Pegasus Spyware in Israel: MK Odeh Calls on Police Commissioner to Resign

Israel police accused of using Pegasus spyware to hack phones of activists and civilians. An investigative report published Jan. 18 by the financial Calcalist newspaper claims that the police purchased the software in 2013, under then-Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino, and actually started using it in 2015, when former Shin Bet senior Roni Alsheikh served as police commissioner. The software allegedly served the secret police cyber brigade named Signet. The report further claims that police used Pegasus to hack phones not only of criminals but also of activists and other civilians, without court authorization or the control of a judge.

In November, Citizen Lab said it had identified Pegasus software on the phones of six Palestinian human rights activists affiliated with groups that Israel has controversially claimed are “involved in terrorism.”

Hadash lawmakers on Tuesday called for a parliamentary inquiry into the police’s alleged use of sophisticated spyware on Israeli citizens, including protesters opposed to former far-tight Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Joint List chairman MK Ayman Odeh (Hadash) called for Police Commissioner Yaakov Shabtai resignation. Hadash lawmakers demanded that Israel “immediately halt any use of the Pegasus tool against civilians.” “When human rights are on the line, there is a need for transparency and deep public discussion,” added.

A “black flag” protest against Netanyahu in Jerusalem near the Prime Minister house, April 2020 (Photo: Crime Minister)

According to the report in Calcalist, a former Shin Bet official who was appointed Israel’s police chief was the first to make massive use of the system, which the police first bought in 2013, and it has since been used against a list of targets that includes protest leaders, politicians and others. 

The report offers the example of the Black Flag protests of 2020 against Netanyahu. Police allegedly planted the Pegasus spyware in phones of some movement leaders remotely, in order to listen on their conversations and monitor their written exchanges. The Black Flags protest movement, whose leaders were allegedly surveilled during weekly demonstrations in recent years calling on Netanyahu to resign, called on the police to release the names of the people whose phones were hacked. Spokesman Roee Neuman said the protest leaders only learned of the digital surveillance following the publication of the report. Amir Haskel, a prominent “Crime Minister” protest leader, said he “wasn’t surprised by the allegations.” “The use of software to follow protest leaders suits former public security minister Amir Ohana, who did everything to suppress the protests.”

The newspaper explains that a legal loophole enabled the police to operate in this manner for years, in disregard to citizens’ rights for privacy. It argues that while some specific cases might have justified such means, its investigation revealed systematic and large use of these methods. NSO people who support the software might have also been exposed to some of the classified information gathered by the police.

The Pegasus controversy began in July 2021, when the Forbidden Stories group published an extensive report, revealing that the software had been used for years by several governments to track phone numbers of activists, politicians and journalists. It implied that Israel did not strictly control these cyber tools, thus allegedly playing into the hands of non-democratic regimes.