As Palestine solidarity grows, Israel announces a new $30 million anti-BDS initiative
On 6 January, primetime Australian television gave a Palestinian activist a rare chance to address what was, at the time, one of the country’s biggest news stories.
“Anything we do [as Palestinians] is going to be met with backlash,” Jennine Khalik, a former journalist, told the panel on a popular current affairs talk show. “It doesn’t matter what form of resistance it is.”
It was the opening of Sydney Festival, a three-week series of art and music events that bring together some of Australia’s best-known performers. The festival, which was sponsored and funded by the Israeli embassy, was facing a wave of cancellations, as more than 100 artists and companies withdrew from shows in solidarity with Palestine.
Two weeks after Jennine Khalik’s interview, on 23 January, the Israeli cabinet approved up to 100 million shekels, around $30 million, in funding for a new global information campaign to fight the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, called “Concert.”
"By the time Sydney Festival concluded on 30 January, at least 40 percent of the programme had been affected by the boycott, one that has been called the most effective in the arts – ever"
The initiative will funnel money into pro-Israel groups across the US and Europe, who will then disseminate Israeli-friendly information, not unlike the reports and social media who attacked the activists behind the Sydney Festival boycott.
By the time Sydney Festival concluded on 30 January, at least 40 percent of the programme had been affected by the boycott, one that has been called the most effective in the arts – ever.
“The context is different,” said Rihab Charida, a Sydney-born Palestinian activist and filmmaker told The New Arab, reflecting on the campaign’s success. “The events of May last year forced a shift in public opinion in the West.”
The landmark Sydney Festival campaign was just one in a number of major victories for Palestinian activists around the world this year.
The Sydney Festival was supposed to be the city's cultural comeback, but acts are boycotting the festival due to a decision to accept funding from the Israeli Embassy. @jennineak organised the boycott and tells us more. #TheProjectTV pic.twitter.com/YFqeS0xDBI— The Project (@theprojecttv) January 6, 2022
In Germany, where Palestinian solidarity is quickly denounced from all sides of politics, a federal court overturned a controversial anti-BDS resolution in Munich, which had banned a debate over the resolution from taking place in a public venue.
The judge agreed that the resolution stifled free speech, paving the way for similar rules in other German cities to be overturned.
On 28 January, a district court stopped the State of Texas from enforcing its anti-BDS law against a Palestinian-American who refused to sign a pledge not to boycott Israel.
And then there was Amnesty International’s report on February 1, which saw the human rights organisations join Human Rights Watch and B'Tselem in labelling Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as “apartheid”.
The timing of Israel’s new covert propaganda tool arrives at a time when Palestinian solidarity has reached unprecedented levels.
Concert will take over from the so-called “Solomon’s Sling”, a similar campaign launched in 2015 by Israel’s now-defunct Ministry of Strategic Affairs, which existed primarily to combat BDS.
Using the public diplomacy technique more widely known as “Hasbara”, the Hebrew word for explanation, Solomon’s Sling aimed to have pro-Israel groups share Israel-friendly messaging online or in, say, student newspapers. Hasbara messaging focuses on certain talking points, such as constantly referring to Israel as the “only democracy in the Middle East” or by pointing to gay rights to imply Palestinians are “backward”.
“It all looks very artificial and managed,” Dr. Shir Hever, a member of the German Jewish Voice for Peace who has written two books about the occupation, told The New Arab. “People are told to share certain links and posts, or write positive comments on articles.”
"Hasbara messaging focuses on certain talking points, such as constantly referring to Israel as the 'only democracy in the Middle East' or by pointing to gay rights to imply Palestinians are 'backward'"
Solomon’s Sling found partner organisations across the US and Europe, such as the youth wing of the German-Israeli Society.
“The Israeli government works closely with the youth wing of the German-Israeli Society to produce boiler plate texts, which are distributed to these small student groups,” Hever explains. “They then try to get those published as statements by student unions in different universities.”
“You can recognise by the structure of the texts, and the sources they use, that they are all the same,” Hever continues. “There’s a whole network across Germany of student unions passing around these anti-Palestinian texts.”
Solomon’s Sling was intended to be backed with $80 million in funding. In order to function, half needed to come from private, mostly US-based donors.
“This is how it failed miserably,” Hever said. “The Ministry of Strategic Affairs lost its budget because they couldn’t find the matching private donations.”
One obstacle was a US law on donations from foreign states, which requires that individuals or organisations operating on behalf of a foreign government must register as foreign agents, something few were willing to do.
Concert, the new iteration, will transfer funds directly to foreign organisations responsible for spreading pro-Israel messaging.
“At the end of the day, what you see is a financial transfer from a public utility company, rather than an official government transfer. That is the idea,” the former Director of the Ministry for Strategic Affairs, Ronen Manelis, is reported to have said during a Knesset hearing.
A leaked cable from the Israeli Foreign Ministry suggested the new initiative is being primed to get ahead of an upcoming United Nations report which Israeli officials predict will call Israel an “apartheid state”. It is expected in June.
Hever said it’s still not clear how Concert will avoid the problems faced by its previous version. “None of the central problems have been addressed,” he explained. “Like what it means to mix government and non-government, espionage and civil society, in the same project.”
"Desperate" response to unprecedented support
Palestinian activists say they are receiving more support from the public than ever, particularly since the May 2021 bombing of Gaza.
Experienced campaigners, such as the Palestinian filmmaker Rihab Charida, point to the influence of social media, which allows Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to broadcast their experience to the world, something never before done with such ease.
“Any phone becomes a video camera,” Charida said. “We’re seeing more of these true images in news feeds and social media: of people being dispossessed of their homes, of demonstrators in Gaza being deliberately shot in the knees.”
But government policy in the West lags far behind this public support. Amnesty International’s apartheid report was met with indifference by many governments allied with Israel, with a spokesperson from Germany’s Foreign Ministry calling its publication “not helpful”.
"In the battle for truth, Israel is losing, which explains its 'desperate' response to criticisms over its treatment of Palestinians"
Activists and researchers say this doesn’t reflect the mood among the general public, where attitudes towards Israel are evolving, not least due to the prominence of activists and spokespeople like Mohammed El-Kurd.
“The Israeli government is constantly under pressure to do something about BDS,” said Hever. “But there’s nothing that they can do, other than change the apartheid situation and starting to care about the human rights of Palestinians. That’s not something they can do, so they try another solution.”
Activists say that, in the battle for truth, Israel is losing, which explains its “desperate” response to criticisms over its treatment of Palestinians. They also doubt the funding allocated to its new covert propaganda will have more impact than the images of violence and dispossession captured on smart phones and beamed around the world by Palestinians themselves.
“No amount of money they spend will justify why it’s appropriate to throw a family out of their house,” said Rihab Charida.
Matt Unicomb is an Australian journalist based in Berlin. He was previously the online editor of the news, politics and culture magazine Exberliner.
Follow him on Twitter: @MattUnicomb