Tag Archives: anti-war

Second Skripal Poisoning Suspect Identified as Dr. Alexander Mishkin

In the preceding report from the current investigation into the two suspects in the Skripals poisoning case, Bellingcat and its reporting partner the Insider disclosed the identity of one of the two suspects. The person travelling under the alias of Ruslan Boshirov was identified as GRU’s Col. Anatoliy Chepiga, recipient of Russia’s highest state award.

Bellingcat can now report that it has conclusively identified the second suspect, who travelled to Salisbury under the alias Alexander Petrov. In its previous reporting, we already produced evidence that “Alexander Petrov” is not an authentic persona, but an undercover alias for an officer of a Russian security agency. In another report, we established that “Petrov” was specifically working for Russia’s military intelligence, the GRU.

We have now identified “Alexander Petrov” to be in fact Dr. Alexander Yevgenyevich Mishkin, a trained military doctor in the employ of the GRU. Bellingcat’s identification process included multiple open sources, testimony from people familiar with the person, as well as copies of personally identifying documents, including a scanned copy of his passport. The full identification process will be described in the upcoming full report.

While Alexander Mishkin’s true persona has an even sparser digital footprint than Anatoliy Chepiga’s, Bellingcat has been able to establish certain key facts from his background.

A scanned copy of Alexander Mishkin’s passport, issued in 2001 in St. Petersburg. The passport lists his real name and place of birth as Loyga.

Who is Alexander Mishkin?

Alexander Mishkin was born on 13.07.1979 in the village of Loyga, in the Archangelsk District in Northern European Russia.  He studied and graduated from one of Russia’s elite Military Medical Academies, and was trained as a military doctor for the Russian naval armed forces.

During his medical studies, Mishkin was recruited by the GRU, and by 2010 had relocated to Moscow, where he received his undercover identity – including a second national ID and travel passport – under the alias Alexander Petrov.

In the period 2011-2018, Alexander Mishkin traveled extensively under his new identity. Bellingcat has identified multiple trips to Ukraine and to the self-declared Transnistrian Republic, the last of which as late as during the Maidan events in Kyiv in December 2013.

Unlike the case of Anatoliy Chepiga, “Petrov”’s cover identity retained most of the biographical characteristics of the authentic Mishkin – such as the exact birth date, first and patronymic name, and first names of his parents.

Until early September 2014, Mishkin’s registered home address in Moscow was Khoroshevskoe Shosse 76B – the address of the headquarters of the GRU.  In the autumn of 2014, both Mishkin and Anatoliy Chepiga moved to upscale apartments.

Alexander Mishkin current military rank is unknown. However, based on the known rank as of graduation from the Military Medical Academy (Russian military doctors graduate with a rank of senior lieutenant), and the elapsed time (15 years), it can be posited that as the time of the Skripals’ poisoning incident he was either a Lt. Colonel or a full Colonel.

Bellingcat and the Insider have interviewed multiple sources familiar with Mishkin, both in St. Petersburg and in his native Loyga.

In the full report, which will be published on Tuesday at 13:00, we will publish the full method by which Mishkin was identified, as well as witness testimony from various sources. The full report will also contain forensic evidence of the visual (facial) match between  “Alexander Mishkin” and “Alexander Petrov”

The post Second Skripal Poisoning Suspect Identified as Dr. Alexander Mishkin appeared first on bellingcat.

Lost in occupation: How Google Maps is erasing Palestine

A new report details the ways Google Maps’ mapping process in the occupied territories serves the interests of the Israeli government, while contradicting the company’s stated commitment to human rights.

Israeli soldiers inspect Palestinian cars at the Beit Furik checkpoint, near Nablus, West Bank, May 27, 2015. (Ahmad Al-Bazz/Activestills.org)

Israeli soldiers inspect Palestinian cars at the Beit Furik checkpoint, near Nablus, West Bank, May 27, 2015. (Ahmad Al-Bazz/Activestills.org)

When Tariq Asedih plans a trip from his village near Nablus to Ramallah, Google Maps “can’t find a way” for the 36-kilometer journey. Instead, he has to navigate from a nearby Jewish settlement, and even then, the available routes direct Asedih to roads that Palestinians are not allowed to use.

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Not only does Google Maps not recognize Palestine (the browser instead navigates to an unlabeled area) – its entire user experience ignores the reality of occupation. In doing so, Google is violating its commitment to international human rights, according to a new report by 7amleh, the Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media. Google claims its mission is to “organize the world’s information” and make it “useful,” but the report found that Google Maps advances the interests of the Israeli government, and mostly serves Israeli citizens.

The State of Palestine was recognized by 138 of the 193-member United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in 2012, but has never been labeled as such on Google Maps. Israel is not only identified as a country, but Jerusalem, which was granted international status in UNGA Resolution 181 and remains a final-status issue, is marked at its capital. While a “West Bank” label does exist, settlements there appear as if they are located inside Israel.

Meanwhile, Palestinian villages unrecognized by Israel, both in the occupied territories and within the Green Line, are either misrepresented or entirely left out, while the names and locations of Israeli settlements are clearly noticeable. Even relatively small Jewish-Israeli communities appear on the map, but Palestinian villages are only visible when extremely, almost intentionally, zoomed in on.

Unlike other cities or villages, Bedouin communities in the Negev, which existed before Israel was established, are marked by their tribal designation, rather than the actual names of their villages. Considering that these villages are under the constant threat of demolition by Israeli authorities, their misrepresentation or omission from the map becomes “a method of enforcing the eradication of unrecognized Palestinian villages,” the report argues.

An Israeli settler uses his cell phone to take photos as Palestinian, Israeli, and international activists block Road 60 during a day of coordinated demonstrations blocking roads throughout the occupied territories, this one near the West Bank village of Ein Yabrud, November 14,2012. (photo: Keren Manor/Activestills.org)

An Israeli settler uses his cell phone to take photos as Palestinian, Israeli, and international activists block Road 60 during a day of coordinated demonstrations blocking roads throughout the occupied territories, November 14, 2012. (photo: Keren Manor/Activestills.org)

In addition to biased mapping, Google prioritizes Israeli citizens when offering routes. The map ignores the segregated road system in Israel-Palestine and the resulting movement restrictions, such as checkpoints and road blocks, that affect Palestinians. For example, to navigate from Bethlehem to Ramallah, all routes suggested by Google Maps require crossing from the West Bank to Jerusalem, and then back to the occupied territories. This is only possible for people with Israeli IDs or foreign passports. It is illegal for Palestinians to access Israeli-only roads, which usually connect settlements, and the consequences of doing so may include arrest, delays, detention and confiscation of cars.

In 2016, a bug removed the “West Bank” and “Gaza Strip” labels from Google Maps and stirred an online debate, bringing attention to the fact that the company has kept Palestine off its maps ever since the service launched in 2005. The Forum of Palestinian Journalists released a statement in response, calling the omission “a crime,” and demanding the company rescind its decision and apologize to the Palestinian people.

Maps are assumed to be accurate representations of the physical world, but political bias is inevitable, even in maps that are geographically factual, said Professor Izhak Schnell, who teaches geography at Tel Aviv University. Maps have an important role in developing national consciousness, he added, and more cartographers are admitting that the existence of international standards does not guarantee objectivity in mapping.

According to Professor Schnell, there are two map wars taking place in Israel-Palestine simultaneously: one between Israel and the Palestinians, and another between the political left and right inside Israel. Palestinian maps are likely to highlight Jewish expansion over time, while Israeli maps are increasingly depicting Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories as one contiguous area.

Since 1997, the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment (KBA) to the U.S. National Defense Authorization Act has restricted public access to high-resolution satellite imagery of Israel-Palestine, citing Israeli national security concerns. This limitation does not apply to the rest of the Middle East and North Africa, where such imagery, available on platforms such as Google Earth, is used to support the work of archeologists, geographers, and humanitarians. By deliberately blurring aerial images, the KBA “poses serious obstacles, not only for the preservation of cultural heritage, but also for holding Israel to account for land grabs, home demolitions, and settlement activity,” according to a recent Al-Shabaka report.

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The 7amleh report offers several recommendations that would allow Google to live up to its responsibilities, and comply with international law and human rights standards. For example, the service should clearly mark Areas A, B, and C in the occupied territories, and identify illegal Israeli settlements, in accordance with Geneva Conventions. It should represent Palestinian villages with the same level of detail it affords to Israeli settlements.

Google could respect the 2012 UNGA decision and recognize Palestine as a country, thus acknowledging Jerusalem’s special status without contentiously declaring it the exclusive capital of one entity or another. In route-planning, the maps application should identify and clearly display all movement restrictions for Palestinians, distinguish which roads are available only for Israeli citizens, and offer alternative routes for Palestinians.

Skripal Suspect Boshirov Identified as GRU Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga

Bellingcat and its investigative partner The Insider – Russia have established conclusively the identity of one of the suspects in the poisoning of Sergey and Yulia Skripal, and in the homicide of British citizen Dawn Sturgess. 

Part 1 and Part 2 of Bellingcat’s investigation into the Skripal poisoning suspects are available for background information. In these previous two parts of the investigation, Bellingcat and the Insider concluded that the two suspects – traveling internationally and appearing on Russian television under the aliases “Ruslan Boshirov” and “Alexander Petrov” – are in fact undercover officers of the Russian Military Intelligence, widely known as GRU.

Bellingcat has been able to confirm the actual identity of one of the two officers. The suspect using the cover identity of “Ruslan Boshirov” is in fact Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga, a highly decorated GRU officer bestowed with Russia’s highest state award, Hero of the Russian Federation. Following Bellingcat’s own identification, multiple sources familiar with the person and/or the investigation have confirmed the suspect’s identity.

This finding eliminates any remaining doubt that the two suspects in the Novichok poisonings were in fact Russian officers operating on a clandestine government mission.

While civilians in Russia can generally own more than one passport, no civilian – or even an intelligence service officer on a personal trip – can cross the state border under a fake identity. The discovery also highlights the extent of the effort – and public diplomacy risk – Russia has taken to protect the identities of the officers. President Putin publicly vouched that “Boshirov” and “Petrov” are civilians. As it is established practice that the awards Hero of the Russian Federation are handed out by the Russian president personally, it is highly likely that Vladimir Putin would have been familiar with the identity of Colonel Chepiga, given that only a handful of officers receive this award each year.

Who is Colonel Chepiga?

Anatoliy Vladimirovich Chepiga was born on 5 April 1979, in the far-eastern village of Nikolaevka in the Amur oblast, population 300, near the Russia-China border. At age 18, he enrolled at a military school just 40 kilometers from his home, the Far-Eastern Military Command Academy in Blagoveschensk, one of Russia’s elite training grounds for marine commandos and Spetsnaz officers.

Anatoliy Chepiga graduated the academy with honors in 2001. He was then assigned to serve in the 14th Spetsnaz Brigade in Russia’s farthest-eastern city of Khabarovsk, one of the elite Spetsnaz units under GRU command. Chepiga’s unit (74854, formerly 20662) played a key role in the second Chechen War, and was also observed near the Ukrainian border in late 2014.

Over the course of his assignment to the 14th Spetsnaz Brigade, Colonel Chepiga was deployed three times to Chechnya. The specific operations he was involved in are not known; however, a website of a far-eastern branch of a state-run military volunteer organization reports that he received over 20 military awards in the course of his service.

At some point between 2003 (the last year we identified him at the 14th Spetsnaz Brigade in Khabarovsk) and 2010 (the year he received his first undercover passport), Anatoliy Chepiga was assigned his alter ego, “Ruslan Boshirov”, and was relocated to Moscow. Given his current rank of Colonel and function as a clandestine GRU officer, it is plausible that during this period he graduated from the Military Diplomatic Academy, also known as the “GRU Conservatory,” in Moscow.

In December 2014, Colonel Chepiga was awarded Russia’s highest state awardHero of the Russian Federation.This award is bestowed personally by the President of Russia “as recognition of services to the state and the people of Russia involving a heroic deed”.

Most of the awards are handed out in public ceremonies – and accompanied by a presidential decree, such as the award in 2016 to Russian officers fighting in Syria. Other presidential decrees – when the underlying act of heroism is subject to state secrecy – are kept secret. This is the case with the award to Colonel Chepiga. While there is no publicly issued decree – or reference to him on the Kremlin website – the state-run volunteer website specifies that he received the award “in December 2014…for conducting a peace-keeping mission.”

Indeed, the fact that Colonel Chepiga was bestowed the Hero of Russia award is announced on the website of his military school. While most other recipients of the award have a detailed description of the acts that resulted in the recognition, the last two recipients – Anatoliy Chepiga and Alexander Popov – received only a terse statement: “by decree from the Russian president.” This further implies that the mission he – or they – were awarded for was secret.

Memorial wall of the Far Eastern Military Command School with Colonel Chepiga as the last name under the Gold Star honor list

The phrasing and timing of the award provides significant clues as to where Colonel Chepiga’s mission was. In 2014, there were no military activities in Chechnya. Russia had not engaged militarily in Syria yet. The only region in which Russia was conducting active military operations in secrecy at the time was in Eastern Ukraine, which is the most likely theatre of his mission, as suggested by the secrecy of his award.

Anatoliy Chepiga is married and has one child.

The Challenge of Finding Colonel Chepiga

Bellingcat began the search with only the two targets’ photographs and their cover identities. Initially we attempted reverse image-search via several online engines, but no matches were found. Similarly, no name telephone numbers were registered in the name of “Ruslan Boshirov” in any of the reverse-searchable telephone databases usually scraped by Bellingcat.

Having tried these initial avenues of pursuit, Bellingcat and the Insider approached the search deductively. On the assumption that the two suspects were GRU officers with a focus on West European covert operations (see our second publication about the Skripal poisoning suspects), and knowing their approximate age, we contacted former Russian military officers to inquire what specialized schools would have provided appropriate training. One of the sources we contacted suggested that the school with the best reputation for foreign-language training and overseas clandestine operations at the turn of the century – when the two suspects would have studied – was the Far Eastern Military Command Academy. The graduation years for the two were estimated between 2001 and 2003.

We browsed through multiple (incomplete) yearbook photos and reunion galleries of the classes of 2001-2003 but did not find exact matches for either of the suspects. There were several possible – but not certain – matches for the suspect “Boshirov”. One of these was in a group photograph from a 2018 article about the history of the Academy. Near a photograph of Academy graduates deployed in Chechnya, the text referred to “seven school graduates [who] were bestowed with the Hero of Russia Award”.

Photo of DVOKU graduates on assignment in Chechnya, undated. Bellingcat does not claim that the person on the right is Chepiga; photograph included for completeness of research process only

While testing the hypothesis that the unnamed person at right-most end of the photo might be “Boshirov,” we searched online for references to “DVOKU” (the Russian abbreviation for the Far Eastern Military Command Academy), “Chechnya” and “Hero of the Russian Federation.” This search landed us at the above-referenced Volunteer Union website, which described a certain Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga as linked to all three search terms.

Online searches in both Google and via two Russian search engines found no images, or social media presence, related to a Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga, or to anyone by that name with a military connection. This appeared to be highly unusual, given the fact he had been awarded the highest state honor.

Subsequently, the research team scoured leaked Russian databases for references to Anatoliy Chepiga. A number of leaked residential and/or telephone databases of various Russian cities and regions are freely available as torrents on the internet; data in such databases varies in recency between 2000 and 2014.

The research team was able to find Anatoliy Chepiga in two locations and time periods in the database: in 2003, in Khabarovsk; and in 2012 in Moscow.

In the 2003 database, a certain Anatoliy Vladimirovich Chepiga was listed with a phone number and an address only described as “в/ч 20662“, the Russian abbreviation for Military Unit 20662. 20662 is the Ministry of Defense designation number of Spetsnaz unit of GRU’s 14th Brigade in Khabarovsk.

At press time, the telephone number listed next to the name of Anatoliy Chepiga was used by a person who has owned it for 4 years, and who was not aware of the previous owner of the number.

Bellingcat accepted the working assumption that this person was indeed Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga, described in the publication as “Hero of the Russian Federation”.

In the 2012 database, one person named Anatoliy Vladirovich Chepiga were listed as residing in Moscow. This man was born on 5 April 1979.

Using the birth date, address and family members’ names, Bellingcat searched for this man online and on social networks, to no avail. Another person with the same full name and birth year – but a different date of birth – was identified as a business owner unrelated to “Boshirov”. The birth year (1979) of the candidate from the database was one year later than the birth year in “Boshirov”s cover documents, however it corresponded to a graduation year from the military academy in 2001.

At this point, Bellingcat accepted the working hypothesis that the man from the 2003 and 2012 databases is the same, and is in fact Colonel Chepiga, Hero of the Russian Federation.

To establish if he is, in fact, “Boshirov,” we needed to obtain a photograph. None were available online or in open sources, even in a number of articles that referred to “Hero of Russia Colonel Chepiga.” Another graduate of DVOKU who reportedly received the same award simultaneously with Chepiga  – Alexander Popov – could be seen in photos and videos, yet Chepiga was conspicuously absent. The systematic omission from photographs of an otherwise notable figure – which Bellingcat had previously observed in the case of GRU General Oleg Ivannikov, who served as Minister of Defense of South Ossetia under the cover identity of Andrey Laptev – suggested that Colonel Chepiga may also be a secret service officer.

To validate the hypothesis that Chepiga is Skripal poisoning suspect “Boshirov,” Bellingcat and The Insider obtained extracts from the passport file of Anatoliy Vladimirovich Chepiga – the man born on 5th April 1979 – from two separate sources with access to databases dated prior to 2014.

The passport file contained a photograph – dated approximately in 2003, when this passport was obtained – that strongly resembled a younger “Boshirov” as seen in passport photos released by the UK police, with an even stronger resemblance to the cover identity passport photo published in our previous publication on the Skripal suspects.

Left: Anatoliy Chepiga’s passport photo from 2003. Middle: “Ruslan Boshirov”‘s passport photo from 2009. Right: “Ruslan Boshirov”, as seen in a photograph released by UK police

A passport application form in the passport dossier listed Chepiga’s 2003 place of residence as “Military Unit 20662, Khabarovsk”, confirming this was indeed the person identified in the 2003 database. It also listed his place of birth as “village of Nikolaevka”, further linking this person to the Hero of the Russian Federation with the same name.

The passport application form identified also Anatoliy Chepiga’s marital status and listed his military ID number.

A Mission of Critical Importance

Based on the array of information sources consulted – all of which were independent from each other and came from different time periods – Bellingcat was able to conclude with certainty that the person identified by UK authorities as “Ruslan Boshirov,” is in fact Colonel Anatoliy Vladimirovich Chepiga, a highly decorated senior officer from Russian military intelligence who was awarded the highest state honor in late 2014.

This finding starkly contradicts both this man’s statements, as made in a TV interview to Russia’s state-run RT network, and President Vladimir Putin’s assertions that the person in question is merely a civilian named Ruslan Boshirov. These demonstrated falsehoods overshadow this man’s – and the Russian government’s – other denials in this respect, and corroborate the UK authorities’ allegations that this individual was a) complicit in the Skripal poisoning and b) acted on orders from a high-level government authority in Russia.

Bellingcat has contacted confidentially a former Russian military officer of similar rank as Colonel Chepiga, in order to receive a reaction to what we found. The source, speaking on condition of anonymity, expressed surprise that at least one of the operatives engaged in the operation in Salisbury had the rank of colonel. Even more surprising was the suspects’ prior award of the highest military recognition.

In our source’s words, an operation of this sort would have typically required a lower-ranked, “field operative” with a military rank of “no higher than captain.” The source further surmised that to send a highly decorated colonel back to a field job would be highly extraordinary, and would imply that “the job was ordered at the highest level.”

The post Skripal Suspect Boshirov Identified as GRU Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga appeared first on bellingcat.

Forget BDS: Denied entry to Israel, just because of a last name

Over the past two years, the Israeli army has revoked Palestinian workers’ permits to enter Israel simply because they share a last name with someone who carried out a violent attack against Israelis. The move has already dealt a severe blow to over 2,000 workers in the West Bank, many of whom have been working inside Israel and the settlements since they were teenagers.

‘Criticizing the government nowadays makes you a traitor’

Avi Katz, the cartoonist let go by ‘The Jerusalem Report’ over a caricature depicting Netanyahu and Likud lawmakers as characters from ‘Animal Farm,’ talks about what happened behind the scenes, why accusations of anti-Semitism are so off-base, and what the saga says about freedom of expression in Israel today.

By Oren Persico

Avi Katz's cartoon depicting Netanyahu and Likud MKs as characters in George Orwells' 'Animal Farm, as published in 'The Jerusalem Report' on July 25, 2018. (Avi Katz)

Avi Katz’s cartoon depicting Netanyahu and Likud MKs as characters in George Orwells’ ‘Animal Farm, as published in ‘The Jerusalem Report’ on July 25, 2018. (Avi Katz)

Avi Katz wasn’t even in Israel when the cartoon was published. He was in the United States, where he was born, visiting his children. A few days earlier, he had realized his deadline was approaching for the weekly cartoon he publishes in The Jerusalem Report, called “Sketchbook,” and that he hadn’t yet sent anything to his editors.

“I went over the news and I saw Fitoussi’s photograph of the selfie and I broke out laughing,” Katz says, referring to Associated Press photographer Olivier Fitoussi’s photo, initially published in Haaretz, showing Benjamin Netanyahu and some of the more radical and oft-ridiculed lawmakers from his Likud party celebrating the passage of the Jewish Nation-State Law in the Knesset. Netanyahu appears forlorn, MK Oren Hazan is smirking, and the latter’s belly is exposed as he raises his arm to take the selfie.

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“I said to myself, I don’t need to do a caricature, the caricature already exists,” Katz recalls, “and I decided to do the easy thing. It’s like telling someone else’s joke and you hope you don’t mess it up too much. I drew the photo the same way they were positioned and standing in it, Hazan and [David] Bitan and the rest, and I drew them as pigs. On the top half of the page, in large letters, I wrote the George Orwell quote and then I sent it.”

Jerusalem Report editor Steve Linde (formerly editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post) immediately wrote back saying thank you, Katz recalls. Something along the lines of, “Great, I was worried you weren’t going to make the deadline.” Soon after, Katz says, “they sent the cartoon to print and it appeared in the magazine.”

The quote, as anyone who has read the book would immediately recognize, is taken from Orwell’s Animal Farm, a satirical allegory of the Soviet Union that takes place on a farm controlled by the pigs, who explain to the other animals that although all the animals are equal, some animals are more equal than the rest.

To Katz, the parallels between the discrimination anchored in the Jewish Nation-State Law and the discrimination that comprises the pigs’ regime in Animal Farm are simply too obvious. But it seems not everyone understood his cartoon’s jab — or perhaps they understood it a little too well.

Did you have a sense that this cartoon would stir up trouble?

“I had a feeling that there would be some letters to the editor saying that I am anti-Semitic. That has happened in the past, and it’s not a big deal. People have also on occasion sent me letters and included their email addresses and I’ve written back to them and we had discussions until we understood one another, which was nice. The Jerusalem Report doesn’t really have the type of vulgar and witless comment section you see in some other media outlets. I didn’t usually get cursed out — but there would sometimes be claims that what I was doing wasn’t okay and that I don’t get it.”

But this time it turned out differently.

“First of all, this time, instead of the 30-40 likes that I would usually get when I put my cartoons on Facebook, it very quickly reached hundreds of likes. I was really surprised but then I got a Messenger message from Steve Linde, who said that he’s really sorry and that it made him uncomfortable, but that there had been very negative reactions and that he was under a lot of pressure from management which he couldn’t stand up to, and that they told him not to commission any more cartoons from me. It wasn’t framed as a firing because I am a freelancer — he explained that they were just going to stop commissioning cartoons from me.”

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Did he say who in management putting the pressure on him?

“No. That’s a question I asked a lot: who made the decision? I asked Steve, I asked other people I know who are close to management of The Post, but nobody knew exactly who it was — who gave the order.”

Indeed, The Jerusalem Post Group, owned by media mogul Eli Azur, has not given any answers about the decision to part ways with Katz. A request by the Israel Press Council to “clarify the circumstances and reasons” surrounding the decision to end Katz’s employment also went unanswered.

‘Anti-Semitic? Nonsense’

From the moment that Katz was told that his services would no longer be required, the whole episode took a sharp turn. According to Katz, the comments came flooding in on Facebook when he posted about his firing — mostly supportive messages.

“From that moment,” Katz says, “instead of a few hundred comments and shares, there were thousands, and very soon after that articles started appearing in all sorts of unexpected places. Not only The Guardian and CNN. There was an article about it in an Indian newspaper and a Turkish paper and even something in Africa — I don’t remember which country. The whole world suddenly jumped on the cartoon and the story of my firing and I was astounded. I thought there would be a few reactions: after all, a good caricature evokes a reaction and sparks discussion. That’s the work.”

Why do you think the reaction was so harsh this time?

“I’ve been criticizing the government and its policies for quite some time now — and I’m not the only one who does so — and they don’t shut you down for that. It’s not because I criticize Bibi or even Sara, what they do in the [occupied Palestinian] territories, corruption, or whatever it may be. People want that criticism so that we can all laugh at those in power, which they deserve.”

The ultra-Orthodox anti-draft cartoon referenced by Katz's critics.

The ultra-Orthodox anti-draft cartoon referenced by Katz’s critics.

“This was something else. I know that the whole thing about the pigs is very sensitive, even though the claim that were are anti-Semitic motives is nonsense. The world over, anti-Semitism has never used a ‘Jews are pigs’ trope and Jews were never depicted as pigs. What’s funny is that after I drew the caricature I got something like 20 different emails in a condescending tone explaining that ‘maybe I didn’t really understand the sensitivity here, but look at this drawing of a Jew as a pig and then try to understand that anti-Semites use that depiction a lot and I can show you many other examples.’ The example that they all sent, every one of them, was a specific illustration of a pig in an IDF uniform with a yarmulke and side locks, with an M16 on his back, holding the Babylonian Talmud in his hand. I live next to Bnei Brak (an ultra-Orthodox city outside of Tel Aviv) and I know that illustration. It comes from the ultra-Orthodox protests against being drafted into the Israeli army.”

“For Christians, of course, pigs aren’t an insult. It’s a farm animal, a tasty one. You don’t have to get it special food and they reproduce nicely. In the darkest of anti-Semitic times the Europeans loved pigs. They don’t have anything against pigs. It’s true that there’s a traditional Christian image called Judensau, which depicts Jews sucking the teat of a large pig. The image tries to claim that Jews are wealthy not because they deserve to be or that they worked for it themselves, but rather because they suckle their prosperity. But even there the pig is a symbol of prosperity. The pig isn’t the Jew. There is no such anti-Semitic tradition. It doesn’t exist.”

It wasn’t only in the Facebook comments that Katz was accused of anti-Semitism. A few days after the decision to fire him was handed down, The Jerusalem Post’s editorial board published an editorial arguing that the cartoon crossed the lines of legitimate discourse. “The swine image is reminiscent of antisemitic memes used against Jews throughout history,” the Post‘s editorial stated. “Just recently, a Hamas-affiliated scholar said, ‘Allah has transformed Jews into pigs and apes.’ We, a Zionist newspaper, cannot accept this demeaning analogy.”

“Nonsense,” Katz insists. “It does not exist. It’s all in their heads.”

Katz, born in 1949, came to study art in Israel after he had already begun his studies in the United States to avoid being drafted into the American army during the Vietnam War. After he finished his studies at Bezalel Academy in Jerusalem he he found himself moving into the world of illustrations and caricatures in newspapers and other publications. He worked for a who’s-who of now-defunct Israeli newspapers and magazines over the years, along with a few that are still in business, all while making a living illustrating children’s books and English-language textbooks.

He also worked as an illustrator for The Jerusalem Post. In 1990, a group of Post journalists, unhappy with the direction the newspaper was taking after it was bought by new owners, left the daily paper and started The Jerusalem Report. Katz was part of that founding group. His illustrations were in the first edition of The Report and his drawings were published in its pages ever since. He primarily did illustrations for articles on politics, society, technology, as well as book and restaurant reviews.

“I had a lot of fun,” he recalls, “because the magazine’s art director, Tanya Silverman, let me experiment with different styles. There is an idea according to which one needs to establish a consistent illustration style in a newspaper, but she had a different appraoch. ‘As much diversity as possible,’ she said, ‘so the reader doesn’t know its’ the same illustrator.’” Katz worked part-time for The Report, even after the magazine changed hands a number of times, eventually when it was bought by The Jerusalem Post, from which it had originally broken off all those years earlier. “We joined them for business reasons,” Katz emphasizes, “but they promised that The Report would remain independent.”

Avi Katz (Rachel London-Katz)

Avi Katz (Rachel London-Katz)

Indeed, he says, he was never told to shelve a cartoon or to stay away from a certain topic. There were, however, a few times when his editors would tell him that his illustration wasn’t appropriate for the article it was supposed to accompany. For instance, he was once asked to illustrate an article that justified the settlements and the occupation. “In my illustration the settlers appeared a little psychotic,” he admits. “It was pretty clear that I don’t like them.” In that case, he says, he didn’t have any complaints about how the magazine handled it. “If I’m illustrating someone else’s article, I’m the accompanying pianist, not the soloist. I can’t dominate.”

Ten years ago he received a personal column in The Report, where he was given a free hand to draw whatever he wanted. In his column, Katz says, the editors never intervened. “Nobody ever told me ‘the opinions you’re expressing are too radical’ or ‘too personal’ or ‘too left-wing.’ They knew what my worldviews are.”

When Katz published the caricature with the pigs, however, he wasn’t even a part-time employee anymore. Under the ownership of Eli Azur, The Jerusalem Post implemented far-reaching cuts in its publications. Katz was among those who were laid off (“I received severance according to the law. There were a lot of layoffs at the time and I didn’t take it personally.”), and for a few months The Report stopped publishing his illustrations.

However, he says, the readers demanded his return. After more than a few letters arrived asking what had happened to Katz, he was brought back on as a freelancer. He got his personal column back and was occasionally commissioned to illustrate articles and opeds by others. His income dropped by one-third compared to when he was a staffer, he says, but “I basically did that column for the fun, in order to showcase myself. It kept me connected to the international community of caricaturists.”

Criticizing the government is different today

Katz wasn’t the first Israeli newspaper illustrator to publish a depiction of Israeli politicians as the pigs in Animal Farm. In 1980, Haaretz published a caricature by Ze’ev, which depicts the entire Menachem Begin government, headed by Ariel Sharon, as pigs. “One of Ze’ev’s most genius cartoons,” Katz says.

Ze’ev wasn’t fired for his caricature. Is this a different era? Or is the difference simply that he worked at ‘Haaretz’ and you for ‘The Report’

“It could be that back then we expected members of Knesset and journalists to be people who have opened a book in their lives. Nobody should blame Oren Hazan or Bitan for not spending more time reading the classics. They think that they have some sort of immunity from criticism. And anyone who criticizes the government nowadays is considered a traitor. They aren’t a part of the nation. You can see it also in America. It wasn’t like that in 1980. There was a degree of hostility between the left and right but when Begin was elected prime minister it wasn’t the case that whoever criticized him became a traitor stabbing the nation in the back. Freedom of expression had more value then.”

How are you getting by financially since you lost your income from ‘The Report?’

It’s a little uncomfortable to say but I am working twice as much since it happened. It was amazing PR. A few days ago I submitted an illustration to The Forward in New York, and the Times of Israel commissioned an illustration from me. I’m getting a lot more interest. It’s a shame that it didn’t happen 20 years ago. I took a blow but I think The Jerusalem Post scored an own-goal, or at least I hope so. I hope it doesn’t hurt Steve Linde, poor guy, he didn’t want this. But if the scandal harms The Jerusalem Post I’ll be very happy.”

After Katz was fired by The Report supporters launched a crowdfunding campaign and managed to raise over NIS 100,000 (around $28,000). Katz says he hasn’t yet decided exactly what to do with the money. Part of it was used to put together a caricature exhibit at the last Animix Festival in Tel Aviv, and part of the money could go toward a solo exhibit. Either way, he says, the support and positive reactions he’s received have made him very happy.

“I’m very happy with how this ended and I’m heartened that there are good people out there,” he concludes.

This interview was first published in Hebrew on The 7th Eye.

Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour set free

Dareen Tatour, who was arrested and jailed for poems she published on social media, is released from prison. Tatour: ‘It will be impossible to stop my writing.’

By Oren Ziv

Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour was released from prison on September 20, 2018. She was arrested in October 2015, and later convicted of incitement to terrorism and violence for poems she published on social media. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour was released from prison on September 20, 2018. She was arrested in October 2015, and later convicted of incitement to terrorism and violence for poems she published on social media. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour was released today after serving 42 days in prison. Her five-month sentence was reduced by 97 days, the same amount of time she spent in jail following her arrest in October 2015, before being transferred to house arrest for nearly three years.

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“I am very happy to be free, finally, after three years. These were three years of suffering, but I am free now,” said Tatour upon her release.

Tatour, who hails from the village of Reineh near Nazareth, was convicted of incitement to terrorism and violence over a poem she published on her personal Facebook page, titled “Qawem Ya Sha’abi, Qawemhum” (“Resist my people, resist them”), as well as two other social media posts. The poet has become a symbol of the rise of state surveillance of social media.

Tatour was released one day earlier than expected, which came as a surprise to the family and friends who arrived to greet her upon her release. Her father, Tawfik Tatour, who had only seen his daughter once since she was detained in early August, said he did not expect to get a call the night before, informing him of the early release. “It is a joy, I am extremely excited,” he said. A celebration of Tatour’s release will take place on Friday, and her father invites the public to join.

Family and friends greet Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour upon her release from prison on September 20, 2018. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Family and friends greet Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour upon her release from prison on September 20, 2018. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Throughout her trial, the state summoned a string of experts on poetry and the Arabic language to analyze the words of a young poet who was mostly anonymous until her arrest.

Tatour promised to keep writing. “I regret being sent to prison for a poem, but it will be impossible to stop my writing,” she said.

This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

Border agents tell Jewish American ‘the IDF doesn’t want you in Israel’

Julie Weinberg-Connors, who is in the process of making ‘aliya,’ or immigrating to Israel as a Jew under the Law of Return, was told that they were being deported because of the army’s objections over their visits to the West Bank. They were eventually let in.

Illustrative photo of passport control at Israel's Ben-Gurion Airport. (Photo by Rakoon)

Illustrative photo of passport control at Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport. (Photo by Rakoon)

Jewish-American Julie Weinberg-Connors was denied entry to Israel Wednesday night and told that “the [IDF] does not want you in Israel,” where Weinberg-Connors holds residency and is in the process of immigrating under Israel’s Law of Return.

Border Control agents eventually reversed course and allowed Weinberg-Connors, 23, into the country after media outlets, including +972 Magazine, and several members of Knesset asked the Interior Ministry and Israeli army about the denial.

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Weinberg-Connors was meant to start yeshiva studies at the Pardes Institute on Thursday.

According to Attorney Leora Bechor, authorities had already flagged and questioned Weinberg-Connors about their political activity and affiliations before arriving back in Israel on Wednesday, where the American citizen has been living already for a year. (Weinberg-Connors prefers they/them pronouns.)

“They already knew that they wanted to deny her [entry] and they just had to find a reason,” Bechor told +972 Magazine, noting that Weinberg-Connors was flagged for questioning before border control authorities had a chance to ask her any questions. “It was clear their plan was to make sure she did not enter.”

Bechor, who was on the phone with Weinberg-Connors during parts of the detention and interrogation, said she heard a border control agent tell her client, “the Civil Administration does not want you in Israel.” The Civil Administration is the Israeli military body that administers the occupation of the Palestinian territories. The army, however, does not have the authority to determine who may enter Israel.

The denial of entry form given to Weinberg-Connors said they were being deported back to the United States for illegal immigration considerations. Weinberg-Connors was asked about visiting Khan al-Ahmar, a Palestinian village under imminent threat of forced displacement and demolition. Ultimately, they were allowed to enter after signing a document agreeing not to visit the West Bank.

Weinberg-Connors is in Israel on an A1 visa, a temporary residency status granted to people who the state has decided are eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return, or in other words — Jews.

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Israel’s “Law of Return” grants almost automatic citizenship to anyone with one or more Jewish grandparent, irrespective of whether they can trace heritage or have family ties to Israel. Palestinian refugees who were born, or whose parents or grandparents were born in Israel, are prohibited from immigrating to Israel.

Prior to the “Jewish Nation-State Law,” which passed earlier this year, the Law of Return was one of a small number laws on the books that explicitly grants certain rights only to Jews. Most other discriminatory laws do so without specifying a specific religious or ethnic group that is granted certain rights or privileges that are denied to others.

Denial of entry has become more common for foreigners — including Jews — visiting Israel in recent months, particularly those critical of Israeli policy vis-a-vis the Palestinians. Palestinians, Arabs, and non-Jews have been systematically denied entry to Israel over their politics and identity alike for years.

“This is the first case, to the best of my knowledge, of a person who was seeking to make aliyah who has been denied entry while they are actually in the process of having their aliyah application processed,” said Bechor.

Weinberg-Connors moved to Israel last September and flew back to the United States in June for the summer, according to Bechor. Weinberg-Connors was interested in becoming an Israeli citizen and has a pending aliya application. It was in the context of the aliya application that Weinberg-Connors was first asked about their political affiliations and activism and past visits to the West Bank.

Israeli citizens are not allowed to enter Palestinian-controlled cities in the occupied territories without military approval, but this restriction does not apply to non-citizens like Weinberg-Connors.

Weinberg-Connors signed the form agreeing not to enter the West Bank under duress, Bechor, the attorney, said, “because they told her if you do not sign the form we are not going to let you in.”

“It showed that there’s zero protections under the law so long as your political beliefs don’t match the consensus, you don’t have a place in Israel even if the law says that you do,” said Bechor.

Weinberg-Connors tried to present border control agents all of the aliya paperworkbut the border agents were not interested in seeing it, or in the fact that they had an A1 visa, said Bechor.

“She had a valid visa that they revoked. It is not just that she is an American who is coming on a visit, and they denied her entry – they revoked the visa that she has, temporary residency, without giving her any due process,” she added.

A spokesperson for the Population and Immigration Authority issued the following statement in response to a query about the Weinberg-Connors’ case:

The case concerns an American citizen who arrived to Ben-Gurion Airport in the evening, and after questioning her, it became clear that she was planning to stay in areas administered by the Palestinian Authority without the necessary approval from the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT). Upon checking with relevant security personnel, a conclusive recommendation was given not to approve her entry, but, after she committed to apply for the required permit in case she does plan on visiting the territories, her entry was approved.

A spokesperson for the COGAT, of the Israeli army, had not issued a formal response at the time of publication. It will be added here if and when it is received.

Trump’s endgame in Palestine

Washington defunding the Palestinian refugee agency is not merely an attack on UNRWA, as serious as that may be. It is an attempt to destroy the Palestinian national movement.

By Mitchell Plitnick

Palestinians in Bethlehem commemorate the Nakba, May 14, 2013. (Activestills.org)

Palestinians in Bethlehem are seen in front of the separation wall on Nakba Day, May 14, 2013. (Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

Late last month, the State Department announced it would end all funding of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN agency that provides many essential services for Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. The reaction to this decision has been mostly negative.

Some have objected to the Trump administration’s decision because it runs counter to U.S. interests. Some have objected because it jeopardizes Israel’s security. Others talk about the staggering humanitarian consequences for the millions of refugees UNRWA serves.

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These are all important concerns. But none of them hits the mark of what the Trump administration—apparently at the urging of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, without any consultation with anyone else in the Israeli government or defense establishment—is doing. This is not merely an attack on UNRWA, as serious as that may be. This is an attempt to destroy the Palestinian national movement.

As I have long argued, the biggest single issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 1948 is not Jerusalem, settlements, borders, or even security. It is the Palestinian right of return. It is the one issue Israel would not discuss in talks and Israelis, with very few exceptions mostly on the far left, will not even consider compromising on.

It is also the very basis of the Palestinian national movement since 1948. For seven decades, the Palestinian right of return has been the irresistible force meeting the immovable object of Israeli nationalism. It has been the time bomb that would explode if talks on all those other issues were ever successful.

The right of return continued to smolder on its long fuse while diplomats from Israel, the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere sat comfortably with their belief that the Palestinians would simply accept their permanent exile. That this would be an Israeli position is acceptable, in the sense that one side or the other can come to the table with their own view of what is right and just. But as a pre-determined outcome it was never going to work, for the simple reason that a diktat on an issue of such importance would naturally inflame tensions, not resolve them.

Trump has not reversed policy, as some have said. Rather, he has shoved policy in the direction it was leaning before. Consider the words of Dan Shapiro, who was Barack Obama’s ambassador to Israel. Shapiro tweeted: “I’m 100% for being honest [with Palestinians] that there will be no right of return or any other outcome that undermines Isr[ael] as a Jewish state. I’m also for being honest that the conflict can only end in 2 states [for] 2 peoples.”

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As analyst Lara Friedman pointed out, it’s “[h]ard to be [a] credible steward if US has already decided [an] inevitable outcome—one defined not through give and take of negotiations but through US deciding what is necessary for Israel and what Palestinians can/must accept.”

Trump is taking that idea to a reckless and callous extreme. Friedman also noted that “Trump and his team’s core positions/goals vis-a-vis [Israel-Palestine] have been coherent and consistent since before Trump took office. Every devastating action that has flowed from them has been predictable and predicted.”

Whether it was his abandonment of the two-state solution with no alternative (allowing Netanyahu’s policies to fill the void), his turning a blind eye to settlement expansion, moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, his parroting of virtually every right-wing Israeli talking point, or his relentless attacks on UNRWA, Trump has steered his policy on Israel-Palestine down a clear path. He is motivated by the right-wing belief, undoubtedly held by Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt, and his ambassador to Israel, David Friedman — Trump’s “Mideast peace team” — that contrary to conventional wisdom, the Palestinians can be pounded into submission.

Trump and his staff

Senior Trump Advisor Jared Kushner, Special Representative for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt, and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, June 22, 2018. (Matty Stern/U.S. Embassy)

Senior Trump Advisor Jared Kushner, Special Representative for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt, and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, June 22, 2018. (Matty Stern/U.S. Embassy)

Part of the problem with the Trump administration is that the president himself will make bold, often outlandish statements that have a powerful effect on policy, but his senior staff is working on something else. So, when Khaled Elgindy of the Brookings Institute tweeted that, “Unlike past US [administrations] for whom stability, security and even moral obligation were all mitigating factors, Trump’s approach to [the Israel-Palestine] conflict [is] driven entirely by ideology [and domestic political] considerations,” he is correct, but that may not be the whole story.

Kushner, Greenblatt, and Friedman each have been involved with right-wing pro-Israel movements for a long time. Although those movements are certainly ideologically driven, they are also strategic in their approach. These movements have opposed Oslo and the whole idea of negotiations because they believe that the diplomatic track is based on a false premise: that force cannot decide the outcome of this conflict.

The Israeli right and its U.S. counterparts understand very well the power imbalance between the Palestinians and Israel. They believe that they should crush Palestinian national aspirations and that Israel can weather the Arab and global reaction until it eventually subsides. Trump’s policies have been directed unerringly at that outcome.

Elgindy’s observation is important. Trump wants to please Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson and to be able to sell a story to his base that he resolved the Israel-Palestine conflict. If he does so by smashing the Palestinians, it is unlikely that his base will be concerned about that. But that’s neither policy nor strategy.

The troika of Greenblatt, Kushner, and Friedman, however, are pursuing a strategy. They hope it is one that can be supported, even if only in secret, by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and anyone else they can bring along. They believe that they can impose conditions on the Palestinians that leave them nothing to fight for and then buy them off with an economic package that stabilizes their economy and improves it to the point that they will be quiescent about their lack of independence. Life will “get better,” as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley put it.

All the Palestinians have to do is agree to live under occupation and accept their fate quietly. The Trump team seems not to have considered that if the Palestinians could be forced to do that, they would have acquiesced sometime over the past 70 years.

Trump takes it to the next level

In 2003, President George W. Bush gave a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that stated that Israel would not be expected to return to the 1967 borders nor would it be expected to allow Palestinian refugees to return to the lands that constitute the state of Israel proper. So, Trump’s actions in determining what had been agreed on as “final status issues” by diktat are not unprecedented. Trump simply took them much further. He removed the two-state framework, made it clear that settlement growth was an Israeli prerogative, “took Jerusalem off the table,” and now is aiming at the refugees.

That pretty much covers it all. There will be nothing left to negotiate. And this is Washington’s doing, not Israel’s. Although Netanyahu clearly pushed for this, and very likely lit the match that set it off, these are entirely U.S. actions. Indeed, most of the Israeli government and braintrust were left completely outside of these deliberations, very likely because even much of the Israeli right would not be on board with such a reckless approach.

The plan can’t work. It may well lead to violence, which Israel is no doubt ready to suppress with an iron fist. It will certainly increase Israel’s isolation from the more liberal or pro-Palestinian corners of the world. But Israel is prepared for this, as Netanyahu has cemented Israel’s relationship with right-wing forces in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere.

Eventually, however, the distaste Israel is creating for itself will have serious consequences. Republicans will not control U.S. politics forever, and the disgust at Israel’s handling of the occupation is creating great antipathy toward it in much of Europe and among liberals — even pro-Israel liberals — in the United States. In the Arab world there has never been a starker separation on the question of Palestine between leaders like Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman and the people they are ruling over.

Palestinians may be facing a new kind of catastrophe, one that will take another awful toll on them. But they’ve already survived two of them. They may not have flourished, but they have survived and multiplied. Trump’s effort to destroy the Palestinians as a nation won’t succeed, but it will certainly have terrible consequences. After it fails, it will fall on the United States and Western Europe to finally live up to their responsibilities and use their considerable levers of influence to protect the rights of Palestinians as assiduously as those of Israelis.

Mitchell Plitnick is former vice president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. He is the former director of the U.S. Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and was previously the director of education and policy for Jewish Voice for Peace. This article was first published on Lobelog.com.

“God-level Trolling” – Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Maria Zakharova Promotes Debunked Internet Conspiracy Theories on The Skripal Nerve Agent Attack

Following the recent publication of information about the two suspects in the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal a number of attempts have been made to debunk the evidence, most notably from the informal network of individuals and websites who have a long history of pushing conspiracy theories about other allegations against Russia, such as the downing of MH17.

The recent release of information on the incident included multiple images from CCTV cameras that allowed the police to track the movements of the two suspects from the airport they arrived at, to Salisbury, then back to the airport immediately after the assassination attempt. Two of these images caught the attention of the denialists and conspiracy theorists, showing the suspects passing underneath a CCTV camera at exactly the same time:

  

A number of bloggers with a long history of sharing conspiracy theories in defence of Russia claimed these images were proof that there was something suspicious about the UK’s evidence:

The Impossible Photo – Russia has developed an astonishing new technology enabling its secret agents to occupy precisely the same space at precisely the same time.

These CCTV images released by Scotland yard today allegedly show Alexander Petrov https://t.co/kkCT1Vk6Ly

— Craig Murray (@CraigMurrayOrg) September 5, 2018

New on MoA:
There Is A Strange Timestamp In The New Novichok ‘Evidence’https://t.co/05LE8YrRsz pic.twitter.com/clLuHhpVAE

— Moon of Alabama (@MoonofA) September 5, 2018

The basis of this claim was that the images showed the same location, but at exactly the same time, so it would have been impossible for both individuals to be stood in the same location at the same time. Unfortunately for the conspiracy theorists, this conclusion was based on a fundamental misunderstanding. The images show the suspects as they’re passing through Gatwick airport, specifically the non-return gates that are at the terminal exits. Photographs of the gates question can be found on the Marco Airport Facilities Group website in a case study about the installation of the gates at Gatwick airport:

It is clearly visible there are multiple parallel gates that would have allowed the two suspects pass through the gates at the same time, and this fact resulted in some of the conspiracy theorists retracting their theories.

However, this didn’t stop Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Maria Zakharova repeating these same debunked claims to the Russian media. In a live interview with Russia 1’s 60 Minutes Zakharova explicitly states the corridors in both CCTV images are in fact the same corridor, so it would be impossible for both suspects to be in the corridor at the same moment as the timestamp suggests, citing this as one of many supposed “discrepancies” in the UK’s evidence. Zakharova described this as “god-level trolling” by UK authorities.

It’s impossible to know if Zakharova was just repeating the debunked theories of internet conspiracy theorists, or this was a theory the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs had come up with themselves. The way in which the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Russia’s various embassies engages with the community that was sharing these theories through social media would suggest they certainly would have been exposed to the claim, and it certainly wouldn’t be the first time Russian officials had cited internet conspiracy theories in their official capacity.

Following the downing of MH17 in Ukraine in July 2014, the Russian Ministry of Defence gave a press conference, presenting what it claimed was its own evidence about the crash. This included a claim that one video showing the Buk missile launcher that shot down MH17 passing through separatist controlled Luhansk was in fact filmed in another part of Ukraine, in a town under the control of the Ukrainian government. This theory had in fact first originated on Russian internet forums, and had gone viral among pro-Russian conspiracy communities. It seems extremely unlikely that the Russian Ministry of Defence would have come up with the same erroneous conclusion (and presented edited images to support its claim) independently of the internet conspiracy, so it is clear where they got their claim from, internet conspiracy theories.

In an earlier example Russian government officials made multiple claims about the August 21st 2013 Sarin attacks in Damascus that were based on conspiracy theories and internet rumours. For example, two days after the attack, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Aleksandr Lukashevich made the following claim:

More new evidence is starting to emerge that this criminal act was clearly provocative. On the internet, in particular, reports are circulating that news of the incident carrying accusations against government troops was published several hours before the so-called attack. So, this was a pre-planned action.

The claim videos from the August 21st attack had been uploaded onto YouTube before the attack had begun circulating immediately after the attack, as a number of the videos were displayed on YouTube with the date of August 20th. This led to the claims about videos being uploaded before August 21st, which was for a short while popular amount pro-Assad conspiracy theorists. However, this was actually a result of the date displayed on YouTube being based on the location of the server, in this case the west coast of the USA, so any videos uploaded early in the morning in Damascus, at the time the attack took place, would be displayed as being uploaded the day before because of the time difference.

The question remains as to whether or not Maria Zakharova’s statement was based on genuine, if extremely bad, analysis by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or if all the Ministry of Foreign Affairs could muster in its response to the UK’s allegations where some conspiracy theories it stole from the internet. Perhaps it was Zakharova’s own attempt at “god-level trolling”, but it is clear that in the face of evidence from the UK, Russia’s response has been worse than that of internet conspiracy theorists.

The post “God-level Trolling” – Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Maria Zakharova Promotes Debunked Internet Conspiracy Theories on The Skripal Nerve Agent Attack appeared first on bellingcat.

Russia Ramps Up Chemical Weapon Disinformation Leading-Up to Idlib Offensive

As a potential offensive into the remaining Syrian rebel strongholds in Idlib from the Assad government becomes more likely, Russian propaganda outlets like RT (formerly known as Russia Today), their various embassies, and their network of friendly media outlets have started pushing stories of potential chemical attacks in Idlib and Hama.

Various stories spread by Russia, particularly its Ministry of Defense, claim that phone calls were made to the Russian Reconciliation Center supposedly warning a number of nefarious activities. These claims from Russian government bodies and outlets connected to Russia’s media network have accused a range of groups, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the Syrian Civil Defense (White Helmets), of readying false flag operations to blame Russia or Syria. However, while there is no evidence of any actual preparations for “false flag attacks”, on the 26th of August, RT’s Ruptly video service uploaded footage of a government Volcano missile launcher being deployed to Idlib. This comes five years after chemical weapons variants of this launcher were used in the 2013 Ghouta attack.

Sputnik, another Russian state-funded media outlet, has also pushed a story by the Russian Ministry of Defense claiming that specialist groups trained by the British Olive group were preparing to conduct a possible attack. The Olive group ceased to exist in 2015 following a merger with Constellis group. 

These claims continue a narrative pushed by Russia and the Assad government that British special forces are somehow involved in Syria. A similarly bizarre, and unverifiable, claim was made earlier that British troops were captured in Ghouta by pro-government forces.

Russia’s official government bodies and media outlets also continue to promote images from a pro-government movie funded by the Syrian government. The plot of the movie, Revolution Man, portrays an international journalist who fakes a chemical weapons incident with the help of terrorists.

Russian Defence Ministry: English-speaking “foreign specialists” have arrived in #Syria to attempt staging chlorine chemical attack early this week. Latest intel indicates the hoax is planned to take place in the village of Kafr Zita (Hama province) #HoaxAlert pic.twitter.com/JfK5eveca7

— Russia in RSA 🇷🇺 (@EmbassyofRussia) August 27, 2018

The images, sometimes claimed to be from a White Helmets film set, are often posted in conjunction with stories or tweets “predicting” upcoming chemical attacks. The same images and claims were used in Russian media when questioning government responsibility for the Douma chemical weapon attack.

Such claims are not always connected to or in anticipation of any specific attacks by pro-government forces. Rather these claims seem to come at times when Russia needs to muddle the conversation regarding attacks, or going into preemptive damage control for an ally it struggles to control.

Coinciding with these claims, the United States, United Kingdom, and France have stated they will act in the event of a government chemical weapons attack in Idlib. However, there is little reason to expect actual action if a chemical attack were to occur. 

With over 200 documented chemical weapons incidents in Syria, most of which have been committed by the Assad government, the actual response by countries who have threatened action in the past has been largely symbolic and limited.  

Following the first major use of Sarin on Ghouta in 2013 by pro-government forces, the United States backed down from the now-infamous “red line” against chemical weapons usage. Instead, chemical weapons stockpiles were allegedly destroyed with the help of international bodies. Pro-government forces continued to use chlorine and Sarin following the Ghouta attack, with the vast majority of chlorine attacks having gone largely unnoticed or ignored by the countries threatening military action. Though some military actions have taken place following flagrant chemical attacks carried out by pro-government forces, most of these strikes were relatively limited and Russian forces were warned in advance of incoming strikes.

Accusations against rebels, the White Helmets, and various other bogeymen created by government supporters and propaganda have generally pushed the narrative that because the pro-government forces are winning, there is no need for them to use chemical weapons that draw heavy international scrutiny. The most likely reasoning for these attacks, according to this logic, is the desire of the rebels, whom they believe are fully funded and backed by foreign enemies of Assad, to draw in outside intervention. Seven years into the Syrian Civil War and with no sign of serious military intervention after hundreds of chemical attacks, this logic seems weaker than ever.

Whether or not the government plans to use chemical weapons during an offensive in Idlib has yet to be seen. Chemical weapons were successfully used by the Syrian Army in Douma to advance the government’s demands over Russia’s plans and agreements with groups like Faylaq al-Rahman, thus making this route more attractive for Assad to use again.

However, the presence of Turkish soldiers along the borders of Idlib impedes the government’s use of chemical weapons in Idlib. Despite a relatively tame response to previous attacks, new U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton could see Assad’s use of chemical weapons in a highly-scrutinized battle as an opportunity to strike government forces in order to project what the administration may see as strength.

While the potential response of the U.S. and Europe is unclear in the event of a chemical attack in Idlib, it is clear that Russia and its allies are intent on muddling the media landscape in the event that Assad yet again uses chemical weapons during a future Idlib offensive.

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