Officers in police intelligence units are monitoring the WhatsApp groups used by protesters to coordinate the demonstrations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Haaretz daily reported Wednesday.
According to the report, police are also scanning social media networks to gather intelligence on protest leaders as well as hunting for “offensive” statements about the police and identifying what they believe is intent to carry out criminal acts.
Unnamed law enforcement sources told the outlet that the information was collected to aid police as they prepared for the demonstrations against the prime minister.
Demonstrators have been holding regular protests against Netanyahu, demanding he resign because he is on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, as well as due to his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
According to the report, activists recently found at least 10 intelligence coordinators and police officers in a number of WhatsApp groups linked to the protests, including a group set up to document attacks on demonstrators. Two of the officers were discovered to be members of 12 different groups.
Protesters have increasingly faced violence from counterprotesters and have called for police protection. Police have made some arrests of suspects in attacks.
The report said the intelligence work appeared to be centered on protesters demonstrating in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the coastal region including Netanyahu’s private residence in Caesarea, and the central city of Rosh Ha’ayin, home to Defense Minister Benny Gantz.
Group members told the newspaper that the discovery meant they were afraid to speak freely in the forums. On at least one occasion an intelligence officer was removed from a group.
Additionally, a protest leader in Caesarea told the newspaper she was approached by an officer who greeted her by her first name, even though they had not met before.
According to Hannah Kuperman, the officer clarified that he was in charge of intelligence for all demonstrations, not only those against the prime minister.
“I will come to say hello to you,” the officer reportedly said. “I know all the demonstrators here, most of them. I am trying to — that’s my job.”
The coordinator told her that they were also familiar with the pro-Netanyahu demonstrators that gather at the same location.
The officer was said to have told Kuperman that a Likud activist who was demonstrating in support of the prime minister was “very active on Facebook and the networks. I see them online too.”
“I also see you online. That’s the job, it’s not something personal,” the officer said. “I do not follow [protesters on social networks], God forbid. I have very clear lines and all I want is to know what the schedule is, what the number of protesters is and if there is an intention to disturb. That is the job.”
The Crime Minister movement, one of the groups leading the protests, told Haaretz that the infiltration of online groups by intelligence officers showed that “once again under [Public Security Minister Amir] Ohana it has been proved that the police have become a political police force in the service of an accused criminal.”
In response to an inquiry from the newspaper, the Israel Police said it would not comment on the matter directly but that it works to “prevent and deal with law and order violations using a variety of means legally available.”
Thousands of people protested against Netanyahu throughout Israel Saturday night, though the weekly demonstrations appeared markedly smaller than in previous weeks. A few thousand people demonstrated outside Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem, and several thousand protested in Tel Aviv and Haifa. Several hundred people also protested near Netanyahu’s home in Caesarea. Regular protests in squares and on highway overpasses throughout the country were also reported.
In Jerusalem, many protesters held Israeli flags or black or pink flags, which the grassroots movements behind the demonstrations have adopted as symbols. Turnout Saturday appeared to be lower than in recent weeks because of the cold and the approaching winter rainy season.
The protests have gone on for months and kept a spotlight on Netanyahu at a time when the long-serving leader’s popularity has declined because of his handling of the virus outbreak.