Shin Bet and Mossad’s Plans to Surveil the International Criminal Court and Palestinian Human Rights NGOs to Prevent a Criminal Investigation

By Andrea Tucci,

For nearly a decade, Israel has been surveilling senior International Criminal Court officials and Palestinian human rights workers as part of a secret operation to thwart the International Criminal Court’s  in investigate alleged war crimes.

The operation, which dates back to 2015, has seen the Israel’s intelligence routinely surveil the court’s current chief prosecutor Karim Khan, his predecessor Fatou Bensouda, and dozens of other ICC and UN officials.

Israeli intelligence also monitored materials that the Palestinian Authority submitted to the prosecutor’s office, and surveilled employees at four Palestinian human rights organizations whose submissions are central to the probe.

The Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, ran its own parallel operation which sought out compromising information on Bensouda and her close family members in an apparent attempt to sabotage the ICC’s investigation. The agency’s former head, Yossi Cohen, personally attempted to “enlist” Bensouda and manipulate her into complying with Israel’s wishes, according to sources familiar with his activities, causing the then-prosecutor to fear for her personal safety.

The investigation draws on interviews with more than two dozen current and former Israeli intelligence officers and government officials, ex-ICC officials, diplomats, and lawyers familiar with the ICC case and Israel’s efforts to undermine it. According to these sources, initially, the Israeli operation attempted to prevent the court from opening a full criminal investigation.

Israel has long held that the ICC has no jurisdiction to prosecute Israeli leaders because, like the United States, Russia, and China, Israel is NOT a signatory to the Rome Statute which established the court, and Palestine is NOT a full UN member state.

But Palestine was nevertheless recognized as an ICC member upon signing the convention in 2015, having been admitted to the UN General Assembly as a non-member observer state three years prior.

Immediately after becoming a member of the court, the Palestinian Authority asked the prosecutor’s office to investigate crimes committed in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, starting from the date on which the State of Palestine accepted the court’s jurisdiction: July 13, 2014.

Fearing the legal and political consequences of potential prosecutions, Israel raced to prepare intelligence teams in the army, the Shin Bet (domestic intelligence), and the Mossad (foreign intelligence), alongside a covert team of military and civilian lawyers, to lead the effort to forestall a full ICC investigation.

Four sources confirmed Bensouda’s private exchanges with Palestinian officials about the PA’s case were routinely monitored and shared widely within Israel’s intelligence community.

Dozens of other international officials related to the probe were similarly surveilled, around 60 people, including UN officials and ICC personnel.

In addition to monitoring materials that the PA submitted to the ICC,  Shin Bet, also monitored four Palestinian human rights organizations: Al-Haq, Addameer, Al Mezan, and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR). Addameer, sent appeals to the ICC about torture practices against prisoners and detainees, while the other three groups sent multiple appeals over the years regarding Israel’s settlement enterprise in the West Bank, punitive house demolitions, bombing campaigns in Gaza. Another goal of surveilling the Palestinian groups was to try to delegitimize them.

In May 2021, according to an intelligence source, the Shin Bet surveilled the organizations’s employees, and the Israeli Defense Minister, Benny Gantz, declared them terrorist without showing any serious evidence.  Later on an investigation by Citizen Lab (a laboratory studies of information & controls, based in Canada) identified that through a software named “Pegasus Spyware” (produced by the Israeli firm NSO Group) they were spying on the phones of several Palestinians working in those NGOs.

Photo: logos of Palestinian human rights organizations

When Al-Haq collects information on how many Palestinians have been killed in the occupied territories in the past year and passes it on to Bensouda she announced in 2021 the opening of a formal criminal investigation.

In June 2021,  Karim Khan replaced Bensouda as chief prosecutor.

Photo: Karim Khan, chief prosecutor of the ICC, International Criminal Court

Just as with his predecessor, Israeli intelligence also surveilled Khan’s activities with Palestinians and other officials in his office.

Eventually, on May 20, Khan announced that he was seeking arrest warrants for Netanyahu and Gallant, after finding that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the two leaders bear responsibility for crimes including extermination, starvation, and deliberate attacks on civilians.

Mr. Khan announcement that his office “will not hesitate to act” against ongoing threats against the court and its investigation and those Israeli leaders can be prosecuted regardless of the fact that Israel is not a signatory to the Rome Statute.

The spokesperson added that Khan’s office has been subjected to “several forms of threats and communications that could be viewed as attempts to unduly influence its activities.”

The Israeli army also responded in brief: the intelligence operations are only against “hostile elements” and not against the ICC or other international elements.

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