28 November 2018 — Electronic Intifada – Maureen Clare Murphy
Yahya Sinwar, head of Hamas in Gaza, displays a pistol with a silencer recovered from a vehicle used by Israeli commandos in Gaza during a memorial service for seven members of the resistance group’s armed wing who were killed during a shoot-out with the military unit, Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, 16 November. Ashraf Amra APA images
Amnesty International is demanding that Israel’s defense ministry revoke the export license from a company whose spyware has been used in “a series of egregious human rights violations.”
Amnesty said that it intends to pursue legal action over NSO Group Technologies, an Israeli firm whose technology was revealed earlier this year to have been used to hack a phone belonging to one of the rights group’s staffers.
The staff member received a WhatsApp message “with Saudi Arabia-related bait content and carrying links Amnesty International believes are used to distribute and deploy sophisticated mobile spyware,” the rights group stated in August.
More recently, the exiled US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden said that NSO Group’s software was used to track Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi writer who was killed and dismembered by a hit team at the country’s consulate in Istanbul last month.
The company’s spyware was also installed on the phone of a Saudi dissident living in Canada.
The NSO Group spyware, called Pegasus, has previously been sold to Mexico and the United Arab Emirates, and has been used in attempts to spy on political leaders, activists and journalists in several countries.
The spyware can reportedly give those deploying it full access to a target’s mobile phone, turning it into a weapon against them and those close to them.
The Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz revealed this month that NSO Group had “offered Saudi Arabia a system that hacks mobile devices, a few months before Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman began his purge of regime opponents, according to a complaint to the Israel Police now under investigation.”
According to the paper, the Israeli government views the sale of these spy technologies to Gulf countries as part of its “strategic battle against Iran.”
As the Israeli government approves the export of spyware used by governments to hack the phones of journalists and crack down on dissent, its military forces have reportedly posed as humanitarian workers while operating clandestinely in Gaza.
Hebrew-language media reported last week that an Israeli commando squad discovered by Hamas in Gaza earlier this month were operating under the cover of a relief group.
The commando unit was discovered when the vehicle they were traveling in was stopped by a member of Hamas’ armed group. A gun battle erupted, leaving an Israeli lieutenant colonel and seven Hamas fighters, including a battalion commander, dead and prompted a short but intense round of hostilities over the Gaza boundary.
Israeli military censorship
Israeli media are subject to military censorship of details related to the 11 November incident and the specifics of the commando unit’s cover story, such as the name of the organization they were said to be working for, have not been published.
The name of the Israeli officer who was killed during the battle has been censored and Israeli outlets have referred to him as “Colonel M.” However, his name was revealed by publications out of censors’ reach as Mahmoud Kheireddine of the Sayeret Matkal elite reconnaissance unit.
Israel’s military censor has banned media from publishing the photos of the Israeli commandos after they were released by the Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas.
Palestinian media released images of the Israeli commando unit discovered in Gaza. Israel’s military censor has banned Israeli media from showing these images.
Israeli media have reported that Hamas’ websites have been blocked in the country and users who try to access them are directed to an Israeli government webpage.
Aid workers have expressed fear that Israeli military intelligence activity under the cover of humanitarian aid will undermine the delivery of critically needed assistance by international organizations.
According to @mekomit, the Israeli soldiers in the botched Gaza operation had disguised themselves as humanitarian aid workers – a breach of int’l law that endangers the whole humanitarian community in Gaza
— ג’סיקה מונטל – جسيكا مونتل (@JessicaMontell)
The use of civilian or humanitarian disguises by Israel to conduct military activities in the Gaza Strip may amount to a war crime under international law.
Israel already controls what humanitarian aid gets into Gaza, which has been under land, sea and air blockade for more than a decade.
That blockade has severely eroded Gaza’s economy, plunging its population of two million into poverty and leaving them dependent on humanitarian aid.
On Wednesday, Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar newspaper published further details on the failed commando raid.
Relying on a security source in Gaza, Al-Akhbar reported that Hamas’ investigation into the movements of the commando unit in Gaza was nearing completion.
Hamas believes that the unit had previously entered Gaza multiple times to install surveillance devices, some of which had been discovered and dismantled by the resistance group months earlier.
Before its discovery on 11 November, the commando personnel entered Gaza at differing times through Erez checkpoint in the north of Gaza using forged Palestinian Authority IDs.
Their spy equipment was smuggled in through Gaza’s commercial crossing by a Palestinian collaborator who is said to have provided the commando unit with vehicles.
Meanwhile the US State Department aid agency said that more than half of its employees in the West Bank and Gaza will be dismissed by early next year.
USAID provided more than $319 million in funding to projects in the West Bank and Gaza in 2016.
Dozens of USAID projects were suspended after the Trump administration froze more than $200 million in bilateral aid to Palestinians earlier this year as a means of punishing the Palestinian Authority leadership for protesting the US declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
In August, the US announced that it would stop funding UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, after freezing $300 million in aid in January, throwing the body into unprecedented financial crisis.
The punitive cuts by the US, formerly UNRWA’s largest donor, have caused Israeli military leaders to worry that they would soon find themselves having to deliver essential services to stave off humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza in the agency’s stead.
UNRWA has since nearly closed a $446 million funding gap, its commissioner-general announced last week.
After months of a remarkable global mobilization, I informed @UNRWA Advisory Commission this week that we brought this year’s staggering shortfall of $446 M down to $21 M. Our heartfelt respect & recognition goes to hosts and donors who showed such exemplary generosity & trust. pic.twitter.com/n7QKkaW3QE
— Pierre Krähenbühl (@PKraehenbuehl) November 22, 2018