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Israeli government uses PMW material to monitor incitement

Barak Ravid  |
Officials: Israel outsources monitoring of Palestinian media after IDF lapse

Private organizations associated with right-wing politics unofficially take over intelligence gathering, after lack of resources, shifting priorities and years of neglect, sources say.

by Barak Ravid

The government and military have unofficially outsourced some of their intelligence work to private organizations that monitor anti-Israel incitement in the Palestinian media and are associated with right-wing politics, according to several high-ranking government and military sources.

The situation - which the sources said stemmed from a lack of resources, shifting priorities and years of neglect - has prompted some government officials to ask Military Intelligence chief Aviv Kochavi in the last few weeks to take action. Staff members in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's bureau were among the officials who complained to Kochavi.

A Military Intelligence decision to more closely monitor social media, blogs and other online sources after the events of the Arab Spring has meant dramatically reduced monitoring of the mainstream Arab-language media, the IDF sources said. They said Military Intelligence has almost totally stopped monitoring major television stations in real time, like Al Jazeera, Al-Manar and Palestinian television.

For instance, they said, MI soldiers listen to the Friday sermons broadcast on Palestinian television and radio stations a few days later.

The Israel Defense Forces issued a statement denying the allegations.

The Military Intelligence unit assigned to monitor the Arab-language media does so in real time, "24 hours a day, every day of the week, in a wide variety of fields, including the Palestinian field," the IDF said. The army has been expanding its monitoring of open-source information - which can include newspapers, television and social media - to include "various platforms," said the IDF, adding that "any other claim is unfounded."

The government, meanwhile, is getting most of its information on anti-Israel incitement from two private organizations, the sources said: the Middle East Media Research Institute, which is based in Washington, D.C., and the Israel-based Palestinian Media Watch.

Palestinian Media Watch provides mostly professional material on Palestinian incitement in the media and textbooks, but is associated with the right wing. It is directed by Itamar Marcus, who until recently served as the vice president of the Central Fund of Israel, a New York-based right-wing nonprofit association that donates to Israeli right-wing groups like Im Tirtzu and helps fund various activities in West Bank settlements.

The Prime Minister's Bureau confirmed that it is one of several government offices to subscribe to the Palestinian Media Watch e-mail list.

In the last few weeks alone, Netanyahu has cited information that appears in the organization's media roundups. Members of his bureau said that whenever the government wants to cite information, the source of the material and its credibility is carefully checked.

Although it is on Netanyahu's watch that the intelligence agencies have been cutting down on monitoring the Palestinian media, the incitement issue is actually quite important to his government.

The Strategic Affairs Ministry is responsible for determining an "incitement index" that shows the extent to which the Palestinian media have been inciting against Israel, and presenting it to senior cabinet ministers every few months. In addition, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman has instructed Israeli embassies to raise the issue regularly, and Netanyahu frequently mentions Palestinian incitement in his public remarks.

In the past month, Netanyahu has mentioned anti-Israel incitement in at least five press releases and two speeches. He raised the issue in connection with several recent incidents: a meeting between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Amana Muna, a female terrorist who was released from Israeli prison as part of the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange; a speech broadcast on Palestinian government television in which a Palestinian cleric called on his followers to kill Jews; and a program on the same station that praised the terrorists who killed five members of the Fogel family in their beds last year.

Despite the apparent importance the Netanyahu government ascribes to anti-Israel incitement, the government and IDF treatment of the matter is deeply flawed, two senior government officials and two IDF officers said. They singled out Military Intelligence as particularly problematic.

The MI unit that is assigned with collecting intelligence from open sources like the Palestinian media is called Hatzav. It is part of Unit 8200, which deals primarily with collecting information covertly, such as through intercepting telephone conversations. For the past few months, it has also been responsible for cybersecurity.

In 2007 Hatzav was split up, with some members assigned to each Unit 8200 division that deals with a specific country or with the Palestinian Authority. It was meant to increase cooperation between the departments monitoring different sources of information, but has instead reduced Israel's intelligence capabilities, according to the sources. They said that over the past two years, the commanders of Hatzav and of Unit 8200 have been attempting to improve Hatzav, with limited success.

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