Hamas signals alarm on Israeli efforts to recruit collaborators

Hamas has launched an awareness campaign against what it says are Israeli efforts to recruit Palestinians as spies through deceptive online contacts.

al-monitor Palestinian police cadets march during a graduation ceremony at a police college run by the Hamas-led interior Ministry, Gaza City, Gaza, July 16, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Mohammed Salem.

Oct 28, 2019

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — A calm has descended over Gaza in recent months with no military confrontations between Palestinian armed factions and Israel following agreement on Egyptian-mediated understandings in May to ease the pressure of the blockade on the enclave. That said, it appears the factions and Israel are engaged in another type of war. The Hamas-run Interior Ministry in Gaza on Oct. 9 posted two audio recordings on its website in connection with accusing Israel of using new tools — an apparent reference to a disinformation and intelligence-gathering campaign waged through social media — to entice or entrap residents into collaborating through espionage and assisting in targeting faction leaders for assassination.

In an Oct. 13 statement, Interior Ministry spokesman Iyad al-Bazm said that Israeli intelligence has doubled its efforts in the past two years to recruit agents in Gaza. The campaign is said to involve phoning people under the guise of being members from medical and charitable institutions, sporting associations and students aid centers. The Interior Ministry claims that one of the recordings it released is a phone call to a Gaza resident by an Israeli intelligence officer who pretended to be from a charity association. The alleged true purpose of the call was to drag him into collecting information on resistance members living nearby.

Collaborating with Israeli security agencies is considered to be treason and punishable under the law. Security fears and arrest campaigns increased in Gaza after a covert Israeli operation last November involving unit operatives dressed as Palestinians crossing the border east of Khan Yunis in a civilian vehicle. An Israeli officer, six Hamas members and a member of the Popular Resistance Committees were killed in the ensuing clash. According to Palestinians, the target of the operation was Nur Barakeh, a commander of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas' military wing, who was killed in the fighting. Others speculate, however, that the episode was an intelligence-gathering operation gone wrong.

The Palestinian factions have joined the Interior Ministry in the current awareness campaign. The armed factions joint operation room had issued a statement on Oct. 8 emphasizing that Israel is using what they referred to as “new intelligence means” to track the moves and news of the factions due to the Gaza security services having identified a large number of collaborators. The statement read, “We follow up on the enemy’s intelligence and COGAT tools [i.e., its social media page] to collect data on the Palestinian resistance in the Gaza Strip and as a means of character assassination of combatants.” COGAT is Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories, the Israeli military unit that overseas civilian policy in the West Bank and Gaza.

According to the Interior Ministry and the factions, COGAT's Arabic Facebook page is the centerpiece of the Israeli campaign. They have warned against visiting the page, sending messages through it, posting comments or sharing information on it. They also allege the posting of unfounded and fabricated stories about the armed factions that equate to character assassination. Palestinians were also warned about the Facebook page of Israel Defense Forces spokesperson Avichay Adraee and others said to be operated clandestinely by Israel.

Mustafa al-Sawaf, a journalist close to Hamas and former editor in chief of the newspaper Felesteen, told Al-Monitor that the awareness campaigns need to be wisely managed. “We are under a serious Israeli security campaign run by experienced Israeli intelligence,” he said. “There should be various tools to protect the citizens without leaving the people in a state of being obsessed with security.” He declined to explain what types of tools he envisions.

Mohamad Abu Harbid, a security expert at the Interior Ministry, is the spokesperson for Stay Conscious, a social media campaign run by the ministry the site was launched in October to warn against falling into the trap of collaboration. He told Al-Monitor, “The [current] campaign seeks to raise awareness among large numbers of our people about the danger of the suspicious Israeli pages, which deceive them by suggesting that they seek to help them but blackmails them later by requiring them to obtain information on resistance members.”

Representatives from Interior and the Women's Affairs Ministry along with activists from the factions and family elders are all involved in Stay Conscious. For example, they might singularly or in coordination follow-up on someone thought to have or reported to have had suspicious contacts on social media, inquiring about the reasons and type of information shared and deciding on a course of action, such as pointing out their error or for serious matters referring them to the Interior Ministry.

The other recording posted by the Interior Ministry is of a WhatsApp call that it described as an attempt “to drag a journalist into dealing with Israeli officers to provide security information on the resistance and its members.” In it, an alleged Israeli journalist asks a Palestinian journalist in Gaza to coordinate with him, contributing in the coverage of issues from a Palestinian perspective in the Israeli media. 

A security source speaking on the condition of anonymity told Al-Monitor that the ministry has been making arrests based on political activity and affiliation or for alleged collaboration with Israel. Those targeted include extremists, activists and journalists.

In an Oct. 9 statement, the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate dismissed allegations by Hamas that journalists in Gaza are in league with Israel. “The syndicate firmly rejects Hamas abuses' against journalists,” such as questionable detentions and accusations of spying. On Oct. 15, the syndicate also challenged an Interior Ministry statement asserting that there are no journalists among the detainees in its prisons and denounced it for not revealing the reasons behind the arrests by pressing charges, noting that not to do so is a violation of the Palestinian basic law. It called for the release of detained journalists. Al-Monitor sought to obtain a response from the ministry, but to no avail.

Mustafa Ibrahim, a human rights activist in Gaza and a writer for Felesteen, told Al-Monitor, “Some detainees summoned in recent months continue to be held without any clear charges against them. They need to be brought before the civil judiciary for the rule of law and for the court to decide on their [guilt or innocence]. The accusations and security incidents alleged by the Interior Ministry pose a threat to the society.” 

Ibrahim added that human rights organizations are pressuring the Interior Ministry and trying to raise awareness among the security services on best practices involving arrests and detentions and advocating against the use of torture.

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