Security experts from Ireland-based nonprofit Frontline Defenders revealed Monday that malware from the infamous Israeli spy company NSO Group was identified on the smartphones of six Palestinian human rights activists, half of whom the Israeli Minister of Defense accused of terrorism.
This is the first time Palestinian activists have been identified as targets of the military-grade Pegasus malware. Since 2015, only Saudi Arabia and Mexico have used NSO’s Pegasus spyware against human rights activists, journalists, and political dissidents, according to the Front Line Defenders report.
Mohammad Al-Maskati, the organization‘s Digital Protection Coordinator, was contacted on 16 October by an Al-Haq staff member reporting worries about their phone. A forensic study was conducted promptly, and the presence of Pegasus spyware was determined the following day.
The next day, on 17 October, Al-Maskati met with representatives of six Palestinian non-governmental organizations (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 discovery and to request additional phones for investigation. Finally, six iPhones were discovered to be Pegasus-infected, out of 75 examined devices.
One day afterward, on 18 October, one of the six contaminated phones was Salah Hammouri’s whom Israel revoked his residency the same day, citing Israel’s ‘breach of allegiance’ rule. Hammouri is a lawyer and human rights defender, is a French citizen with a Jerusalem ID.
Next, on 19 October, Israel’s Minister of Defense, Benny Gantz, signed an executive order establishing that the six Palestinian NGOs – the same six NGOs that met with FLD on 17 October – are ‘terrorist’ entities.
Israel then attempted to persuade European and American officials of the evidence that these organizations are ‘terrorist,’ including by sending intelligence envoys to Washington, DC, but these officials publicly stated that the material presented to them was not believable.
Nonetheless, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported on 1 November that Israeli Ministry of Defense officials confirmed that the six organizations remain lawful in the West Bank, that no further action is planned against them, and that additional orders would be required to shut them down.
Thus, while Israel sees these six organizations as dangerous terrorist organizations, it continued to allow them to function openly, accept finances, and coordinate events and labor with no intention of intervening. Israel extends this order to cover the West Bank on 7 November, the day before the publication of this report.