A Palestinian journalist says that an agent of Israel’s international espionage and assassination agency Mossad questioned him in Spain.
The troubling incident raises questions about Spanish government complicity in Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights.
Muath Hamed, a journalist at the London-based Al Araby TV, left the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah to Turkey in 2014, where he spent five years.
He moved to Spain in March 2019, where he is seeking asylum.
He published an article in December 2019 at the website al-Araby al-Jadeed headlined, “With documents… this is how the Mossad targets Palestinians in European countries.”
It is about how Israel tries to recruit Palestinians living in Europe as collaborators. The article sheds light on a shady international recruitment network which involves front organizations and fake Islamic charities.
Although the piece had been written for a year, Hamed decided to wait until he was in Spain to publish it for safety reasons.
It all started when Hamed was summoned for questioning in the city of Bilbao in the Basque Country by two officers from Spain’s Civil Guard, Nicolas and Javier, in December 2020.
He was only given these first names.
Hamed told The Electronic Intifada that he was asked some general questions about his work, but that he grew suspicious when Javier asked him an odd question.
Javier asked him what his reaction would be if he were to encounter the Israeli ambassador or an Israeli intelligence officer in Spain, Hamed recalled. He said he would do nothing.
In February, Javier called Hamed again, summoning him for questioning.
Javier asked Hamed to bring a Red Cross document confirming that Hamed had been jailed by Israel from April 2004 to July 2005 according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Hamed arrived at the Civil Guard headquarters in Spain’s capital on 11 February. The building’s front desk refused to check his identification card or register his name in the daily log as is the usual practice, Hamed told The Electronic Intifada.
Hamed said the building was mostly empty as this was after working hours. He said he was escorted by someone in plainclothes to a room where he found Javier with another man dressed in a suit.
Javier introduced Hamed to someone he said was a Belgian intelligence officer of Palestinian origin named Omar.
Hamed was taken aback, as he said he had never been to Belgium and did not understand why a Belgian official would be present.
When Omar started speaking in Arabic, Hamed immediately recognized a distinct accent that was common among Israeli intelligence and military personnel.
Having been imprisoned repeatedly by Israeli occupation forces, it was familiar to Hamed. It was immediately apparent to him that Omar was Israeli.
Hamed replied to Omar in Hebrew, asking him if he spoke the language.
Hamed recalls Javier’s face turning red. He told Javier that any Palestinian hearing this accent would immediately recognize it as Israeli, but Javier insisted Omar was not.
When Hamed asked the two men to show him their IDs, he said they refused.
Javier left the room after Omar asked him to grab coffee and water. He did not return until an hour later, Hamed estimates.
Then, for an entire hour, Omar questioned Hamed, during which Hamed recalls Omar admitting he was an Israeli.
Omar questioned Hamed regarding his contacts in Turkey, some of whom were linked to Palestinian political organizations, his journalistic work, as well as his finances and debts.
Omar also questioned Hamed about the al-Araby al-Jadeed article from December 2019.
Hamed told The Electronic Intifada that Omar appeared to know the identity of the Israeli agent who had been given the pseudonym Amir in the piece.
“He knew their real names and that makes me believe that they have hacked my cell phone,” Hamed told the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Omar concluded the conversation by saying he wants to see Hamed again, perhaps at the embassy.
Hamed responded by invoking the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered and dismembered at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul in October 2018.
Hamed thinks the goal was to intimidate him.
“The Israeli Mossad is known for one thing: assassinations and kidnappings,” Hamed told The Electronic Intifada.
“The purpose of this was basically to terrorize me, to let me know that I was being monitored, that they knew everything about me and that my political and journalistic activities were under the microscope.”
Since then, his family has been living in fear, his wife frightened of opening their door to anyone.
When asked if Omar made any threats or demands, Hamed said that “he threatened me in a direct and indirect manner.”
“Don’t go back to Palestine, stay here, don’t come back,” Hamed recalls Omar telling him.
Unusual phone activity
As of 2018, Hamed noticed unusual behavior on his phone, including an echo when he makes calls.
More recently, since January, Hamed noticed differences in his phone’s functioning after he received a suspicious call on Skype from a source he did not recognize, according to CPJ.
After that, Hamed said that his battery would drain quickly, that his phone was slowing down and heating up, and that it looked like something was always uploading.
He said he emailed the Canadian cybersecurity organization Citizen Lab requesting that they look at his phone, and was awaiting a reply.
After the story of his interrogation broke, Citizen Lab made contact with Hamed and his phone is being examined.
Last year, the phones of a top Catalan politician and two other figures were reportedly infected with Israeli hacking malware, according to a joint investigation by The Guardian and El País.
The messaging service WhatsApp alerted Torrent that his phone had been hacked with Pegasus by exploiting a critical vulnerability to install spyware on phones.
Given NSO Group’s insistence that it sells its software exclusively to governments, Torrent believes the Spanish government is the main suspect in the hackings.
Calls for an investigation
Hamed met with members of Spain’s national parliament Lucía Muñoz Dalda and Antón Gómez-Reino on 14 April to discuss being questioned by a possible Israeli agent.The Committee to Protect Journalists put Hamed’s allegations to the Spanish interior ministry.
According to the group, the ministry’s spokesperson said that “the ministry has no knowledge of the meeting between Hamed and a suspected Israeli agent beyond the journalist’s allegations published in the press.”
The ministry also showed little enthusiasm about looking into it further, claiming, in the words of CPJ, that “that it was difficult to investigate such allegations because there are no official records.”
The Palestinian Journalists Syndicate is calling on the Spanish government to provide immediate protection to Hamed and his family and ensure their safety.
The syndicate also demanded that Spain open a serious investigation into Hamed’s interrogation at the Civil Guard headquarters.
Hamed said his lawyer filed a complaint with UNRWA, the UN agency that serves Palestinian refugees.