by Ariel Kahana
t's not every day you hear a confession like this in the European Parliament in Brussels. In a low voice, in fluent English, Khaled Barakat – who defines himself as a "Palestinian writer" – says, "Right now, I live in Germany. [But] on June 22, I was supposed to speak at an event and I was arrested by the German police, who told me that I couldn't speak. … This is an attack on our call to boycott Israel. The government ministry that is fighting us in Europe is the Strategic Affairs Ministry, headed by the racist right-wing Gilad Erdan."
After five years, the Strategic Affairs Ministry has the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement on the defensive after it exposed the movement's anti-Semitic character and direct links to terrorism.
After Barakat, his wife, Charlotte Kates, who is proud of being "the international coordinator for the Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network," speaks. Kates told the EU Parliament that "the attack on Khaled we witnessed is only the latest in a series of consistent attacks." She then proceeded to detail each one.
"The campaign ultimately seeks to criminalize Palestinian writers, journalists, human rights defenders, social activists, and leaders of corporations, who are being accused one after the other of being 'terrorists in suits.' But we know that the true 'terrorists in suits' are sitting in the White House, in Tel Aviv, and in effect, here in Europe," Kates says.
Kates and Barakat, of course, are far from being noble human rights activists. He is a member of the steering committee for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a terrorist organization that is responsible for – among other things – the murder of the late minister Rehavam Zeevi. The Samidoun organization that Kates heads unites terrorists who have served prison time in Israel for proven terrorist activity. So they, like the rest of the BDS industry, are under new pressure now that the truth about them is being exposed.
Threats are no longer scary
Six months ago, the Strategic Affairs Ministry, which is leading Israel's fight against the BDS movement, launched a campaign called "Terrorists in Suits," which includes detailed information about BDS activists' direct ties to terrorist groups. Journalists, legal scholars, diplomats, and lawmakers have been provided with material that shows "how terrorist operatives have become legitimate operatives in civil society organizations worldwide." The Israeli pressure, which is mainly directed at Western Europe, has produced results, as Barakat and Kates' words show. Salah Hawajeh – another terrorist freed from prison in Israel – said that "the biggest threat to the boycott campaign against Israel is the 'Terrorists in Suits' report."
At the Strategic Affairs Ministry, people were rubbing their hands in satisfaction. The remarks above showed the pressure the BDS movement is under. After four years of the ministry's activity, which including learning while doing and making adjustments along the way, BDS is on the defensive, and Israel and its supporters are taking the offense.
BDS activists are being deported. Bank accounts ties to the movement are being shut down. A harshly-worded resolution against BDS passed in the US House of Representatives by a huge majority. Most US states have already approved sanctions against BDS. The German Bundestag has outlawed it. Two years ago, the Swiss Parliament passed an identical resolution. The leaders of Canada and Britain have decided that BDS is anti-Semitic. International companies are expanding their activity in Israel and are uncowed by BDS threats. The same goes for performing artists. The Eurovision pop music competition took place in Tel Aviv despite an enormous push by Palestinians to interfere.
Professor Gerald Steinberg, president of the NGO Monitor watchdog group, who was one of the first to identify the dangerous movement, says, "I agree that in the complex picture of the fight against the boycott movement there are more bright spots than dark ones lately. They [BDS] have suffered a number of serious blows."
For 20 years, NGO Monitor has been at the vanguard of the fight against BDS but is careful not to use any government money.
"There still isn't a decisive victory, but in the big picture, today we're in the best place we've been in since the boycott movement started. Things are definitely turning around. For example, Airbnb reversed its decision not to advertise properties in Judea and Samaria. The BDS movement has invested years, a lot of money, and enormous effort in this project, and for them, it all went to waste. In effect, their situation is worse now because now everyone knows that a big international firm didn't give into their threats, but accepted the position of Israel and its supporters."
Eradicating the industry of lies
The generally accepted view is that the anti-Israel boycott movement was born at the First Durban Conference in 2001. The UN-organized conference on fighting racism was hijacked by haters of Israel, and marked Israel as a "racist, apartheid state." Massive amounts of European money made its way to organizations that initiated and promoted the idea of boycotting Israel. But it took Israel years to realize the significance of this and come up with ways to fight it.
"In the first decade [of the boycott movement], no one here realized the danger and boycott activists had a free hand. In 2009, after the Goldstone Report, [we] realized that this activity put national security at risk and we went on the defensive about specific things. The change in tactics, particularly the realization that we needed to move from defense to offense, came about five years ago," Steinberg says.
For years, the Strategic Affairs Ministry hesitated about how to confront the problem. Only one person in the ministry was in charge of the matter, and here and there various embassies would manage to thwart BDS initiatives. But there wasn't any battle plan against the movement itself. Many in the ministry believed, and some still do, that the boycott movement's bark is worse than its bite, because for the years it has been active, it has caused negligible economic harm to Israel. They think it would be better for Israel to ignore it. Of course, ignoring it did not cause the enemy to disappear. The boycott movement gained strength and marked its biggest success to date when France's Orange telecommunications company decided to move up the date of its split with the Israeli Partner company.
The seeds of a turnaround were planted in 2015 when Erdan demanded that he be put in charge of the matter at the Strategic Affairs Ministry. He got Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to approve additional jobs and budgets and appointed Col. Sima Vaknin Gil director general of the ministry. Later on, the cabinet passed a secret decision that defined in detail the goals of the ministry, in accordance with the prime minister's intention of "boycotting the boycotters and delegitimizing the slanderers."
But that generalized declaration needed to be translated into concrete policy. The boycott movement was never a hierarchical entity with a well-ordered chain of command and actual bases of activity. It was a network, one that mainly operates online, with hundreds of cells that all work independently and in a localized fashion all over the world. This amorphous entity had to be identified and mapped, and then effective countermeasures had to be conceived. It wasn't easy.
When the battle began, BDS activists enjoyed the image of human rights activists as they portrayed Israel as a racist, oppressive, apartheid state. This industry of lies was funded by European countries. Israel had to reverse the image of it that had been created with so much effort over the course of 15 years.
The Strategic Affairs Ministry searched for the right method. At first, it concentrated on collecting information so that it could understand who its opponents were and find their weaknesses. That was the first time that the Israeli government, as opposed to NGOs, had profiled who it was dealing with.
Tzachi Gabrieli, acting director general of the ministry since Vaknin Gil left, says, "In recent years, we've been working on a three-pronged approach, and we're aggressive – not diplomatic, and not nice."
"The first prong is to expose the links between terrorism and the BDS movement, where many of the leaders are former active terrorists. This is no coincidence. This is the new face of the old Palestinian terrorism, and this is where the name 'Terrorists in Suits' comes from," Gabrieli says.
"The second prong is to expose the anti-Semitic elements of the boycott movement, and the third is reducing its funding," he says.
Additional actions include the launch of a ministry website dedicated to fighting BDS called IL4 – Defending Israel. The site contains all available information on BDS activists. The ministry has also bolstered the digital and physical pro-Israel network throughout the world. Much of that network's activity is still conducted off the radar.
Bit by bit, together with pro-Israel civil society organizations, a network was established to counter the BDS movement. Every time BDS activists tried to cause an artist scheduled to perform in Israel to cancel their show, pro-Israeli activists were sent to back them up and attack the attackers. The boycott actions taken by the Palestinian Authority, such as an attempt by PA sports minister Jibril Rajoub to have Israel ousted from various international sports federations, met with a fight. More and more countries and leaders passed resolutions against or spoke out against, BDS, delegitimizing it while comparing it to anti-Semitism.
In January 2019, the ministry published a document titled "The Money Trail: The 2nd Edition." In February, it put out the "Terrorists in Suits" report, which tore the human rights disguise off the BDS leaders and labeled them terrorists. In April, the ministry exposed the false network of bots that was behind attempts to keep Eurovision from being held in Israel under the hashtag #BoycottEurovision2019. After the ministry reached out to Twitter, most of them were shut down. In June, the Social Economic Bank in Germany closed the account of one of the best-known BDS groups. Other accounts belonging to other groups had already been closed.
"Another important tool was the decision by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which determined that anti-Semitism applied not only to Jews but also to the State of Israel and that a double standard could not be applied to Israel in which it was compared to other conflicts in the world. That definition helped point out BDS as anti-Semitic and strengthened a consensus about it in 20 Western democracies. Among moral people, an understanding is starting to seep in that it is impossible to oppose anti-Semitism while also supporting BDS. It doesn't go together," Steinberg says.
Steinberg opposed moving the responsibility for battling BDS from the Foreign Ministry to a different government body. He also thinks that the years the two ministries spent bickering over who was responsible for what caused damage. Nevertheless, he agrees that Israel has benefitted from having a senior minister oversee the subject.
"The budget funds he secured helped. They could have been used more efficiently if they had stayed in the Foreign Ministry, but it's important that a senior minister in the Israeli government like Erdan be handling this issue on a day to day basis. He reaches out, demands explanations, and issues reports that European leaders can't ignore. With all due respect to ourselves [NGO Monitor], the EU foreign minister or European governments can ignore us. But if the Israeli government reaches out, they have to respond," Steinberg explains.
While Erdan is still mainly known to the Israeli public as the public security minister, the fight against BDS keeps him no less busy. In a series of letters, he confronted outgoing EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini about the funding and platform that EU agencies give to BDS activists. He lays out the ministry's findings in political meetings and briefings. Not by chance do terrorists released from prison name him as the man who is leading the battle.
According to data the ministry has collected, from 2014 to 2017, EU countries and European foundations donated some $100 million to organizations that promoted a boycott of Israel. The ministry assesses that in the past year, that amount has dropped by 25%. BDS activists have been recorded at closed meetings speaking about financial distress.
Optimism notwithstanding, it's clear to everyone that the battle is far from over. Three former Israeli diplomats – Ilan Baruch, Alon Liel, and Eli Bar Navi – have expressed sympathy for the movement, and others are working to roll back anti-BDS decisions. The anti-BDS achievements of the past few years have stemmed mainly from the fact that finally, Israel was putting up a fight. If Israel considers abandoning the field, the boycotters will move from defense to offense.
"These are dark days for the boycott movement," Erdan's ministry staff is saying. Israel should work to keep them in the dark.
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