The Israeli government is planning to pour $26 million this year alone into a covert cyber operation to attack and sabotage the global human rights movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), earmarking large sums for technology companies to spy on Muslim activists in the United States and Europe.
The initiative was reported last week by Associated Press journalist Daniel Estrin, who told AlterNet he was personally invited to cover a private cyber technology forum for Israeli developers last month.
BDS is an international movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel until it abides by international legal conventions. Sparked by Palestinian civil society organizations’ call in 2005 for global tactics similar to those levied to topple apartheid in South Africa, BDS has attracted international support from artists, scholars, students, and human rights campaigners. The Boycott National Committee recently argued that the massive resources that Israel is devoting to countering the movement shows that “our ‘soft’ power is having a real impact,” and with good reason: Even presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has publicly attacked BDS and pledged to fight it.
Estrin’s reporting on the costly initiative to counter the growing movement included in this year’s Israeli government budget is hazy on details. He describes a scheme hatched by “some of Israel’s top secret-keepers, including Sima Shine, a former top official in the Mossad spy agency, and Vaknin-Gil, who recently retired as the chief military censor responsible for gag orders on state secrets.” Israel’s Ministry for Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy, which Vaknin-Gil now heads, as well as its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, are involved in the effort.
Among the orchestrators of the anti-BDS spying initiative is Elad Ratson, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs official not exactly known for his diplomatic style. Ratson has been given to outbursts on social media, including threatening imagery of a bomb attack sent to at least one French website that has battled Islamophobia.
According to Estrin’s report in AP, Ratson identified Muslim social media users on foreign soil as key targets of the spying plan:
Many online activists driving anti-Israeli campaigns on social media are tech-savvy, second- and third-generation Muslims in Europe and the U.S. who have grievances against the West and also lead online campaigns against European and U.S. governments, said Elad Ratson, who tracks the issue for Israel’s Foreign Ministry and spoke at last month’s cybersecurity forum.
He said they often create code that allows activists to blast thousands of messages from social media accounts — creating the illusion that many protesters are sharing the same anti-Israel or anti-West message online.
Reached by email, the AP’s Estrin said the covert Israeli plan to sabotage BDS was unveiled at a conference at which “other journalists were also present,” but declined to answer whether it was open to all members of the press. He referred many of AlterNet’s questions to Ratson, whom he described as “a nice guy.”
Ratson did not immediately respond to a question submitted over social media about who exactly will fall under the spying dragnet and for what reasons.
Amid a time of heightened alert for Muslims in Europe and the US, the Israeli plan is already raising alarm. “These efforts are a cynical attempt by Israel to exploit the anti-Muslim environment in the United States to further its widespread agenda to silence criticism of Israel, on whatever platform it appears,” Rahul Saksena, staff attorney for advocacy organization Palestine Legal, told AlterNet. “We have already seen students, and Muslim students in particular, targeted by Israel advocacy groups for exercising their legal right to advocate for Palestinian human rights. This initiative will be sure to heighten the surveillance regime against them in chilling ways.”
Estrin, for his part, did not raise civil rights concerns in his article over the targeting of Muslims. What’s more, the reporter invoked the spectre of the “Islamic State” seemingly out of the blue, conflating the global terror organization with Muslims who criticize Western foreign policy.
Estrin wrote in the article:
Ratson said social media giants are beginning to close inciting users’ accounts. Twitter said in a statement this month that since mid-2015, it has closed more than 125,000 accounts that were “threatening or promoting terrorist acts, primarily related to ISIS,” the Islamic State group. But he said Islamist activists are simply moving to “Darknet” sites not visible on the open internet.
However flawed his framing might have been, Estrin’s reporting makes one thing clear: The Israeli crackdown is poised to escalate its campaign to unprecedented levels. An unknown number of Israeli tech companies are threatening to unleash a wave of cyber-attacks, including “sly algorithms to restrict these online activists’ circle of influence” as well as “forensic intelligence gathering, such as detecting digital or semantic signatures buried in activists’ coding so they are able to track and restrict their online activity.”
Those acts of sabotage will take place alongside a flood of “content that puts a positive face on Israel.”
The non-profit Firewall Israel, sponsored by a government-linked think tank known as the Reut Institute, is “building an online platform to help pro-Israel activists around the world communicate about anti-Israel activism in their communities,” the article states.
As journalist Ali Abunimah pointed out in 2010, the Reut institute aggressively pressed the Israeli government six years ago to embrace a strategy of sabotaging what it referred to as the “Delegitimation Network,” which is “made up of the broad, decentralized and informal movement of peace and justice, human rights, and BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) activists all over the world.” According to the think tank’s argument, paraphrased by Abunimah, “Its manifestations include protests against Israeli officials visiting universities, Israeli Apartheid Week, faith-based and trade union-based activism, and ‘lawfare’ — the use of universal jurisdiction to bring legal accountability for alleged Israeli war criminals.”
Reut materials from as recently as June of 2015 show that the think tank is calling for surveillance of Muslim communities specifically. The institute says that the “delegitimization of Israel” has been “primarily driven by the so-called ‘red-green alliance’ between the radical left-wing and Muslim groups, which has been effectively building coalitions with mainstream groups.” Disturbingly, Reut goes on to argue that the very presence of Muslims in Europe poses a demographic threat to Israel, writing that “in Europe, the demographic rise of the Muslim community is transforming the public sphere against Israel and the Jews.”
Sarah Lazare is a staff writer for AlterNet. A former staff writer for Common Dreams, Sarah co-edited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare.