A veteran Israeli intelligence analyst is linking recent attacks and harassment campaigns against Palestinian activists and human rights organizations to so-called “black ops” by Israel’s intelligence agencies.
Writing in the Maariv newspaper on Sunday, Yossi Melman, who has covered Israel’s spy agencies for decades, reveals telling details about Israel’s ramped up fight against the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
The fight is being led by Gilad Erdan, Israel’s minister of strategic affairs. According to Melman, Erdan’s ministry is gearing up to face BDS as if it were a military challenge.
“We want most of the ministry’s work to be classified,” its director general Sima Vaknin-Gil recently told the transparency committee of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset.
“There are many sensitivities, and I can’t even explain in an open forum why there are such sensitivities,” Vaknin-Gil said. “A major part of what we do stays under the radar.”
Vaknin-Gil added that the ministry aims to “build a community of warriors.”
According to Melman, the ministry has recently hired 25 workers whose names are classified. It has an intelligence section run by a former security services operative and receives assistance from “a special unit” within Israeli military intelligence and from the Shin Bet secret police.
This report from Israel’s state broadcaster, subtitled in English by activist Ronnie Barkan, shows Vaknin-Gil vowing to defeat the BDS movement in her testimony to the Knesset committee. It also shows the committee’s chair, Stav Shaffir, complaining that the government is revealing almost nothing about how it is spending the huge sums allocated to the anti-BDS effort.
In Maariv, Melman sounds a somewhat skeptical note, pointing out that the fight against BDS may be more of an excuse for the ministry to maintain its budget after its original purpose, facing the “threat” from Iran, became irrelevant following last year’s nuclear agreement.
But that does not mean it is not capable of damaging actions.
Among the ministry’s activities are what Melman terms “special operations” or “black ops” which may include “defamation campaigns, harassment and threats to the lives of activists” as well as “infringing on and violating their privacy.”
In this context Melman points to recent attacks on the websites of the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC) and other organizations supporting Palestinian rights.
He also notes the death threats received by Nada Kiswanson, an attorney with the Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq, which is collecting evidence of Israeli war crimes in Gaza to submit to the International Criminal Court.
These threats are being investigated by Dutch authorities, where the ICC is based.
The well-connected Melman does not confirm long-standing suspicions of Israeli involvement, but hints strongly at an Israeli role.
“Of course, no one has assumed responsibility for the incident against the Palestinian lawyer, and no one has addressed the BDS campaign’s claims that the Israeli intelligence is running a cyber war against it,” Melman states. “But it is no secret that at the ministry of strategic affairs, as well as Israeli intelligence agencies which are assisting in the struggle against the BDS and delegitimization movement, diverse means which may be applied are being discussed.”
“It cannot be ruled out that these actions, if indeed taken by Israel, were a ‘shot across the bow,’” he adds.
Melman also suggests that the efforts may have been curtailed by concerns at Israel’s justice ministry that “the passion for secret actions and operations in the strategic affairs ministry may eventually end up in mishaps which would harm Israel’s foreign relations.”
As examples of such “mishaps,” Melman recalls “an elimination action, entry into buildings or the use of a false passport” – operations in which Israel “did not hesitate to violate the laws and sovereignty of foreign states, including its best friends.”
Melman is not the only person to liken Israel’s anti-BDS operations to assassinations. He says that strategic affairs ministry officials are likening the effort to crush the movement to the “struggle against terror.”
In April, for instance, Israel refused to renew the travel permit of Omar Barghouti, the Palestinian human rights defender and co-founder of the BDS movement.
The effective travel ban followed threats against Barghouti and other Palestinian human rights defenders by top Israeli government ministers including Erdan and intelligence minister Yisrael Katz who called for “targeted civil eliminations” of BDS leaders with the help of Israeli intelligence.
The Hebrew term Katz used was similar to the Israeli term for “targeted assassinations.”
At the time, Amnesty International strongly condemned these threats, warning that “an escalation of acts of intimidation by the government and attacks and threats by settlers and other non-state actors have created an increasingly dangerous environment” for human rights defenders in Israel and the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
And last month, Israel announced efforts to root out and expel foreign nationals suspected of being involved in the nonviolent movement for Palestinian rights.
Recruiting Palestinians as spies
It also appears that Israel is hoping to recruit Palestinian citizens of Israel to the effort.
Last week, the Nazareth-based Arabic newspaper al-Sonara published an advertisement from the Civil Administration, the name Israel gives to the military bureaucracy that rules over millions of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Images of the ad were posted on a Facebook page whose administrators identify themselves as Palestinian citizens of Israel who support BDS.
The ad seeks Arabic speakers as consultants to “collect information from various primary and secondary sources,” including newspapers and websites, “but with an emphasis on social networks.” The information would relate to “incitement to violence and hatred and the development of BDS initiatives.”
Journalists and activists should remain vigilant about their use of social networks and should practice good digital security. The Electronic Intifada recently published a guide to online security for activists.
Using foreign organizations
Melman also confirms that Israel has strongly supported the push for legislation stigmatizing or curtailing the BDS movement in various Western countries.
It also uses proxies to achieve its aims.
“The ministry also initiates pressure or leveraging actions to convince international companies not to boycott Israel,” he writes. “This involves the use of AIPAC and Hillel in the US, or similar groups in other countries.”
AIPAC is the most powerful pro-Israel lobby group working in the US Congress, while Hillel is a network of campus centers for Jewish students across North America.
“This type of activity also has a certain sensitivity because it involves a foreign government (Israel) trying to act and influence organizations and individuals in other countries,” Melman notes.
Another form of influence he outlines – albeit one already well known – is Israel’s effort to use public relations, or hasbara, to influence international opinion.
In this regard, he reveals that the strategic affairs ministry is spending large sums to fund visits for what it calls “opinion leaders” – journalists, bloggers, actors and trade union leaders – to Israel.
The only thing the ministry has not apparently considered is ending Israel’s regime of occupation, apartheid and settler-colonialism and restoring Palestinian rights.
That would be the swiftest way to bring an end to BDS.
Translation provided by Ofer Neiman.