Palestinians Targeted by Pegasus Shows Israel's Sense of Arrogance

Israeli spyware maker NSO earned its criticism when it turned out that dictatorships to which it sold had used Pegasus against human rights activists and journalists

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The logo of Israeli cyber firm NSO Group is seen at one of its branches in the Arava Desert, southern Israel in July
The logo of Israeli cyber firm NSO Group is seen at one of its branches in the Arava Desert, southern Israel in JulyCredit: Amir Cohen/ Reuters
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

Every Palestinian with a political consciousness assumes that he or she is under intrusive Israeli surveillance whose extent is hard to even imagine. Therefore, it’s not surprising to discover that the Pegasus spyware program, produced by the Israeli-American company NSO, had been installed on at least six Palestinians’ iPhones.

Three of them worked for civil-society organizations against which Israel has waged a prolonged delegitimization campaign that recently peaked in their being declared illegal.

For technical reasons, the company that inspected their phones and found the hostile program can’t examine the Android phones used by other members of these organizations. So it’s safe to assume that Pegasus, that ultimate peeping Tom, is also intruding into other Palestinians’ bedrooms, and those of their children.

What is surprising about the discovery, however, is that the Israeli security services, which have long been assumed to have their own sophisticated surveillance software, resorted to the use of a commercial company’s spyware. 

Even if the Palestinian individuals and the organizations which discovered the Pegasus spyware on their phones and the journalists who reported it can’t prove who is behind it, it’s clear to everyone that it was Israel – or in other words, the Shin Bet security service. As NSO spokespeople have frequently said, the company is allowed to sell its products only to governments. In other words, this isn’t the work of some private individual rich enough to hire the company’s services.

Moreover, the terms of the export licenses the Defense Ministry gave NSO state that only the Israeli security services are allowed to conduct surveillance of phones with Israeli telephone numbers, and that Israeli and Palestinian area codes must be blocked to any other NSO client. In other words, no country in the world other than Israel is authorized to spy on an Al-Haq researcher who is documenting Israeli efforts to expel Palestinians from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.

Another surprising thing is that the Israeli governmental client bought (or maybe received as a gift – who knows?) this spyware despite the bad reputation NSO and its flagship product have had for several years now. NSO earned negative headlines and criticism when it turned out that various dictatorships to which it sold its program had used Pegasus against human rights activists and journalists.

The feigned innocence of the company’s spokespeople, who insisted that it sold the program only for use in fighting terrorism and serious crime, has become less and less convincing. The latest proof of this is that the United States recently blacklisted NSO and another Israeli cyber-weapon company, Candiru, for activities contrary to its national interests.

Israel has been criticized both at home and abroad for its lax oversight of cyber-weapon exports and for how easy it was for NSO (and other arms exporters) to sell such weapons to dictatorships notorious for oppressing their people, since what Israel mainly sought in exchange was UN votes in its favor and against the Palestinians.

Israel’s public relations senses weren’t sharp enough to understand that this lax oversight could potentially be diplomatically and economically damaging. Journalist Ronen Bergman wrote on Monday that in the coming days and weeks, senior government officials will mobilize for battle to get the U.S. administration to overturn its decision on NSO.

The fact that this notorious spyware – which it still isn’t clear why the Shin Bet needs it– is being used against Palestinians shows that Israeli institutions shaping policy against the Palestinians are suffused with smugness and the sensation of victory. After all, they have had many successes.

Plans to expand the settlements and squeeze the Palestinians into disconnected enclaves are still moving full steam ahead. The current government ostensibly includes centrist Zionist parties that would have been expected to oppose this, but they are paralyzed and keeping mum. At most, their MKs send letters of protest to Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

The Palestinian Authority and its ruling Fatah party’s upper echelon maintain the enclaves, are incapable of defending their citizens against daily attacks by settlers and soldiers and continue to see security coordination with the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet as a “national” interest. Palestinian society isn’t in the mood for a general uprising, and shows of solidarity with hunger-striking detainees or farmers who need protection against settler violence draw only a handful of people.

Western countries that have spent a great deal of their taxpayers’ money to preserve the “two-state solution” at most issue harmless condemnations of Israel and continue viewing it as a loyal ally. The fact that some European countries decided to stop donating to the Palestinian organizations that were declared illegal (even before that declaration was made) can only bolster Israel’s feelings of victory.

Now, when it turns out that for some reason Israel requires Pegasus for its efforts to suppress Palestinian organizations that naturally work against the occupation, the following comparison is warranted: Israel is just another undemocratic country, to say the least, like Mexico, Azerbaijan, Hungary and Saudi Arabia. Anyone who failed to notice this before now knows that it targets civilians – that is, people who oppose its policies through nonviolent means.

The Palestinian civil-society organizations that were targeted naturally hope to leverage this revelation to push the scales, which are currently tipped against the Palestinians, back in their favor a bit. And here is the catch: Now that they have been declared illegal, even a press conference, publication of an article or a lecture to diplomats will be considered an illegal act that enables the IDF to arrest them in the dead of night and hold them in jail for as long as the authorities please, whether by trying them in a military court or by leaving them in administrative detention without trial.

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