When Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz publicly announced on October 19 that six Palestinian associations – Al-Haq, Addameer, Bisan Research and Development Center, Defense of Children-Palestine International, Union of agricultural work (UAWC) and the Union of Palestinian Women ‘s Committees (UPWC) – were placed on the list of terrorist organizations, the Israeli anti – colonization NGO B’Tselem immediately denounced the move as “worthy of totalitarian regimes”.
For Israel, it was not only a question of criminalizing these organizations, but of silencing them by preventing any financial aid from international partners. It was not clear why the Israeli government chose this moment. The explanation can be found in the revelations of the organization Front Line Defenders (the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders), based in Ireland. She was contacted by Al-Haq on October 16 regarding the phone device of a Jerusalem-based staff member and a possible spyware infection.
Israel named as prime suspect
Front Line Defenders immediately conducted a technical investigation and discovered that the device had been infected in July 2020 with spyware sold by Israel-based NSO Group. The NGO then widened its investigation to other devices belonging to members of the six Palestinian civil society organizations and found that five other devices had been hacked with the same spyware. The data collected from the phones was then shared with Amnesty International’s Citizen Lab and Security Lab for independent review. Both confirmed with certainty that the phones were hacked with Pegasus.
It is not known who placed this spyware. But Benny Gantz’s statement came right after the first two intrusions were identified in mid-October. Front Line Defenders and at least two of the victims see Israel as the main suspect, which would explain the haste of the Israeli authorities who, moreover, have not publicly provided evidence to support their charges of terrorism and links to the Popular Front. Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).
An opaque process
Once again, NSO Group is in the spotlight. When asked about allegations that its software was used against Palestinian militants, the Israeli company claimed that Pegasus did not identify its customers for contractual and national security reasons. She says she was unaware of who it was pirating and that the software was only sold to government agencies for use against “serious crime and terror.”
For his part, an Israeli defense official said that the designation of the six organizations was made on solid evidence and that any claim related to the use of the NSO software was unfounded … Yet it is the ministry. Israeli Defense Force that endorses the export of spyware produced by NSO Group and other private Israeli companies that recruit some of the country’s top military cyber units. To say that the whole process is opaque is an understatement.
NSO and Candiru blacklisted by Biden administration
Last week, the Biden administration blacklisted the NSO Group and a lesser-known Israeli competitor, Candiru, barring them from using American technology. As revealed by the Vice website, NSO Group used certain technologies marketed by American companies such as Amazon, Dell, Cisco, Intel and Microsoft.
“Naftali Bennett and Emmanuel Macron agreed on the fact that this question must continue to be treated in a discreet and professional manner, and for the sake of transparency between the parties” Diplomatic source in Jerusalem, quoted by Le Figaro
This is not the case for France which, strangely, has not yet taken any action against NSO Group. In Glasgow, on the sidelines of the COP26 climate conference, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett discussed the issue with Emmanuel Macron, who himself would have been hacked! “The two leaders agreed on the fact that this issue must continue to be treated in a discreet and professional manner, and in the interests of transparency between the parties,” said a diplomatic source in Jerusalem, quoted by Le Figaro.
SIM cards issued by Israeli telecommunications companies
NSO Group’s allegations are not really credible. It was thus claimed that the exported versions of Pegasus could not be used to hack Israeli phone numbers. However, four of the six hacked iPhones used exclusively SIM cards issued by Israeli telecommunications companies with Israeli area code numbers (+972), according to researchers at Citizen Lab and Amnesty International. The same goes for American numbers. Bad luck, Ubai Aboudi, a 37-year-old economist and US citizen, has been hacked. He runs the Bisan Center for Research and Development in Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank, a “terrorist” organization for Benny Gantz.
“We must determine who had the capacity and who had the motive” Salah Hamouri, Franco-Palestinian lawyer
Another Palestinian personality whose phone was hacked thanks to the NSO Group system – probably in April – the Franco-Palestinian lawyer Salah Hamouri, who works for the association for the defense of Palestinian political prisoners Addameer. “We have to determine who had the capacity and who had the motive,” said Salah Hamouri, whom the Israeli authorities have officially wanted to expel since October 18, by withdrawing his right of residence in Jerusalem, his hometown. He should appeal this decision.
“If the Israeli government refuses to act, it should have consequences in terms of regulating trade with Israel” Andrew Anderson, executive director of Front Line Defenders
The Israeli executive both client and regulator
Asked by the Associated Press (AP), Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a legal expert at the Israel Democracy Institute, called the results “truly disturbing”, especially if there is evidence that Israeli security agencies, which are largely exempt privacy laws of the country, used NSO Group’s commercial spyware. “It actually complicates the government’s relationship with NSO,” if the Israeli executive is indeed both a client and a regulator in a relationship conducted under secrecy.
For his part, Front Line Defenders executive director Andrew Anderson, as quoted by AP, believes that NSO cannot be trusted to ensure that its spyware is not used illegally by its customers. For him, “if the Israeli government refuses to act, it should have consequences in terms of regulating trade with Israel.”
More generally, Front Line Defenders believes that “the EU and its member states should also continue to fund these organizations (labeled terrorists by the Israeli government – Editor’s note) for their legitimate human rights activities and reflect the recent decision of the United States to blacklist the NSO group. “