AMMAN: Israel used controversial spying software to target Palestinian human rights defenders, international digital investigators have claimed.
In a press release, the Dublin-based Front-Line Defenders outlined how the timing of Israel’s declaration to brand six human rights groups as “terrorist” organizations was issued two days after its use of a spying application was discovered.
The FLD said its digital forensic investigation “has uncovered the presence of Pegasus spyware on the phones belonging to at least six Palestinian human rights defenders.”
The search for Israeli spyware was launched when a staffer from the Palestinian human rights organization Al-Haq contacted the FLD regarding concerns about their phone on Oct. 16.
“A forensic analysis was immediately made and by the next day it was determined that Pegasus spyware was present,” the statement said.
The next day, Mohammed Al-Maskati, the FLD’s digital protection coordinator, requested additional information in a meeting with representatives from six Palestinian NGOs: Addameer, Al-Haq, Defense for Children – Palestine, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, the Bisan Center for Research and Development, and the Union of Palestinian Women Committees.
After informing them of the breach, six iPhones, out of 75 checked devices, were found to be infected with the Pegasus spyware.
The FLD, the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, and its Amnesty International Security Lab — which independently peer-reviewed FLD’s work and confirmed the results — were unable to identify the client who deployed the spyware, but noted that “actions taken by the Israeli government raise many questions.”
On Oct. 18, Israel ordered the revocation of the residency of Salah Hammouri, a Jerusalem-based lawyer and human rights defender, on the basis of Israel’s “breach of allegiance” law.
Hammouri’s phone was one of the six infected.
He is also a French citizen. Without residency, he would be subject to deportation from his homeland.
Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz issued an executive order on Oct. 18 setting forth the determination that the six Palestinian NGOs – the same six NGOs that held the meeting on Oct. 17 with the FLD — were “terrorist” entities.
Ubai Aboudi, director of the Bisan Center for Research and Development, which was one of the six Palestinian organizations accused of being a “terrorist” outfit by Israel, told Arab News that the discovery of the spyware on his phone made him feel insecure and exposed.
“I feel violated. My privacy has been infringed upon. My family and my work as a human rights defender are also exposed to risks. I feel insecure,” said Aboudi, who also holds US citizenship.
In publishing the report, FLD Executive Director Andrew Anderson said: “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.”
He added: “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.”