Israel uses online blackmail to recruit collaborators

Palestinian students walk past a banner in Gaza City announcing the launch of a campaign calling on informants to Israel to repent, March 2013.

Ashraf Amra APA images

In June 2015, Ibrahim Muhammad, 24, graduated from the Islamic University of Gaza with a degree in English literature. The eldest son in a family of 11 with a disabled father who had been unemployed since 2003, he needed work, and fast, to support his family.

Like thousands of graduates in Gaza, however, Ibrahim had no luck finding a job. Israel’s siege – which along with three major military assaults has destroyed the Strip’s economy – rendered him unable to leave Gaza to pursue opportunities elsewhere.

Educated and in his 20s, he found himself devoid of work or money and rapidly losing hope. For nearly a year, he was stuck in his room with his cell phone on a 30-year-old bed that had belonged to his dead grandmother.

Days became hazy. He spent the mornings sleeping and nights awake. He started trawling social media and it was during one of those nights that he met a young woman called Suha.

Ibrahim is not this young man’s real name and some elements of this story have been changed to protect his family. The details of his story were related to The Electronic Intifada by two separate security sources as well as members of Ibrahim’s family.

Suha lived in Spain, she wrote him in one of many chats that soon turned into an online relationship, including a virtual sexual one. She began to send him money every month, sometimes as much as $500, as a token of her sympathy and love.

Meanwhile, she learned everything about Ibrahim, as young lovers might. She asked him about his personal life, the people in the neighborhood and other more general details about life in Gaza. She asked him to take photographs of the mosques in the area, in a bid, she said, to strengthen his bond to prayer and his religion.

The trap shuts

After nine months, Suha told Ibrahim that she would introduce him to her brother who would help him leave Gaza. The three – Ibrahim, Suha and her brother, who was introduced as Abu Zeidan – connected on an online group call to discuss this.

It was after that call that Suha vanished. Ibrahim texted and messaged, but to no avail. In desperation, he texted her brother’s number. Within minutes he got a call from someone who said he was an Israeli officer and that he had sexually explicit videos of him taken during video calls with Suha. He threatened to use them if Ibrahim did not comply with instructions.

Shocked and fearful, Ibrahim hung up the phone and turned it off. One sleepless night later, he turned it back on to find a voice message from an unknown number. On it, Suha implored him to follow Abu Zeidan’s instructions, that they would keep his secret safe and that any requests would be simple and would not affect other people.

A mural at the Palestinian side of Erez checkpoint warns against informing to Israel, March 2017.

Mohammed Asad APA images

Feeling cornered, Ibrahim complied. Soon he was receiving instructions not only from Abu Zeidan, but from other Israeli officers. At the beginning of 2017, however, Ibrahim was apprehended by members of the Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, who became suspicious when they found him checking out entrances to tunnels used by Gaza’s resistance groups.

After two hours of questioning, Ibrahim confessed, said one of the security officers who spoke to The Electronic Intifada about the case but on condition of anonymity. He was eventually sentenced by a military court to 12 years in prison, avoiding the death penalty only because his information did not lead to the death of anyone in Gaza.

Social media recruitment opportunity

Ibrahim is just one of hundreds of youth recruited by Israeli intelligence via social media, according to Palestinian security officials.

Mahmoud Abu al-Qumsan, a Hamas intelligence officer who works on identifying collaborators, told The Electronic Intifada that Israeli agents target a specific profile, mostly among unemployed youth. All are men between the ages of 22 and 28 and about a fifth of them hold university degrees.

Abu al-Qumsan refused to give any total for the number of collaborators Israel has recruited through social media but said the number began to increase from the first quarter of 2015.

Israel, according to security sources as well as local media reports, has long exploited social media websites, prominent among them Facebook, to recruit spies. In December, Palestinian media carried reports warning against some Arabic-language Facebook groups that give the impression of being sympathetic to resistance groups in Gaza but are likely set up in an attempt to monitor activity and pick out names.

One intelligence source said that by monitoring the comments and behavior of those interacting in such groups, Israeli agents glean information they can use as inducements for potential collaborators, whether that is monetary or help in-kind, like offering permits to travel for medical treatment, education or commerce.

It was through social media that Ashraf Abu Leila, possibly the most notorious of recently convicted collaborators, is said to have first been recruited by Israeli intelligence. Accused with two other men of the assassination of Mazen al-Fuqaha, a senior Qassam Brigades leader who was killed in March last year, Abu Leila was executed on 25 May 2017 after being found guilty by a revolutionary court.

Under questioning, Abu Leila is said to have confessed to being recruited through an online messenger app at the beginning of 2004 by a man who claimed to be a member of al-Qaida. And over time, authorities say, Abu Leila proved a deadly assassin.

A member of Hamas since 2001, Abu Leila reportedly early became close to a Qassam commander, who would unwittingly shield him in the future. During the 2007 fighting in Gaza that led to the ouster of Fatah, Hamas authorities now say he was responsible for the murder of several members of the preventive security forces. He was also accused of another murder, but escaped punishment due to his involvement with Hamas’ military wing.

He subsequently worked in different ministries until 2013, when he became increasingly radicalized and reportedly got close to Gaza’s Doghmush clan and its Salafi Army of Islam group. Indeed, the assassination of al-Fuqaha was initially thought to have been carried out by Salafis, with whom Hamas has been engaged in conflict on and off for more than a decade.

A process without oversight

The lack of transparency around the process that led to Abu Leila’s confession and execution, however, was widely criticized by local and international human rights organizations, the West Bank Palestinian Authority and the United Nations.

A swift investigation led to the arrests, while confessions were extracted after questioning over which there was no oversight. And while Abu Leila reenacted the crime for investigators, according to Nasser Suleiman, the head of the joint Hamas-Qassam military field court who was party to the investigation and sentencing, justice was dispensed with little delay and no recourse to appeal.

Human rights groups said the process is inherently flawed and the speed with which the revolutionary court reached a verdict in Abu Leila’s case was insufficient for a fair trial.

“We can’t rely on revolutionary courts to serve justice for accused criminals,” Mustafa Ibrahim, a human rights researcher with the Independent Commission for Human Rights, told The Electronic Intifada. “Executing criminals this fast … opened the door of doubt in the procedures of the judgment. Revenge is not justice.”

Ibrahim also noted that executions are only legal under Palestinian law if they receive ratification by the Palestinian Authority president. Since Hamas ousted Fatah from Gaza in 2007, such ratifications have only been granted by Mahmoud Abbas in periods of détente between the two groups, and no ratification was forthcoming for these latest executions.

All executions carried out by Palestinian governments in recent years have taken place in Gaza.

Yahya Musa, a Hamas member of the Palestinian parliament, defended the death penalties that have been handed out, however, citing vital security interests. “Executions are a national necessity to deter collaborators, maintain the security of the Palestinian people and fortify the internal front.”

He also told The Electronic Intifada that popular anger over collaboration would in any case force the hand of authorities.

Collaborators and reconciliation

Certainly, the issue of collaborators is one of the most sensitive among Palestinians. Few tears are spilled when convicted collaborators are executed for all that human rights organizations argue that due process is not guaranteed under present circumstances and, even when due process can be guaranteed, the death penalty is not a better deterrent than imprisonment.

The issue is also a bone of contention in reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah. Hamas is unhappy with the way the PA under Abbas’ leadership has failed to implement capital punishment for collaboration, said Muhammad Abu Harbid, a lecturer at Gaza’s Al-Ribat University College.

“The file of collaborators is a sensitive one,” Abu Harbid told The Electronic Intifada. “There will be differences between Hamas and the PA, especially when it comes to who will run the investigative and judiciary processes. Hamas adopts a different methodology. The PA has arrested a number of collaborators but their sentences were not satisfactory to Hamas.”

Moreover, said Hisham Mughari, a retired major in the Palestinian security forces and now the dean of al-Awda college, Hamas is worried that, with the PA taking back control of crossings in and out of Gaza, one of its primary ways to caution people about Israeli methods to recruit collaborators has disappeared.

“Hamas worked with passengers in creating awareness of how to deal with the occupation at the crossing,” Mughari said.

Israel’s permit system, which controls Palestinian movement throughout the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, is easy to exploit for recruitment, often against vulnerable Palestinians seeking medical treatment in Israel. Mughari suggested PA officers would not be as careful as Hamas security in terms of checking for cash and spying equipment destined for collaborators inside Gaza, which, in turn, could lead to an escalation “against the resistance.”

Those left behind

The stigma against collaboration is so strong that it does not simply condemn the collaborator, but shames his or her entire family.

Mariam, 28, is married to a man who was sentenced to life in prison in 2014 for collaboration. The mother of three has been disowned by most of her own family and has tried to take her life twice with pills as a result of her and her children’s social isolation.

“We are being punished for a crime we had no hand in,” she told The Electronic Intifada. “I fear for my children’s future. People have already made my life hell.”

Mariam, not her real name, lives with her parents, but even they threaten on occasion to throw her out and her wider family has not escaped the stigma of collaboration.

“One day, my oldest brother was insulted by a colleague at work because his sister is the wife of a collaborator. He came back angry, shouted at us and threw us out. I had to spend two nights at a friend’s house.”

Her husband’s family also refuses to care for the children and Mariam finds herself desperate.

“To whom can I turn?”

She fears, she said, a “tragedy.”

“The community is very unjust to people like us. My daughter is only 9 but she stopped going to school because the other students call her the ‘collaborator’s daughter.’ She couldn’t take it anymore.”

Hamza Abu Eltarabesh is a journalist from Gaza.