Such a Mysterious Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs

Worried about the rise of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement in solidarity with the Palestinians, the Israeli government is trying to organize the response, not hesitating to spy on citizens in foreign countries, such as the United States. It has created a discreet Ministry of Strategic Affairs for this purpose, whose record is mitigated, to say the least.

BDS demonstrators in front of the Home Office in London.

You can’t find any information on the Ministry of Strategic Affairs on the Israeli government online portal, nor in the Ministry of Finance annual budgets book for this year or for the year of 2019, it does not have a website of its own, as any Israeli governmental agency—including the Mossad, Shin Bet (security services) and Israel Atomic Agency, and the Israeli registry of telephones does not specify its telephone numbers or its whereabouts. This Ministry claims that the Israeli Freedom of Information act does not apply to its action or expenditures, and its current director, former military head censor, Sima Vaknin-Gil refused to supply any meaningful information about this Ministry to the Knesset’s Transparency Committee. The Ministry for Strategic Affairs and Hasbara was founded in 2008 as a political stunt that meant to compensate bored ministers as the current Ministry of Defence Avigdor Liberman and later former chief-of-staff of the Israeli army Moshe Yealon, and to grant them prestigious seat in the security cabinet and access to intelligence material. But this ministry rose to fame when Gilead Ardan became the minister of Home Security and Strategic Affairs in October 2015, turning this modest staff ministry to a mysterious, spying entity.

Based on several publications of the Prime Minister Office, we know that this ministry has the “top responsibility” for leading the “battle against the phenomena of delegitimisation and the boycotts against Israel.” The means given to this secretive ministry may remind many the propaganda methods of former Soviet Union or the current, online destabilisation campaigns of Putin’s Russia in United States and Western Europe.

A “Strategic Threat”

For many years, Israeli officials and diplomats were certain that if only they could perfect their PR skills — “Hasbara” in the Hebrew lingo—the Western world may have accepted the Israeli policies of dispossessing, exploiting and oppressing the Palestinians as benevolent methods, devised for the benefit of humankind. No more. These days, when the BDS (Boycott, Divestments, Sanctions) campaign has become more and more trendy among Western intellectuals and artists, Israel opts for an altogether tougher policy. The BDS campaign has been upgraded to another “strategic threat” on Israel, almost as the Iranian threat, with a potential to undermine the legitimacy of the Jewish state, if quoting the former director general of the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs, retired brig General Yossi Kuperwasser, a military intelligence expert.

On the same time, the Israeli parliament, Knesset, passed a law that enabled Israel to impose economic sanctions on anyone, including ones who don’t have Israeli citizenship or never set foot in Israel, who call for the boycott of Israel or “areas under its control,” i.e. the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The Israeli High Court approved this law and its current head Esther Hayut was quoted as saying that “BDS does not enjoy the protection of the freedom of speech,” despite the explicit nonviolent form of expression and peaceful protest of the BDS campaign.

The Ministry of Strategic Affairs, the secretive Sinistry which is in charge of enforcing these policies has its own “national task force” and has founded its own GONGO, Kela Shlomo (Solomon’s Sling) as its long arm for dirty operations of “mass consciousness,” headed by Kuperwasser and including former ambassador to the UN and advisor to PM Netanyahu,Dore Gold, as part of the Israel’s struggle against the “campaign of delegitimisation.” Kela Shlomo already received a budget of about 40 USD millions and some donations from American funds who in the past have donated to the Israeli proto-fascist group Im Tirzu and to settlers organisations.

Coordinate Defamation and Misinformation

This ministry enlisted a former “intelligence and operations” expert to run a “theatre of blackening,” a counter delegitimisation, tarnishing campaign, and coordinates its smear and disinformation campaigns, in Israel and abroad, with other government bodies and private, Jewish right-wing organisations, mainly in the United States. Soon afterwards, a pro-Israeli secretive students group based in Washington, D.C., ran a well-funded Facebook ad campaign against Palestinian poet and activist Remi Kanzai, painting him as “anti-police.” The Ministry has also hired—secretly, again—the American law firm of Sidley Austin, and probably few others, to initiate legal actions against BDS activists. These actions were described as “politically sensitive” that “may harm Israel’s diplomatic relations.” Vaknin-Gil said about the mission of the Ministry: “we must strive for a victory in the war” and Israel should alternate its policy from “containment and holding defence” to “initiatives.”

Al Jazeera censored series on the pro-Israeli lobby in Washington exposed more on the covert operations coordinated by the Ministry of Strategic Affairs in the United States. The director of the Ministry says openly: “we are a different government, working on a foreign soil, and we have to be very, very cautious,” and adds: “regarding data, information analysis, working on activists’ organisations, money trail, this is something only a country with its resources can do the best. If we want to win, we have to change our ways, to think differently, and this is waging a holistic campaign against the other side, taking him from its comfort zone, making him be on the defensive.”

According to the program, The Ministry uses Israel’s most advanced technological-cyber tools, who served before only Israel’s governmental bodies, to monitor information gathered from social media about the supporters of the BDS campaign, and, indeed, one American student from the University of Tennessee, who has experienced an online smear campaign by pro-Israeli organisations, commented: “they acted as if there is an enormous movement for the liberation of Palestine in Tennessee.” The Ministry coordinates and fills the “information gaps” for the many pro-Israel “hasbara" and right-wing Jewish organisations, mainly in American in Campuses “but not only in the United States”, and also “mapped” activities in churches and workers’ unions for boycott of products coming from Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

So far, despite the dozens of million dollars allocated to this secretive “war” on BDS, estimated in about 75 USD Millions only on the last year, Israel has gained only spectacular losses in its “battle” aimed at silencing its critics, each one seems more painful and grotesque than the former ones. But, on the other hand, the BDS campaign, so far, has not had any significant victories or any meaningful effect on Israeli policies towards the Palestinians, except for few cancellations of performances in Israel, most notably of the singer Lorde.

Laws Challenged in US Courts

In the months the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) challenged successfully amendments to laws in Kansas and Arizona, requiring contractors of local authorities to submit “written certification” that declares that they do not “engage” in a boycott Israel. ACLU claimed that these forms of legislation runs afoul the First Amendment and that the purposes of these laws—to suppress boycotts of Israel and chill protected expressions are unconstitutional.

The Ministry attempts to advocate his own “black list” of twenty organisations whose activists would not be allowed to enter Israel, including a Jewish one, The American Jewish Voice for Peace, did not impress Israeli courts. Legal opinions by the Ministry of Strategic Affairs that were used to substantiate the denial of entrance to Israel or expelling orders of current, former activists of BDS, or even sympathisers of other organisations who endorse the BDS campaign- as part of a guilt-by-association strategy, were disqualified by Israeli courts.

Israeli High Court turned over last week rulings of other Israeli tribunals who ordered the deportation of an American student, Lara Alqassem, who enrolled for legal studies at the Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, only because of her past activity of presiding a tiny student organizations - 8 students at its prime—at the Florida University. This student’s body called for a ban of an Israeli hummus brand, manufactured by a company that sponsors one of the army’s unit that serves regularly in the Occupied Territories (by the way, any hummus aficionado would identify with that call) and some, undocumented, “attending” acts to Facebook events, that even the state attorney did not have a clear idea about. Judge Anat Baron wrote in the High Court ruling that she had the impression that the decision to deport Alqassem was based on her “political views” and the decision to deport her because of her views may bring “the crumbling of the foundations on which the Israeli democracy is based upon.” During Alqassem proceedings the Ministry submitted written opinion to the courts that revealed its exact headquarters, in the ultra-orthodox city Bnei Brak, including two telephone numbers of the Ministry, after trying to seal its location somewhere in the greater Tel Aviv area.

Amateurism and Contradictions

Throughout the legal proceedings in the Alqassem case the Ministry of Strategic Affairs has presented “sensitive” opinions to the Israeli courts, based on material collected by Google and Facebook searches by another shady organisation, the American Canary Mission, who got funding from the Jewish Federation of San Francisco. Canary Mission presents itself as organisation that monitors individuals and organisations who “promote hatred of the USA, Israel and Jews,” and apparently Canary Mission even grants its own kind of papal indulgences to ones who “rejected the latent anti-Semitism prevalent among anti-Israel organisations and activists.”

Last week an Israeli appeal court ordered the Ministry of Interior to reconsider its decision to deny entry visa to Dr. Isabel Phiri, an African theologist and deputy secretary general of the World Council of Churches (WCC), who was the first one to deny such visa, based on the opinion of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs. Phiri denied that she has ever supported the boycott of Israel, and when she came to Israel in December 2016 to participate in a conference of WCC’s Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the Shin Bet ruled out that there are no grounds to deny its entry to Israel. But then the Ministry of Strategic Affairs interfered with its own opinion that claimed that the WCC’s program “ignores Israel’s action to improve the welfare of the Palestinian population.”

The rulings in the cases of Alqassem and Phiri forced the Israeli government to reconsider its decision to deport the head of Human Rights Watch (HRW) office in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Dr. Omar Shakir, who was described by the Ministry of Strategic Affairs as one who “often tweets and shares contents about the BDS.” This Ministry opinion served as the basis of the Ministry of Interior not to extend the visa of Shakir, even though the Ministry’s opinion acknowledged that since Shakir began his work in HRW there were no testimonies for his support of the BDS campaign.

And if that is not enough, a second discussion held this week in the Knesset’s Transparency Committee stressed the mere amateurish strategy of this secretive ministry. The Ministry’s main hand for ‘dirty’ covert operations, the GONGO Kela Shlomo, was supposed to recruit half of its budget from American billionaires, but the legal advisor of the Ministry, adv. Lit Glaser, claimed that this GONGO has not begun to operate, nor enlisted any money for its activities. She contradicted documented information about donations to this GONGO from American right-wing donors. Glaser also claimed that the Ministry was not aware of any “independent activity” of Kela Shlomo with these donations, despite the GONGO commitment not to be involved with any other activities beside those initiated by the Ministry.

But Ardan and his cunning spy partners in the Ministry of Strategic Affairs may find a modest comfort in the ruling of a local court in Jerusalem from last week that ordered two BDS activists, both are citizens of New Zealand, Justine Sachs and Nadia Abu-Shanab, to compensate Israeli fans of the singer Lorde, because they “stopped” Lorde from preforming in Israel. This ruling, the first one based on the boycott law, was given, obviously, without questioning Lorde or the New Zealand activists, whose apparent crime was publishing an open letter to Lorde, describing Israel as an apartheid state. Sachs and Abu-Shanab already decided to raise the money but not to deliver it to the Israeli poor fans but to a better cause, the people of Gaza.