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Israel: Shin Bet admits sending threatening texts to Palestinians during May protests

The domestic intelligence agency admits to sending warnings to Palestinians not involved in protests in East Jerusalem last year
Israeli security forces block Palestinians protesting the visit of far-right Jewish Power party leader Itamar Ben-Gvir to Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem on 10 May 2021 (AFP)

Israel's internal intelligence agency, the Shin Bet, has admitted to using spyware to track Palestinians' phones and sending them threatening text messages during the protests in occupied East Jerusalem last May.

The Shin Bet's revelation came a day after the Israeli police admitted using the same tracking system against civilians.

Many Palestinians in East Jerusalem and Palestinian citizens of Israel have received phone messages telling them not to go near al-Aqsa Mosque and warning that they will be punished.

In May last year, protests erupted in East Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood against home eviction orders handed to Palestinians to make way for settlers and the storming of al-Aqsa Mosque by Israeli forces.

The protest escalated into a full-blown 11-day war between Israel and Palestinian armed groups in the Gaza Strip, while protests in mixed Arab-Jewish cities inside Israel led to dozens of deaths.

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The Shin Bet's messages, written in Arabic, read: "Hello! You have been identified to have taken part in violent acts at al-Aqsa Mosque. We will punish you - Israeli intelligence."

In a letter to the Ministry of Justice this week, the Shin Bet admitted that messages were also sent to Palestinians who "did not raise suspicion".

According to Haaretz, the Shin Bet said that there was "a clear security need to express an urgent message to a very large number of people. Each of whom exists a basis for suspicion that they were involved in committing violent crimes, and there is a likely possibility that they will be involved, in the immediate present, in carrying out additional such acts," Shin Bet said in the letter.

However, some Palestinians who received the messages were not near al-Aqsa Mosque and had not taken part in the protests.

'Fundamentally wrong'

In May, Palestinian lawyers wrote to Nadav Argaman, the head of Shin Bet, to demand the Israeli intelligence agency stop sending threatening text messages to Palestinians it accused of involvement in the protests at the al-Aqsa Mosque.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel and the legal group Adalah said on Wednesday that "sending intimidating messages to citizens and residents is illegal and fundamentally wrong.

"Those messages have a deterring effect on legal and legitimate actions such as participating in a demonstration or a religious event," they added.

This week, the Israeli justice ministry said that although the goal of the messages was to "thwart illegal activity meant to harm state security," its wording and enactment were "inappropriate and did not pass the required checks".

All messages were sent from the same phone number. Middle East Eye last year attempted to call the number when the reports of the threatening messages first emerged but received no response. 

The messages were not successful in deterring Palestinians from continuing to take part in protests across Palestinian and Israeli cities, which Israeli forces and settlers met with violence, including lynchings, beatings, car rammings, firing rubber-coated steel bullets, stun grenades, tear gas, and arrests.

Twenty nine Palestinians were killed in the violence in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem in May. One Israeli was killed.

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