A senior Israeli military source revealed recently that a special unit inside the Research Division of Military Intelligence has been assigned to monitor the activities of the BDS movement.
The unit was created as a result of lessons learned from the Mavi Marmara incident.
In May 2010 a fleet of six boats organized by pro-Palestinian groups sailed from Turkish ports in a concerted effort to lift the siege of Gaza. While the activists with various nationalities aboard five boats surrendered to the demands of the Israel Navy and stopped their voyage, the Mavi Marmara crew and passengers refused to obey the order. Navy commandos who raided the ship were surprised by the heavy resistance. In the ensuing clashes, nine Turkish activists were killed and 20 wounded; 10 Israeli troops were wounded as well. This incident further poisoned the already deteriorated Israeli-Turkish relations.
The military operation fiasco also exposed an intelligence failure. Neither the Mossad, nor Military Intelligence, nor Naval Intelligence had a clue about the Marmara activists, most of them members of the Turkish Islamist IHH group, or their weapons of choice – knives, bats and chains, which they had prepared for the anticipated battle.
As a result, it was decided to build an intelligence unit that would follow and monitor radical international groups and individual activists who support the Palestinian cause. Though the assignment was to track down civilian groups that operate mainly in Western countries, strangely enough the mission was assigned to Military Intelligence and not to the Mossad or, even more reasonably, the Foreign Ministry.
A senior security official explained to me the rationale behind the decision. He argued that the international organizations involved in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and in other activities aimed at delegitimizing the Jewish state are directed by one center – the Palestinian Authority.
Thus, since Military Intelligence’s responsibilities include understanding the PA and its political processes, it was natural to assign it the new mission against BDS.
The senior security official also claimed that the smear campaigns to undermine the legitimacy of Israel, including expelling it from international bodies and appealing to the International Court of Justice, must be considered the “new intifada.”
This self-victimization, which began a few years ago, is characteristic of consecutive right-wing governments which claim that the entire world is against us.
Even without a formal cabinet decision, this political perception has trickled down to the intelligence community. The Mossad has a special unit that tries to “follow the money.” It is a task force devoted to monitoring financial transactions and movement of money from abroad to finance terrorism in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza as well as what Israeli security officials call “subversive acts” against the state.
The Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) has two more units in charge of monitoring financial support for terrorists and preventing entry of what they refer to as “radical left-wingers and anarchists who are trying to come to Israel or the West Bank to spread chaos and havoc.”
The units also conduct research and follow groups identified with BDS and organizations involved in the attempts to delegitimize the Jewish state.
In recent years, there has been a substantial increase in reports of nationals, especially young people – not only of Palestinian or Arab descent – from EU countries and even the US who were denied entry by the order of the Shin Bet. Some of them tried to enter Israel to participate in Palestinian demonstrations and protest against the security barrier. Others came to express solidarity with nonviolent Palestinian civil rights organizations, and yet their entry was blocked and they were sent back.
On numerous occasions senior State Department officials in Washington and US Ambassador Dan Shapiro in Tel Aviv have complained and demanded explanation from Israeli authorities why Americans, of Palestinian or Arab origins, have been denied entry or badly treated at border points. The US officials reminded their Israeli counterparts that the two countries are committed to reciprocity in respecting each other’s citizens.
And this is not all. A few months ago Ram Ben-Barak, a former deputy chief of the Mossad and currently director-general of the Strategic Affairs Ministry, submitted a comprehensive plan detailing how to make the battle against BDS and similar anti-Israeli groups more effective. Ben-Barak, who aspires to be the next head of the Mossad when Tamir Pardo leaves his post by the end of 2015, suggests to combine and coordinate the efforts of the various government agencies dealing with the same issue.
Accepting his plan, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced recently that the government would allocate for this purpose NIS 100 million.
But typical of Israeli bureaucracy, Ben-Barak’s plan has been subjected to fierce personal and political battles between various government ministries about turfs and responsibilities. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon is involved in political arm-twisting with his Likud rival Gilad Erdan, the public security and strategic affairs minister.
Ya’alon and the IDF have refused to transfer the Military Intelligence unit to Erdan’s jurisdiction.
In an attempt to close the political gaps and provide a sensible compromise, Netanyahu brought into the picture his national security adviser and head of the National Security Council, Yossi Cohen.
Cohen, a former deputy head of the Mossad and the leading candidate to be the next head of the organization, prepared a report that offers ways to bridge the bureaucratic divisions. Its key recommendation is establish another small unit inside the Strategic Affairs Ministry which will coordinate between the various intelligence units dealing with the issue.
And still, no one seriously questions why a state that considers itself democratic has assigned its three leading security and intelligence agencies to fight a movement that, though it may well be damaging and bothersome, is by its very nature nonviolent, democratic, political and civilian.
Perhaps the Israeli overreaction is another manifestation of the rightwing radicalization and paranoia that unfortunately are increasing their grip on Israeli society in the 21st century.
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