European Rights Group: Palestinian Civil Society Workers’ Phones Hacked

A European human rights group alleged Monday that Israeli-made Pegasus spyware was used to hack the phones of staff members of six Palestinian civil society groups that Israel’s defense ministry has designated as terrorist organizations.

Dublin-based Front Line Defenders said its allegation was confirmed independently by researchers for Amnesty International and the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab.

Front Line Defenders stopped short of blaming the Israeli government for installation of the spyware on the phones of the Palestinian human rights workers. But it condemned Israel’s designation of their organizations as linked to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, or PFLP, a Marxist group labeled as a terrorist organization by many Western nations, including the United States.

Last month, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz designated six Palestinian civil society territory groups in the occupied West Bank territories as “terrorist organizations.” The groups 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.

Israel declined Monday to comment on the allegation that Pegasus was used against the groups’ staff members but pushed back against international criticism of the terrorism designation against the organizations, saying it had an “excellent file” of evidence linking the groups to the PFLP.  

Front Line Defenders said use of the Pegasus spyware made by NSO Group turns cell phones into pocket-spying devices, giving attackers “complete access to a phone’s messages, emails, media, microphone, camera, passwords, voice calls on messaging apps, location data, calls and contacts.”

The U.S. Commerce Department sanctioned the NSO Group last week, putting in on a blacklist that prohibits the company from receiving American technologies. It acted after U.S. officials determined that the NSO Group’s phone-hacking tools had been used by foreign governments to “maliciously target” government officials, journalists and activists around the world.

Asked about the new allegations, NSO Group said, “As we stated in the past, NSO Group does not operate the products itself … and we are not privy to the details of individuals monitored.” The company said it only sells to law enforcement and intelligence agencies and that it takes steps to curb abuse.

Front Line Defenders said it examined 75 iPhones and found six of them contaminated with the spyware, including phones used by Ghassan Halaika, a field researcher and human rights defender working for Al-Haq; Ubai Al-Aboudi, an American who is executive director of the Bisan Center for Research and Development; and French national Salah Hammouri, a lawyer and field researcher at the Jerusalem-based Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association.

Three other Palestinians whose phones were hacked declined to be identified.

Front Line Defenders said that use of the Pegasus spyware “means that, in addition to the targeting of Palestinians, including dual nationals, non-Palestinians (including foreign nationals and diplomats) with whom these victims were in contact, including Israeli citizens, could have also been subject to this surveillance, which, in the case of its citizens, would amount to a breach of Israeli law.”

In a statement, Front Line Defenders said it “strongly condemns the decision and allegations of terrorism brought against these Palestinian human rights organizations in response to their peaceful human rights work. Human rights defenders are not terrorists.”

Some material in this report was supplied by Agence France-Presse and Reuters.