Knesset member Shelly Yachimovich is a prominent member of the Labor Party, who chairs the Knesset’s State Control Committee. According to a recent report, her online activity has been the target of extensive tracking by the Information Security Department of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). As an elected official, Yachimovich should have parliamentary immunity. The very fact that someone in the IDF decided that her online activities should be monitored (allegedly for security reasons) and then proceeded to track these activities is very disturbing.
Yachimovich first learned that she was being tracked from a report that appeared in Haaretz Oct. 4. The report included a document stating that the IDF’s Information Security Department had been tracking the internet regularly in an effort to keep tabs on nongovernmental organizations, social organizations, political bloggers and politicians. Yachimovich was shocked and deeply offended to see her name on the list. According to her, the very idea that the army is keeping track of an elected official’s political activity is horrifying, but it also runs counter to the very nature of Israel as a democracy.
It turned out that this tracking began two years ago. It is done by scanning posts on social media sites, as well as in blogs, forums, search engines, chatrooms and news sites. The purpose of all this is to identify security leaks.
It is no coincidence that the IDF began tracking internet activity about two years ago, just as it is apparently no coincidence that the target of their tracking is a politician identified with the left.
Over the past two years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government not only succeeded in pushing public discourse to new extremes in an effort to delegitimize the left, it also took several operative steps against its targets. It passed several laws against left-wing organizations, as well as the Boycott Law that was passed by the Knesset in 2017. It amended the Entry into Israel Law in order to ban boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement activists from entering the country. The Ministry for Strategic Affairs, which is tasked with combatting BDS, was thereby provided with a framework to track the activities of boycott activists and create blacklists of individuals who should be denied entry into the country.
Given this prevailing mood, it is no wonder that a professional security organization like the IDF decided to track a politician, as unprecedented as it was. While the IDF admitted its mistake and apologized to Yachimovich, the fact that it happened speaks for itself.
The ease with which advanced technologies can be used to track people in a manner that reeks of political persecution should be intolerable. On the other hand, it reflects the age in which we live. The growing number of media reports about left-wing activists from overseas, who were detained at the border as they tried to enter Israel, indicates that Israel is making a real effort to implement its controversial Boycott Law.
In August, American Jewish journalist Peter Beinart was detained at Ben Gurion Airport when he tried to enter the country. As soon as he landed, he was separated from his wife and children and interrogated by the Shin Bet for an hour. He later said that he was asked whether he had any ties with groups that pose a threat to Israeli democracy and questioned about his participation in a demonstration in Hebron. Beinart, who appears frequently as a political commentator on CNN, has expressed support for the boycott of products manufactured in West Bank settlements. The Shin Bet has since apologized for his detention, claiming that it was an error in judgment. Then, the prime minister himself weighed in, saying that it was an “administrative mistake.”
The most recent incident is still before the courts. It involves the arrest of Lara Alqasem, a 22-year-old student from Philadelphia who arrived in Israel Oct. 3. She was denied entry into the country and has since been held in the detention facility at Ben Gurion Airport. The cause of her detention is the claim that she was active in the movement supporting an academic boycott of Israel.
Alqasem arrived in Israel to study for a master’s degree at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Although she has a visa granted to her by the Israeli Consulate in Miami, she was nevertheless marked as a troublemaker. She is now being held in detention until the district court rules on her appeal.
The incident has caused an uproar. A delegation of Knesset members from the Meretz Party, including Chair Tamar Zandberg and Knesset member Mossi Raz, visited the airport detention facility Oct. 7 to meet with Alqasem. The visit did not go smoothly. They were forced to wait 4½ hours and could only visit her after the Knesset’s legal counsel intervened. In a conversation with Al-Monitor, Raz called the situation “truly absurd.” After all, how can anyone claim that Alqasem supports an academic boycott of Israel, when she arrived in the country of her own free will to study at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem?
According to Raz, this is causing enormous damage to Israel’s public image overseas. “The right’s paranoia only feeds Israel’s enemies. By implementing the Boycott Law and abusing a student at the airport, Israel appears to the world as an undemocratic state with no regard for human rights. This poses a threat to the very foundations of the State of Israel. The Boycott Law may have been approved through a democratic process, but it nevertheless forces Israelis to engage in procedures that are undemocratic. These include the tracking of foreign citizens’ activities, unnecessary detentions and the expulsion of left-wing activists from Israel,” he said.
On Oct. 8, the Hebrew University took the unusual step of announcing that it was submitting an amicus brief in support of Alqasem. In their statement, university officials said that this kind of extreme measure, which would ban Alqasem from entering the country, could dissuade other researchers and students around the world from coming to Israel. The statement also noted that over the past few months, there have been several cases of researchers and students, who allegedly support a boycott of Israel, and whose entry to the country has been delayed.
As more cases like this are made public, it seems that the Israeli authorities have little qualms when it comes to the detention and interrogation of people on the left. As such, the phenomenon of monitoring these activists can no longer be treated as an “administrative mistake.” It seems more like a full-fledged government policy and a reflection of the authoritarian disposition of the Israeli leadership.