Israel's fear of free discussion exposed by email intrusions
Israel's famed airport security has just become tighter. American tourists have recently reported that their personal emails have been targeted by Israeli officials upon arrival in the country.
Strict and unapologetic airport security is closely associated with Israel's international image, despite the fact that such caution borders on the absurd when it comes to foreigners of Palestinian origin or those suspected of Palestine-related activism. In the post-September 11 environment of security paranoia, the Israeli model is among the most stringent. It is a model some in the United States wish to emulate.
The dark side to this security, which includes racial profiling and in most cases a complete disregard of civil rights, is becoming increasingly difficult to conceal. This past April, with much international fanfare, Israel deported a number of European activists who attempted to travel to the occupied West Bank through Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport. Their experience of detainment, interrogation and deportation symbolised Israel's approach to maintaining control of the West Bank. The treatment that some tourists receive at Tel Aviv's airport is deeply connected to Israel's infrastructure of occupation.
Israel's image as a small country surrounded by enemies has been carefully designed to rationalise its extensive programme of racial profiling. From West Bank checkpoints to queues outside of bus stations in Tel Aviv, anyone with even indicators of anything associated with Palestinians is subjected to interrogation by the security apparatus.
Last week, security officials deported Sandra Tamari, an American of Palestinian origin, after eight hours of questioning. Ms Tamari was targeted because of her involvement with Palestinian solidarity organisations that support the global campaign to boycott Israel. In the course of hours of questioning, officials demanded that Ms Tamari open her personal email account for review.
Why would Israeli officials be interested in the emails of a middle-aged Palestinian activist from the United States? If, in fact, there was a national security rationale for investigating Ms Tamari's email, one would surmise that it would have been a priority long before she arrived at Israel's only international airport.
For years, Israel has collected personal information about travellers to the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. And security officials intimidate travellers who are deemed problematic.
It used to be that officials would rifle through people's notebooks and journals. Even Israeli Jews involved in Palestinian solidarity projects are subject to similar interrogations at border crossings. According to activists' accounts, Israeli officials have been forthright in explaining such interrogations: intimidation and data collection.
The desire to obtain seemingly innocuous personal information is a subtle but profound demonstration of one of the country's most insecure realities. With a powerful army, with a nuclear arsenal, and with concrete barriers protecting the country on every side, Israel remains terrified of its actions being challenged on intellectual grounds.
Reviewing email conversations demonstrates an almost hysterical approach - in today's reality of instant communication, it is a sad reminder of Israel's propaganda efforts in the face of increasingly organised civil-society campaigns that link Israel's treatment of Palestinians to apartheid South Africa.
Instead of trawling for information relating to the security of Israeli citizens, emails involving activists such as Ms Tamari reveal information about the intellectual process that movements such as the global Israeli boycott campaign are formulating.
As the discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict transforms - from the narrative of the peace process to the struggle for human and civil rights - Israeli authorities are increasingly playing catch up. Nowhere is this trend more profound than on social media networks where Israeli military spokespeople are losing the war of ideas.
The Associated Press reporter Matt Lee recently asked a US State Department official if there would be a major change to the US travel warnings regardings Israel, one of which warns that Israeli security officials may scrutinise visitors' personal emails. As long as people continue to oppose Israel's 45-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, as well as its systematic discrimination against Palestinian citizens inside Israel, the necessity of such a travel warning does not seem like a ridiculous afterthought. No matter its military prowess, Israel will probably remain in perpetual fear of free thought.
Joseph Dana is a journalist based in Ramallah
On Twitter: @ibnezra
Updated: June 18, 2012 04:00 AM