How Israel Almost Turned a Chinese Thermal Cup Into a Diplomatic Crisis

A well-meant Passover gift to ministers from the Chinese Embassy leads to suspicions of spying, Shin Bet involvement, and embarrassment for Israel

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
An image of the suspected cup.
An image of the suspected cup.
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

The Shin Bet security service faced an unusual task on Tuesday, when it was asked to rule whether the Chinese embassy had attempted to plant surveillance devices – supposedly concealed in thermal cups handed out as holiday gifts – in the offices of several Israeli ministers.

Experts with the intelligence service spent hours examining a component found at the bottom of one of those cups. They eventually declared that it was an "innocent" device, used to seal the cup and maintain the temperature of the beverage it holds.

Strict security measures around ministers are necessary, but taking this one public nearly harmed the delicate relations between China and Israel. "The baseless rumors have a severe impact as they aim to drive a wedge between China and Israel, tarnish China’s image and seriously mislead the public,” the Chinese embassy said in a statement refuting the media reports.

It started on Monday, when an employee at the Chinese embassy in Tel Aviv contacted ministers’ offices to coordinate the delivery of a holiday gift, ahead of the Jewish holiday of Passover this weekend. The first cabinet member to receive the package, it appears, was Science, Technology and Space Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen. Another one was sent to Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz’s office, and a third was meant to be delivered on Tuesday to Culture and Sports Minister Chili Tropper.

Shin Bet regulations stipulate that any package sent from abroad or from a foreign diplomatic office must go through comprehensive security check. Security guards at the Science Ministry put the Chinese gift through screening, and it set off an alarm. An informed source said that after further examination, which revealed the “suspicious” component, security guards decided to hand the thermal cup over to the Shin Bet.

The Chinese embassy in Tel Aviv.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Even before Shin Bet experts began their examination, the agency contacted officials at various ministries, including the Prime Minister’s Office, fearing similar packages may be on their way. More than a few ministers received a surprising phone call from their security chiefs on Monday, trying to determine whether any gifts had been received from the Chinese embassy. By Tuesday morning, the news was leaked and was first published by Army Radio.

The Shin Bet took a long time to rule on the matter. Despite the slew of questions surrounding this bizarre affair, it seems clear that even at an early stage, Israel didn't seriously suspect a major espionage scheme. There was no gag order. The defense and diplomatic officials who would be charged with handling such a crisis said that they were not updated in real time, even after the story was leaked.

According to one of these officials, no embassy would try a “wholesale” planting of surveillance devices like this, knowing they are most likely to be intercepted in at least some of the ministries, torpedoing the entire operation. And indeed, the first thermal cup that underwent screening, at the Science Ministry, was “exposed” by its security team.

The device itself, officials said, wouldn’t really be able to do what it was allegedly meant to do: With no power source, no internet connection, no GPS antenna, and placed inside a hot water container, it wouldn’t really give its hypothetical operators any valuable information.

The Chinese embassy’s account, therefore, sounds completely plausible: “On the occasion of Passover… the Chinese Embassy in Israel sent holiday gifts to the Israeli side to express our friendship,” it said. “Certain Israeli media spread rumors that a thermal mug in the gifts ‘may’ contain ‘a suspicious device.’ The fact is, the so-called ‘suspicious device’ is a getter, which could be easily found in the same kind of thermal mugs,” the embassy added, urging media outlets to “immediately withdraw the false reports.”

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