Middle East Eye / March 2, 2021
British Palestinian party member says ex-military intelligence officer’s ‘social listening’ role raises questions about data security.
The UK Labour Party is facing a legal challenge over its decision to recruit an Israeli former military intelligence officer as one of its social media managers.
A leading London law firm is threatening to bring proceedings against the party following the hiring of Assaf Kaplan, who served with the Israeli army signals intelligence and surveillance branch known as Unit 8200.
Unit 8200 is the counterpart of civilian agencies such as the US National Security Agency and GCHQ in the UK but has faced widespread criticism – including from its own soldiers – for its role in the close surveillance of Palestinian civilians.
In a letter to the Labour Party, the law firm Bindmans alleges that it is “very likely that Mr Kaplan was involved in the unlawful coercive surveillance practices” of Unit 8200 or was at the very least aware of them.
“Either situation renders Mr Kaplan’s current recruitment untenable.”
Bindmans has also asked the party whether Kaplan remains a reservist in the Israeli Defence Force.
The firm is acting on behalf of a British Palestinian Labour Party member, Adnan Hmidan, from west London, who says he is concerned about the recruitment of Kaplan to a position that the party describes as its “social listening and organising manager”: monitoring online conversations, including among party members.
Hmidan is worried that the appointment may jeopardise his rights under the UK’s data protection laws and under the European General Data Protection Regulation.
“I am very concerned that the Labour Party has recruited a former Israeli spy to a position that involves monitoring the social media accounts of its members including those that are British Palestinian, supportive of Palestine or opposed to the occupation of Palestine,” he said.
“The Labour Party has provided no assurances that the recruitment is in accordance with its stated position on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, its commitment to the Fourth Geneva Conventions, or its public condemnation of Israel’s settlement policies.
“The party has also failed to confirm what steps, if any, have been taken to limit the risks to these members or to ensure that our data is not processed without our consent.”
Jamie Potter, a partner at Bindmans, said: “The Labour Party has an obligation to apply principles of fairness and natural justice to its members, as well as to act consistently with the party’s stated values.
“Given Mr Kaplan’s apparent background it is deeply concerning that the Labour Party recruited him without providing any assurances whatsoever to its Palestinian and other members, and has still not done so despite senior figures within the party condemning the recruitment.
“This is all the more surprising given the Labour Party’s public condemnation of Israel’s unlawful settlement policies. We hope that the Labour Party will now engage with our client and respond fully to his questions concerning the recruitment decision.”
Kaplan works in the office of Labour leader Keir Starmer in the UK’s parliament buildings, rather than in the party’s headquarters, where some staff are said to be deeply uneasy about his role.
His appointment has been condemned by a number of senior figures within the party.
Much of their concern focuses on the way in which a number of Unit 8200’s own soldiers have said that their surveillance has led to Palestinians being blackmailed into working as informers for the Israeli government. Gay Palestinians are said to have been particularly vulnerable.
In 2014, 43 of its members and former members wrote publicly to their commanders, and to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, complaining that electronic surveillance of Palestinians was widespread and was not targeted only at people suspected of involvement in violence.
Following Kaplan’s appointment, a former Israeli soldier who served with Unit 8200 told Middle East Eye that its work included collecting compromising private information on Palestinian civilians in the West Bank and Gaza that could be used to pressure them to collaborate with Israel.
He said he served for a year in a department that was eavesdropping on people’s conversations but had quit because of his concerns about its work.
“It is a dark system that has no limits. This tool has been used to keep the people oppressed in order that they don’t resist the occupation,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“I believe that the Labour Party or any side that identifies itself as democratic and cares about human rights… has to ask questions before they give a job to someone who was part of a system that is promoting this policy against Palestinians.”
When Kaplan’s recruitment was disclosed in January, Chris Mullin, a Labour MP for 23 years, and who and served as a foreign office minister under Tony Blair, told MEE: “I am not sure if this is a good idea. Is he still working for the Israelis or for the Labour Party?”
John McDonnell, Labour’s former shadow chancellor, said: “I believe most party members will be bewildered to say the least that despite all the social media talent available in our movement, the party has decided to recruit someone with a track record of working in an intelligence organisation roundly condemned for its role in the abuse of the human rights of Palestinians.”
Another senior Labour MP described Kaplan’s appointment as “extremely troubling” and added: “The decision should be immediately reversed and he should be removed from his position.”
In its letter to the Labour Party, Bindmans said that Kaplan’s appointment was in breach of its own rule book and contrary to its stated policies.
“The recruitment is particularly untenable when considered against the involvement of British Palestinians in the Labour Party, the contextual backdrop of the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and Mr Kaplan’s involvement in maintaining that occupation as part of the Israeli Defence Forces.
“Our client was deeply distressed to learn of the recruitment. Our client considers that Mr Kaplan’s background and qualifications render him wholly unsuitable for the position in question and our client is concerned about the implications of his recruitment for Arab and Palestinian Labour Party members.
“Our client’s concerns are exacerbated by the fact that it is likely Mr Kaplan was involved in covert surveillance practices in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory that would be considered unlawful in the United Kingdom.
“The recruitment … invites the question of what due diligence, if any, the Labour Party conducted, prior to the appointment and since, to limit the risks to its Arab and Palestinian members.”
The Labour Party refused to comment on the planned litigation. A spokesperson said: “We do not comment on staffing matters.”
The party has refused to answer any of MEE’s questions about the appointment since it was disclosed in January.
In particular, its press office has repeatedly declined to say whether the party was aware of Kaplan’s military intelligence background before he was hired.
Kaplan also declined a request for a comment, made through the party.
Ian Cobain is a senior reporter at Middle East Eye