Tunisia – For the past three months, the Arab Maghreb countries have been witnessing a growing number of controversies and scandals concerning cells linked to Israeli espionage activities.
It began when an informants network was dismantled in Mauritania early this year. Then Mossad made the headlines in Algeria and Morocco in a string of reports, rumors, and hoaxes.
Finally, a new scandal reverberated across Tunisia last week involving a wide network of Mossad operations, including espionage centers using the country as a base to spy across the Maghreb region.
Abderraouf al-Ayadi, head of the Wafa Movement which split from the Rally for the Republic (RPR), caused a huge stir last week when he revealed that Mossad has stepped up its activities in post-revolutionary Tunisia.
He said that these activities were being conducted under the “cover of European and US NGOs that claim to be charitable, humanitarian, or cultural.”
The information revealed by Ayadi and Hammami coincided with a February report by the Yafa Center for Studies and Research focusing on Mossad activities in the Maghreb. The report said that the agency began concentrating its operations in Tunisia following the PLO’s exit from Beirut and relocation to Tunis in 1982.
Interest in the region declined after the signing of the Oslo accords, until the Tunisian revolution brought it back.
The report spoke about the post-Oslo Tunisian-Israeli rapprochement which became public with the establishment of a bureau for economic cooperation in 1996.
The relationship included a secret item about the “establishment of a system for security coordination between the Mossad and Tunisia by Shalom Cohen, a Tunisian Jew working in the North Africa section of the Israeli Mossad. In the same year, he became the director of the Israeli interest bureau in Tunisia.”
According to the report, Cohen used his diplomatic cover to build a “Mossad network” based in the capital Tunis, with branches in Sousse and Djerba.
The Yafa center information is consistent with that which Ayadi said he had received from a high-ranking Tunisian security source who reported the surveillance of a secret Mossad network “of around 300 agents” distributed over the three spying bases.
The first base was in the capital and run by a certain Nachman Jalboagh. It focused on Algeria by collecting information, monitoring targets, and recruiting agents.
The third is in Djerba, run by Nurit Tsur, and focuses on Libya. It also acts to protect the Jewish sect in Tunisia, which is concentrated on the island, and collects information about Jewish archaeological sites and landmarks in Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya.
Tunisian authorities have remained silent despite the uproar caused by the revelations. The government has yet to take any public action concerning the issue.
Speaking to al-Maghreb newspaper, interior minister Ali al-Arid said “the statements concerning 300 Mossad spies in Tunisia, working under the cover of cultural NGOs and travel agencies, are unfounded and completely irresponsible.”
“They are intended to disturb the work of security agencies that toil night and day to protect Tunisia. Anyone who has information about the issue should contact the security agencies so they can confirm it,” he added.
Tunisian anti-normalization activists believe that the interior minister’s statements contradict information broadcast on official Israeli television in the first days of the Tunisian revolution.
Mossad had boasted about “a special operation in Tunisia, under the cover of European companies, to evacuate a group of Israelis who were visiting Djerba, the site of the oldest synagogue in the world, al-Ghariba temple.”
Tunisian activists suggest that “Mossad activities and crimes are not new in Tunisia. The most famous was the bombing of the Hammam al-Shat suburb in the autumn of 1985. It targeted the offices of late Palestinian president Yasser Arafat. The Mossad also carried out numerous assassinations in Tunisia, including that of the mastermind behind the first intifada, Abu Jihad, in 1988.”
Following the Oslo agreement, nationalist and leftist currents, as well as anti-normalization associations accused Ben Ali of “facilitating Mossad operations and activities in Tunisia.”
This was highlighted in a documentary broadcast by Tunisian television following the revolution called “The State of Corruption.” The film exposed the significant role that Ben Ali played in setting the scene for the accords.
Following Oslo, the former dictator opened an Israeli economic cooperation bureau in Tunis. The office initiated its activities by contacting several Tunisian intellectuals and journalists to lure them into normalization activities. The majority refused to be involved.
The bureau was later closed due to popular pressure following the 2002 Israeli assault on the West Bank and the consequent siege of Yasser Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah.
The alarm sounded by Ayadi and Hammami is based on evidence and information corroborated by rights activist Ahmed al-Kahlawi, president of the Tunisian Association for Fighting Normalization and Supporting the Arab Resistance (TAFNSAR).
Kahlawi said that “several foreign organizations active in post-revolution Tunisia, such as Freedom House, play a major role in propagating the culture of normalization under the pretext of defending human rights.”
“With the fall of Ben Ali, Israel lost a strong strategic ally in North Africa,” Kahlawi explained. He indicated that most Zionist leaders admit this openly, including Benjamin Netanyahu and Silvan Shalom, who is of Tunisian origins (born in the city of Qabis).
Ben Ali had officially welcomed Shalom in 2005 in a meeting that was not covered by the Tunisian media, coinciding with the World Summit for the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis.
Kahlawi said the latest revelations about Mossad’s role in Tunisia should be further grounds for the constituent assembly to ratify chapter 27 of the proposed constitution, related to crimes of normalization and prosecuting collaboration with the Zionist state.
He added that “al-Nahda had rejected the criminalization of normalization, with a demagogic argument contending that the Tunisian constitution will last longer than the Israeli state, which will inevitably perish!”
Most Tunisian anti-normalization activists suspect the real reason behind al-Nahda eschewing the criminalization of normalization to be “pressure from the US on the ruling troika, and specifically on the movement, to prevent the ratification of chapter 27, which had been proposed by anti-normalization associations.”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.