An Israeli spy agency revealed to Haaretz last week that it operates a “delegitimization department” which “routinely gathers information on foreign, left-wing organizations” that promote the Palestinian-led boycott of Israel.
An Israeli activist also told The Electronic Intifada about being questioned by the country’s internal secret police.
Also known by the Hebrew acronym Aman, Israel’s military intelligence branch spies on “overseas organizations … [including] dozens affiliated with the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement,” Haaretz states.
The report, by the liberal Israeli newspaper’s military correspondent Gili Cohen, comes at a time when Israel is increasingly worried about the impact BDS is having around the world.
The delegitimization department was established as part of Israel’s response to a global public relations crisis in the wake its attack on the Mavi Marmara in 2010.
The Turkish-owned ship, part of a siege-busting “Freedom Flotilla” to Gaza, was boarded and attacked by Israeli soldiers in international waters, resulting in the death of 10 activists (one of whom had been in a coma until he died last year).
Popular revulsion at Israel’s brutality led to a wave of new boycotts around the world.
This included the bands Klaxons and Gorillaz canceling gigs in Israel, and the UK’s largest trade union Unite adopting a boycott of Israeli goods and services.
The monitoring of the BDS movement was previously known, as reported in 2013.
But the latest report is the first to reveal that there is a specific unit called the “delegitimization department.”
It also confirms that the unit’s monitoring of foreign leftist groups is still ongoing, as activists have long suspected.
Another notable aspect is that part of the unit’s activities has been to gather alleged “proof of Hamas violations of international law.”
Having one department tackle both armed resistance and unarmed BDS activities is a telling pattern.
It fits into the paradigm of the Reut Institute, an influential Israeli think tank which in 2010 argued that Israel should focus on “attacking” the Palestine solidarity movement, as well as “sabotage” of what it calls “network catalysts” in cities such as London and the San Francisco Bay Area.
It argued that a “resistance network,” comprising armed groups such as Hamas, and a “delegitimization network,” which includes the BDS movement, together form an “unholy alliance.”
The combined “attack” from “resisters” and “delegitimizers,” Reut wrote, “possesses strategic significance, and may develop into a comprehensive existential threat within a few years.”
Five years after Reut published those words, and 10 years after the BDS movement was launched, Israel seems to have concluded that this moment has arrived.
Israel now considers BDS a “strategic threat of the first order,” in the words of the Israeli president.
Reut’s advocacy of “sabotage” suggests that the think tank wanted Israel’s spy agencies to combat activists using possibly illegal methods.
The document which contained this terminology (the Executive Summary to its report “The Delegitimization Challenge: Creating a Political Firewall”) was so clearly advocating criminal action against peaceful campaign groups that Reut later removed the reference to “sabotage,” after widespread attention in the wake of exposure by The Electronic Intifada.
Aman’s use of Haaretz military correspondents as a conduit to release information to the public suggests Israeli spies very much want BDS activists to know they are being watched.
This may well be an attempt at intimidation, and a way to exaggerate the scale of their own resources to monitor activists.
The recent Haaretz report also states that Shin Bet (also known as Shabak, a Hebrew acronym for “General Security Service”) is spying on Israeli citizens who support BDS.
“The monitoring of every BDS-linked group is approved in advance by a senior [Aman] officer in the research division, following a decision not to follow groups which have indirect contacts with Israeli activists,” the report claims.
That is done instead by the Shin Bet, “which monitors Israeli citizens involved in what are regarded as delegitimization activities.”
This is likely focused on Palestinian citizens of Israel. But the small numbers of Israeli Jewish dissidents who support BDS in groups like Boycott From Within also report being questioned by Shin Bet.
In 2013, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel asked the high court to order Shin Bet to stop calling activists in for “warning conversations” about their “delegitimization” activities.
Their accounts of the “friendly conversations” (as Shin Bet tried to portray them) make it clear that boycotts of Israel are one of the domestic spy agency’s main concerns.
Israeli BDS activist Ronnie Barkan told The Electronic Intifada that he has been questioned by the Shin Bet several times, though he refused to answer their questions.
“Our forte is doing everything in the open,” Barkan said. Activists routinely circulate accounts of such interrogations online in order to expose the practice.
On one occasion in 2012, Barkan said, he was called in for questioning by the police. When he turned up it was, he believed, the Shin Bet that tried to question him.
Barkan now lives in Italy.
Another Israeli, Anarchists Against the Wall activist Leehee Rothschild, was interrogated and harassed by Shin Bet officers on her way back from a 2012 visit to London to promote BDS and participate in Israeli Apartheid Week.
Shin Bet also spies on, intimidates, bullies and harasses Palestinian activists within the West Bank. The agency has long been involved in the kidnapping and assassination of Palestinian activists and fighters.
While all these tactics seem unlikely to do any more than delay the movement for Palestinian rights, it does seem likely that as Israel perceives itself to be more beleaguered it will act with increasing recklessness and aggression.