Palestinian human rights activists target of Israeli spyware hack


Yumna Pattel

Mondoweiss  /  November 8, 2021

A report from Frontline Defenders reveals that six activists, who are members of the six civil society organizations recently branded “terrorist organizations” by Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz, were targeted by the Israeli military grade Pegasus spyware.

Six Palestinian human rights activists were targeted by spyware from the Israeli surveillance company NSO Group, a new report revealed on Monday, in the first reported instance of Palestinian activists being targeted by the surveillance company. 

In a report from Frontline Defenders (FLD), the group revealed that six activists, who are members of the six civil society organizations recently branded “terrorist organizations” by Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz, were targeted by the military grade Pegasus spyware. 

According to FLD, 75 iPhones were investigated after the group was approached by Al-Haq, a Ramallah-based human rights organization and one of the six targeted NGOs, over concerns that one of their staff member’s phones was infected with spyware. 

FLD’s findings, which were confirmed by Citizen Lab and Amnesty International’s Security Lab, found that six devices were hacked with spyware. 

Among those targeted by the hack were Ghassan Halaika, a field researcher for Al-Haq, Ubai al-Aboudi a dual Palestinian-American citizen and the Executive Director at Bisan Center for Research and Development, and Salah Hammouri, A Palestinian-French human rights lawyer with prisoners’ rights group Addameer. 

Last month, Hammouri, a native of Jerusalem, was notified by the Israeli Ministry of Interior that his permanent residency status in the city was being revoked on the grounds of alleged “breach of allegiance to the State of Israel”. Salah Hammouri is a citizen of France.

The three other victims of the hack wished to remain anonymous, according to FLD. 

According to the report, traces of spyware in Halaika’s phone, as well as the device belonging to “human rights defender 6”, as referenced in the report, showed traces of Pegasus spyware in 2020, while the remaining four activists’ devices detected showed traces of Pegasus processes between February and April 2021. 

Some of the processes used to hack the six Palestinian activists’ devices were the same processes used to against other human rights defenders and journalists in other countries, the report noted. 

The report highlighted that when Pegasus is installed on a person’s phone, an attacker has “complete access” to that device’s messages, emails, media, microphone, camera, passwords, voice calls on messaging apps, location data, calls and contacts. 

Pegasus also has the potential to remotely activate the camera and microphone on the infected device, allowing the hacker to spy on an individual’s calls and activities. 

“As such, the spyware not only allows for the surveillance of the target, but also anyone with whom they have contact via that device,” FLD noted. “This means that, in addition to the targeting of Palestinians, including dual nationals, non-Palestinians (including foreign nationals and diplomats) with whom these victims were in contact, including Israeli citizens, could have also been subject to this surveillance, which, in the case of its citizens, would amount to a breach of Israeli law.”

FLD went onto highlight that the NSO Group has denied reports that the Pegasus spyware is used in the mass surveillance of human rights defenders, and that it “is intended for use only by government intelligence and law enforcement agencies to fight terrorism and crime.”

“As such, 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,” FLD said. 

“Human rights defenders are not terrorists,” the group said in a statement. “This development marks a grave expansion of Israel’s systematic policies and practices intended to silence Palestinian human rights defenders who seek justice and accountability for violations of Palestinians human rights.”

“Arbitrary, oppressive, and distressing”

Following the release of the FLD report, the six targeted Palestinian civil society organizations released a joint statement, condemning “the arbitrary, oppressive, and distressing revelations of spyware surveillance mass operation and call for a firm response, including concrete actions from the international community.”

“The penetrating and monitoring of the devices of human rights defenders violates not only the privacy rights of human rights defenders and lawyers but also the countless victims that have been in any sort of communication with them,” the groups said.

The groups noted that despite agreements between the NSO group and the United States and France to not surveil their citizens, in the case of Ubai al-Aboudi, and Salah Hammouri, “the company has breached these agreements consecutively,” the statement said.

“The parallel timelines of the FLD investigation and the Israeli designations are concerning,” the statement continued. “The Israeli Minister of Defense’s designations of the civil society organizations only days after the initiation of this investigation may amount to an attempt at preemptively withholding evidence of surveillance and covering up surreptitious spyware actions.”

“The systematic surveillance of Palestinian human rights defenders comes in addition to an already unacceptable endless list of coordinated actions led by Israeli governmental bodies and their affiliates to instigate and perform systematic and organized smear, intimidation, and persecution campaigns against Palestinian civil society. Over the past decades, such techniques have included defamation campaigns aimed at labeling human rights defenders as “terrorists,” incitement to racial hatred and violence, hate speech, arbitrary arrests, torture and ill-treatment, death threats, travel bans, residency revocations, and deportations,” the statement said. 

A number of other human rights organizations condemned the hacking of the activists’ phones, including Access Now, Human Rights Watch, Masaar – Technology and Law Community, Red Line for Gulf, 7amleh- The Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media, SMEX, and INSM Network for Digital Rights- Iraq. 

In a joint statement, the groups condemned the attack as violation of the activists’ right to privacy, saying the hack “undermines their freedom of expression and association, and threatens their personal security and lives.”

“It not only affects those directly targeted, but also has a chilling effect on advocates or journalists who may self-censor out of fear of potential surveillance,” the statement said. 

The groups also called on states to “implement an immediate moratorium on the sale, transfer, and use of surveillance technology until adequate human rights safeguards are in place”, and on UN experts to “take urgent action to denounce human rights violations by states facilitated by the use of the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware and to provide immediate, robust support for impartial and transparent inquiries into the abuses.”

The US Campaign for Palestinian Rights also condemned the hack, with Executive Director of the organization Ahmad Abuznaid saying “we know what repression looks like.”

“Smearing human rights defenders and spreading propaganda to delegitimize their work. Surveilling activists and journalists who dare to expose the truth. All the while continuing to commit human rights violations on a daily basis. The Israeli regime is a separate-and-unequal apartheid state employing every last authoritarian tactic at its disposal, but we know the truth: that liberation is coming and Palestine will be free,” Abuznaid said. 

Military adapts Gantz’s ‘terrorist’ designation

The revelation of the hack comes on the heels of the Israeli military’s adoption of Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s previous order designating the six Palestinian human rights groups as “terrorist organizations.”

On November 3rd, the Israeli military commander in the West Bank issued five separate military orders announcing the organizations as “unlawful,” effectively outlawing the organizations’ working in the West Bank, where they are based and the majority of their staff works. 

Whereas Gantz’s designation in October paved the way for the criminalization of the organization’s work inside Israel, the military orders allow for the imminent closure of the organizations’ offices and the seizure of their contents. 

It also places the staff members of said organizations at imminent risk of arbitrary arrest and imprisonment on the basis that they work with a designated “terrorist organization.”

“In practice, the designations laid against the Palestinian organizations empower Israel to shut down their offices, seize their assets, including bank accounts, and arrest and detain their staff members,” a statement from the groups said. 

“Further, it represents an alarming effort to criminalize and undermine their efforts in furthering the realization of Palestinian human rights and the pursuit of accountability through international mechanisms by discrediting their essential work, isolating them from the international community, and eventually cutting their sources of funding.”

The military orders were issued days after +972 Magazine and The Intercept reported that according to a secret Israeli dossier, which was obtained by the media outlets, provided no real evidence to justify the labeling of the groups as terror organizations. 

The 74-page classified document was allegedly used by the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal intelligence agency, to attempt to convince European governments to stop funding Palestinian rights groups. 

“Senior officials in at least five of the European countries said that the dossier did not contain any ‘concrete evidence,’ and thus decided to continue financially supporting the organizations,” the +972 report said. 

Israel expands surveillance of Palestinians with facial recognition program

Just hours before the NSO hack targeting the six Palestinian activists was revealed on Tuesday, a report by The Washington Post shared that the Israeli military has been conducting a “broad surveillance effort” in the occupied West Bank using facial recognition technology. 

The Washington Post reported that over the past two years the army has been using  smartphone technology called “Blue Wolf”, that “captures photos of Palestinians’ faces and matches them to a database of images so extensive that one former soldier described it as the army’s secret ‘Facebook for Palestinians’,” the report said. 

According to the report, Israeli soldiers stationed in the West Bank “competed last year in photographing Palestinians, including children and the elderly, with prizes for the most pictures collected by each unit.”

The report estimated that at minimum, the number of people photographed for the surveillance program “ran well into the thousands.”

In addition to the Blue Wolf technology, the report said that the Israeli military has installed face-scanning cameras in the city of Hebron in the southern West Bank “to help soldiers at checkpoints identify Palestinians even before they present their I.D. cards.”

“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 report said. 

Hebron is a major flashpoint city in the West Bank, and has often been Hebron has often been referred to by activists as a “microcosm” of the Israeli occupation.

The city is divided between some 40,000 native Palestinians, and a group of notoriously violent ideological Israeli settlers, who live in the heart of the Old City, which following a massacre by an Israeli settler in 1994 that killed dozens of Palestinians, was divided into Palestinian and Israeli-controlled areas, known as H1 and H2, the latter being home to the settlers.

The 40,000 Palestinians living in H2 are constantly surrounded by more than one thousand Israeli soldiers who are permanently stationed in the area, and 20 military checkpoints that restrict their every move.

The high concentration of armed Israeli soldiers and settlers has turned the city into a major site of settler and soldier violence in the West Bank, where human rights violations are a daily occurrence.

Yumna Patel is the Palestine News Director for Mondoweiss