Suspected of illegal eavesdropping

Communications from senior government officials, journalists and businessmen in Israel have been intercepted by the police using Pegasus software developed by the cyber security company NSO, with close ties to the Israeli Defense – claimed the Israeli Business daily Calcalist in February. The Ombudsman for Public Enquiries at the Ministry of Justice in Israel is to conduct a thorough investigation of the information.

Israeli Ombudsman Matanyahu Englman to conduct “in-depth” scrutiny into allegations of Israeli police espionage on Israeli citizens. Photo: Pinchas Wolf

Activists, big business executives, mayors and advisers, as well as relatives of former PM Benjamin Netanyahu have also been targeted by the police, who installed the surveillance program on their phones and retrieved personal information – which they say happened before a police investigation was launched and without legal approval. Calcalist uncovered that the use of the controversial cyber software was not limited to a few cases but has become one of the most widely used tools used by the police for gathering intelligence. For many years, NSO that makes Pegasus, has met complaints that they sell their cyber weapon to countries who regularly use it to violate the integrity and rights of academics, dissidents and journalists. Although claims that the software has been regularly misused by Israel’s allies, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and others, this is the first-time allegations have been made that it has been deployed against Israeli citizens.

Ethiopian Jews

Eleven days after the scandal first erupted in July last year, it was revealed that the French President Emmanuel Macron’s phone could have been tapped via Pegasus. This news prompted Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz to immediately fly to Paris and meet his French counterpart Florence Parly. Ironically, the software is also said to have been installed on the phones of the Ethiopian Jews who protested against the attitude of the Israeli police towards them. Among other things the February article was about this minority group, and the demonstration marches they organized were monitored. Chief police officers claimed that they needed early information to prevent blockages at intersections during rush hour, and then collected amounts of data that had nothing to do with the traffic situation. “In every democratic state, demonstrations and public protests are seen as a cornerstone in the right to express an opinion and an important instrument for balancing power. But within the Israeli police, demonstrations and protests, no matter about what or by whom, were perceived as a real threat,” Calcalist reported. Pegasus retrieved unlimited information from the mobile devices. An entire civilian life, private secrets, financial, personal and social information – all became available to the police without supervision or control.

Disabled people tapped

Disabled people protesting their low level of disability benefits were also illegally tracked by police analysts who wanted to gather intelligence due to “fear of harm to public order”. Police analysts rummaged through correspondence, apps, emails and diaries. And they listened too. This information was then passed on to the various districts without disclosing how it had been obtained. The explanation given was usually “one-time source” or “random information”, writes Calcalist. In all the cases described by the newspaper, the wiretapping took place without a court order and not for the purpose of gathering evidence but for obtaining intelligence. In addition, two key witnesses in the trial against Benjamin Netanyahu were intercepted – the former CEO of the media company Walla!, Ilan Yeshua, and the former editor, Aviram Elad, of the same company.

Journalists eavesdropped

The phones of other witnesses in the affair were also tapped, including devices from former communications director Avi Berger and other journalists at the online newspaper Walla! Avner Netanyahu, son of opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, was intercepted, as were former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s communications advisers, Topaz Locke and Yonatan Orich. The Jerusalem District Court ruled to suspend the trial of former PM Benjamin Netanyahu on charges of corruption for several days, in order to give prosecutors more time to investigate whether or not the police had illegally tapped key witnesses’ phones. At the end of February, Israel’s deputy Chancellor of Justice presented the results of the investigation that found no support for the allegations that the police had used the controversial spyware on the phones of a number of public figures without permission, stated the Ministry of Justice. After the presentation, Netanyahu’s Likud party said that the investigation was inadequate and non-transparent and called for a more thorough state investigation. Israeli State Comptroller and Ombudsman Matanyahu Englman has announced that he will conduct an “in-depth” investigation into the allegations that Israeli police have been spying on Israeli citizens.