The Lion’s Den, the most formidable West Bank resistance group, was founded in Jenin. Planning and execution of several attacks against Israel originated there. After these terror attacks, it became critical for the Shin Bet to identify Lion’s Den leaders and eliminate them. This effort led to horrific Israeli attacks there and in Nablus which left scores of Palestinians dead and wounded. Some were militants, but many were innocent bystanders.
One of the key methods for identifying wanted suspects begins the IDF SIGINT Unit 8200. It has the most sophisticated surveillance tools in the world which scour communications of Israel’s rivals and enemies throughout the Middle East, but in Palestine in particular. Unit 8200 personnel possess one of the most comprehensive and intrusive suite of weapons tracking the lives and conversations of Palestinians. They have access to the Palestinian communications network, permitting it to hear every phone call, read virtually any text message, and access any Palestinian internet provider.
The Israeli spooks use data-mining tools searching for particular words that either might indicate someone planning a terror attack; or someone in particular distress. This ranges from people in financial distress, facing severe illness, engaged in adultery or LGBTQ individuals. All of these are ripe for exploitation because their vulnerabilities offer the Shin Bet opportunities to recruit them as informers.
A former Unit 8200 officer who joined a group of refusers who objected to its methods, described them:
“Every case in which they can snare an innocent person, who can be extorted in exchange for information or can be recruited as a collaborator, is gold for us,” said N., one of the 43 graduates of unit 8200, who refused to report for reserve duty in 2014 following these atrocities.
For a dark institution undeterred by the most heinous tactics, the fragile status of Palestinian LGBTQ people is a gold mine. “In the training course they study and learn by heart various words for gay in Arabic,” N. said. The goal is to trace in wiretapping the slightest hint of a random person’s sexuality and use it against them. Then the most moral army in the world will ruin that person’s life, only because he’s gay. This practice also makes every LGBTQ person in the territories seen as a potential collaborator making the already persecuted community’s situation even worse.
Once Unit 8200 has identified a possible victim, an Israeli field agent seeks them out, forces them to meet, and blackmails them by threatening to expose their activities. In the case of a family with a severely ill child, spouse or parent, the agent can offer free Israeli medical treatment. Once the target is forced into the relationship they are given tasks. Sometimes they pass on local gossip or information about specific individuals. They may be asked to follow targeted people and track their movements. In the most damaging cases, they identify wanted men and their location so Israeli forces will know where to find them and murder them.
Many intelligence agencies recruit assets and informers. But in most cases, they seek to protect these individuals both out of a sense of loyalty to them and risk they’ve undertaken; and because it’s “bad for business” when your spies are exposed and left to their cruel fate. In many such cases, the spy agency moves heaven and earth to extract the asset, if possible.
To be clear, there are a few cases in which the Shabak has done this. They’ve been able, in a few cases to remove someone from their community and bring them to Israel (which brings with it a whole different set of problems for the outcast). But in far too many cases Palestinian militant groups discover the informers and exact grisly retribution. There have been several such cases. Several years ago, Hamas discovered spies and dragged their bodies through the streets.
Last week, after Israeli invasions of Jenin and Nablus led to the murder of several Lion’s Den leaders, the group discovered a Shin Bet informer who’d led Israeli forces to the hideout of three of their members. Before his execution, he was forced to produce a video that recounted how he was recruited and what he did for the Shin Bet:
In his last ever video clip, 23-year-old Zoheir of Nablus is wearing a military-green coat while speaking to the camera in a voice that sounds surprisingly calm, and his tension is reflected mainly in the long breaths he takes now and then. One can also see a deep abrasion near his left eye.
“I was connected with the army [Shin Bet] [by means of] a gay sex video of me and someone else from the town,” he says. “The one I slept with, was the one who recruited me and works with the army.”
Zoheir explains how the Shin Bet blackmailed him, threatening to expose his sexual identity and forced him to report on the movements of armed Palestinians, who were later assassinated by Israeli forces.
I asked an Israeli security official if he would confirm Zoheir was an Israeli asset. He refused.
Of course, there is never morality or decency involved in intelligence work. Interactions are always transactional, designed to satisfy the interests of one or both parties. But the Shin Bet’s methods are especially depraved. In this case, they exploited a man’s sexuality and the suffering he would face if it was exposed to his Palestinian community:
Israel made Zoheir fair game, and is responsible for his death no less than those who killed him. Blackmailing and extorting innocent members of the LGBTQ community is a common practice of the Israeli security services.
The Shin Bet’s recruitment of Palestinian spies is also a violation of international law:
This is not only a homophobic hate crime – the International Court in The Hague’s constitution defines “compelling the nationals of the hostile party to take part in the operations of war directed against their own country” a war crime.
Israel likes to boast that it is one of the most welcoming communities to LGBTQ individuals in the Middle East. But this pinkwashing claim is only skin deep. Tel Aviv is the only place in Israel in which gays are welcome and thrive. In many other communities, they are at best tolerated, at worst face homophobia. There have also been gay murders at a Gay Pride parade and a double murder at a Tel Aviv community center for gay youth. Because of the Orthodox stranglehold on social phenomena like birth, death, marriage and divorce, gay marriage will never be recognized.
The exploitation of gay Palestinians by the Shin Bet, and its abandonment of them is not only morally reprehensible, it is yet another mark of profound homophobia. Palestinian lives are expendable to Israeli authorities, but the lives of gay Palestinians are most expendable of all. They are ostracized inside their own community, making them ripe for Israeli exploitation and then execution.
The Haaretz article I’ve quoted here ends with a telling, but disturbing eulogy for Israeli democracy:
…A state that treats people as means to its ends, and has the blood of innocent people on its hands, will never be a true democracy.