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 last Monday.
At least three of the targeted Palestinians work for groups declared as ‘terrorist’ organisations under a draconian Israeli law last month.
Three of the six targeted groups – Al-Haq, Addameer and Defence 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 organisation, 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 scepticism did not, however, prevent the ‘terror’ designation under domestic Israeli law from being extended by military order to the West Bank, where the organisations are based.
Bisan director Ubai al-Aboudi, second from left, with Al-Haq’s Shawan Jabarin, Fuad Abu Saif of the United Agricultural Workers Committees, Sahar Francis of Addameer, and Khaled Quzmar of Defence for Children International Palestine in the West Bank city of Ramallah on 27 October. Keren Manor ActiveStills
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 legitimise the surveillance’ of their staff.
‘The Israeli designation of these organisations 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 organisations,’ 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 last 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 organisations 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 the NSO Group.
The hacked devices belong to Ghassan Halaika, a field researcher with Al-Haq; Ubai al-Aboudi, director of Bisan Centre 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 the 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 licence.
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.
Last 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 the 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 last 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 Defence ministry, which issued the order designating the six Palestinian human rights groups as ‘terrorist’ organisations.
The NY 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 organisations’ ‘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 organisation in the meaning of the Defence 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 normalising 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.
Al-Haq called on the European Union and third states to ‘remove ‘terrorism’ clauses as internal conditions placed on donor funding’ to Palestinian organisations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The rights group also called for ‘comprehensive trade sanctions against Israel,’ emphasising the ‘need to end the sale or supply of military products’ to the state.
The Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International USA and Democracy for the Arab World Now have 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 signalled 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.’