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Israel v Hamas

Schools in Hebron are being closed and other charitable organisations put under pressure by an Israe

The Israeli soldiers came to raid the sewing workshop in the middle of the night. Lorne Friesen, a 66-year-old Canadian man who used to be chaplain in a psychiatric hospital in Winkler, Manitoba, was one of two representatives of the Hebron branch of the Christian Peacemaker Teams who were staying in the building. The nightwatchman rang him at 1.30am and he and his colleague walked across the playground from their quarters in the girls’ school to the orphanage, where 120 girls were sleeping in the dormitories on the third and fourth floors. By the time they arrived, the soldiers had entered the sewing workshop in the basement. There was nothing that Friesen could do to stop them emptying the building, but he deployed the weapon favoured by the so-called “internationals” who attempt to keep the peace in the West Bank city of Hebron: he took out a camera and began to film and photograph the operation.

The Israeli army claimed that ICS’s charitable activities were only a front; its true aim was to “strengthen the terror organisation Hamas”

The raid, which took place on 30 April this year, was the latest stage in the Israeli army's campaign against an organisation called the Islamic Charitable Society of Hebron (ICS). It had begun on 26 February, when soldiers visited its premises and left military orders confiscating its assets and transferring ownership to the Israel Defence Forces (IDF). The news was greeted with shock and dismay in Hebron, where ICS is a significant presence. It runs two orphanages and three schools in Hebron, which provide for 1,940 children, 240 of whom are orphans. In October, it was planning to open a new girls' school, which had cost $2m to build. In the villages outside the city, it maintains other orphanages and kindergartens. In total, it employs 450 people. To support its charitable work, it runs a series of revenue-generating projects - a dairy, two bakeries, and a range of properties in Hebron including a warehouse that stores imported goods, a mall in the city centre and an apartment building with 30 flats.

Its income is supplemented by charitable donations. The practice of zakat, or charitable giving, is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, the five duties a Muslim must observe. Every Muslim is obliged to donate 2.5 per cent of his or her income each year, and ICS received donations from the same range of sources as most Islamic charities - local groups, wealthy individuals in the Palestinian diaspora or the Gulf States, and international charities, including several in Britain.

Yet the Israeli army claimed that ICS's charitable activities were only a front; its true aim was to "strengthen the terror organisation Hamas", and it accused ICS of being the "largest group in Hamas's network of charitable committees". ICS's schools and orphanages had educated generations of children in the spirit of jihad and instilled "the mentality of Hamas as a superior value". Major Oron Mincha, of the Israeli Central Command in Judea and Samaria - the biblical term that the IDF uses to describe the West Bank - maintains that most of the suicide bombers that have attacked Israel in the past 15 years have been sent by Hamas, and many of them have come from Hebron. Even its summer schools are considered breeding grounds for terrorists: "Some of the biggest terrorists in the West Bank in the past few years learned terrorism at summer schools organised by these charitable institutions," he says.

The Israelis placed the school governor under "administrative detention", which means he has been arrested without charge. In his absence, I spoke to an English teacher at ICS's boys' school in Hebron. Rasheed Rasheed denies that ICS is connected to Hamas in any way, and points out that it was founded in 1962, 25 years before Hamas was established. "Just because some employees there are Hamas-affiliated, it doesn't mean the whole society is Hamas," he told me, when I visited the girls' orphanage in August. "You can find Hamas members in Hebron Municipality, in Hebron University - everywhere: so why pick on this charity?"

Rasheed, at 37 years old, is a short, intense man, with close-cropped dark hair. He is plainly furious at the way his school has been treated. He denies that it teaches hatred or incites violence against Israel; he says they are doing a difficult job "in the most moderate way they can", and he adds that all 56 teachers at the schools signed a statement saying they were willing to undergo an investigation by a credible objective organisation. It was the summer holidays, and the classrooms and kitchens on the ground floor were empty, but he invited me to return in term time. "Come and see our curriculum," he said. "Come and see our classes. Question our students. What are we teaching them? My curriculum is made by Macmillan: is Macmillan a terrorist group?"

ICS's lawyer, Jawad Bulos, used all the measures available to him. First, he appealed against the closure notices to the civil administration of Judea and Samaria - the branch of the Israeli government which runs the occupied territories of the West Bank - but it dismissed the case. Then he took the case to the Israeli High Court, which set a hearing for 23 October, but rejected the request for a "prohibiting order", which would have prevented the army from carrying out its orders. The court has now postponed the hearing; the Israeli army notes that the court "does not see any special urgency in the matter" and concedes that the hearing might be delayed indefinitely. If it is ever heard, then Jawad Bulos has no doubt that it will uphold the army's actions. "I applied to the court because it's the only legal procedure I have, but I don't have the tiniest shred of hope that they will remedy the situation."

Earlier this year, on 5 March, the IDF raided the large warehouse ICS owned in the al-Harayeq district of the city. The army had cut a hole in the front door and removed its contents on to eight lorries. When I visited, the long stretches of shelving on the ground floor were bare when I visited, except for two packs of pink pencils – all that remained of an estimated $250,000 worth of clothing and stationery. Upstairs, there were shoes strewn across the floor, and odds and ends of clothing had been dumped inside a case made of cellophane wrapped around a metal frame – the one pallet that they hadn’t been able to take.

Outside, the army had knocked down a wall of the warehouse next door. They had removed two industrial refrigerators and ransacked the workers' kitchens. The cupboard doors were standing open and the tins and packets inside had been opened and upended - the sink was full of beans and chickpeas and there were dark trails of ground spices winding across the floor. A rich, faintly rancid smell hung in the air.

“We went to that school for two years, and in that time I never heard anyone talk about Hamas or Fatah – you just went to school and you learnt”

On the same night the army raided the bakery and the new girls' school, which stands at the end of a deserted road, on the crest of the hill above the warehouses. It was finished, except for the playgrounds which needed surfacing, but the gates had been welded shut. "We told them that this school was paid for by Hamas and we won't let you open a Hamas school," says Oron Mincha. "We don't want them to study the Hamas way, because we don't want them to be terrorists. We want them to be regular people."

The raids were condemned within Israel - "the Israeli occupation has not been seen for a long time in such a ludicrous and inhumane light," said the columnist Gideon Levy - and attracted the attention of Hebron's resident "internationals". The city is the only place in the West Bank where Palestinans and settlers live side by side. The Hebron Protocol, which was signed in 1997 as part of the Oslo Accords, divided it in two. Israel ceded control of an area known as H1, which covers 80 per cent of the city and is home to 130,000 Palestinians, but it retained control of a smaller section designated H2, where as many as 600 settlers, guarded by a detachment of 3,000 soldiers, live among 20,000 Palestinians. Relations between the two are extremely tense, and during the past ten years many foreign organisations have taken up residence in Hebron - there is a quasi-official observers' mission, called the Temporary International Presence in Hebron, which is made up of volunteers from six participating countries, and three organisations which believe in non-violent direct action, including the Christian Peacemaker Teams.

CPT, which calls on Christians of all denominations to devote "the same discipline and self-sacrifice to non-violent peacemaking that armies devote to war", is based in H2, in the old city of Hebron. Its volunteers, who are often elderly or retired, patrol the streets in red caps, attempting to defuse confrontations between settlers, soldiers and Palestinians. In March, they turned their attention to the plight of Hebron's orphans. To begin with, they enlisted the help of Israeli human rights groups and foreign peace campaigners, such as the Irish Nobel peace laureate Mairead Corrigan-Maguire and the former US president Jimmy Carter, yet they found it harder to enlist the help of Palestinians. "Everyone was afraid that if they were seen as helping this organisation, they would be closed down or sent to prison," says Dianne Roe, a CPT peace campaigner who has been based in Hebron since 1995.

CPT members slept in the orphanages on the night of 31 March and 1 April, in the hope of deterring the threatened raid. Roe was impressed by what she saw: "All the children that we talked with were well cared for, they were bright - we went into the classrooms and it was obvious that this was a well-run institution. There was no evidence of any kind of hate material - just big signs in the cafeteria about giving thanks before a meal and after a meal."

During her visits to the orphanage, Roe also found the perfect figurehead for her attempts to publicise the story. Rabiha Abusnineh is a Texan-Palestinian girl who grew up in Houston and moved back to Hebron with her family in August 2006, when she was 15. Her father, Najaf, left Hebron 30 years ago and worked as a chemical engineer and in property. By his own account, he made a lot of money, and when he came back to Hebron two years ago, he built his "dream house" on the top of a hill overlooking the city centre.

It didn't take him long to choose a school for his two teenage daughters, Muna and Rabiha. The al-Shari'ya Secondary School for Girls had the highest academic standards in the city and the lowest student-teacher ratio. What's more, it was open - many of the state schools, which are administered by the PA, were closed because of a teachers' strike. "Implicitly, there was a religious reason, too," Najaf says. "We're Muslims and we tend to go to Islamic schools. But the main reason was that it's academically strong."

In Houston, Rabiha was treasurer of the student council and liked going to the mall with her friends. She found it difficult adapting to a different culture and learning a new language, but with her classmates’ help, she managed it. “I hated my situation, but they helped me through it,” she recalls. By the beginning of this year, she was top of her class, and she had begun to feel settled at school. She was horrified when she discovered that the Israeli authorities were planning to close it. “We went to that school for two years, and in that time I never heard anyone talk about Hamas or Fatah, nothing. You just went to school and you learnt. And because it’s so much harder than in the United States, everyone just focused on learning. I never heard that our school had any association with Hamas.”

She and her fellow students believed that ICS had fulfilled all its legal obligations: its accounts were open for inspection and all its funds were properly accounted for. "If they said that they were going to spend this amount of money on food or clothes for the orphans, that's what they did. Everyone thought that once they'd checked the records, they'd leave the school alone. But it shows that they're doing this for no reason - just so they can put 4,000 orphans on the street, with no homes, no food, nothing. That's the really inhumane part of it. There's really no solid reason."

A few days before the deadline of 1 April, Dianne Roe filmed Rabiha Abusnineh making a plea on behalf of her school. She sent the tape and an accompanying letter to the Oprah Winfrey Show. "I have been taught to stand up for what I believe in and what I believe has nothing to do with politics because I've always been neutral. But Oprah, by studying at this school and seeing everything that is provided, I cannot imagine what life is going to be like if it closes down, so I will stand by them to the very end until they get back their rights," she wrote, in the inimitably breathless style of the American teenager she used to be. Rabiha wanted to repay the kindness of the girls who had helped her when she arrived at the school, and she said she wouldn't be able to sleep at night knowing that there are 4,000 orphans "who won't have anywhere to go, and won't have food to eat".

Had everything gone to plan, Rabiha would have become an international celebrity – the public face of the campaign to save the schools and orphanages. Unfortunately, her tape and letter were not picked up by the international media. The video was posted on YouTube, but four months later, it had been watched only 90 times.

The Israeli high court delayed the closure and confiscation orders for several days, but on 7 April, it granted the Israeli military an "indefinite delay" to provide full justification for its actions. On 10 April, two Israeli officers visited the sewing workshop, where the orphans and students of the girls' school produce women's clothing with the aim of learning a craft, and earning some extra income. A week later, it raided the second bakery, and destroyed the oven. It also evicted the tenants of al-Huda mall, which lies at the bottom of Ain Sara Street, close to the two green towers that dominate the centre of Hebron. Signs on the street frontage advertise the businesses that used to occupy the mall - a physiotherapist, a computer store and a bookshop or library - but the shops in the atrium beyond the entrance from the street are sealed and the floor is littered with discarded cardboard boxes.

The only units still occupied are the linked pair of shops that face the street, called Mama Care and Pretty Woman. The proprietor, who doesn't want to be named for fear of antagonising the Israelis, hired the same lawyer as ICS. Jawad Bulos presented documents proving the commercial contracts had been signed before 2000, when the Israelis first declared the organisation illegal. The day before the mall was due to close, she learnt that Jawad Bulos had secured their right to stay open.

By 1 April, almost all of the other occupants had left the building. The only one to remain was an English-trained cardiologist who runs a private clinic on the first floor. After seven years of building up his patient list and establishing his reputation, Dr Al Ashab didn't want to have to move and start again elsewhere. He knew he was committing an offence by remaining in the building, but he seemed prepared to rely on the fact that the Israeli soldiers have always visited the mall in the morning, while he only works there in the afternoon. He had no interest in the legal and political wranglings that had emptied the building and he had no idea whether his landlord is affiliated to Hamas or not. "I'm busy and I'm not interested in politics. And it's not my fault if they are. I just pay them the rent and they don't interfere with me. I would pay rent to the military authority if I had to."

On Wednesday 16 April, the IDF said that the sewing workshop would be closed within a fortnight. Lorne Friesen thought that they might not raid the workshop during term time, but the army was punctilious in observing its deadline – the soldiers arrived at the orphanage on the night it expired. When Friesen went outside the building, he discovered that they had closed off the street and were loading the contents of the sewing workshop on to three 40ft-long trailers parked outside among the jeeps and personnel carriers. As well as the racks of finished clothes, the bolts of cloth and the sewing machines, they took the phone and desk from the office and the paintings from the walls. They brought in grinders to cut up the long tables which were used for measuring cloth, and they carried the parts outside on a forklift truck that they had brought on one of the trailers.

During the course of the operation, Friesen looked up at the dormitories on the third and fourth floors and saw faces of the staff or children silhouetted in the windows. Given that some of the soldiers were wearing camouflage paint, he was surprised that they didn't object to him filming them at work, but most of the time, they ignored the two elderly Canadian men who were moving between them. He posted the video on YouTube and at one point it captures his colleague shouting at the soldiers. "So this is what you call fighting terrorism?" he says, as they pass bolts of cloth from hand to hand through the hall and the front door of the orphanage. "You guys are the ones who are terrorising people."

Friesen believes that the soldiers were so convinced that the organisation was affiliated with Hamas, and thus posed a threat to Israeli security, that they had no choice but to destroy it. Yet Friesen saw no evidence that they were right. During the time he spent at the schools and orphanages, he never saw any "hate material", and he said the conduct of the students was "admirable". He got the impression that ICS ran a "superior-quality service". "There is an atmosphere of deep devotion and dedication and the staff have a strong commitment to caring for the needy. The buildings were excellent quality and the grounds were neatly kept. So to have their property systematically and deliberately vandalised is deeply demoralising."

By the time the soldiers left the building, it was getting light. Soon afterwards, the first teachers arrived to assess the damage. The soldiers had confiscated $45,000 worth of goods; two days later the staff of ICS found out what they had done with them. "They had driven the trucks to the city dump and thrown everything into the garbage," says Friesen.

There was no evidence of hate material – just big signs in the cafeteria about giving thanks before a meal and after a meal

In the west, Hamas is regarded as a terrorist organisation, but to many Palestinians it has a very different image. Its origins lie in the Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded in Egypt in 1928, with the aim of establishing Islamic rule in all Muslim countries, and eventually uniting them in a single state, representing the umma, or Muslim nation. According to Khaled Hroub, author of Hamas: a Beginner's Guide and director of the Cambridge Arab Media Project, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1946 in Jerusalem. After the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, it divided into two parts - one in the West Bank, which was under Jordanian control, and one in Gaza, which was governed by Egypt. After the Six Day War in 1967, when Israel gained control of all of historic Palestine, the two halves of the organisation began to merge.

At the time, Palestinian politics was dominated by the secular nationalism of Yasser Arafat's PLO, but during the Eighties, the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood began to establish a foothold. When the first intifada broke out in 1987, its leaders in Gaza set up the Islamic Resistance Movement, otherwise known as Hamas; they were responding to pressure from within their organisation to confront Israel, and at the same time, they were hoping to direct and lead the uprising.

The new organisation shared the Muslim Brotherhood's aim of Islamicising Palestinian society, but it differed from its philosophy in one crucial respect: it reserved the right to commit violence. "The movement struggles against Israel because it is the aggressing, usurping and oppressing state that day and night hoists the rifle in the face of our sons and daughters," said Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, one of Hamas's founders, who was assassinated by an Israeli helicopter gunship in Gaza in 2004. Yassin, who was paraplegic and confined to a wheel-chair, was regarded as Hamas's spiritual leader, though the former Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, called him the "mastermind of Palestinian terror".

In the past eight years, according to the Israeli authorities, Hamas has killed 373 Israelis in the West Bank and Israel, including 48 members of the security forces. Yet at the same time as sending suicide bombers to attack Israeli civilians, it has continued the charitable work that forms the other part of its remit. It sponsors schools, medical centres and orphanages, and it has built up a reputation for fairness and incorruptibility. According to Hroub, the pattern is repeated across the Arab world – the “official” zakat institutions established by governments to collect and redistribute charitable money are generally regarded as corrupt, whereas the organisations run by Islamist movements, such as Hamas, are seen as “clean-handed and trustworthy”.

Mincha says the IDF moved against charitable institutions such as ICS because it had found "a very tight connection between the charity movement and terror, and the connection is money". In fact, the connection is complicated, and far from clear. Hroub says that Hamas has two sorts of income - one for the movement, which includes its military wing, and one for its charities and social work that goes directly to the organisations without passing through Hamas channels. "Those organisations have public bank accounts and work transparently. Their affiliation to Hamas is moral, but not official. Hamas is happy with the distance between itself and those organisations, so they function without the threat of being closed," says Hroub. The claim that the charities fund Hamas's military activity is weak and unfounded, he adds: "It simply doesn't need to jeopardise the charities for things that it could do in a much simpler way."

Yet it is not the first time that Israel has attempted to shut down the network of Islamic charities that do so much to sustain life in the West Bank. They moved against the "zakat committees" in 1995, after the signing of the Oslo Accords which led to the creation of the Palestinian Authority. The campaign was derailed by the outbreak of the Second Intifada in September 2000, but Hamas's unexpected victory in the legislative elections in the West Bank in January 2006 provided an opportunity to renew it. Although the elections were widely acknowledged to be free and fair, neither Israel nor the so-called Quartet on the Middle East - the United States, Russia, the EU and the United Nations - were prepared to recognise a Palestinian Authority run by what they regard as a terrorist organisation. Its first year in office was beset by problems: Fatah-affiliated militias, backed by Israel and the US, attempted to overthrow the government, and the internecine struggle erupted into violence in Gaza in June 2007. When "the Battle for Gaza" was over, the dividing lines in Palestinian society had been drawn: Hamas retained control of Gaza, and Fatah regained power in the West Bank. The campaign against Hamas, in all its forms, was soon renewed.

On 18 June 2007, the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, outlawed the executive and military wings of Hamas and, in August, the PA dissolved 103 charities and non-governmental organisations, on the grounds that they had “committed administrative, financial or legal violations”. In October 2007, it decided to dismantle all the West Bank’s charitable organisations. The PA said Hamas had been using the zakat committees as a means of transferring funds to its supporters in the West Bank, and said they had become financial empires, serving their own corrupt political ends. In December, the PA closed dozens of charities, and announced the creation of 11 new committees to replace them. Hamas called it a “declaration of war on the poor and needy”.

On 17 December, an Israeli military court sentenced Husseini Awad, the former head of the Ramallah Charity Foundation, to three years in prison; it was the first time that anyone had been sentenced to jail for their involvement in "civilian support of the Hamas terror organisation". The verdict of the military court was reported in an IDF briefing. It said that Awad, a 62-year-old paediatrician, "stood at the head of an organisation that had many branches", and controlled a budget of millions of shekels a year. He "received money from Hamas financing overseas" and made monthly payments to 3,200 orphans and 15,000 impoverished families. "Any group that assists a terrorist organisation to recruit support . . . and carry out terrorist attacks is a dangerous group," said the judgment. "The fact that the committee recruits this support by means of assisting the needy does not negate the danger of these actions." It didn't matter that Awad had not "committed violence"; he did not "protest the way in which Hamas had used his organisation".

The closures soon spread to other cities in the West Bank. In July this year, the IDF raided and closed various institutions in Nablus, including a medical centre and Nablus Mall, which was said to be owned by a company with ties to the city's former mayor, Adli Yaish - a Mercedes dealer turned politician who has been in prison for a year. A week later, the army arrested Abdul Rahim Hanbali, the head of the largest zakat committee in the West Bank. Hanbali's organisation distributed $2m in alms in 2006 - a figure that fell to $1.2m in 2007, partly because of a drop in donations from American-Palestinians, who were concerned that they would be breaking anti-terrorism legislation by sending money. Neither Hanbali nor the Nablus zakat organisation appears on any public US government terrorist blacklist, but in the world after the attacks of 11 September 2001, the fact that it was a Muslim charity was enough to arouse concern.

In Hebron, the closures continued throughout the summer. In May, the Palestinian Authority froze the bank accounts of an orphanage in the village of Beit Ummar, outside Hebron, and the Israeli army arrested two of its employees. In June, ICS schools and kindergartens in two other villages outside Hebron were closed, and on 6 August, the Palestinian Authority sent 45 police officers armed with guns and teargas into the orphanage in Beit Ummar. When one employee asked to see a written order authorising the raid, soldiers beat him with an electric rod. Another volunteer told the Christian Peacemaker Teams that the forces conducted the raid "in a savage way": "Even the Israeli soldiers do not treat the employees like this."

The PA says that it is merely implementing the law, but its actions confirmed what many Palestinians already believe: that it is just another layer of the occupation. Rabiha’s father, a well-built man who wears the hammer-loop jeans and faded work jackets of the classic American labourer, maintains that the Palestinians are wrong to regard the creation of the state of Israel as the naqba that blighted their future. He believes that the real catastrophe was the signing of the Oslo Accords that led to the creation of the PA. He doesn’t have to look far for evidence of what he regards as its endemic corruption. His four-storey house has its own internal lift and windows modelled on a design from a French chateau, yet it is overshadowed by the vast concrete shell of a half-built basketball stadium that stands next door.

So far, the project has cost $17m of aid money provided by the French government, but Najaf Abusnineh says it will never be completed because it was built in the wrong place for a spectator venue, on a small plot on a hilltop, with no parking. To make matters worse, it overlooks a government compound that might attract gunfire in the event of fighting. "You cannot say that this is a government," says Najaf, scornfully. "They are a puppet government, a pawn in the hands of Olmert and George Bush, and whatever they do, isn't for the benefit of the Palestinian people - it's with the aim of making themselves rich and holding on to the chair."

Meanwhile the ICS's lawyer, Jawad Bulos, is placing his hopes on the negotiations he is conducting between the PA and the Israelis. "We have to find a way of addressing their fears - we have to find an acceptable solution that will save the association and put an end to the suffering of the people who need its services. Otherwise, it will be a disaster in Hebron."

Speaking for the Israelis, Major Mincha points out that they haven't closed any open schools in Hebron or elsewhere, and insists that they wouldn't close a school without ensuring there was adequate provision elsewhere. "I can assure you that there are enough classrooms and enough teachers in the West Bank for every single Palestinian child. Our civil command checks this sort of thing all the time: we make sure that all the children are studying."

Such arguments count for little in Hebron. The ICS schools opened at the beginning of the term on 24 August, but Rasheed Rasheed says they are not likely to survive for long. "I'm sure that the Israelis won't come near the schools and orphanages again, because they don't want to cause themselves headaches with the western media, but I can assure you that they will die automatically, due to a shortage of money." None of the teachers and other staff has been paid for six months, and Rasheed predicts that at least ten will leave in the next school year. He is planning to stay on for a year, but he has a wife and two daughters to support and eventually he will be forced to look for another job. He is tired of the political disputes that have brought his school to the brink of closure. "It's not Hamas or Israel that's going to pay the price - it's my students. What does a child have to do with Hamas or Fatah or Israel? He doesn't know anything yet. Why should a six-year-old boy pay for Hamas's agenda, or Fatah's agenda, or Israel's agenda?"

For the time being, the Palestinian Authority has appointed nine people to the board of ICS who are not affiliated to any party, but they have refused to take up the posts until they receive guarantees that they will not be arrested, and the organisation can no longer access its own bank accounts or reach its funds. The army claims it is undermining Hamas's ability to raise funds, making it more difficult for the organisation to attack Israel, and yet it acknowledges that the group is far from beaten. In a briefing document released to the press, it says that Hamas is building "its forces in Judea, Samaria and the Jordan Valley in preparation for a potential takeover and to broaden its influence in Israel and throughout the region".

He believes the real catastrophe was the signing of the Oslo Accords that led to

the creation of the Palestinian Authority

There is a danger that the current campaign might backfire - each time Israel or the PA dismantles a charity committee and destroys a source of essential services that cannot be replicated, it increases dissatisfaction with Israel and its so-called "partner for peace". Rasheed Rasheed believes that the army's actions are the best advertisement that Hamas could hope for. "If Israel thinks they are destroying Hamas by doing things like this, then they are mistaken," he says. "If there is someone to be blamed for supporting Hamas, I blame Israel. What are they going to get out of this? More pain for the Palestinians - and then what? More hatred of Israel. The Palestinian children don't need a curriculum of incitement and hatred - the Israeli killings and shootings and checkpoints are their curriculum."

Edward Platt is the author of "Leadville" and a contributing writer of the New Statesman

hebron timeline

1962 Islamic Charitable Society of Hebron (ICS) formed with Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian authorisation

September 2006 A Birzeit University poll shows Muslim NGOs and charities provide 20 per cent of food and financial assistance to Palestine's poor

June/July 2006 The UN records four raids on ICS buildings by the Israel Defence Forces

17 July 2007 The Islamic Society for Orphan Sponsorship, a charity in Hebron not affiliated with the ICS, is raided and closed

18 June 2007 Mahmoud Abbas dissolves 103 charities and NGOs

26 February 2008 The Israeli army issues closure and confiscation notices against the ICS

5 March 2008 An ICS warehouse, bakery, and girls' school are raided

April 2008 Tenants of al-Huda mall evicted;

destruction of a second ICS bakery; and the Hebron girls' orphanage sewing workshop ransacked

8 May 2008 International human rights organisations endorse ICS

4 June 2008 Closure of ICS schools and kindergartens outside Hebron

July 2008: Closures and raids spread to other West Bank cities.

6 August 2008 The Palestinian Authority raids ICS orphanage in Beit Ummar

Research by Samira Shackle

This article first appeared in the 03 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Israel v Hamas

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Are smart toys spying on children?

If you thought stepping on a Lego was bad, consider the new ways in which toys can hurt and harm families.

In January 1999, the president of Tiger Electronics, Roger Shiffman, was forced to issue a statement clearing the name of the company’s hottest new toy. “Furby is not a spy,” he announced to the waiting world.

Shiffman was speaking out after America’s National Security Agency (NSA) banned the toy from its premises. The ban was its response to a playground rumour that Furbies could be taught to speak, and therefore could record and repeat human speech. “The NSA did not do their homework,” said Shiffman at the time.

But if America’s security agencies are still in the habit of banning toys that can record, spy, and store private information, then the list of contraband items must be getting exceptionally long. Nearly 18 years after TE were forced to deny Furby’s secret agent credentials, EU and US consumer watchdogs are filing complaints about a number of WiFi and Bluetooth connected interactive toys, also known as smart toys, which have hit the shelves. Equipped with microphones and an internet connection, many have the power to invade both children’s and adults’ private lives.

***

“We wanted a smart toy that could learn and grow with a child,” says JP Benini, the co-founder of the CogniToys “Dino”, an interactive WiFi-enabled plastic dinosaur that can hold conversations with children and answer their questions. Benini and his team won the 2014 Watson Mobile Developer Challenge, allowing them to use the question-answering software IBM Watson to develop the Dino. As such, unlike the “interactive” toys of the Nineties and Noughties, Dino doesn’t simply reiterate a host of pre-recorded stock phrases, but has real, organic conversations. “We grew it from something that was like a Siri for kids to something that was more conversational in nature.”

In order for this to work, Dino has a speaker in one nostril and a microphone in the other, and once a child presses the button on his belly, everything they say is processed by the internet-connected toy. The audio files are turned into statistical data and transcripts, which are then anonymised and encrypted. Most of this data is, in Benini’s words, “tossed out”, but his company, Elemental Path, which owns CogniToys, do store statistical data about a child, which they call “Play Data”. “We keep pieces from the interaction, not the full interaction itself,” he tells me.

“Play Data” are things like a child’s favourite colour or sport, which are used to make a profile of the child. This data is then available for the company to view, use, and pass on to third parties, and for parents to see on a “Parental Panel”. For example, if a child tells Dino their favourite colour is “red”, their mother or father will be able to see this on their app, and Elemental Path will be able to use this information to, Benini says, “make a better toy”.

Currently, the company has no plans to use the data with any external marketers, though it is becoming more and more common for smart toys to store and sell data about how they are played with. “This isn’t meant to be just another monitoring device that's using the information that it gathers to sell it back to its user,” says Benini.

Sometimes, however, Elemental Path does save, store, and use the raw audio files of what a child has said to the toy. “If the Dino is asked a question that it doesn’t know, we take that question and separate it from the actual child that’s asking it and it goes into this giant bucket of unresolved questions and we can analyse that over time,” says Benini. It is worth noting, however, that Amazon reviews of the toy claim it is frequently unable to answer questions, meaning there is potentially an abundance of audio saved, rather than it being an occasional occurrence.

CogniToys have a relatively transparent Privacy Policy on their website, and it is clear that Benini has considered privacy at length. He admits that the company has been back and forth about how much data to store, originally offering parents the opportunity to see full transcripts of what their child had been saying, until many fed back that they found this “creepy”. Dino is not the first smart toy to be criticised in this way.

Hello Barbie is the world’s first interactive Barbie doll, and when it was released by Mattel in 2015, it was met with scorn by parents’ rights groups and privacy campaigners. Like Dino, the doll holds conversations with children and stores data about them which it passes back to the parents, and articles expressing concerns about the toy featured on CNN, the Guardian, and the New York Times. Despite Dino’s similarities, however, Benini’s toy received almost no negative attention, while Hello Barbie won the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s prize for worst toy of the year 2015.

“We were lucky with that one,” he says, “Like the whole story of the early bird gets the worm but the second worm doesn’t get eaten. Coming second on all of this allowed us to be prepared to address the privacy concerns in greater depth.”

Nonetheless, Dino is in many ways essentially the same as Hello Barbie. Both toys allow companies and parents to spy on children’s private playtimes, and while the former might seem more troubling, the latter is not without its problems. A feature on the Parental Panel of the Dino also allows parents to see the exact wording of questions children have asked about certain difficult topics, such as sex or bullying. In many ways, this is the modern equivalent of a parent reading their child's diary. 

“Giving parents the opportunity to side-step their basic responsibility of talking to, engaging with, encouraging and reassuring their child is a terrifying glimpse into a society where plastic dinosaurs rule and humans are little more than machines providing the babies for the reptile robots to nurture,” says Renate Samson, the chief executive of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch. “We are used to technology providing convenience in our lives to the detriment of our privacy, but allowing your child to be taught, consoled and even told to meditate by a WiFi connected talking dinosaur really is a step in the wrong direction.”

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Toy companies and parents are one thing, however, and to many it might seem trivial for a child’s privacy to be comprised in this way. Yet many smart toys are also vulnerable to hackers, meaning security and privacy are under threat in a much more direct way. Ken Munro, of Pen Test Partners, is an ethical hacker who exposed security flaws in the interactive smart toy “My Friend Cayla” by making her say, among other things, “Calm down or I will kick the shit out of you.”

“We just thought ‘Wow’, the opportunity to get a talking doll to swear was too good,” he says. “It was the kid in me. But there were deeper concerns.”

Munro explains that any device could connect to the doll over Bluetooth, provided it was in range, as the set-up didn’t require a pin or password. He also found issues with the encryption processes used by the company. “You can say anything to a child through the doll because there's no security,” he says. “That means you've got a device that can potentially be used to groom a child and that's really creepy.”

Pen Test Partners tells companies about the flaws they find with their products in a process they call “responsible disclosure”. Most of the time, companies are grateful for the information, and work through ways to fix the problem. Munro feels that Vivid Toy Group, the company behind Cayla, did a “poor job” at fixing the issue. “All they did was put one more step in the process of getting it to swear for us.”

It is one thing for a hacker to speak to a child through a toy and another for them to hear them. Early this year, a hack on baby monitors ignited such concerns. But any toy with speech recognition that is connected to the internet is also vulnerable to being hacked. The data that is stored about how children play with smart toys is also under threat, as Fisher Price found out this year when a security company managed to obtain the names, ages, birthdays, and genders of children who had played with its smart toys. In 2015, VTech also admitted that five million of its customers had their data breached in a hack.

“The idea that your child shares their playtime with a device which could potentially be hacked, leaving your child’s inane or maybe intimate and revealing questions exposed is profoundly worrying,” says Samson. Today, the US Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said in a statement that smart toys “pose an imminent and immediate threat to the safety and security of children in the United States”. 

Munro says big brands are usually great at tackling these issues, but warns about smaller, cheaper brands who have less to lose than companies like Disney or Fisher Price. “I’m not saying they get it right but if someone does find a problem they’ve got a huge incentive to get it right subsequently,” he says of larger companies. Thankfully, Munro says that he found Dino to be secure. “I would be happy for my kids to play with it,” he says. “We did find a couple of bugs but we had a chat with them and they’re a good bunch. They aren’t perfect but I think they’ve done a hell of a lot of a better job than some other smart toy vendors.”

Benini appears alert to security and the credibility it gives his company. “We took the security very, very seriously,” he says. “We were still building our systems whilst these horror stories were coming about so I already set pipelines and parameters in place. With a lot of devices out there it seems that security takes a backseat to the idea, which is really unfortunate when you’re inviting these devices into your home.”

As well as being wary of smaller brands, Munro advises that parents should look out for Bluetooth toys without a secure pairing process (ie. any device can pair with the toy if near enough), and to think twice about which toys you connect to your WiFi. He also advises to use unique passwords for toys and their corresponding apps.

“You might think ‘It's just a toy, so I can use the same password I put in everything else’ – dog’s name, football club, whatever – but actually if that ever got hacked you’d end up getting all your accounts that use that same password hacked,” he says.

Despite his security advice, Munro describes himself as “on the fence” about internet-connected smart toys as a whole. “Most internet of things devices can be hacked in one way or another,” he says. “I would urge caution.”

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Is all of this legal? Companies might not be doing enough ethically to protect the privacy of children, but are they acting responsibly within the confines of the law?

Benini explains that Dino complies with the United States Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of which there is no real equivalent in the UK. COPPA says that companies must have parental permission to collect personal information over the internet about children under 13 years of age. “We’ve tried to go above and beyond the original layout of COPPA,” says Benini, when describing CogniToys transparent privacy documents. Parents give their consent for Elemental Path to collect their children’s data when they download the app that pairs with the toy.

Dino bears a striking similarity to Amazon Echo and Google Home, smart speakers that listen out for commands and questions in your home. Everything that is said to Amazon Echo is recorded and sent to the cloud, and an investigation by the Guardian earlier this year discovered that this does not comply with COPPA. We are therefore now in a strange position whereby many internet of things home devices are legally considered a threat to a child’s privacy, whereas toys with the same capabilities are not. This is an issue because many parents may not actually be aware that they are handing over their children’s data when installing a new toy.

As of today, EU consumer rights groups are also launching complaints against certain smart toys, claiming they breach the EU Unfair Contract Terms Directive and the EU Data Protection Directive, as well as potentially the Toy Safety Directive. Though smart toys may be better regulated in Europe, there are no signs that the problem is being tackled in the UK. 

At a time when the UK government are implementing unprecedented measures to survey its citizens on the internet and Jeremy Hunt wants companies to scour teens’ phones for sexts, it seems unlikely that any legislation will be enacted that protects children’s privacy from being violated by toy companies. Indeed, many internet of things companies – including Elemental Path – admit they will hand over your data to government and law enforcement officials when asked.

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As smart toys develop, the threat they pose to children only becomes greater. The inclusion of sensors and cameras means even more data can be collected about children, and their privacy can and will be compromised in worrying ways.

Companies, hackers, and even parents are denying children their individual right to privacy and private play. “Children need to feel that they can play in their own place,” says Samson. It is worrying to set a precedent where children get used to surveillance early on. All of this is to say nothing of the educational problems of owning a toy that will tell you (rather than teach you) how to spell “space” and figure out “5+8”.

In a 1999 episode of The Simpsons, “Grift of the Magi”, a toy company takes over Springfield Elementary and spies on children in order to create the perfect toy, Funzo. It is designed to destroy all other toys, just in time for Christmas. Many at the time criticised the plot for being absurd. Like the show's prediction of President Trump, however, it seems that we are living in a world where satire slowly becomes reality.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.