Spyware Surveillance of Palestinian Human Rights Defenders

After the Israeli designation of six of the leading Palestinian civil society organizations; Addameer Prisoner  Support and Human Rights Association, Al-Haq Law in the Service of Man (Al-Haq), Bisan Center for  Research and Development, Defense for Children International-Palestine, the Union of Agricultural Work  Committees, and the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees, as “terror organizations” in a latest bid  to delegitimize their image and isolate them from their partners and solidarity networks, Front Line  Defenders (FLD) reveals today that there has been a systematic underground campaign of spyware  surveillance aimed at infiltrating Palestinian human rights defenders and lawyers’ devices. The penetrating  and monitoring of the devices of human rights defenders, not only violates the privacy rights of human  rights defenders and lawyers, but also the countless victims that have been in any sort of communication  with them. The six organizations strongly condemn the arbitrary, oppressive and distressing revelations of  spyware surveillance mass operation, and call for a firm response including concrete actions from the  international community.

Pegasus Spyware Surveillance of Palestinian Human Rights Defenders  

On 16 October 2021, Al-Haq contacted FLD on suspicion of the spyware infection of the iPhone device of  one of its staff members. FLD technical investigation found that the device had been infected in July 2020  with Pegasus spyware marketed by the Israeli NSO Group. Further forensic investigation-peer-reviewed by  Citizen Lab and Amnesty International’s Security Lab – of 75 iPhone devices belonging to Palestinian

human rights defenders and employees of civil society organisations revealed that at least five additional  devices were also tapped into. Amongst them, Ghassan Halaika, Jerusalem-based field researcher at Al Haq, Ubai Al-Aboudi, Executive Director at Bisan Center for Research and Development, and Salah  Hammouri, lawyer and human rights defender.

When Pegasus is installed on a person’s phone, an attacker has complete access to a phone’s messages,  emails, media, microphone, camera, passwords, voice calls on messaging apps, location data, calls and  contacts. The spyware also has the potential to activate the phone camera and microphone, and spy on an  individual’s calls and activities.” (FLD, 8 November 2021).

Joint investigation of FLD, Citizen Lab and Amnesty International’s Security Lab confirmed with high  confidence that the infection emanated from Pegasus Spyware pertaining to the Israel-based Pegasus  spyware, which has been used as a mass surveillance tool to target and facilitate systematic repression of  human rights activists, lawyers, journalists and political figures, as disclosed by the global Pegasus Project that analyzed more than 50,000 phone numbers in July 2021. After the scathing revelations made by the  Pegasus Project, the NSO Group ironically alleged that the Pegasus spyware’s use was limited to  government intelligence and law enforcement agencies for counter-terrorism and crime fighting purposes.

On 3 November, the US Department of Commerce announced the placement of NSO Group on its “entity  list,” effectively banning the business, noting that “these tools have also enabled foreign governments to  conduct transnational repression [and that] such practices threaten the rules-based international order.”  Notably, despite agreements with the United States and France to not surveil their citizens, in the case of  Ubai Al-Aboudi, and Salah Hammouri, the company has breached these agreements consecutively.

Shrinking Our Space, Violating our Right to Privacy  

On 19 October, the Israeli Minister of Defense designated six organizations of the Palestinian civil society,  as “terror organizations” under Israel’s domestic Anti-Terrorism Law 5776-2016. Two weeks later, on 3  November, the Israeli military commander in the West Bank issued five separate military orders announcing  the organisations as “unlawful” under the Defence (Emergency) Regulations 1945, which Britain had

notably repealed shortly before the end of the Mandate and which Israel has illegally resurrected to  implement numerous persecutory acts against the protected Palestinian population.1

This announcement outlawing the vital work of the Palestinian organisations places them at imminent risk  of forcible closure and their employees at risk of arbitrary arrests and detention. Further, it represents an  alarming effort to criminalize and undermine their efforts in furthering the realisation of Palestinian human  rights, and the pursuit of accountability through international mechanisms, by discrediting their essential  work, isolating them from the international community, and eventually cutting their sources of funding. In  practice, the designations laid against the Palestinian organizations empower Israel to shut down their  offices, seize their assets including bank accounts, and arrest and detain their staff members.

The parallel timelines of the FLD investigation and the Israeli designations are concerning. The Israeli  Minister of Defense’s designations of the civil society organisations only days after the initiation of this  investigation, may amount to an attempt at preemptively withholding evidence of surveillance and covering  up surreptitious spyware actions.

The systematic surveillance of Palestinian human rights defenders comes in addition to an already  unacceptable endless list of coordinated actions led by Israeli governmental bodies and their affiliates to  instigate and perform systematic and organized smear, intimidation and persecution campaigns against  Palestinian civil society. Over the past decades, such techniques have included defamation campaigns  aimed at labelling human rights defenders as “terrorists,” incitement to racial hatred and violence, hate  speech, arbitrary arrests, torture and ill-treatment, death threats, travel bans, residency revocations and  deportations.

In February 2019, Al-Haq submitted a report on Israel’s surveillance industry to the UN Special Rapporteur  on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression. Drawing on the  surveillance apparatus used in the apartheid wall and operated by Elbit, and the Mabat 2000 surveillance  project in the Old City of Jerusalem, the submission shed light on the interrelations between the Israeli  military and the Israeli private surveillance industry. It further addressed the alarming use of Pegasus  spyware to muffle human rights defenders in various countries, including Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Mexico,  Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Persecution of Human Rights Defenders, A Tenet of Israel’s Apartheid  

To begin, Israel as a State party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) has  obligations under Article 19 to protect everyone’s rights to privacy, opinion and expression and everyone’s  right to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all  kinds, regardless of frontiers and through any media of his choice. The right to freedom of opinion and  expression is also ensured under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and Article 5  of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

Further, Article 17(1) of the ICCPR provides that “[n]o one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful  interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence”. In terms of surveillance the UN Human  Rights Committee has warned that, “Attacks on a person because of the exercise of his or her right to  freedom of expression may not be justified by article 19 (3)” and has underscored the importance of  protecting “persons who engaged in the gathering and analysis of information on the human rights situation

1 S. Darcy, ‘Punitive House Demolitions, the Prohibition of Collective Punishment, and the Supreme Court of  Israel’ 21 Penn State International Law Review (2002-2003) 477, 481.

and who published human rights-related reports, including judges and lawyers”.2 Further, States obligations  to protect human rights defenders, amongst others, from third party interference is provided for under  Article 2 of the ICCPR, which imposes an obligation on States to respect and to ensure to all individuals  within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognized in the Covenant. While Article II (c)  of the Apartheid Convention, prohibits as the crime of apartheid, “Any legislative measures and other  measures calculated to prevent a racial group or groups from participation in the political, social, economic  and cultural life of the country…, in particular by denying to members of a racial group or groups basic  human rights and freedoms, including…. the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and the right to  freedom of peaceful assembly and association”.

Business companies do not operate in a human rights-free vacuum. The UN Guiding Principles on Business  and Human Rights codify States’ duties to protect, and corporate responsibility to respect human rights in  the course of corporate activities. In particular, business companies must implement “policies and processes  appropriate to their size and circumstances, including: (b) a human rights due diligence process to identify,  prevent, mitigate and account for how they address their impacts on human rights,” as per Principle 15. To  that extent, according to Principles 17 to 21, human rights due diligence requires that proper and regular  human rights impact assessments are carried out by the company, reported and integrated into the  company’s code of conduct. In conflict affected areas this requirement for due diligence is heightened.  Israel accordingly, has a responsibility to prevent companies such as Pegasus domiciled under its  jurisdiction from carrying out grave violations of human rights law in its surveillance of Palestinian human  rights defenders, in the occupied territory.

#StandWithTheSix, before They Become Hundreds 

It comes with great concern that two weeks after the sinister designation of six Palestinian civil society  organizations as “terrorist organizations,” at least six Palestinian human rights defenders are found to have  had their most fundamental freedoms infringed by surveillance practices that have infiltrated all aspects of  their private and professional life and the lives of all the victims they serve, in addition to endless  communications with international and national officials, journalists, lawyers and colleagues. This latest  revelation shows, once again, the extent of Israel’s failure to regulate an egregious surveillance industry in  its territory, allowing a private human rights violating surveillance industry to operate with impunity. Such  impunity is a global human rights issue that requires a concerted global response on behalf of the  international community as a whole.

In light of the unprecedented gravity of Pegasus Spyware multilayered intrusion into Palestinian human  rights defenders’ space and privacy, the six organisations urge the international community to provide  immediate protection of all the identified victims of this Spyware surveillance infiltration and the immediate  cessation of any ongoing spyware infiltration.

We further urge the international community to take immediate actions to bring Israel, the home State for  Pegasus Spyware, into compliance with its obligations under international law, in particular:

  • Require an immediate moratorium on the sale, transfer and use of all forms of surveillance  technology, particularly NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware, until a full independent investigation of  its operation within Palestine is carried out by the UN, in order to identify the scope of its  surveillance activities carried out against Palestinian human rights defenders, and their ties to the  Israeli government;

2 A/HRC/41/35, “Surveillance and human rights Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection  of the right to freedom of opinion and expression” (28 May 2019) para 26, available at: “https://citizenlab.ca/wp content/uploads/2019/06/Special-Rapporteur-report-Surveillance-and-human-rights.pdf”

  • Require a full audit of Israeli companies manufacturing surveillance equipment, and define their  connections to the Israel governmental bodies, as well as their involvement in human rights  violations in Palestine and globally; and
  • Demand the designing and implementation of a strict regulatory framework to prevent, mitigate  and redress the human rights impacts of the surveillance industry, and ensure their compliance and  conformity with international human rights law, especially with the principle of human rights due  diligence enshrined in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

The six organisations call on:

  • The UN Human Rights Office to report on mass surveillance companies operating with Israeli  settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory, and include them in the UN Database on Business  Activities;
  • All States to immediately freeze their business agreements on weapons and surveillance equipment  with Israel, and demand that Israel report on its ties to its surveillance industry;
  • The Prosecutor’s Office of the International Criminal Court to include the surveillance of  Palestinian human rights defenders into its current investigation on the situation in the State of  Palestine, as a means of persecution of those defenders who oppose its apartheid regime; and
  • Human Rights Defenders and civil society members to take steps to reveal and hold accountable any similar spyware operations worldwide.