An independent media outlet has revealed that the UK government was “spying” on Palestinian refugees. The government was doing this under the guise of countering terrorism. The Electronic Intifada (EI) alleges that a group of people posed as academics, and didn’t disclose their ties to the British Foreign Office. Instead, these would-be spies were there to monitor the threat of so-called ‘extremism’ by looking out for “criticism of Western and Israeli foreign policy”.
UK government: spying on Palestinian people
On Wednesday 1 February, EI wrote:
Revealed: British government spied on Palestinian refugees
Whistleblowers had given journalists Asa Winstanley and Kit Klarenberg a cache of documents about a UK-government-funded project operating in the Middle East. The premise of the operation seemed fairly straightforward. Its researchers would speak with Palestinian refugees in the occupied West Bank, and in refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon. They would do so, as EI wrote:
to “counter” the “violent extremism” of groups such as ISIS and al-Qaida.
A leaked Foreign Office document setting out the requirements for the project says the findings would be used to improve targeting of subsequent “Countering Violent Extremism” (or CVE) “interventions” in the region, identifying “what types of intervention are most likely to be successful.”
Of course, “violent extremism” depends on what the government of the time wishes to label as extremist. For example, the UK government have a history of ignoring extremism from the far right. As EI uncovered, it turns out that what this project was really doing was trying to get intelligence on Palestinians. This in itself isn’t really surprising because Israel’s hardline government has banned the Palestinian flag from flying in public, and continued their campaign of bombing Palestinians.
Private contractors and think tanks
You can read Winstanley, Klarenberg, and the EI‘s full investigation here. The government project ran from October 2018 to March 2019. Overall, the UK government initially gave it a budget of $120,000 from its ‘Conflict, Stability and Security Fund’. This money went to the following organisations to work on it:
- Adam Smith International – a private intelligence contractor, which was inadvertently funding Islamic State (ISIS) affiliates in Syria.
- The Institute for Strategic Dialogue, an extremism think tank.
Individuals involved included Charlie Winter – a former researcher for Quilliam, a right-wing, Islamophobic think tank. This toxic group was a disaster for Muslim people – not least, as Malia Bouattia wrote for Al Jazeera, because:
it stoked up considerable hate towards Muslims and racialised communities in Britain. For example, when following the child sexual exploitation scandal in Rochdale and other cities, Quilliam published a report claiming that 84 percent of “grooming gang offenders” were Asian. This was later debunked by the Home Office’s own report that confirmed research has found that group-based offenders “are most commonly White”.
Real aims exposed
Meanwhile, the Palestinian project was going to work with the British consulate in Jerusalem. As EI noted:
The consulate is an important base of operations for MI6, Britain’s overseas spy agency.
The project’s team would then act, or use their status as academics, to effectively infiltrate Palestinian communities – while making sure they didn’t let on they were associated with the UK government. EI noted that leaked documents show that the project leads considered using:
in-person interviews in the camps combined with “social listening” technology to monitor social media and other online discussion.
It’s not clear if this ever happened. What the project planned to do was, as EI wrote:
“Analysis will be conducted on which narratives are dominant,” their proposal explains. It aimed to ascertain whether “identity issues, criticism of Western and Israeli foreign policy, or ideology, receive the most engagement.”
What is also clear is that the project’s organisers knew that they were effectively spying.
Covert operations for the West
EI reported that the project’s documents indicated the groups and individuals involved knew that they needed to keep its activities under wraps:
the contractors emphasized “the importance of ensuring confidentiality around the sources of funding and the aims of the program.”
They did so to mitigate the risk Palestinians in the refugee camps would “become suspicious,” or camp leaders would “obstruct and hamper” the project, the risk assessment states.
One of the project’s former researchers, Dutch-Palestinian Samar Batrawi, spoke to EI. She said that:
I believed that – as a Palestinian – my perspective on these issues could change these discourses/policies from within. This is no longer something I believe.
As EI wrote:
Was the true purpose of this British government project more about spying on Palestinians, and manipulating public opinion about Israel, as part of its so-called “interventions”?
In the ongoing propaganda war to prop up the apartheid, far-right Israeli state, the UK government likely wouldn’t think twice about manipulating Palestinian refugees for its own ends – even going so far as to spy on them.
Moreover, once again we’re seeing the manipulation of “extremism” for political ends. As the Canary‘s Maryam Jameela recently wrote about the review of the UK government’s Prevent programme:
by purely being critical of the Prevent strategy, individuals or organisations can be seen to be spreading “extremism”.
People already view Muslims, especially Palestinians living in the occupied territories, as terrorists and criminals. The UK government project uncovered by EI would not only have furthered that racist, Islamophobic sentiment but also have done it via cowardly, covert tactics. The UK government has no shame – nor do the think tanks nor the individuals involved with the project in the first place.
You can read the full EI investigation here.
Featured image via Ömer Yıldız – Unsplash
By Steve Topple
This post was originally published on Canary.