From spying to lobbying, Israel’s fight against BDS intensifies

Israel uses a number of diplomatic and security tactics to counter the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared the BDS movement as a strategic threat back in 2015 ([File: Jacques Brinon/The Associated Press]

Recent revelations confirming the involvement of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad in efforts to actively disrupt the growing movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel did not come as a surprise to pro-Palestine activists.

Gilad Erdan, the Israeli strategic affairs minister and a senior figure in Israel’s fight against BDS, met Mossad head Yossi Cohen to discuss “the struggle against the boycott”, according to the politician’s 2018 official diary.

Israeli daily Haaretz, which first reported on the matter, did not give further details about the meeting, but said that according to Erdan’s schedules, which were made public by a Freedom of Information request filed by the Israeli Hatzlaha group, the minister had also met the head of the National Security Council, as well as a number of Jewish organisations.

Most of the meetings had to do with establishing a private but partly government-controlled company called Concert, whose main objective was to promote “mass awareness activities” as part of “the struggle against the campaign to delegitimise” Israel on an international level.

The Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) said Mossad’s involvement against BDS activism was “not surprising” given the concentrated Israeli effort to ban the movement both domestically and internationally.

“We know that Israel takes the threat of BDS very seriously, with [Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu declaring it a strategic threat in 2015,” the London-based PSC said in a statement to Al Jazeera.

“Some of the global actions undertaken by Israel to suppress BDS activism include introducing restrictive laws in Israel – and persuading allies to do the same globally – to try to criminalise BDS, alongside broader attempts to try to delegitimise it by framing it as an anti-Semitic activity or by falsely identifying links between BDS activists and terrorism.”

‘Major strategic threat’

The call for boycotting, divesting from and sanctioning Israel was launched in 2005 by more than 170 Palestinian civil organisations as a form of non-violent pressure on Israel.

BDS, which defines itself as working to end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and to pressure Israel in complying with international law, has at its core three main principles: to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories; to ensure equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel; and to enforce the right of return of Palestinian refugees.

The international impact of BDS has alarmed Israel, which, according to Dov Waxman, a professor of political science, international affairs and Israel studies at Northeastern University, has come to regard the movement as a “major strategic threat”.

“BDS is seen as a threat to Israel’s legitimacy and international standing,” Waxman told Al Jazeera.

“Most Israeli Jews have also come to see the BDS movement as very threatening, especially because many believe that it seeks to destroy Israel and is driven by anti-Semitism – which is what Netanyahu and other right-wing Israeli politicians repeatedly insist.”

Counter-BDS measures

Akiva Eldar, a senior columnist for Al-Monitor, said Mossad’s involvement in the anti-BDS efforts was not limited to within Israel.

“What we know is that there are tens of millions of dollars allocated for this project,” he told Al Jazeera. “The Mossad are in contact with the American secret service – the CIA – and European [intelligence] agencies and are trading information.”

Eldar said that the Israeli diplomatic and security apparatus was involved in the operation.

“The Israeli embassies, as part of their public diplomacy work, are now focusing on collecting information [about BDS activists and activities] and filing reports and complaints to foreign governments,” he said.

“In the United States, BDS has been at the top of the agenda for Jewish organisations like AIPAC, which is cooperating with Israeli embassies, including military attaches,” added Eldar, referring to the powerful lobby group.

Waxman agreed, saying that in addition to funding domestic and foreign NGOs in the fight against BDS, another tactic used by Israel was the lobbying of foreign governments and international organisations in cracking down on the movement.

“Diplomatically, it has promoted a definition of anti-Semitism that has often been used to define the BDS movement as inherently anti-Semitic because it is anti-Zionist,” he said.

“Both publicly and secretly, therefore, Israel has been actively engaged in a long-term campaign against the BDS movement,” he added.

Last month, Germany became the first European Union country to vote on a motion labelling the BDS movement as anti-Semitic. 

In response, the movement said Berlin’s move was shielding Israel from accountability to international law, as well as “entrenching its complicity in Israel’s crimes of military occupation, ethnic cleansing, siege and apartheid”. 

The Knesset – the Israeli parliament – has also passed a number of laws that have targeted supporters of the BDS movement, Waxman said.

Foreign citizens who promote BDS are banned from entering Israel, while Israeli citizens or groups who publicly call for a boycott of Israel or products from Jewish settlements can be sued for damages.

PSC, the pro-Palestine campaign, said Israel’s actions violated core principles of freedom of expression that were central to democratic politics.

“At the heart of what Israel is trying to do is prevent citizens across the world responding to the legitimate call from Palestinians for peaceful action to hold Israel and complicit organisations to account for ongoing human rights abuses,” it said.

Source: Al Jazeera