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Pegasus: Palestine says NSO spyware found on phones of three senior officials

Ministry of foreign affairs tells MEE the find is a dangerous development that will not pass without repercussions
The statement came as NSO's chief executive Itzik Benbenisti, who had only been in the job for two weeks, resigned from his role (Reuters)

Palestine's ministry of foreign affairs has said that it has found Pegasus spyware on the phones of three senior officials, accusing "the [Israeli] occupation authorities" of being behind the hacking.

The statement came as Itzik Benbenisti, the chief executive of NSO, the Israeli firm behind the spyware, resigned from his role on Thursday after only two weeks in the position.

Sources said Benbenisti quit after the US commerce department announced it was blacklisting the company for harming "national security interests".

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The announcement by the ministry of foreign affairs marks the first time Palestinian officials have accused Israel of using Pegasus to spy on them.

The Palestinian rights group Al-Haq had previously reported that some foreign ministry employees had also been hacked, but the Palestinian Authority (PA) had not officially commented until now.

“We always expected that our telephones were infiltrated by the occupation authorities and that all we said and sent was listened to and monitored," the ministry of foreign affairs said in a statement on Wednesday.

"But now, we have evidence and legal documents that acknowledge the existence of this Israeli intrusion.”

'We will hold everyone behind it to account'

Ahmed al-Deek, a political advisor at the ministry of foreign affairs, told MEE on Thursday that the ministry was studying and consulting with specialised legal experts to determine its next step.

"We have a complete file on the matter, and we have all the legal evidence that indicates that the phones of the three officials were hacked and spied on," said Deek, who refused to name the officials.

"We will follow up this matter vigorously and urgently at the international level and in the international criminal courts, and we will hold everyone behind it to account, whether the company itself or Israel,” he added.

Deek described the hacking as a dangerous development that will not pass without repercussions.

"We consider this extremely dangerous and consider this a major violation of international law and human rights laws," he said.

"We completely reject what happened, regardless of its outcome. It is a violation not only of officials, but also threatens the Palestinian citizen in general."

PA officials told Israel's Haaretz newspaper that the phones belonged to people working at the ministry who were in charge of preparing complaints against Israel to the International Criminal Court.

Global surveillance scandal

On Monday, Front Line Defenders (FDL) reported that it had found that the phones of Palestinians working for human rights organisations recently designated by Israel as "terrorist organisations" were hacked using Pegasus, spyware which is at the heart of a global surveillance scandal.

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The Dublin-based rights group examined 75 phones belonging to Palestinian human rights workers and detected that six were infected with Pegasus spyware between July 2020 and April 2021.

Earlier this year, Amnesty International, Forbidden Stories and a group of international media organisations found that Pegasus had been used in hacks of smartphones belonging to journalists, officials, human rights activists and political leaders.

The investigative group said it had acquired a list of 50,000 phone numbers that appeared to be targets identified by NSO's clients to be spied upon using Pegasus.

The numbers of French President Emmanuel Macron, Morocco's King Mohammed VI, Iraqi President Barham Salih and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan were among the apparent targets.

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