The disclosure that Palestinian human rights defenders were reportedly hacked using NSO’s Pegasus spyware will come as little surprise to two groups of people: Palestinians themselves and the Israeli military and intelligence cyber operatives who have long spied on Palestinians.
While it is not known who was responsible for the hacking in this instance, what is very well documented is the role of the Israeli military’s 8200 cyberwarfare unit – known in Hebrew as the Yehida Shmoneh-Matayim – in the widespread spying on Palestinian society.
In 2014, a number of military “refusenik” from the unit described to the Guardian and a handful of other media organisations the scope of the surveillance. The largest intelligence body in the Israeli military, Unit 8200 intercepted electronic communications including email, phone calls and social media in addition to targeting military and diplomatic traffic, they said.
Those whistleblowers alleged that the “all-encompassing” intelligence the unit gathered – much of it concerning innocent people – was used to divide Palestinian society. In a letter refusing to continue with interceptions, which they said were unjustified, the reservists described the unit’s work.
“The Palestinian population under military rule,” they wrote, “is completely exposed to espionage and surveillance by Israeli intelligence. It is used for political persecution and to create divisions within Palestinian society by recruiting collaborators and driving parts of Palestinian society against itself. In many cases, intelligence prevents defendants from receiving a fair trial in military courts, as the evidence against them is not revealed.”
The reservists said personnel were instructed to keep any damaging details of Palestinians’ lives they came across, including information on sexual preferences, infidelities, financial problems or family illnesses that could be “used to extort/blackmail the person and turn them into a collaborator”.
More serious still, some former members of the unit claimed that some intelligence gathered was not collected in the service of the Israeli state but in pursuit of the “agendas” of individual Israeli politicians.
At the time, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) cast doubt on the claims and said it had “no record that the specific violations in the letter ever took place”.
Again, while too little is known about the case of the Palestinian human rights defenders to determine with certainty precisely who was behind the hacking, some issues are clear.
The organisations in question – including Al-Haq, Addameer, Defense for Children International – Palestine, the Bisan Center for Research and Development, the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees, and the Union of Agricultural Work Committees – had been targeted by the Israeli government for intelligence gathering over their work and associations, which saw them recently accused by Israel of “terrorist” associations, which are denied by the groups.
On Monday an Israeli security-diplomatic source, briefing journalists, confirmed that investigations into the groups involved had yielded an “excellent file” of evidence linking the organisations to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a Marxist group labelled a terrorist organisation by many western states.
The Israeli government, as both NSO and Israeli officials have insisted, licenses the sale and use of NSO spyware. It is currently investigating claims of whether government clients misused the spyware.
All of which suggests that the Israeli government should, at the very least, be abundantly aware of who was using the software, and for what purpose, not least since it was used to target organisations and individuals who appear to be primarily of interest to the Israeli state.
And the context of Israeli spying on Palestinians, as reports in the Washington Post and Israeli outlets make clear, is one of routine intrusion that is escalating both in its scale and technical sophistication.
According to the reports, in the past two years, Israel has rolled out a new surveillance initiative that involves a 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” with the phone app flashing to alert soldiers if a person is to be detained, arrested or left alone.
All of which raises profound human rights questions over an apparently unchecked state surveillance regime in an area under military occupation. and whose tools and methods, if history is anything to go by, risk being offered as services to other states.
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