Shin Bet finds mugs from Chinese embassy were not bugged

The mugs sent to several Israeli government offices contained a heating component previously flagged as suspicious.

 Part of the cup gifted by the Chinese embassy to Israeli government officials suspected of containing a listening device.  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Part of the cup gifted by the Chinese embassy to Israeli government officials suspected of containing a listening device.
(photo credit: Courtesy)

The Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) on Tuesday said it found no listening devices in thermal mugs given to Israeli government offices by the Chinese Embassy after the gifts were flagged as suspicious.

“Following reports about the finding of a suspicious component in thermal cups sent to a government ministry, Shin Bet technological experts who checked the component found that it is innocent and meant to maintain a vacuum in the sides of the mug and maintain the temperature over time,” the Shin Bet said in a statement.

The Shin Bet began investigating the matter after finding a suspicious device in mugs the embassy sent to the Science and Technology Ministry and the Transportation Ministry. The suspicions were first reported Tuesday morning by Army Radio diplomatic correspondent Moriah Asraf-Walberg.

The mug arrived at the Science and Technology Ministry earlier this week without any prior announcement from the Chinese Embassy, and security personnel found the device before it reached Science and Technology Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen.

Other ministries received text messages from the Chinese Embassy that said: “On April 12, my colleague will deliver the Passover gift for you and the Minister at your Ministry entrance. Can you please ask someone to receive?”

China flag  (credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/ECOW)China flag (credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/ECOW)

On Sunday, the Shin Bet told ministries that any gifts from China must be scanned. Existing security instructions already required that all gifts be checked by security staff before going to a minister. They also must be authorized by a gifts committee before use by a minister.

All the cups given by the embassy to government offices, which were part of a greater gift box, were collected for further inspection after the finding. They will not be returned to the embassy.

The Chinese Embassy said the investigation is “baseless rumors [that] have a severe impact as they aim to drive a wedge between China and Israel, tarnish China’s image and seriously mislead the public.”

The embassy said the alleged bugging device is a “getter,” a material used in many thermal mugs, and it sent the media the European patent for the device.

According to Dr. Eyal Pinko, an expert on espionage in Bar-Ilan University’s Political Studies Department, “China wants military, diplomatic, economic and technological information from Western states in general and the US and Israel specifically.”

“Toward that goal, China uses many tools to collect intelligence,” he said. “Hiding listening devices inside gifts… is not new… The Israeli security establishment is aware of the threats and checks every item that is given as a gift from foreign factors to reduce the damage of exposing sensitive information as much as possible.”

The report comes just two months after The Jerusalem Post reported that the Chinese Communist Party had asked Chinese students in Israel to collect information on local media, part of a global trend of Beijing using students around the world to promote its interests.

An official asked students and other academics on multiple campuses in Israel to seek out and send Israeli media coverage of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, according to screenshots obtained by the Post.

Several countries have taken action in recent years after finding Chinese students who were involved in gathering intelligence on campuses and smuggling technology from them. In addition, China continues to surveil students in other countries by leveraging WeChat groups, such as the ones for students in Israel, for social pressure.

Yonah Jeremy Bob contributed to this report.