UK Palestinian activist, Zaher Birawi won a years-long legal battle against cyber-security company, Refinitiv, which maintains a security database called World-Check, used by governments, law enforcement, airlines and others to avert risk or danger to themselves, their citizens, or businesses. It is compiled from numerous sources and designates individuals based on a level of risk they pose.
When Birawi and the Palestine Return Center (of which he is former board chair) , found themselves listed, their bank accounts were closed, which prohibited them from engaging in both personal business and the activities of his organization. When an NGO has no funds it cannot pursue its work. Which of course was the intent of those who provided the information used to place him on the list.
But who provided it? And what evidence did they offer to verify the claims? Well there’s a story. I consulted with an Israeli security source who told me that his agency told Refinitiv that Birawi was “connected” to Hamas. The same claim is made in a lurid document, Terrorists in Suits (Hebrew, page 72), published by the Israeli Strategic Affairs ministry “exposing” the purported ties between Palestinians rights groups and so-called terrorist movements like Hamas. Pro-Israel NGOs like NGO Monitor and UN Watch have also echoed these claims. And Israeli media have dutifully reported what the NGOs wrote. This latter report I linked, which whispers of global conspiracies purporting to support Palesitnians, but which are fronts for Hamas, was written by none other than Avi Issacharoff, the original screenwriter for the international hit Israeli TV show, Fauda.
This process is like a game of terror telephone. I tell you I’m going to the store to buy toys. You tell your neighbor I’m going to the store to buy toy guns. She tells her neighbor I’m going to buy guns. Then next person hears I’m going to buy guns to kill someone. I’ve gone from being a good dad to being a terrorist. And that’s how this works.
The Israeli government has targeted leaders of Palestinian NGOs seeking to criminalize human rights activism. It accords with the threat offered several years ago by a government minister to engage in a campaign of “civil targeted assassination” that would harass and intimidate them in every possible way.
What proof does Israel offer regarding the claim against Birawi? None. No documents. No statements from anyone in Hamas or Birawi himself. No bank accounts documenting claims that he has taken funds from, or raised funds for Hamas.
Israeli reports also note that Birawi was instrumental in several of the Gaza flotillas which attempted to breach the illegal Israeli siege. One of them was the tragic Mavi Marmara voyage which resulted in Israeli commandos assaulting the ship and executing 10 Turkish passengers at point-blank range. From the perspective of the Israeli publications and NGOs above, the Mavi Marmara activists were terrorists lying in wait to ambush the commandos, who were merely defending themselves. Hence Birawi was himself knowingly fomenting terrorism against Israel.
As Israel’s apologists view everything Israel does as just and legal, the attempt to break the Gaza siege was not just an act of defiance against Israel, but a violent and illegal act deserving of the label “terrorism.” And anyone seeking to help Gazans must certainly be a member of Hamas. The logic may be twisted, but to an Israeli it is unimpeachable.
Birawi sued Refinitiv and spent years pursuing his vindication, which came yesterday when the latter agreed to settle the case:
The legal settlement included a letter, in which Refinitiv stated: “Mr Birawi’s inclusion in the terrorism category should not be understood to suggest any actual or suspected connection to or involvement in terrorism.” It also confirmed that he had not been convicted of terrorism in the UK or elsewhere.
…Birawi said that while his name was removed from the blacklist, it still remained in the database under the category of “individuals” of heightened risk.
The company also paid Birawi an unspecified sum for damages done to him.
Even this statement makes little sense: how can someone be listed “in the terrorism category,” but “not be understood to to suggest actual connection to terrorism?” Further, if he is not a terrorist and the other claims against him by Israel are at best unfounded, and at worst completely false, then why is he someone of “heightened risk?” In actuality, he is no risk at all.
Actually though, he does pose a “risk” of one kind: to Israeli interests as defined by its extremist government, They see any Palestinian who demands human or political rights to be a “delegitimzer” of the State. Someone who wants to destroy Israel. In fact, the PRC, which advocates for the Right of Return of Palestinian refugees to their homes in Israel from which they were expelled in 1948, does not aim to destroy Israel. It aims to rectify an injustice committed against 1-million indigenous Palestinians who were ethnically cleansed during the Nakba.
Absorbing these refugees will not destroy Israel. It will change Israel. It may turn it into a country with a Palestinian majority. And that is an outcome Israelis going back to David Ben Gurion have desperately sought to avoid. But this offers the country an opportunity to become truly democratic one, instead of the apartheid regime it currently is.
Thus, advocating the Right of Return or BDS is not an act of terrorism. And anyone who labels it such to protect or promote Israeli interests violates the rights of Palestinians to advocate for themselves.
When I asked the Israeli intelligence source to respond to Birawi’s victory in UK courts he replied sardonically: “Unfortunately, we don’t have influence on the British judiciary like we have on the Israeli judiciary…”
Refinitiv and its parent company, Blackstone, by including such unsubstantiated allegations in World Check, have waded into the politics of the Middle East with a vengeance, and taken Israel’s side. Doing so is a risky proposition, since so much of what passes for legitimate analysis from such sources is riddled with lies, distortions, and spurious claims, as scores of blog posts here have confirmed.
Refinitiv released this statement:
“World-Check does not perform a law enforcement function and does not have the authority to designate any person or group as a terrorist. If there is reliable information in the public domain linking an individual or group to terrorism this is reflected in World-Check,” the spokesperson added.
This is replete with disingenuous assumptions and claims. First, how can the company claim it cannot “designate any person…as a terrorist,” when it admitted above that Birawi was “included in the terrorism category.” You can’t have it both ways (though you sure can try). Second, how do we define “reliable information?” Is a claim from an Israeli intelligence source or pro-Israel group reliable information? If so, why?
Clearly Refinitiv indicates above that it does not perform due diligence before it adds information to the database. It merely offers whatever it has gathered from the public domain and adds it unfiltered. Then companies or countries using it are on their own to consider how to interpret the data and act upon it. This is precisely how a UK bank decided to close Birawi’s accounts.
Especially troubling in the company’s account is that it maintains a security database which clients pay handsomely to use. The sloppily-compiled data may then be used to damage the lives of those named. And yet the company appears to abscond from any responsibility for the mess it created.
My advice to anyone who is a client using World-Check or any Refinitiv offering is caveat emptor: beware what you buy. You are not purchasing a reliable, trustworthy product. You are buying something slapped together by a couple of drones sitting at a cubicle, doing the equivalent of cutting and pasting online articles and stuffing them into a digital file. The saying goes: you get what you pay for. But in this case, you are likely getting much less than what you think you paid for: a pig in a cyber-poke.
I sent a series of questions to Refinitiv’s media staff, which referred me to its release above. It claimed that “the statement makes it clear why we cannot answer all of your questions.” To which I reply: it makes it as clear as mud.