Gilad Erdan, Israel’s minister of strategic affairs, is treating the nonviolent BDS movement as if it were a miliary threat. (UK Embassy in Tel Aviv)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
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
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.”
In recent years, countries including Canada and New Zealand
have protested over Israel’s use of their passports to provide cover
for agents from the Mossad spying and assassination agency.
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
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.