Many believe the messages are intended to intimidate those near Al Aqsa from engaging in further political action.
Several Palestinians in Jerusalem have reported receiving threatening text messages that claim to be from Israeli intelligence on Monday, following the brutal suppression of protests at Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
“Hello! You have been identified to have taken part in violent acts at Al-Aqsa Mosque. We will hold you accountable. - Israeli intelligence,” the text message reads.
Many Palestinians are receiving this message to their phones.— mhmd krd (@m7mdkurd) May 10, 2021
You have been identified to have taken part in violent acts at Al-Aqsa Mosque. We will hold you accountable.
- Israeli intelligence.”
Israel likely using a GPS system, like the one for corona outbreaks. pic.twitter.com/aUKkPePMqU
It was sent to several activists and journalists, including a Vice photographer and CNN producer, as well as a prominent preacher. An elderly housewife who lives close to the mosque and attended evening prayers, received it as well.
Those who tried to call the number from which the text was sent, received no response.
People here say messages like these are often sent to scare young guys from not protesting again.— Lama Al-Arian (@lalarian) May 10, 2021
Many believe the messages were intended to intimidate Palestinians from engaging in political action. Particularly after Al Aqsa, one of the holiest places in Islam, has become a symbolic site in the latest chapter of the Palestinian struggle.
½ The Israeli forces are violating Palestinians' right to privacy by sending suspicious malware links to Palestinians and messages from the Israeli intelligence to threaten them, this is also part of their tactics to silence Palestinians#SaveSheikhJarrah #savePalestine— 7amleh حملة (@7amleh) May 11, 2021
Some say there is reason to believe the Israeli state’s involvement explains the connection between those who received messages and their proximity to the mosque.
“It is most likely that the Israeli intelligence uses a GPS system, in order to be able to know who was in the Al-Aqsa Mosque at this time,” Mona Shtaya, an advocacy manager at Palestinian digital rights organisation 7amleh, told Middle East Eye.
Shtaya added that this technology had been put in place since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic – and under the “pretext of public health” it was now being employed by Israeli authorities to “track people’s locations and threaten them”.
Speculations over whether the messages could be malware or sent by a non-state actor were dismissed by Shtaya.
“During the past year, investigations have shown that Israeli intelligence has been monitoring and collecting contact information for people since 2002 without anyone’s knowledge, meaning that this is to be expected.”
However, there were several people who were not present at the mosque nor the protests who still received the text like Omar Khamaisi, a human rights lawyer, confirming that the GPS was not 100 percent accurate in its targeting.
Israeli surveillance complex
Last year, a controversial surveillance program to track Covid-19 infections through cellular phone location data was ordered by the Israeli government, which allowed the Shin Bet domestic intelligence agency to monitor Israelis’ movements via their cell phones.
Beyond the concerns of privacy and accountability, the normalisation of mass surveillance amid a health crisis worried many human rights activists and organisations, and journalists critical of Tel Aviv. Not to forget the most vulnerable groups to such monitoring programs, both offline and online, are Palestinian citizens in Israel and those in the occupied territories.
In March, Israel’s Supreme Court ordered an end to the program – with certain limitations –on grounds that it violated civil liberties.
Israel is renowned for exporting its intelligence and cyber systems all over the globe, and often found wielded by states to control dissent.
In 2019, Amnesty International claimed spyware produced by the Israeli company NSO group was used against Moroccan human rights defenders and that various governments used the NSO cell phone hacking software Pegasus to spy on activists and journalists.