSALEM (AP) - 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.
“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.’”