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Israel Turns to Unlawful Detention When Propaganda Fails to Silence Anti-Zionists

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By Ian Firstenberg 

Early on July 30, dozens of armed soldiers and at least one dog stormed the house of a prominent BDS coordinator near Ramallah. His 9-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter protested loudly as their father was taken out in handcuffs. 

Mahmoud Nawaja’a, 34, is a national coordinator for the Boycott Divest and Sanction Movement, working mostly with the National Committee. 

The BDS National Committee, an organizing coalition for pro-BDS activists, condemned the action saying, “Persecution of organizations and persons, by depriving them of fundamental rights and freedoms, because they oppose apartheid,” is one of the inhumane acts decried by the United Nations and other international human rights oragnizations. 

Omar Barghouti, a co-founder of the BDS movement, spoke out against the unlawful detention. 

“Israel’s regime of military occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid is desperately trying to terrorize Palestinian BDS activists and their families, after having failed to slow down the growth of the movement,” Barghouti said.

Organizing coalitions, publications and activists across the world have also condemned the action, calling the Nawaja’a’s detention politically motivated. 

Outright extrajudicial rendition is one way in which Israel’s apartheid government supresses protest movements like BDS, but it is by no means the only way. 

Capture of a Palestinian civilian by Israeli soldiers. (Photo by Tasnim News Agency)

Concert and the Propaganda Project

Another, less outright violent method of suppression is the information (propaganda) campaign funded by the Strategic Affairs Ministry of Israel. 

Strategic Affairs Ministry is an accurately opaque name for a ministry with an incredibly opaque mission. At one point, Israeli officials sought to exempt the ministry from their version of the Freedom of Information Act, citing claims of national security. 

Paraphrasing their mission, the ministry seeks to combat anti-Israeli rhetoric by funding outreach or travel projects through private companies. Officials within the ministry have stated that propaganda of this nature is more effective when it comes from an entity perceived independent from the state. 

In line with this strategy, the Strategic Affairs Ministry in late 2017 began funding a company now called Concert, formerly called Kela Shlomo. Concert’s stated function was “to cooperate with people and groups looking to conceal funding they receive from Israel for projects promoting a positive image” and to “provide a rapid and coordinated response against the attempts to tarnish the image of Israel around the world.”

Anti-Zionist Network protest. (Photo by dignidadrebelde.)

A ministry legal advisor who wrote an opinion at the time noted that activities conducted by the initiative “require an ‘outside the government’ discussion.” 

According to committee meeting minutes unearthed by activist Or Sadan and reporter Itamar Baz, the Israeli government allocated this private company 128 million shekels — roughly $37 million — for a variety of projects and strategies for “mass awareness” against the “delegitimization of Israel”, on the condition that it raised equal an amount from private donors. 

Concert signed 26 contracts over the three-year period from 2017-2020. They worked to achieve their mission by supporting evangelical Christian right-wing groups and organizations that criminalize college BDS activists: Our Soldiers Speak, Christians United for Israel, Eagles’ Wings, Israel-is, Zionist Federation in South Africa, Israel Allies Foundation, Reservists on Duty and Gideon’s Group Project. Also discovered in the minutes was a 2.4 million shekel project to deal with the “link between BDS organizations and terror organizations.” 

Vice President Mike Pence meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem January 22, 2018. (Photo: U.S. Embassy Jerusalem)

An odd funding inconsistency also emerged from the minutes, showing that up to the final Strategic Affairs Ministry cooperation meeting with Concert in January 2020, the company had only used 13 million of the allotted 128 million shekels. 

According to the minutes, this was because the matching private donations had not been raised in the required time, and later issues arose due to the government’s budget freeze. Another 5 million shekels are set aside for use by the end of 2020, based on performance, bringing the total to 18 million shekels from Israel and another 18 million from donors. 

In a December 2018 meeting, the CEO recruited for the project, Ayelet Shiloh Tamir, said “because of the difficulty and refusal of donors to donate directly to Concert, a mechanism must be allowed through which contributions are transferred to the organization that carries out the activity and from it to Concert.” 

Fake News is Nothing New

According to ministry documents and reporting from the independent publication Seventh Eye, part of the package the ministry purchased from Concert involved anti-BDS articles in the Jerusalem Post, which “included branding, advertising, a slot at a recent Jerusalem Post conference, and the articles themselves.” 

The project Concert was tasked with fits hand in glove with similar attempts by the Ministry to use Israeli publications as a propaganda wing of their ideological project — more specifically to use Israeli publications to simultaneously undermine BDS and draw supporters to the Israeli cause. 

An investigation by +972 Magazine in 2017 revealed that Yedioth Ahronoth Group received roughly $100,000 to publish journalistic articles that we were then distributed to members of the “Pro-Israel Network” for publication. According to the investigation, the articles were “meant to motivate or enlist Israelis into the struggle.” 

The articles were initially published in June 2017 under the weekend news section of Yedioth Ahronoth. Included in the package and eventually published by Ynet, the publication’s parent company, were three interviews with high-ranking ministry officials and videos produced by the Ministry of Strategic Affairs. 

Certain details of the package and any possible similar agreements with other private companies remains a mystery, but the intention is abundantly clear. These contracted articles and supplied videos help spread the ministry’s ideological message and simultaneously calls on the public to do the same. 

The coordination with Yedioth and Concert are just two slivers of the overall project at work in the Strategic Affairs Ministry. According to the released data, the ministry also spent $740,000 to “promote content on social media and search engines, including Google, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.” Another $570,000 was budgeted for the creation of the website and accompanying content.

Ynet editorial rooms. (Photo: Deror Avi) 

It is critically important to remember that all of this money going to state-sponsored articles, branded anti-BDS content and financial support for evangelical Christian groups is coming from the public. The millions poured into anti-BDS campaigns both on the ground and online is public money. 

Concert and the state sponsored Yedioth articles serve as thinly veiled propaganda for the ministry’s ideological mission. The kidnapping and detention of Nawaja’a serve as evidence of the militant wing of that project. What we have seen under years of Netanyahu, and before, is that when the propaganda doesn’t work, the government of Israel quickly transitions to the militant strategy. 

This all points towards a deep fear on the part of the ministry — and more broadly the Israeli government — surrounding BDS. It seems that Israeli officials understand, at least in part, that their grip on younger Jews is slipping and that Zionism is not synonymous with the Jewish identity for many of the younger generation. The excitement and paranoia that comes with this cannot be overstated. 

On the one hand, the amount of time and money spent combating a decentralized protest movement like BDS indicates its somewhat successful effects. On the other hand, Mahmoud Nawaja’a is still being detained; his young children left to wonder when their father may return. 

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