Tuesday, January 28, 2014

NSA helps Israel discriminate against U.S. citizens

When I called the US Embassy in Tel Aviv during my detention by Israeli intelligence at Ben Gurion airport in May 2012, I told the Embassy official that the Israelis were demanding access to my Gmail account.  The Embassy staffer replied nonchalantly, “If the Israelis have your address, they can get in without your password.”  Stunned, I replied,  “How?” He simply answered, “They’re good.”

Recent revelations that the National Security Agency regularly shares intelligence data with Israel put my experience in a new light.  Reports in The Guardian last month show that the NSA hands over metadata to Israel that includes emails and phone conversations of U.S. citizens, information that allows Israel to spy on U.S. citizens and discriminate American travelers of Palestinian origin.

My saga began when I landed in Tel Aviv as part of an interfaith delegation along with 30 other U.S. citizens.  I alone was pulled aside at the airport.  Questions included, “What is your father’s name?” and “What is your grandfather’s name?” My passport was taken from me and I was told to take a seat in a waiting room occupied by hard chairs filled with other Palestinians like me.

I was questioned by several Israelis over the course of the next eight hours.  One of my interrogators turned her computer screen to me and handed me her keyboard. “Log in,” she demanded.  Facing me was the Gmail home screen.   When I refused, I was threatened that failure to comply would compromise my reentry into the United States and harm my relationship with my employer.   I thought it wise to contact the U.S. Embassy for help. That was of no assistance.

In addition to making light of the Israeli request to view my email, the Embassy official told me that because I wasn't Jewish, there was nothing he could do to help me and that if he interceded on my behalf, it would hurt my case with the Israelis.

In time, Israel denied me entry due to “security concerns” and imprisoned me.  The next day, I was escorted onto a flight back to the United States.  My story is not unique.  Countless numbers of Palestinian-Americans have been denied the right to visit their families in Palestine.  Many are now too scared to fly.  Israel controls all entry points into Israel and the West Bank.  The U.S. Congress has done nothing to tell Israel that this is an outrage.

Instead, Congress is proposing legislation that would extend visa waivers to Israel in the “United States-Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2013.”  This bill, led by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA), would allow Israel to continue its discriminatory practices against Americans - especially those of Arab descent, and American Muslims.  In addition, the legislation proposes that Congress explore the creation of a U.S.-Israel joint cyber-security center which would likely increase sharing of U.S. citizens’ private data with Israel.  Given Israel’s treatment of U.S. travelers, their demands for access to email accounts, and the NSA’s sharing of private data, a law that would potentially provide even more private information about Americans to Israel is deeply concerning. 

The proposed legislation threatens the civil rights of U.S. citizens and would codify Israel’s discrimination against Palestinians and Arabs into U.S. law.  It is shameful that our lawmakers find it politically expedient to support Israel at all costs, even when that cost is the Constitutional rights of U.S. citizens.

Sandra Tamari is a Palestinian-American who lives in Glen Carbon, Illinois.