Rayhan Uddin & Nadda Osman
Middle East Eye / May 11, 2021
Warning message sent to people near Al-Aqsa, as activists suspect Israeli government attempts to deter them from joining protests
Scores of Palestinians in Jerusalem have received a threatening text message, which claims to be from “Israeli intelligence”, warning them over taking part in protests.
Israeli forces have attacked Palestinian worshippers at Al-Aqsa Mosque three times over the past four days with tear gas, sound grenades and rubber bullets, causing hundreds of injuries.
The escalation comes as Israeli authorities continue to crack down on growing protests over the imminent eviction of six Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in occupied East Jerusalem.
Amid the rising tensions, many in the Old City reported being sent a threatening text over the past 24 hours.
“Hello! You have been identified to have taken part in violent acts at Al-Aqsa mosque. We will hold you accountable. – Israeli intelligence,” the message reads.
It has been viewed by activists as an attempt to deter Palestinians from going to the mosque – one of the most revered holy sites in Islam which has become a symbol of resistance.
All messages were sent from the same phone number, which Middle East Eye attempted to call but received no response.
Rama Yousef Salah, a 29-year-old journalist who has been covering events in Sheikh Jarrah and Al-Aqsa Mosque over the past week, was among those to be sent the message.
“I received it [on Monday] evening,” she told MEE. “I laughed about it and sent it to my friends, and then I realised they had it too.”
“Then I shared it to social media, and people said that it was sent to everyone near Al-Aqsa…even people who were at home.”
Ezzat Natsheh, a 35-year-old actor from Jerusalem, was sent the warning on Tuesday morning.
“I was not afraid of the message. I took it as a joke,” he told MEE. “Because, really? You want to punish me because I was in Al-Aqsa or Sheikh Jarrah? If you want me, you can send me legal papers.”
Natsheh said that he had not been to Al-Aqsa in recent days after being restricted access by Israeli checkpoint officials, but had been to Sheikh Jarrah regularly to show his solidarity to those threatened with eviction.
Israeli government suspected
Middle East Eye has reached out to the Israeli intelligence spokesperson over whether its agencies were behind the text.
Many Palestinians believe that the scale of people who received the message and their proximity to Al-Aqsa suggested some form of state involvement.
“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,” said Mona Shtaya, local advocacy manager at 7amleh, a Palestinian digital rights organisation.
She said that the technology had been in place since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic under the “pretext of public health”, but was now being used by Israeli authorities to “track people’s locations and threaten them”.
Salah also suspected that Israeli spy agencies were involved.
“I think it’s from the military, from their intelligence unit, because they want to know who was in Al-Aqsa, and they want to put them in prison,” she said.
Lubna, a Jerusalem-based lawyer who had spoken to several people that received the text, raised concerns about the legality of the suspected use of location tracking.
“It is important to note that GPS is not 100 percent accurate, so it’s targeting people who were not even at Al-Aqsa,” she told MEE.
“GPS is not enough evidence to prove in courts that you were there at the time, so these intimidating texts are completely wrong.”
She said her brother, who works as engineer and guard at Al-Aqsa, received the text even though it was his place of work.
“During Ramadan, loads of Muslims go to Al-Aqsa, it’s their place of worship. The use of these texts is thuggish behaviour and does not follow proper laws.”
Some social media users speculated that the text may have come from a non-state actor, such as a malware company or extremist group.
Shtaya rejected this based on the targeted nature of the text, and stated that it was “not new” from authorities.
“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,” she said.
Palestinians not afraid
Some have viewed the threat as the latest in a number of methods to restrict the voice of Palestinians and make them fearful over speaking out.
Just last week, concerns were raised when a number of social media accounts were suspended and content was removed after users posted about the situation in Sheikh Jarrah.
“What the Israeli intelligence is trying to do is intimidate people and scare them from going to the streets, and exclude them from the arena of political action by threatening them with accountability later,” said Shtaya.
Lubna believes that Palestinians will be unfazed by the threats.
“We are a nation that has faced house demolitions, evictions, and getting fired from positions, yet we still resist and carry on,” she said.
Likewise, Natsheh said that he and other protesters would not be deterred.
“Most of the people are not afraid of anything because when they come to a demonstration, they know that they might be arrested or shot with rubber bullets or tear gas. These people will not fear a text message.”
Rayhan Uddin is a freelance writer based in London
Nadda Osman is a British-Egyptian journalist and social media producer based in the UK