They’re a self-styled whistleblower group, frustrated Israel Defense Forces combat veterans who covertly document what they say are abuses in the West Bank witnessed during their service. Reviled in some quarters of the Israeli public, admired in others, they view exposing this information in the media as an effective means of changing the situation on the ground, while their shadowy funding and questionable documentation methods are raised at every opportunity by their critics.
Readers familiar with recent public outrage in Israel could be forgiven for thinking the above description refers to the left-wing Breaking the Silence NGO. But in fact, it likewise describes the right-wing Ad Kan organization (its name means “No more” in Hebrew), whose members, posing as human rights activists, have infiltrated some of Israel’s left-wing organizations and surreptitiously recorded their activities.
They are shtulim — that ominous Hebrew word for “foreign agents” or “moles” that recently entered the Israeli discourse to describe (and denigrate) both foreign government-funded left-wing NGOs and the right-wing activists embedded in those same groups to spy on them. And while these various human rights organizations are miles apart politically from Ad Kan, have wholly different aims, and would likely resent being compared, Ad Kan founder Gilad Ach maintains his strategy was inspired by them.
“We learned this tactic precisely from these organizations,” he said of the idea to film the activists. “An organization like Breaking the Silence, Anarchists Against The Wall, Ta’ayush, like B’Tselem — what do they do? Film the IDF soldiers, collect documentation on these soldiers from within the state, as in, as citizens, and then bring it to the world.
“We’re using precisely the same method,” he said. “The only difference is that their cameras are out in the open, and ours are hidden.”
From environmental infractions to human rights
It started with monitoring environmental crimes.
Toward the end of his six years of military service in the Golani Brigade, Ach’s older brother — a former Israel Navy commando, who during his training was exposed to the heavily polluted Kishon River, died of cancer. (An IDF probe into the high occurrence of cancer among the vets exposed to the river concluded there was no direct link, but the families were later compensated nonetheless).
Ach, 32, who is Orthodox and grew up in the West Bank, and a team of other ex-soldiers founded the Forum for a Green Israel NGO and began clandestinely filming environmental hazards in the West Bank, where these regulations are largely unenforced, and throughout the country. Initially, the group of volunteers would document trucks dumping waste into the Mediterranean or illegal stone quarries in the West Bank and hand over the information directly to the Environmental Protection Ministry.
“[It was] a little innocent, even. In the best case, it was filed away somewhere; in the worst, thrown in the trash,” he said.
Once the NGO was founded, the group changed tactics, deciding to reveal their findings not directly to the authorities “but through the media.” Ach said that since the group — which still operates — began, some 13 illegal quarries have been closed, and it has lodged a High Court of Justice petition regarding four other sites.
At one point during the group’s scouting, Ach encountered an argument between human rights activists and IDF soldiers in the Hebron Hills in the West Bank, and was struck by what he described as the legal upper hand the groups had over the army.
“Afterwards, I was thinking about it — it’s an impossible situation. I’m also a company commander in the reserves. Because you have a gun, you have weapons, you have soldiers, but what are you going to do, shoot these people? If you arrest them, you’ll also get into trouble… so I said, you need to work on the same playing field.
“They [the IDF] come with weapons, and they [the activists] come with cameras. I said, we also know how to film. We can help this situation.”
Beginning in 2013, Ach and a number of activists — at its height, the group now known as Ad Kan numbered some 25 people — began attending the weekly protests organized against the army by Anarchists Against the Wall. Undercover, they had little trouble infiltrating the groups, he said, largely because the organizations were “complacent.” At first, they came without hidden cameras, he said. And eventually, they began filming without the knowledge of the organizations — a move not barred under Israeli law.
During the 2014 Gaza war, while serving in the reserves, Ach recruited Aviram Zeevi, a former Public Security Ministry official, to co-head the organization. Other members were mostly army veterans “who were hit by rocks” during their service by Palestinian protesters and members of these groups, said Ach. The group only listed itself as a nonprofit on the Israeli registry in September. He also runs a third NGO, founded in 2013, named Magen — For a Jewish and Democratic Israel.
“I brought in people who were in the army, and are even agents,” he continued. Pressed for more information, he said cryptically: “Exactly as it sounds.” As a team, they did some “simulations” of the activities — “like an operation,” said Ach.
The group was thrust into the spotlight in January after Channel 2’s investigative journalism show “Uvda” aired a segment based on their documentation. The show focused on Ta’ayush activist Ezra Nawi, an Israeli plumber previously convicted of having an affair with a Palestinian minor, who admitted on camera to “turning in” Palestinians who sold land to Israeli settlers to the Palestinian security services (a capital crime in the PA). Nawi was filmed boasting that he sent these Palestinians to be tortured or killed.
The day the report aired, the group filed a police complaint and Nawi was detained at the airport, where he appeared to be fleeing the country. Nawi and two other activists featured in the report — one a Palestinian B’Tselem field worker — were detained by the police for several days, before a court ordered them released due to insufficient evidence that the claims relating to Nawi were true. (Ach maintained they handed over the documentation to the police several months ago but only formally pressed charges after the report.)
Uvda’s Ilana Dayan was met with fierce criticism by Israel’s left for basing the show on the reports of the right-wing organization. Haaretz columnist Amira Hass named the Ad Kan “mole” who broke the Nawi story (Ach wouldn’t comment on whether she was correct), and “Uvda” deputy editor Shachar Alterman accused Haaretz editor-in-chief Aluf Benn of waging a campaign against the TV show — an accusation that was emphatically denied. (The chief editor of “Uvda,” Gilad Toktali, was not listed in the Ad Kan episode’s credits and has not publicly commented on the controversy).
In a letter to Alterman, Benn wrote that Uvda “cooperated with a belligerent fascist group whose goal is not ‘revealing the truth’ but precisely the opposite, hiding the truth and deterring anyone who tries to tell the world about the reality of the occupation and to help Palestinians in the face of their dispossession. You gave them precious air time, while self-righteously shrugging off the consequences of your actions — starting with the detention of innocents.
“All the warnings, declarations about adherence to the journalistic truth, and attacks on us won’t quickly remove this stain,” Benn wrote, in a letter published by the Walla news website.
Critics also accused Dayan of conflating Nawi’s actions with the human rights groups in the area as a whole, and pointed to the timing of the show, which came as the groups accuse the government of targeting them with the controversial NGO transparency bill and during several campaigns by the right-wing Im Tirtzu group to label activists, and later cultural figures in Israel, as “moles.” Dayan was accused of contributing to the “witch hunt” and “incitement” against these groups.
But Dayan staunchly defended her decision to air the segment. As did Ad Kan.
“I don’t see a moral problem with it,” said Ach of the spying. “Just as there is no moral problem with people who uncover corruption.”
Days before the show aired, Ad Kan pulled its activists from these groups. “Right now, there aren’t many [people left in the field]. A few people,” he said. Planting other operatives in the organizations “now will be difficult,” he conceded. And does he suspect that other activists could infiltrate his organizations? “What you do to others, they can do to you.”
“Beforehand, they were very complacent,” he said of the human rights groups. “No one dealt with them. The Shin Bet [domestic security service] didn’t deal with them. No one acknowledges them. They found a gimmick, they call themselves a human rights organization, and they can’t be touched. The Shin Bet doesn’t want to be viewed in the world as a KGB or Stasi or something.”
And therein lies the NGO’s goal: to get the authorities to crack down on the activists.
“Just as there is a Jewish branch of the Shin Bet that deals with ‘price tag’ attacks, there needs to be a Jewish branch that deals with the radical left or the anarchist organizations that want to dismantle the State of Israel from the inside. That’s the point,” he claimed.
Who’s funding them?
Last month amid the uproar over the Nawi case, the Knesset’s Constitution Law and Justice Committee convened to discuss the “Uvda” report. During the heated session, the political fault lines were immediately drawn: Meretz members of Knesset Zehava Galon (a founder of B’Tselem) and Tamar Zandberg repeatedly called on Ad Kan to reveal its donors; Jewish Home MK Nissim Smoliansky, chairing the session, told the group it needn’t respond to anything.
“Whose agents are you? How do I know some Nazi priest isn’t funding you?” shouted Zandberg. (She was later removed from the session.)
Speaking at the meeting, Zeevi said the NGO’s budget was some NIS 500,000 ($130,000), from “Jewish and Israeli donors.” Ach said the budget was closer to NIS 200,000 and maintained that ex-soldiers donated (himself included) and that many of the “moles” were volunteers. One of their donors is from abroad; the others are Israeli, he said. But Ach, who doesn’t seem to mind the sense of conspiracy around his organization, won’t disclose who they are.
“I would prefer not to. In the end, our people are threatened; I’ve also been threatened. There is no point,” he said.
According to NGO Monitor, the NGOs have a two-year grace period before they must file reports on their donations to the state registry, but “enforcement is usually very lax” due to the thousands of groups registered. Once reported, the organizations can also request that their donors remain anonymous for various reasons.
Days after the report was aired, the Walla news website reported that the NGO was funded by the state-sponsored Samaria Settlers’ Committee. The committee denied the report, saying it had supported projects by Ach’s first group, the Forum for a Green Israel, to report illegal gas stations and quarries in the West Bank, and another project on election fraud. (The Presspectiva blog later reported that the Walla reporter who broke the story is in a relationship with a Breaking the Silence spokesperson.)
Ach, similarly, denied the state-funded organization was supporting Ad Kan, and that it has any state support or ties at all (“If only the state were so sophisticated,” he said).
From here on
Thanks to the “Uvda” segment, the furtive organization is on the map, for better or worse. But taking stock of the uproar, it plans to do things differently next time.
“There is a new threat on the state that the authorities don’t know how to deal with. Until now, it hasn’t been dealt with. The Nawi case is just an example of how they don’t know how to deal with it. We gave them all the material,” said Ach.
He said the “most surprising” outcome of the report was the B’Tselem reaction, which defended Palestinians who turned over land-sellers to the Palestinian security forces as the “only legitimate course of action” for them. The left-wing group at the same time condemned “torture and extrajudicial killings or the death penalty under any circumstances, whether it is done in the cellars of the Shin Bet or the Palestinian Authority.”
Ad Kan, which has offices in Jerusalem, has 2,000 hours of film, much of it “significant,” but will bide its time in compiling it, said Ach.
“We aren’t rushing here. Three years we collected the materials; a half a year, we’ll build the files,” he said. “The story of Ezra Nawi was a sort of experiment to see how the system deals with it. And it didn’t work well, it didn’t work well. Now we’ll have to weigh our legal steps in a more clever way.”
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- Israel Inside
- Ad Kan
- Ezra Nawi
- Ilana Dayan
- Breaking the Silence
- West Bank
- Israel Navy
- Environmental Protection Ministry
- Constitution Law and Justice Committee
- Zehava Galon
- Tamar Zandberg
- Nissim Smoliansky
- Samaria Settlers' Committee
- IDF Israel Defense Forces