Israel’s Scheme To Defund the BDS Movement

Told they are enabling terrorists, banks cut off pro-Palestinian activists.

Alex Kane November 11, 2019

Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) supporters—inspired by the anti-apartheid movement—demonstrate at a 2015 Pharrell Williams concert in Cape Town, South Africa. Williams collaborated with South Africa-based Woolworths, boycotted by BDS for buying Israeli produce from occupied territories. (Photo by Anna Ferensowicz/ Pacific Press/ LightRocket via Getty Images)

As end-of-the-year fundrais­ing reached a fever pitch in Decem­ber 2018, the account that the BDS Nation­al Com­mit­tee (BNC) was using to receive dona­tions became dis­abled. The BNC — the Pales­tin­ian group that leads the glob­al move­ment to boy­cott, sanc­tion and divest from Israel as lever­age against human rights abus­es — imme­di­ate­ly sus­pect­ed the Israeli government.

Shurat HaDin–Israel Law Center has threatened the BDS movement and filed multiple lawsuits aimed at undermining it.

The BNC’s account was with Donor­box, a fundrais­ing plat­form used by thou­sands of orga­ni­za­tions. Donor­box explained in a state­ment that, while it had noth­ing against the Boy­cott, Divest­ment and Sanc­tions (BDS) move­ment, a let­ter it received from Shu­rat HaDin – Israel Law Cen­ter accused the BNC of ties to ter­ror­ism, and Donor­box closed the BNC’s account while review­ing evi­dence.” Shu­rat HaDin has deep ties to the Israeli government.

An employ­ee of Donor­box agreed to speak with In These Times on con­di­tion of anonymi­ty, say­ing he feared for his per­son­al safe­ty because those involved have con­nec­tions to Israeli intel­li­gence and Pales­tin­ian polit­i­cal fac­tions. Shu­rat HaDin pres­sured one of our pay­ment proces­sors, which pres­sured us,” he wrote in an email.

The BNC quick­ly found an alter­na­tive to Donor­box and lost less than 12 hours of fundrais­ing time, but the shut­down sent a stark sig­nal: The Israeli gov­ern­ment and its allies are com­ing for the BDS movement’s finan­cial infrastructure.

[Shu­rat HaDin is] pur­su­ing McCarthyite legal war­fare,” said Omar Bargh­outi, co-founder of the BDS move­ment, in a state­ment at the time. “[It’s] a des­per­ate attempt to under­mine our abil­i­ty to chal­lenge Israel’s decades-old régime of apartheid and oppression.”

The tac­tic fits into a larg­er trend of cross-bor­der attacks on civ­il soci­ety waged by repres­sive gov­ern­ments. Chi­na has report­ed­ly spied on and intim­i­dat­ed activists in Europe work­ing against poli­cies tar­get­ing its Uighur Mus­lim minor­i­ty, and Sau­di Ara­bia has report­ed­ly tried to hack into the phones of Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al and dis­si­dents liv­ing overseas.

In These Times has found that the account shut­down is the fruit of a much larg­er glob­al cam­paign of lit­i­ga­tion against the BDS move­ment. In fil­ing law­suits and legal threats, the Israeli gov­ern­ment has coop­er­at­ed with pro-Israel non­prof­its around the world — backed, in some cas­es, by tax-sub­si­dized dona­tions from Amer­i­cans, includ­ing Chris­t­ian Zion­ists. Since 2013, in addi­tion to at least two legal threats tar­get­ing the movement’s finan­cial infra­struc­ture, Shu­rat HaDin filed at least five com­plaints or law­suits against boy­cott advo­cates and threat­ened to file two more. Shu­rat HaDin’s U.S. tar­gets ranged from the Pres­by­ter­ian Church to the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal, Radio and Machine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca to Airbnb.

Both Shu­rat HaDin and the Inter­na­tion­al Legal Forum (anoth­er Israeli group with ties to the Israeli gov­ern­ment) appear to be esca­lat­ing their activ­i­ties in the Unit­ed States, accord­ing to In These Times’ inves­ti­ga­tion. In July, the Berk­man Law Office, a New York firm, reg­is­tered as a for­eign agent for Shu­rat HaDin. In May, the Zion­ist Advo­ca­cy Cen­ter, a pro-Israel legal group run by New York lawyer David Abrams, reg­is­tered as a for­eign agent for the Inter­na­tion­al Legal Forum. Doc­u­ments filed as part of that reg­is­tra­tion show that Abrams will be assist­ing the group in sub­mit­ting reports of ter­ror­ist con­nec­tions to finan­cial ser­vices firms and pros­e­cut­ing authorities.”

(Design by Rachel K. Dooley/​Illustration by Evgeniy Yatskov)

THE CALL FOR BOY­COTTS, DIVEST­MENT and sanc­tions orig­i­nat­ed with a coali­tion of Pales­tin­ian civ­il soci­ety groups — refugees, women’s groups, unions and oth­ers — in 2005, mod­eled on the glob­al move­ment against apartheid in South Africa. The move­ment has three demands: an end to Israel’s occu­pa­tion and sep­a­ra­tion wall, equal­i­ty for Pales­tin­ian cit­i­zens of Israel, and the right of return for Pales­tin­ian refugees and descen­dants of refugees expelled by Israeli forces dur­ing Israel’s found­ing in 1948. Until those demands are met, BDS calls for boy­cotting and divest­ing from Israel and com­pa­nies that vio­late Pales­tin­ian rights, as well as for inter­na­tion­al sanc­tions on Israel, such as end­ing mil­i­tary and free trade agreements.

The move­ment has suc­cess­ful­ly focused inter­na­tion­al atten­tion on Israel’s block­ade of Gaza and its sys­tem of mil­i­tary occu­pa­tion and set­tle­ment-build­ing on Pales­tin­ian land. In the Unit­ed States, the move­ment has enjoyed a recent surge in promi­nence — and an accom­pa­ny­ing back­lash. In 2018, Reps. Rashi­da Tlaib (D‑Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D‑Minn.) endorsed BDS, becom­ing the first two fed­er­al elect­ed offi­cials to sup­port boy­cotting Israel. In July, Con­gress over­whelm­ing­ly passed a bill con­demn­ing BDS, with all but 16 Democ­rats vot­ing in favor. How­ev­er, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty ral­lied behind Tlaib and Omar a month lat­er when Israel banned the pair from vis­it­ing Israel and Palestine.

The BDS move­ment threat­ens to become a grow­ing pub­lic rela­tions prob­lem for Israel’s care­ful­ly cul­ti­vat­ed image as a lib­er­al democ­ra­cy, which is how BDS found itself in the crosshairs of the Israeli Min­istry of Strate­gic Affairs. The cab­i­net-lev­el office is devot­ed to com­bat­ting threats iden­ti­fied by Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Netanyahu’s right-wing gov­ern­ment, rang­ing from Iran to the Pales­tini­ans to the BDS move­ment, and draws on the resources of Israel’s nation­al intel­li­gence agency, the Mossad.

The Min­istry finances and leads a cam­paign of online trolling, legal harass­ment and intel­li­gence-gath­er­ing against BDS activists world­wide, accord­ing to inves­tiga­tive reports by Israeli news­pa­per Haaretz and the Qatari-fund­ed Eng­lish-lan­guage news agency Al Jazeera, among oth­er out­lets. Buz­zFeed, for exam­ple, report­ed in Sep­tem­ber 2018 that the U.S. con­ser­v­a­tive mega-donor Shel­don Adel­son had helped fund a dig­i­tal polit­i­cal astro­turf­ing” app called Act​.IL, cre­at­ed by ex-Israeli intel­li­gence offi­cers in part­ner­ship with the Israeli gov­ern­ment, in which users are reward­ed for com­plet­ing pro-Israel mis­sions” online. Mis­sions include arguable harass­ment of BDS pro­po­nents, such as peti­tion­ing an employ­er to fire a pro-Pales­tin­ian activist or post­ing the iden­ti­ties of George Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty stu­dents who con­fi­den­tial­ly vot­ed to sup­port BDS.

[The Ministry’s] attacks on the BDS move­ment are part of a larg­er cam­paign to sti­fle the grow­ing sup­port for Pales­tin­ian rights, using dirty tac­tics includ­ing cyber­bul­ly­ing and false legal claims that intim­i­date and try to silence crit­i­cism of Israeli pol­i­cy,” says Rebec­ca Vilkomer­son, who was exec­u­tive direc­tor of the pro-BDS Pales­tine sol­i­dar­i­ty group Jew­ish Voice for Peace for ten years. These disin­gen­u­ous attacks — includ­ing anti-BDS leg­is­la­tion at the state and nation­al lev­el — lead direct­ly to vio­la­tions of our First Amend­ment right to free speech.”

In These Times has deter­mined that, start­ing late in 2018, the Min­istry teamed up with Shu­rat HaDin and the Inter­na­tion­al Legal Forum to shut down pro-BDS finan­cial accounts. Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of both Shu­rat HaDin and the Inter­na­tion­al Legal Forum con­firmed to In These Times that they col­lab­o­rate with Israel’s Min­istry of Strate­gic Affairs, and accord­ing to Israeli gov­ern­ment doc­u­ments reviewed by In These Times, the Inter­na­tion­al Legal Forum receives direct fund­ing from the Ministry.

But the full sto­ry of exact­ly why the BNC’s Donor­box account was shut down didn’t emerge until this past June. In a report sent to jour­nal­ists, the Min­istry revealed that an undis­closed eco­nom­ic cam­paign” over the past two years had result­ed in the clo­sure of 30 finan­cial accounts belong­ing to orga­ni­za­tions as var­ied as the BNC and Al-Haq, a glob­al­ly respect­ed Pales­tin­ian human rights NGO.

In the Donor­box case, Shu­rat HaDin and the Min­istry argued that the BNC was linked to ter­ror­ism by its con­nec­tion to the Coun­cil of Nation­al and Islam­ic Forces in Pales­tine. The Coun­cil is made up of the lead­ing Pales­tin­ian polit­i­cal fac­tions, includ­ing mil­i­tant groups like Hamas and Islam­ic Jihad, which are on the U.S. State Department’s list of for­eign ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tions. This infor­ma­tion wasn’t secret and didn’t require some sophis­ti­cat­ed intel­li­gence oper­a­tion; the Coun­cil is list­ed as a mem­ber on BNC’s website.

Shu­rat HaDin alleged that BNC fundrais­ing could be in vio­la­tion of the U.S. law that pro­hibits mate­r­i­al sup­port” to ter­ror­ism, a statute the ACLU says is over­ly broad and poten­tial­ly crim­i­nal­izes free­dom of asso­ci­a­tion and human­i­tar­i­an sup­port in areas where mil­i­tant groups oper­ate. The Cen­ter for Con­sti­tu­tion­al Rights dis­missed Shu­rat HaDin’s com­plaint to Donor­box as rely­ing on unsup­port­ed and false claims that funds raised by the BNC may’ go to groups des­ig­nat­ed as ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tions by the U.S. government.”

Mean­while, the anony­mous Donor­box employ­ee tells In These Times, Our com­pa­ny does not have the capa­bil­i­ty to inves­ti­gate if U.S.-sanction[ed] groups are work­ing with BDS. Thus, we are stuck between a rock and the hard place.”

The open col­lab­o­ra­tion between the Min­istry and Israeli non­prof­it groups to shut down the finan­cial infra­struc­ture of Pales­tin­ian rights groups is a new front in Israel’s bat­tle against the non­vi­o­lent BDS move­ment. But it isn’t the first time Israel’s gov­ern­ment has used hard­ball tac­tics to com­bat BDS.

(Pho­to by Gali Tibbon/​Getty Images)

ISRAEL’S MIN­ISTRY OF STRATE­GIC Affairs was found­ed in 2006, but Israel didn’t pay much atten­tion to the nascent BDS move­ment until late 2009-10, accord­ing to Yos­si Kuper­wass­er, who served as direc­tor gen­er­al of the min­istry from 2009 – 14.

That peri­od was a turn­ing point for efforts to hold Israel account­able for its poli­cies toward Gaza, the coastal strip that has been bat­tered by Israeli assaults and eco­nom­i­cal­ly dev­as­tat­ed by an Israeli land, air and sea block­ade. In Sep­tem­ber 2009, the UN Human Rights Coun­cil released a report authored by Richard Gold­stone, a respect­ed Jew­ish South African judge, who accused both Israel and Pales­tin­ian mil­i­tant groups of war crimes and pos­si­ble crimes against human­i­ty dur­ing Israel’s 2008-09 assault on Gaza. Then, in May 2010, Israeli com­man­dos raid­ed a Turk­ish ship try­ing to break the sea block­ade of Gaza, killing nine peo­ple. That episode sparked inter­na­tion­al con­dem­na­tion of Israel’s exces­sive use of force and of its poli­cies toward Gaza, and Israel ulti­mate­ly loos­ened the blockade.

The Gold­stone report and the attempt to break Israel’s block­ade were not BDS ini­tia­tives, but they did fuel BDS calls to hold Israel account­able for human rights abus­es. Kuper­wass­er explains that if an emi­nent fig­ure like Gold­stone could accuse Israel of pos­si­ble war crimes, it meant that the BDS movement’s efforts to dele­git­imize” Israel might con­vince liberals.

This [idea of dele­git­imiz­ing Israel] was … a red light,” Kuper­wass­er tells In These Times. The most impor­tant thing [was] to pre­vent the move­ment of this idea from the extreme pro­gres­sive part [to] … rea­son­able people.”

Since that peri­od, Kuper­wass­er says, the Min­istry of Strate­gic Affairs has stepped up its efforts to under­mine activists call­ing for the boy­cott of Israel. Its bud­get has steadi­ly grown. In 2015, the Min­istry received about $2.5 mil­lion; by 2017, that bud­get had more than quin­tu­pled to $13.2 mil­lion. In late 2017, the Israeli gov­ern­ment, as a whole, announced it would set aside $72 mil­lion to attack BDS.

Using that mon­ey, the Min­istry of Strate­gic Affairs has embarked on a cam­paign of sur­veil­lance and pro­pa­gan­da tar­get­ing the BDS movement.

Because Israel con­trols all entry and exit points to the Pales­tin­ian ter­ri­to­ries, per­haps the Ministry’s most potent tool is a 2017 law allow­ing Israel to bar sup­port­ers of BDS from enter­ing Israel and Pales­tine. While the Min­istry of the Inte­ri­or has ulti­mate author­i­ty over whom it lets in, the Min­istry of Strate­gic Affairs sup­plies the Inte­ri­or with infor­ma­tion about crit­ics of Israel to guide those deci­sions. Mem­bers of U.S.-based orga­ni­za­tions Jew­ish Voice for Peace, Amer­i­can Friends Ser­vice Com­mit­tee and Code Pink have been banned, in addi­tion to Reps. Tlaib and Omar in August. The law is also being used to deport Omar Shakir, Human Rights Watch’s Israel-Pales­tine director.

To car­ry out its attacks on BDS, the Min­istry has drawn on the resources of the Mossad. In 2018, accord­ing to the Israeli news­pa­per Haaretz, Strate­gic Affairs Min­is­ter Gilad Erdan met with Mossad head Yos­si Cohen to dis­cuss the strug­gle against the boycott.”

But per­haps the Ministry’s most promi­nent part­ner in this effort is Shu­rat HaDin. Found­ed in 2003, the non­prof­it has made head­lines for suing Iran and the Pales­tin­ian Author­i­ty to win set­tle­ments for Israeli and U.S. vic­tims of mil­i­tant attacks, with help from the Mossad. Yair Netanyahu, the son of Israeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Netanyahu, worked as social media coor­di­na­tor for Shu­rat HaDin for near­ly a year.

Shu­rat HaDin has threat­ened the BDS move­ment and filed mul­ti­ple law­suits aimed at under­min­ing it. Shu­rat HaDin asked the U.S. Inter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice in 2014 to revoke the tax-exempt sta­tus of the Pres­by­ter­ian Church after the church divest­ed from three cor­po­ra­tions involved in the occu­pa­tion of Pales­tine; filed a com­plaint with the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board in 2016 after the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal, Radio, and Machine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca endorsed BDS; and sued Airbnb on behalf of Israeli set­tlers for dis­crim­i­na­tion in 2018 after the home-shar­ing com­pa­ny decid­ed to remove Jew­ish-only West Bank set­tle­ment list­ings from its plat­form. The Airbnb com­plaint in par­tic­u­lar turned U.S. fed­er­al law on its head by argu­ing that delist­ing the set­tle­ments, despite dis­crim­i­nat­ing against Pales­tini­ans, is a vio­la­tion of the Fair Hous­ing Act, a major civ­il rights-era law. (After heavy pres­sure from pro-Israel groups, Airbnb reversed its deci­sion ear­li­er this year and the law­suit was settled.)

Shu­rat HaDin has not suc­ceed­ed in U.S. fed­er­al courts with its attacks on the right to boy­cott, but that doesn’t mat­ter much. Shu­rat HaDin is backed by a net­work of donors, many of them U.S. foun­da­tions, whose annu­al tax-exempt dona­tions under­write a nev­er-end­ing series of legal claims that tie up their tar­gets in expen­sive lit­i­ga­tion. Those dona­tions include $1.1 mil­lion from U.S. foun­da­tions and non­prof­its over the past decade, accord­ing to an In These Times review. Among its most promi­nent donors are John Hagee Min­istries, the evan­gel­i­cal min­istry run by far-right Chris­t­ian Zion­ist John Hagee, which has donat­ed at least $225,000 to Shu­rat HaDin; the Jew­ish Fed­er­a­tion of Greater Hous­ton, which has giv­en $475,000; and the Michael and Andrea Lev­en Fam­i­ly Foun­da­tion, run by Michael Lev­en, the for­mer COO of Shel­don Adelson’s casi­no empire Las Vegas Sands, which has sent $25,000.

(Pho­to by Mostafa Alkharoufa/​Anadolu Agency/​Getty Images)

They have a lot of resources, so they can throw a lot of spaghet­ti at the wall,” says Liz Jack­son, a senior staff attor­ney for Pales­tine Legal, which defends Pales­tine advo­cates’ free speech rights and has defend­ed those whom Shu­rat HaDin has tar­get­ed. “[They] paint any­one who’s an advo­cate for human rights as a ter­ror­ist. … It’s a win-win strat­e­gy because they have enough mon­ey that they can afford to lose. And even when they lose a case, they get media.”

Shu­rat HaDin tells In These Times that it direct­ly col­lab­o­rat­ed with the Min­istry of Strate­gic Affairs in at least two instances. Some­times, if they need a warn­ing let­ter or oth­er legal action to be tak­en, and they them­selves as the Israeli gov­ern­ment can­not do it, they ask us to write the let­ter or bring the legal action,” Nit­sana Dar­shan-Leit­ner, founder and direc­tor of Shu­rat HaDin, tells In These Times.

In addi­tion to tar­get­ing the BNC’s Donor­box account, Dar­shan-Leit­ner says Shu­rat HaDin teamed up with the Min­istry to go after the bank account of Jew­ish Voice for a Just Peace in the Mid­dle East, a Ger­man NGO. The alleged crime? In 2019, its par­ent group, Euro­pean Jews for a Just Peace, invit­ed Ras­mea Odeh, a Pales­tin­ian woman accused by Israel of tak­ing part in a mil­i­tant attack car­ried out by the Pop­u­lar Front for the Lib­er­a­tion of Pales­tine, to speak at an event. Odeh denies par­tic­i­pa­tion and says her con­fes­sion about the attack was tor­tured out of her by Israeli forces.

In response to the pres­sure, the Bank for Social Econ­o­my shut down the Ger­man group’s bank account. The Inter­na­tion­al Legal Forum, for its part, has formed a glob­al net­work to go after crit­ics of Israel in courts around the world, with offi­cial back­ing from Israel’s Min­istry of Strate­gic Affairs. The organization’s head is Yifa Segal, who pre­vi­ous­ly worked as a lawyer for Shu­rat HaDin. Segal con­firmed to In These Times in an inter­view that the group has accept­ed Min­istry funding.

In Israel, the Inter­na­tion­al Legal Forum defend­ed an anti-BDS law that lets Israelis sue boy­cott advo­cates. In Spain in 2015, it assist­ed action against cities that passed res­o­lu­tions endors­ing BDSone city then with­drew its pro-BDS res­o­lu­tion, and anoth­er res­o­lu­tion was nul­li­fied by a Span­ish judge. In the Unit­ed States, it advo­cat­ed against a 2016 State Depart­ment reminder that prod­ucts made in ille­gal West Bank set­tle­ments should not be labeled as made in Israel.” In Octo­ber 2018, it sued the city of Durham, N.C., and its police chief for dis­crim­i­na­tion because a non-bind­ing City Coun­cil res­o­lu­tion opposed the Durham police doing mil­i­tary-style inter­na­tion­al train­ings. The res­o­lu­tion passed at the request of Pales­tin­ian rights orga­niz­ers who lob­by against police train­ing exchanges between U.S. police and Israeli forces.

In Sep­tem­ber 2017, the Min­istry filed doc­u­ments announc­ing it would pay the Israel Bar Asso­ci­a­tion to part­ner with the Inter­na­tion­al Legal Forum in orga­niz­ing a con­fer­ence on anti-BDS legal strate­gies. In 2018, the Min­istry announced its inten­tion to pro­vide up to $1 mil­lion in finan­cial assis­tance to the Inter­na­tion­al Legal Forum to fos­ter an inter­na­tion­al net­work of attor­neys to pro­mote legal research on BDS.

Now, the Inter­na­tion­al Legal Forum has reg­is­tered as a for­eign agent in the Unit­ed States, tap­ping the Zion­ist Advo­ca­cy Cen­ter to file legal claims about alleged ter­ror­ism. It remains unclear what, exact­ly, that means and which orga­ni­za­tions will be tar­get­ed. David Abrams, Zion­ist Advo­ca­cy Cen­ter exec­u­tive direc­tor, twice told In These Times he had no com­ment” for this story.

In the reg­is­tra­tion doc­u­ments, Abrams states the Inter­na­tion­al Legal Forum does not take for­eign fund­ing, despite what In These Times learned from Israeli gov­ern­ment doc­u­ments and was told by the Inter­na­tion­al Legal Forum’s pres­i­dent, Yifa Segal, herself.

There’s con­cern among Pales­tin­ian rights advo­cates that Abrams and oth­ers are lay­ing the ground­work to step up more finan­cial and legal fights against BDS advo­cates, but lead­ers in the BDS move­ment say they are uncowed and view the response as a mea­sure of their success.

The Israeli far-right régime’s relent­less and des­per­ate mea­sures of repres­sion against the BDS move­ment are fail­ing,” BDS move­ment co-founder Omar Bargh­outi tells In These Times. The movement’s sup­port­ers are increas­ing like nev­er before, its impact is grow­ing steadi­ly and impres­sive­ly, and its fundrais­ers are hit­ting new records. While Israel is now a mod­el for author­i­tar­i­an and fas­cist forces, from Italy to Hun­gary to Brazil to Sau­di Ara­bia and the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates, the BDS move­ment for Pales­tin­ian rights has become an inte­gral part of the glob­al anti-fas­cist and pro­gres­sive wave that strives for free­dom, jus­tice and equal­i­ty for all.”

Alex Kane is a New York-based free­lance jour­nal­ist who writes on U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy in the Mid­dle East.
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