Jerusalem24 – A digital forensic investigation by Front Line Defenders, has uncovered the presence of Pegasus spyware on the phones belonging to 6 Palestinian human rights defenders, including four Human Rights Defenders who are affiliated with 3 of the 6 Palestinian NGOs who were designated by the Israeli Minister of Defense as ‘terrorist’ organizations.
As detailed in the Front Line Defenders report, “Six Palestinian human rights defenders hacked with NSO Group’s Pegasus Spyware.” Mohammad Al-Maskati, Digital Protection Coordinator at the organization was contacted by a staff member of Al-Haq on October 16th regarding concerns about their phone. A forensic analysis was immediately made and by the next day it was determined that Pegasus spyware was present. On October 17th, Al-Maskati held a meeting with representatives of 6 Palestinian NGOs – Addameer; Al-Haq; Defense for Children – Palestine; the Union of Agricultural Work Committees; Bisan Center for Research and Development; and the Union of Palestinian Women Committees – to inform them of the finding and to request additional phones to investigate. Ultimately, 6 iPhones, out of 75 checked devices, were found to have Pegasus.
While FLD, nor Citizen Lab and Amnesty International Security Lab – both of whom independently peer reviewed FLD’s work and confirmed the results – were able to identify the client who deployed the spyware, actions taken by the Israeli government raise many questions.
On October 18th, Israel ordered the revocation of the residency of Salah Hammouri, a lawyer and Human Rights Defender, and a Palestinian with a Jerusalem ID, on the basis of Israel’s ‘breach of allegiance’ law. Hammouri’s phone was one of the 6 infected. He is also a French citizen. Without residency, he would be subject to deportation from his homeland.
On October 19th, Benny Gantz, Israel’s Minister of Defense issued an executive order setting forth the determination that the 6 Palestinian NGOs – the same 6 NGOs that held the meeting on October 17th with FLD – are ‘terrorist’ entities.
Israel then worked to try to convince European and American officials of the evidence that these organizations are ‘terrorist’, including sending intelligence envoys to Washington, DC, yet these officials publicly stated that the evidence they were shown is not credible.
Yet, on November 1st, Israeli newspaper Haaretz quotes Israeli Ministry of Defense officials as confirming that the 6 organizations are still legal in the West Bank, that no further action is planned against them, and that additional orders would be required to shut them down. Thus, at the same time that Israel was attempting to convince the international community that these 6 organizations were dangerous terrorists, it continued to allow them to operate openly, receive funds, and organize activities and work with no plans to do anything about it. Only on 7 November, the day before the publication of this report, does Israel extend this order to cover the West Bank.
In publishing the report, Andrew Anderson, Front Line Defenders Executive Director remarked: “The exposure of illegal spying on peaceful Palestinian human rights defenders, coming on top of baseless claims about terrorism against internationally respected human rights organizations, emphasizes how important is the continued support of the international community for their legitimate work. Surely this episode will serve as a stark warning against any deployment of the term ‘terrorist’ against any human rights defender anywhere in the world, and renew efforts to reign in the use of spyware against human rights defenders, journalists and other civil society activists.”
While this latest move by the Israeli government is part of an alarming trend that is designed to try to stop the work of human rights organizations and human rights defenders, the timing and method of the designation suggests that it is also an effort to legitimate the surveillance and infiltration of the devices of Palestinian human rights defenders using Pegasus spyware, as discovered by a Front Line Defenders forensic investigation.