Our law office represents many foreign visitors – primarily relatives and spouses of Israelis – who were stopped, questioned, and finally refused entry at the Israeli border. Many of these deportees were asked to allow the security staff to browse through their phones, so as to verify their intentions during their visit to Israel. As border control officers may refuse entry to foreign visitors based on “a reasonable suspicion”, many felt unable or unwilling to refuse airport security checking their phones.
However, new developments arose regarding the privacy rights of foreign visitors. On the 11th of July, 2023, the District Court of Tel Aviv delivered a decision concerning Israeli airport security checking the phones of foreign visitors at the Ben Gurion Airport. In this decision, Judge Michal Agmon-Gonen underscores the significant breach of privacy arising from unauthorized, and therefore, unlawful mobile phone searches.
Visitor Denied Entry to Israel Despite Preparations
In this case, a Ukrainian Israeli-resident, married to an Israeli, wanted to host her daughter and son-in-law for a visit, celebrating the end of the year (2022). The daughter and son-in-law (the appellants) are Ukrainian citizens, however they are residents of Poland, and are currently in the process of naturalization there. The appellants arrived at Ben Gurion Airport on December 29th, 2022. They had proactively prepared a letter from the partner to the appellant’s mother, detailing the reasons for their arrival in Israel, clearly stating that they had no intentions of settling in Israel. Despite the letter, they were denied entry to Israel.
Legalities Overlooked: Mobile Phone Search
The appellants were taken in for questioning, without being properly informed that they could not be deported before 48 hours had passed, as they were Ukrainian citizens, and that they were fully entitled to legal representation. They were instructed to hand over their mobile phones, for the purpose of a thorough search, without making it known that they were not obligated to comply in absence of any legal authorization.
The Appellants’ Legal Fight
The search took place without a warrant, without any predefined criteria, without constraints, and without any record of the search procedure. Officers found messages between the appellants mother and the appellant from 2020, regarding a job search in Israel, raising concerns of the appellants intentions for illegal settlement. Due to these concerns the appellants were required to sign a document in which they agreed to return to Poland, and waive legal representation, at which time the partner to the appellants mother had already arranged legal counsel. Their appeal was then filed to the Immigration Appeals Tribunal and a high bond proposal of 50,000 shekels was offered, to ensure the appellants departure after their visit.
Phone Searches at the Israeli Border, What’s the Precedent?
Back in 2019, the Administrative Court ruled that officials are prohibited from confiscating mobile phones from individuals arriving in Israel, and conducting searches exceeding their discretion. In her decision, Judge Michal Amon-Gonen referenced former President of the Supreme Court, Justice Hanan Melcer, who made it loud and clear, “Any intrusion into a person’s personal cellular phone severely violates their privacy, and therefore, it is necessary to obtain a judicial order in advance for this purpose. … These restrictions teach us how harmful and destructive it is to intrude without obtaining a judicial order… when investigators can seemingly wander through the cellular phone and extract material from it without limitation”
Border Control Officers: Striking the Balance
No one can deny the crucial role that border control officers play in safeguarding Israel’s security, curbing illegal immigration, and managing the inflow of individuals. On the flip side, In a democratic society, these officers are the gatekeepers who ensure our rights and protect our privacy. Every authority, no matter how essential its mission, must operate within the parameters of established laws and regulations that dictate their actions.
Decision Upholds Privacy Rights at the Israeli Border
In congruence with these values, the court inevitably accepted the appeal, nullifying the decision of the Administrative Court for Appeals, (which at first dismissed the appeal due to the absence of local jurisdiction) in July of 2023. The court imposed the appellants legal fees on the state, and mandated the state to expunge records pertaining to the appellants entry denials and opened the door to their future entry. Additionally, Judge Michal Amon-Gonen evaluated the Population and Immigration Authority, leaving no room for ambiguity; the confiscation of mobile phones from foreign nationals is strictly prohibited, even in cases where the authority claims the phone was voluntarily provided. This ruling drives home the point that there’s a delicate equilibrium at play, between promoting security and protecting individuals privacy. After all, in a democratic state, it’s the adherence to these established values that ultimately guarantee our freedoms and safeguard our privacy.