Elizabeth Tsurkov, a former Israeli human rights worker, was kidnapped in March by a Shia militia in Bahgdad. She had entered the country to pursue research for her graduate degree at Princeton University. Her research seems to have centered around the militia group, Kataib Hezbollah, which is an affiliate of the Lebanese militant group, Hezbollah. Both have close ties to Iran.
Watching the exchange and learning, but for those claiming she was an “ally” , heres her tweet from less than 2yrs ago
The layers of zionist propaganda here is rich, the erasure of Palestinians, historic revision, mockery, with a sleight of hand too…. pic.twitter.com/V6eDJ39O0s
— Lamis Deek لميس ديك (@Lamis_Deek) July 6, 2023
Tsurkov’s research also centered on Syria. She tweeted highly inflammatory comments about Kataib’s role there, including denunciations of Iran, stating that one of their soldiers killed in a retaliatory US raid “died doing what he loved: occupying Syrian land in the name of spreading the doctrine of Shia clerical rule.”
She also criticized Palestinian Muslims (above tweet) accusing them of “appropriating” an “Aramaic-speaking Jew” and native of Roman Judea. She seems to suggest that because Jesus was a Jew who spoke Aramaic, rather than the Arabic language of Palestinian Muslims, it indicated some sort of hypocrisy on their part.
Dear Elizabeth , I hope that you are safe and come back to fight the occupation and apartheid with us.
You volunteered many times in Hebron to expose the occupation.
Kidnapping her is very wrong and will not help any cause. pic.twitter.com/BCf9hcd7d0
— Issa Amro عيسى عمرو 🇵🇸 (@Issaamro) July 6, 2023
Yet, adding to the complexity, she also was praised (above) by Palestinian activist, Issa Amro, as a champion of Palestinian rights. At one time, Tsurkov worked for the Israeli human rights NGO, Hamoked.
Tsurkov’s military intelligence background
An Israeli security source told me that Tsurkov did her military service in an OSINT (open-source intelligence) unit called, Chatzav. It is a sub-grouping of Israel’s SIGINT Unit 8200. He said that when she first entered the army, IDF intelligence recruited her for Unit 8200 itself. Her knowledge of Russian and Arabic made her a valuable asset for its intelligence work. But the Shin Bet, which grants high-level security clearances, refused her because of her Russian nationality. Russian spies and assets have infiltrated some of the highest level military and political bodies over many decades.
She joined Chatzav, which had a lower level security clearance. It does open-source research on countries targeted by Israeli intelligence including the Arab states, Iran, Russia, China, etc. This includes reading academic and think tank publications, monitoring news media and social media content. Another role, according to a military publication, was to serve as a “social media warrior” adding pro-Israel content to social media platforms and sites like Wikipedia. Chatzav was disbanded in 2021 and its personnel were integrated into Unit 8200 itself.
The source told me that she was not working for the Mossad, a suspicion widely suggested on social media platforms. But whether she was or not, this is how she was likely how she was perceived by those who kidnapped her.
Also, there are many casses in which Israeli intelligence has exploited journalist and academics who have reported in countries where it has no official presence. They are not employed by Mossad as agents, but they serve as intelligence “assets.” I’m not saying Tsurkov was such a figure. But certainly the Mossad would be extremely interested in her research in Syria and Iraq.
Why did Israel delay revealing her kidnapping?
The NY Times reports that Tsurkov entered Iraq in January. She was kidnapped in March. But Israel waited until this month to publicly acknowledge her detention. Haaretz claims it did so now because “social media” accounts had begun to report on it. However, I have learned from a knowledgeable source that this is incorrect. Israel went public after the government was contacted by Israeli journalist, Ronen Bergman, who reports for the New York Times. He had the story (he has a close relationship with Mossad officials) and notified the PM’s office that the Times planned to report it. It did on July 5th here.
Then Bibi Netanyahu, a hound for publicity that will burnish his image (or in this case distract from his current political predicament), made the news public. He decided to pre-empt the Times report in order to better control the narrative and ensure that he was front and center in any reporting (though much of it doesn’t mention Netanyahu explicitly).
The decision by an Israeli to enter a hostile country using a foreign passport while seeking to conceal Israeli nationality, also seems troubling. Deceiving officials of a country–let alone the local subjects with whom you come into contact–in which you seek to do academic research, seems like an ethical breach.
Princeton also has to answer for its role in this affair. In 2015, a University doctoral student was taken hostage while doing research in Iran. He spent three years in prison there. In 2021, he sued Princeton for negligence. This account is eerily similar to Tsurkov’s predicament:
Wang and Qu [the kidnap victim and his spouse] allege that at various points, the actions of Princeton officials put Wang at greater risk. The complaint cites, for example, faculty who encouraged Wang to study in Iran, despite the country’s “history of kidnapping and holding hostage American citizens,” and alleges that an official in the provost’s office advised against seeking the aid of the Swiss Embassy in Iran before his arrest.
Did Tsurkov’s academic advisor approve of her trip and its research purpose? If so, it strikes me that Princeton has not learned its lesson, at a dear price to the victims of its negligence.
Iran is known to hold academic researchers in deep suspicion, believing that they disguise intelligence missions with academic credentials. Other scholars such as Nazanin Zaghair-Ratcliffe, were also arrested by Iranian intelligence and imprisoned for years. Even Iranian scholars face such persecution.
Because of her Israeli intelligence background, not only would Iraqi Shia be suspicious of her intentions, they would find her an important asset in learning about Israeli intelligence- gathering methods and the content of the information it collected. Israel’s military intelligence division, AMAN, would also have to review everything she touched as an intelligence analyst, to determine whether she could expose any secrets to her interrogators.
Israeli law prohibits its citizens from entering hostile Arab countries, including Iraq (though many Israelis have ignored the regulation and traveled to such places). Tsurkov entered using her Russian passport. Since she presumably used her real name, it would have been easy for anyone to discover she was Israeli by doing a rudimentary online search. Knowing this, and knowing that Iraq’s poulation is 80% Shia, it seems like poor judgment to undertake such a trip. In doing so, she not only put herself in danger, she endangered any Iraqi with whom she came into contact.
Israelis on social media have reacted with fury to claims by their country’s critics who have accused her of being a settler (her parents live in Gush Etzion, one of Israel’s earliest settlements), a military veteran, and deeply hostile to Shia Muslims. They are angry that the world does not see her exclusively as a victim and they ranted against any suggestions of criticism against her.
I’ve got to say that the anti-Shia/Iran tweets & even anti Palestinian Muslim tweets from her I’ve read make me feel disquiet. She claims to support Palestine (w Issa Amro even vouching for her). She seems to be a cipher. She also blocked me yrs ago, which mystified me. https://t.co/83i0T0Qf1P pic.twitter.com/JO9jV9xRu9
— Tikun Olam (@richards1052) July 7, 2023
Roy Yellin, the director of public outreach for B’Tselem, Israel’s leading human rights NGO, attacked me (tweet above) with similar harshness, calling my tweets about Tsurkov “disgusting.” He also falsely accused me of opposing women performing academic research. His defensiveness is representative of the attitude I described above. It’s all the more disappointing considering that I have always respected B’Tselem’s work and highlighted it here frequently. For someone tasked with engaging the public and promoting the group’s human rights work to attack a journalist-activists with the same goals, is counter-productive at best, destructive at worst.
He and other Israelis who defend Tsurkov because of her work for Palestinian rights, miss the point: her research on Kataib Hezbollah had nothing to do with Palestinians or their rights. Whatever good she may have done in this sphere, is hardly relevant in the present case.
Scott Long, a noted LGBTQ rights activist claimed (see screenshot) that I believe “it’s OK if she dies” for misrepresenting herself when she entered Iraq. Then to add insult to injury, he declared that I wished her dead “solely out of dislike for her passports” and that he found this “thoroughly loathsome.” All of which are monstrous misrepresentations of the views I’ve laid out here.
People are losing their minds over this on either side. There must be a clear, yet criticial middle ground based on facts and evidence, as we know them. And no, we don’t need to wait until Tsurkov is free to discuss this. There are lessons that should be learned now, not a month or year from now after she is freed.
NOTE: After publication, Scott Long clarified that his criticism was not directed at me, but at others on Twitter who hold the views he was attacking. Obviously that wasn’t clear to me.
There is far too much outrageous rhetoric flying around. Let it fly. But not here.
Israel has no leverage
Further complicating matters for Tsurkov, Israel has had deeply hostile relations with Iran for decades. The latter also exerts considerable influence among Shia Iraqis.
Though it discovered she’d been kidnapped only a few days after it happened, Israel did not make the news public. Clearly, telling her kidnappers that she was an Israeli citizen would have made her situation much worse, even if they had already discovered this. Thus, Israel not only had no leverage to regain her freedom, it had negative leverage. This left her with no means of diplomatic support and few resources to gain her release.
Israel asked the US to intervene on her behalf. But we have our own prisoner issues with Iran, so it’s doubtful the Biden administration could do much even if it wished to. Not to mention, the militia which kidnapped her has attacked US troops in Syria, following which we attacked and killed several of their soldiers.
In closing, I do not condone her kidnapping. On the contrary, I wish she could be freed today. But she can’t. And that deepens the tragedy.
I’ve written about Siamak Namazi, kidnapped by Iran and still imprisoned there. I understand the suffering such victims endure. Kidnapping is a vile act. But, on the other hand, it is my duty as a journalist to analyze events candidly and acutely, letting the chips fall where they may.