The infamous Israeli Pegasus spyware was used to hack the iPhones of six Palestinian human rights activists, Ireland-based Frontline Defenders reported on Monday, November 9, following an investigation. The is the first revelation that the controversial spyware has been used against Palestinian activists. Three of the six activists were working with human rights organizations recently designated as terrorist groups by Israel.
The forensic findings of the investigation were independently confirmed in a joint technical report by Amnesty International’s security lab and University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab. Frontline Defenders said the Israeli government is suspected to be behind the spying attacks on the Palestinian activists.
Three of the six activists wished to remain anonymous. The three who consented to their identities being revealed are Ghassan Halaika, field researcher and human rights defender working for Al-Haq, US citizen Ubai Al-Aboudi, executive director at the Bisan Center for Research and Development, and French citizen Salah Hamouri, lawyer and field researcher at Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association based in Jerusalem. All the three organizations were recently designated as ‘terror’ groups.
Al-Haq had contacted Frontline Defenders a few days before being declared a terrorist organization on suspicion that a device belonging to one of their staff based in Jerusalem was infected with spyware. It was later found to be infected with the Pegasus software from July 2020 by Frontline researcher Mohammed al-Maskati. Overall, Frontline Defenders investigated 75 devices, all of them iPhones, of which six were ultimately found to be compromised. Speaking at a conference in Ramallah via videolink, al-Maskati stated that “the methods of surveillance and the equipment used were almost the same as those used in the earlier surveillance of Al Jazeera journalists and human rights activists in the United Arab Emirates.”
Following its revelation, Frontline Defenders in a statement called on “states, international bodies, corporations and law enforcement authorities to clearly and unequivocally reject the terrorism charges brought against Palestinian human rights organizations and human rights defenders.” The executive director of the non-profit group, Andrew Anderson, said that “if the Israeli government refuses to take action then this should have consequences in terms of the regulation of trade with Israel.”
Al-Haq was quoted by Reuters as saying, “We call on the United Nations to launch an investigation to disclose the party that stood behind using this program on the phones of human rights activists, a move that put their lives at risk.” The director-general of Addameer, Sahar Francis, called for more robust and concrete international support for human rights groups in the face of continued harassment by Israel, urging for more pressure to be put on Israel to stop its persecution of human rights workers.
In July, a joint global investigation by The Washington Post, The Guardian, Le Monde, and other news outlets revealed that Pegasus may have been used to spy on activists, human rights workers, journalists and politicians around the world. Both the Israeli government and the NSO group have been on the receiving end of global condemnation and criticism for the Pegasus scandal. Recently, the NSO group and another Israeli spyware software company, Candiru, were put on a trade blacklist by the United States government.