Israeli government officials try to coverup use of banned NSO spyware by designating Palestinian human rights groups as "terrorist organizations".
(Washington, D.C., November 8, 2021) — Breaking news from the Associated Press indicates that the Israeli government apparently designated six Palestinian civil society groups as "terrorist organizations" in an attempt to coverup and justify Israel's use of the banned NSO Group's Pegasus spyware to surveil members of the six groups.
Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), the organization founded by the late Jamal Khashoggi whose friends and family were also hacked by the same spyware, is calling on the US government to investigate and impose the Khashoggi Ban on all officials implicated in the hacking scandal.
The Israeli government and military routinely persecute and harass Palestinian human rights groups and activists, but they went a step further on October 19, 2021, when the Israeli Defense Ministry declared six of the most prominent Palestinian civil society organizations as "terrorist organizations."
The groups named are 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. The designations outlaw the groups' activities and criminalize working for or supporting them. The Israeli government's designations quickly drew a backlash from the international community. United Nations human rights experts condemned the designation, calling it a "frontal attack on the Palestinian human rights movement, and on human rights everywhere."
Even Israel's staunch ally the United States raised a concern, albeit muted, requesting "clarification" from the Israeli government for the designations and noting that "the Israeli government did not give us advance warning."
Today, three weeks after the Israeli designation of the six Palestinian civil society organizations, breaking news revealed that Israel has used Pegasus spyware to surveil members of these same civil society groups and other activists who communicated with them.
A few days before the designation, our partners at Front Line Defenders, an EU-based organization focused on protecting human rights defenders at risk, verified that Israel has hacked six phones of employees of the Palestinian groups. DAWN has verified that two days before the designation, Front Line Defenders met with representatives of all 6 designated organizations to inform them of Pegasus infiltration and to request additional devices to investigate.
"The Israeli government sought to retroactively cover up and justify the use of the spyware on members of the six designated Palestinian organizations and others who communicated with them," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Executive Director of DAWN.
On November 3, the Biden administration blacklisted two Israeli companies, the NSO Group and Candiru, stating that the two companies "developed and supplied spyware to foreign governments that used these tools to maliciously target government officials, journalists, businesspeople, activists, academics, and embassy workers." In sanctioning the NSO Group and Candiru, the U.S. Commerce Department indicated that the two Israeli companies, which are operated under the direct supervision of the Israeli government and which were developed by a secret Israeli cyberwarfare unit, had engaged in "activities that are contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States."
These activities involved exporting the sophisticated spyware called Pegasus that can remotely hack into smartphones. The Saudi government used the banned NSO Group's Pegasus software to hack into the phones of Saudi dissidents and surveil close associates of the former Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi shortly before and after his murder by a Saudi "Tiger" hit team in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul. Khashoggi founded DAWN four months before his murder.
"We welcome the blacklisting of the NSO Group," said Whitson. "Now the Biden Administration must follow the blacklisting by imposing the Khashoggi Ban on all Israeli government officials found to have participated in the decision to license and use the Pegasus software on human rights activists."
"The Biden Administration must follow the blacklisting by imposing the Khashoggi Ban on all Israeli government officials found to have participated in the decision to license and use the Pegasus software on human rights activists."
- Sarah Leah Whitson, the Executive Director of DAWN
In February 2021, the Biden Administration announced the Khashoggi Ban, which constitutes an important step in seeking to protect political activists, dissidents and their families from the autocratic regimes seeking to harass, intimidate and silence them. The Ban restricts visas for "individuals who, acting on behalf of a foreign government, are believed to have been directly engaged in serious, extraterritorial counter-dissident activities." This includes those that "suppress, harass, surveil, threaten, or harm journalists, activists, or other persons perceived to be dissidents for their work."
"The surveillance conducted by the Pegasus spyware against members of the Palestinian civil rights organizations clearly fits within the proscribed activities described in the Khashoggi Ban," said Raed Jarrar, Advocacy Director of DAWN. "As chair of the Khashoggi Ban Working Group, which involves dozens of U.S. and international human rights groups, DAWN will this week submit to the State Department the names of Israeli officials who might have participated in the licencing and execution of this surveillance, including Paul Landes, the Head of the Israeli National Bureau for Counter Terror Financing (NBCTF) and Ronen Bar, the Director of the Shin Bet security service. DAWN will work with our partners to advocate for imposing the Khashoggi Ban on these all individuals acting on behalf of foreign governments who are implicated in deploying spyware as a counter-dissident activity."
Campaigns of transnational repression have escalated over the last two decades, as autocratic regimes, including China, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia, have employed a range of sophisticated cyber and social media tools, as well as more traditional violence, such as rendition and assassination, to target political activists and dissidents both within and outside their countries. The sophisticated spyware of the two Israeli companies, the NSO Group and Candiru, represents a powerful new tool that will enable these autocratic regimes to intensify their attacks on political activists and dissidents.
Last week, DAWN played a leading role in organizing a Congressional briefing with the Palestinian human rights organizations. Dozens of Congressional offices from the US Senate and House of Representatives met with the groups. DAWN will contact every congressional office today to ask they take immediate action in response to the new revelations.
"U.S. officials should clearly and unequivocally reject the terrorism charges brought against the Palestinian human rights groups, and the Biden Administration should investigate the licencing and use of the spyware against political activists and dissidents by all governments, including Israel, Iran, UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, and impose the Khashoggi Ban on individuals implicated in the surveillance operations," Jarrar said. "Israel stands out amongst these bad actors as the recipient of $3.8 billion of annual U.S. military assistance and as the government approving all licences and sales of NSO's Pegasus spyware."