JERUSALEM — Israel’s attorney general on Wednesday upheld a practice to allow security personnel to read people’s e-mail accounts when they arrive at the airport, arguing it prevents militants from entering the country.
The ruling followed an outcry last year when some people trying to enter Israel were ordered to open their e-mails after hours of interrogation at Israel’s Ben-Gurion airport. In one instance, three Palestinian-American women were forbidden from entering after e-mail checks were conducted.
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 e-mail 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 e-mails 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 militant activity. He said security services could not properly investigate the backgrounds of some entrants without the additional check.
A Justice Ministry official said the search was conducted only in ‘‘extraordinary cases.’’ He spoke anonymously in line with ministry policy.
The attorney general’s office wrote 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 e-mail 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, 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 personnel.
There are no statistics on how many people are refused entry into Israel or through border crossings that Israel controls.