Israeli spyware targeted Palestinian human rights workers

Journalists in the rubble of Al-Jalaa Tower in Gaza City after Israeli air strikes razed the building (AFP)

Maureen Clare Murphy

The Electronic Intifada  /  November 9, 2021

Spyware made by Israel’s notorious NSO Group was used to hack the phones of six Palestinian human rights defenders, according to a report published on Monday.

At least three of the targeted Palestinians work for groups declared as “terrorist” organizations under a draconian Israeli law last month.

Three of the six targeted groups – Al-Haq, Addameer and Defense for Children International Palestine – have cooperated closely with the International Criminal Court investigation into war crimes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel seeks to sabotage that probe and consolidate decades of impunity.

Israel accuses the targeted groups of serving as arms of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a leftist political party and resistance group banned by Tel Aviv, Washington and Brussels.

Israel has not produced evidence supporting its claims. A 74-page secret Israeli government dossier purportedly proving its case relies on the testimony of two former employees of a seventh Palestinian organization, outlawed earlier in the year, who are currently in Israeli detention.

Israel likely obtained their testimony under coercion that may amount to torture.

Ireland’s government, which funds two of the banned groups, dismissed the dossier as containing no “credible evidence.”

International condemnation and skepticism did not, however, prevent the “terror” designation under domestic Israeli law from being extended by military order to the West Bank, where the organizations are based.

Israel likely behind spyware

The use of NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware against Palestinian human rights defenders was revealed by Front Line Defenders, a group based in Ireland.

Adam Shapiro, a spokesperson for Front Line Defenders, told The New York Times that the investigation did not definitively prove who used the spyware, “but it raises a lot of questions as to the role not only of NSO, but also of Israel.”

Front Line Defenders stated that the timing of the “terror” designations blacklisting Palestinian human rights groups “suggests that it is also an effort to legitimate the surveillance” of their staff.

“The Israeli designation of these organizations as ‘terrorists’ after Pegasus was detected, but just days before this investigation is reported, appears to be a clear effort to cover its actions and disconnected from any evidence that would discredit these organizations,” the Irish group said.

Front Line Defenders was contacted by Al-Haq in mid-October “about the device of a Jerusalem-based staff member and a possible infection with spyware,” according to the report published on Monday.

After determining that the device had been infected by NSO Group spyware in July 2020, Front Line Defenders began investigating the devices belonging to the staff of the other organizations newly designated as “terror” groups. They found that “five additional devices were hacked with the same spyware.”

Citizen Lab, based at the University of Toronto, and Amnesty International’s Security Lab confirmed “with high confidence” that “the phones were hacked with Pegasus,” Front Line Defenders said.

Pegasus is the name of the spyware made by NSO Group.

The hacked devices belong to Ghassan Halaika, a field researcher with Al-Haq; Ubai al-Aboudi, director of Bisan Center for Research and Development and a US citizen; and Salah Hammouri, a lawyer with Addameer who Israel seeks to deport to France for “breach of allegiance to the State of Israel.”

The three other targeted persons remain anonymous.

The US commerce department blacklisted NSO Group and Candiru, another Israeli company, last week. The sanctions bar the companies from buying parts and components from US companies without a special license.

NSO Group in particular has come under increased scrutiny with every new report revealing the extent to which its spyware has been used to target journalists and human rights defenders around the world.

The Pegasus spyware can be installed remotely on a targeted person’s smartphone without requiring them to take any action such as clicking on a link or answering a call.

Most notoriously, the use of Pegasus was linked to the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul.

On Monday, Democracy for the Arab World Now, an advocacy group founded by Khashoggi, called on the US to investigate the hacking of the phones of the Palestinian human rights defenders and impose sanctions on those found to be responsible.

Four Democratic House lawmakers are also calling for sanctions on NSO Group, arguing that the Commerce Department designation would still allow US investment funds to finance the company.

“When US investors prop up companies like NSO Group, this implies the assent of the US government, encouraging such companies to continue providing dangerous tools like Pegasus to the most repressive governments,” the lawmakers state in a letter to senior Biden administration officials.

Meanwhile, a federal judge on Monday denied a motion by NSO Group to dismiss a lawsuit filed by WhatsApp and its parent company Facebook, now rebranded as Meta, over the targeting of 1,400 of its users with Pegasus spyware over two weeks in 2019.

NSO group claimed that it was entitled to foreign sovereign immunity, a protection afforded to government officials, even though it is a private company.

John Scott-Railton, a researcher with Citizen Lab, said that “this lawsuit going forwards is a massive blow to NSO.”

Human rights workers “at imminent risk”

Monday’s revelations of the use of NSO Group’s Pegasus software to spy on Palestinian human rights defenders marked a “convergence of what had previously been two separate diplomatic issues for Israel,” as noted by The New York Times.

NSO Group exports its spyware under licenses from Israel’s defense ministry, which issued the order designating the six Palestinian human rights groups as “terrorist” organizations.

The Times noted that “according to Israeli government policy, Pegasus cannot be used by a foreign government against Israeli phone numbers, such as those belonging to the Palestinians in the outlawed groups.”

The publication added that “an Israeli government agency, however, would have the authority to use the software against an Israeli number.”

The new military order outlawing the Palestinian groups in the West Bank puts the organizations’ “staff members and their property at imminent risk of raid, arrest and reprisals,” according to Al-Haq.

The military order is wide in scope and may be used to target broad swathes of Palestinian society, including witnesses to and survivors of war crimes.

The order states that “every member” of Al-Haq, “whether he is incorporated/associated with it or not, whether he operates on the internet or in another way, and every group, cell and faction, institution, central branch or faction thereof … is an illegal organization in the meaning of the defense regulations.”

Al-Haq said that the military order is based on British Mandate-era emergency regulations that were “repealed shortly before the end of the Mandate” and therefore no longer apply.

According to Al-Haq, Israel has repeatedly “resurrected” the repealed British Mandate order dating from 1945 to “outlaw any form of peaceful assembly” since its military occupation of the West Bank began in 1967.

The rights group said that “Israel’s cumulative campaign of persecution aims at gradually normalizing its inhuman acts of persecution and apartheid towards Palestinian human rights defenders.”

Israel is “enforcing its threats with total impunity and complete contempt for the strong statements of condemnation” from UN treaty bodies and officials and European states that followed its initial “terror” designations in October, Al-Haq added.

On Sunday, Al-Haq called on the European Union and third states to “remove ‘terrorism’ clauses as internal conditions placed on donor funding” to Palestinian organizations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The rights group also called for “comprehensive trade sanctions against Israel,” emphasizing the “need to end the sale or supply of military products” to the state.

Last week, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International USA and Democracy for the Arab World Now called on the Biden administration to meet with Palestinian human rights defenders targeted by Israel.

“No country – Israel or any other – can be an exception” to the Biden administration’s stated commitment to “protecting and supporting human rights defenders,” the three groups said.

Kamala Harris, the US vice president, instead signaled her commitment to the Israel exception from accountability by conflating calls for accountability with anti-Jewish bigotry.

During a keynote address at the Anti-Defamation League’s annual conference held over the weekend, Harris said that when “Israel is singled out because of anti-Jewish hatred that is anti-Semitism.”

Widespread surveillance in West Bank

Meanwhile, on Monday, The Washington Post published an exposé of Israel’s facial recognition surveillance of Palestinians living under its military occupation in the West Bank.

Whistleblowers with the Israeli group Breaking the Silence described to the publication “a broad surveillance effort … to monitor Palestinians by integrating facial recognition with a growing network of cameras and smartphones, according to descriptions of the program by recent Israeli soldiers.”

The initiative involves “smartphone technology called Blue Wolf that captures photos of Palestinians’ faces and matches them to a database of images,” The Washington Post added.

“The phone app flashes in different colors to alert soldiers if a person is to be detained, arrested or left alone.”

The extensive database of images was built by soldiers who were encouraged to photograph Palestinians – including children – “with prizes for the most pictures collected by each unit.”

Israel has also installed “face-scanning cameras” throughout Hebron, where hostile settlers live in close proximity to Palestinians.

“A wider network of closed-circuit television cameras, dubbed ‘Hebron Smart City,’ provides real-time monitoring of the city’s population and, one former soldier said, can sometimes see into private homes,” The Washington Post added.

One of the whistleblowing Israeli soldiers told the publication that “the surveillance system in Hebron was a ‘total violation of privacy of an entire people.’”

Yaser Abu Markhyah, a Palestinian resident of Hebron, told The Washington Post that “we no longer feel comfortable socializing because cameras are always filming us.”

The former soldiers interviewed by The Washington Post said the Blue Wolf program is “a pared-down version of another, vast database, called Wolf Pack.”

That initiative involves “profiles of virtually every Palestinian in the West Bank, including photographs of the individuals, their family histories, education and a security rating for each person.”

The publication added that a “separate smartphone app, called White Wolf, has been developed for use by Jewish settlers in the West Bank.”

Settlement security guards “can use White Wolf to scan a Palestinian’s identification card before that person enters a settlement, for example, to work in construction,” according to The Washington Post.

In the absence of international accountability, Israel profits from its military occupation by using it as a laboratory to develop repressive technologies “field-tested” on Palestinians and then exported abroad.

Al-Jalaa Tower bombing

Despite its complete surveillance of Palestinian society, Israel is claiming that it bombed a Gaza City tower without knowing in advance that it housed foreign media outlets.

The al-Jalaa Tower was one of several multi-story buildings targeted by Israel during the May escalation that left more than 250 Palestinians, including 66 children, dead in Gaza.

The tower was home to some 700 people as well as housing law offices, computer software companies and the local offices of Al Jazeera and Associated Press.

Israel was informed of the presence of foreign journalists when it made phone calls and sent text messages to civilians in the building to tell them to evacuate ahead of the airstrike.

Senior defense officials, including the army chief of staff Aviv Kochavi, reportedly debated whether to proceed with the attack after being told of the journalists’ presence.

The military “decided to go ahead with the airstrike despite the consequences, on the grounds that Hamas was using the foreign journalists as human shields to prevent attacks on the military assets it had placed in the building,” the Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz reported on Monday.

The paper provided no independent verification of the Israeli government’s claim that Hamas used foreign journalists as “human shields.”

No one was killed in the attack, which destroyed the tower.

Israel says that the building housed “assets belonging to Hamas’ military intelligence unit,” though it has not produced any evidence to support the vague assertion.

Even Antony Blinken, the staunchly pro-Israel US secretary of state, went on the record to say that he hadn’t seen any evidence supporting Israel’s claims.

The presence of a Hamas “asset” would not necessarily render a civilian building a legitimate military target.

Human Rights Watch said in August that it “found no evidence that members of Palestinian groups involved in military operations had a current or long-term presence in any of the towers at the time they were attacked.”

The New York-based group added: “Even if there were such a presence, the attacks appeared to cause foreseeably disproportionate harm to civilian property.”

According to Haaretz, one Israeli involved in the attack “said the decision wasn’t necessarily made because destroying the Hamas cyber network that was the target was operationally essential.”

Haaretz paraphrased the unnamed source asserting that “politicians and senior army officers ‘were looking for a victory picture.’”

Another source told the publication that the military “considered it important to hit all the high-value Hamas targets it could in the early days of the fighting.”

In May, a pilot involved in the destruction of high-rise buildings in Gaza revealed a more straightforward motive for the attacks: frustration and revenge because Israel was unable to defeat the Palestinian military resistance.

The Paris-based watchdog Reporters Without Borders asked the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to investigate Israel’s bombing of al-Jalaa Tower and more than 20 other media outlets in Gaza as potential war crimes.

Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada