Mondoweiss / July 26, 2021
Last week, an investigative consortium that included newspapers and Amnesty International broke the story that the cell phones of human rights workers, journalists, and dissidents had been hacked by authoritarian governments and other bad actors using commercial spyware. Initial coverage downplayed the fact that the maker of the software, NSO Group, is based in Israel. (I cited PBS and NPR reports that barely touched on that fact.)
Well, now the Israel angle is big news. The spyware is proving to be an international embarrassment to the country. Or as Omar Barghouti, a leader of the boycott campaign, told us today: “In the eyes of most of humanity today, instead of its preposterous, self-proclaimed image as a ‘Start-up Nation,’ Israel is viewed as a Spy-up Nation, as the BDS movement has called it.”
The Washington Post reports that the Israeli Defense Minister signed off on sales of the spyware, and the scandal has cast a “spotlight” on Israel’s out-of-control surveillance industry:
“The country is home to NSO Group as well as other spyware companies, including Candiru, which Microsoft last week accused of selling tools to hack into Windows,” David Kaye and Marietje Schaake wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. “It is essential that Israel reins in its spyware sector and joins democratic nations in pushing back against the proliferation of technologies that operate like commercial intelligence services.”
And it casts a spotlight on Israel’s record of violating human rights, continues the Post’s Ishaan Tharoor:
“To some advocates, it’s no coincidence that Israeli technology was deployed in countries with illiberal governments. “If Israel holds hundreds of Palestinians in administrative detention, without trial at all times, why would there be any outcry if new friends Saudi Arabia and Rwanda use an NSO system, born and bred in Israel, to incriminate opposition activists so they then rot in prison?” human rights lawyer Eitay Mack wrote in left-leaning Israeli daily Haaretz.”
It’s not just critical op-eds. French President Emmanuel Macron called on Israel’s new prime minister to investigate allegations “that his phone and those of most of his cabinet could have been infected with [the spyware] Pegasus.”
“[T]he diplomatic pressure on Israel is mounting,” reports the Guardian (which was part of the consortium that broke the story). It says that the Israeli defense ministry has “‘appointed a review commission” to look into the sales.
There can be little question that, as Barghouti says, the NSO scandal combined with the Ben & Jerry’s settlements/ice cream boycott are signs of Israel’s new international image. Not the Startup Nation, but the militarized apartheid nation. It’s a shift that a lot of Israel’s friends and leaders are upset by. And that the nonviolent BDS campaign has been promoting. And even the Washington Post is getting into the act!
Which brings us to the angry, victimized response by the spywaremaster. Shalev Hulio, the CEO of the NSO Group, says that BDS motivated the consortium that investigated NSO, and that BDS is the Ben & Jerry’s boycott too.
“It looks like someone decided to step on our head… There’s an attack on [Israel’s cyber industry] generally. After all, there are so many cyber intelligence companies in the world, but everyone just focuses on Israelis. To make a consortium of journalists from all over the world like this and bring in Amnesty–it looks like there’s a deliberate hand here.”
When asked whose hand exactly, Hulio elaborated:
“I believe that in the end it’s either Qatar or BDS or both,” he said. “In the end it’s always the same entities. I don’t want to sound cynical now, but there are those who don’t want [Israel] to import ice cream or export technologies.”
Hulio said it’s no coincidence that two other Israeli surveillance companies are being investigated or targeted by human-rights groups. “It’s just illogical that this is all happening at once,” he said.
Vice’s report shows how absurd it is to say that Israel is being singled out by a conspiracy– when there have been spyware scandals involving many other countries.
Where Hulio seems correct, in my view, is that Israel is finally facing scrutiny for its conduct. Israel’s “cycle of impunity” needs to end, Amnesty International said earlier this year when it pushed for the International Criminal Court investigation of Israeli war crimes in the occupied territories, including settlements.
Barghouti also sees that the era of accountability has begun. He shared this statement with Vice, and us as well:
“Israel’s NSO Group is now exposed to the world as deeply implicated in very serious crimes and grave human rights violations worldwide, so it is expectedly desperate to deflect by fabricating pathetic conspiracy theories. Israel’s spyware and military technologies are field-tested on Indigenous Palestinians under Israeli occupation and apartheid and then exported to the world as tools of repression and war crimes. It is time the world held apartheid Israel accountable, as apartheid South Africa once was, and not just for the sake of Palestinians but for the sake of world peace and justice as well.”
In yet another sign of the shifting landscape for BDS, a New York politician wants no part of Israel’s efforts to punish its critics overseas. Brad Lander, the likely next controller of NYC, says the Ben & Jerry’s boycott is not anyone’s official business in NY, despite the Israel lobby’s efforts to punish parent company Unilever through divestment initiatives from various state funds under anti-BDS legislation. Lander:
“Companies that decide not to operate in settlements do not pose a risk to New York’s pension funds. If anything, continuation of the occupation poses grave ongoing risks to Israelis, to Palestinians, & to those who care about them.”
Rebecca Vilkomerson says the times are changing:
“Very glad to see @bradlander, NYC’s next Comptroller (and my City Council rep til January!) take this position. Possibly the first time an NYC citywide elected has taken a public anti-occupation stance? The times are changing.”
Philip Weiss is senior editor of Mondoweiss.net and founded the site in 2005-2006