Frank Barat (left) with Desmond Tutu, the South African archbishop, and Michael Mansfield, the British human rights lawyer.(Sumaya Hisham)
The Israeli government confirmed this week that passengers arriving in Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport may have their email accounts searched. By coincidence, the Palestine solidarity campaigner Frank Barat experienced that kind of intrusion when he flew there on Monday evening.
Shortly after Barat went to the immigration desk in the airport, he was met by an officer from Israel’s internal security service, the Shabak. He was then handed a piece of paper and told to write down any email address that he had.
Barat was first asked a series of questions about the purpose of his trip and where he would be staying. He was then informed that under a new security procedure, the authorities can require a visitor to log on to their email account.
Prepared for such a measure, Barat had set up a special email account a few days earlier. Once he signed in to it, the officer “got upset” because Barat’s inbox was empty.
Barat, a French national who coordinates the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, suspects that the Israeli authorities were already aware that he was politically active. “I really felt that they knew a lot,” he told me. “Their point was to get more information and that was why they kept insisting on getting my email address because they know that way they can map networks. What they really wanted was to access and search my account.”
In total, Barat’s interrogation lasted about four hours. He was eventually brought to a prison cell within the airport complex. “It was not clean,” he said. “The bed sheets were sticky and the toilets were disgusting. I asked to go outside and was under surveillance the whole time. I got two ten-minute breaks in 24 hours.”
Barat was only permitted to alert his family to his detention via a text message. He was not able to contact a lawyer or the French embassy in Tel Aviv.
Following his day in Israeli custody, he was deported back to Brussels, where he is currently based. He had been scheduled to take part in a conference about Palestinian political prisoners in Ramallah.
Yesterday, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel received a response to a query it sent to the Israeli Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein almost a year ago. Weinstein’s office admitted that the Shabak (also known as the Shin Bet) may search the email accounts of foreign visitors where “relevant suspicious signs” are observed. Claiming that the searches take place with the visitor’s “consent,” the office acknowledged that refusal to cooperate may be taken into consideration when deciding if a visitor is allowed into Israel.
The assurance about “consent” is patently bogus. Barat was not given any choice before the Shabak invaded his privacy.
I have lost count of the number of times that Israeli politicians claim they have a firm attachment to European “values” as part of an attempt to distinguish them from despots in the wider Middle East. If these “values” mean human rights and democracy, then trawling through activists’ email accounts is an affront to those values. The right to privacy is enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights.
Barat has edited (or co-edited) the books Gaza in Crisis and Corporate Complicity in Israel’s Occupation and has written numerous articles about Palestine. Because he is an articulate and well-informed critic of Israeli apartheid, he is a purveyor of the thing that Israel fears most: the truth.
So determined to conceal the truth, Israel deports and snoops on its opponents.