The ruling followed an outcry last year when some people trying to enter Israel were ordered to open their emails after hours of interrogation at Israel's Ben Gurion airport. In one instance, three Palestinian-American women were forbidden from entering after email checks were conducted.
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Critics say it primarily targets Muslims and Arabs and appears to be aimed at keeping out visitors who have histories of pro-Palestinian activism, citing a history of such people being turned away from Israel's border crossings.
Security personnel may ask visitors to open their email accounts for inspection if they are perceived as being suspicious, wrote Nadim Aboud of Israel's Attorney General Office. In a response to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, he said potential entrants may refuse to allow their emails to be checked, but that would be a factor in deciding whether a person would be allowed to enter the country.
Aboud said the checks were justified because there was an increasing risk of foreigners being involved in terrorist activity. He said security services could not properly investigate the backgrounds of some potential entrants without the additional check. “…Inspections conducted by the Shin Bet carry weight in establishing or refuting suspicions regarding a foreign citizen requesting entry into the State’s borders,” the Attorney General’s office stated.
A Justice Ministry official said the search was conducted only in "extraordinary cases." He spoke anonymously in line with ministry policy.
The AG's office issued the letter in response to a request for clarification by ACRI after incidents were reported last year, said attorney Lila Margalit of the organization. She said Aboud's response effectively legalized the checks, which could now be challenged only in court.
"It was a concern because of the level of invasion inherent in (checking) a personal email account," Margalit said. "It constitutes a violation of privacy."
She said inside Israel, police could search a person's computer data only with court approval, even if there was a criminal investigation underway.
Israeli officials tend to conduct exhaustive checks on foreigners entering the country, or passing through border crossings they control, if they are deemed suspicious.
It particularly affects people who hope to travel to Palestinian areas of the West Bank. The Palestinians have a measure of self-government in the West Bank, a territory east of the Jewish state; but Israel controls entry into those areas.
Such visitors frequently complain that they risk not being allowed into the country if they announce they will visit areas under Palestinian Authority control; but risk being accused of lying if they omit that information to security investigators.
There are no statistics on how many people are refused entry into Israel or through border crossings that Israel controls.
One aspect of the issue is that most people entering Israel obtain visas at the airport or other border crossings. Unlike many countries, Israel does not require people to obtain visas from their embassies in advance of their trips, eliminating possible screening before visitors arrive in Israel.
In contrast, Israelis themselves are required to obtain visas far in advance before visiting many countries. Even the US requires an exhaustive interview process at its embassy in Tel Aviv, and it does not grant visas to all who apply. Iranian-born Israelis, for example, are often refused visas.
The practice of email checks appears to be a step beyond what some Western countries allow, while others permit similar measures. Germany does not allow such searches. The US Department of Homeland Security has seized computers and other electronic devices from people arriving in the United States to search them.
In a narrow ruling last month, the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that while Customs and Border Protection officers can do "a quick look" at a laptop computer or other equipment, reasonable suspicion is required for a more in-depth forensic exam of electronics. It was not immediately clear if that included email.
The ruling, Aboud said, is in line with the Israel Security Agency Statute, the Entry into Israel Law, and the interpretation by the country’s Supreme Court, which allows the Interior Ministry discretion regarding security issues.
Tova Tzimuki contributed to this report
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