Israel lawmakers outraged over claim police used NSO spyware

Israeli 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 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (AP)
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Updated 18 January 2022

Israel lawmakers outraged over claim police used NSO spyware

  • Israeli police denied the allegations, saying they operate according to the law
  • NSO Group said it does not identify its clients

JERUSALEM: Israeli 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 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, following a newspaper report on the surveillance.
Hebrew-language business newspaper Calcalist reported that in 2020, police used the NSO spyware Pegasus to surveil leaders of protests against Netanyahu, who was then prime minister. It said police also hacked the phones of two sitting mayors suspected of corruption and numerous other Israeli citizens, all without a court order or a judge’s oversight.
The Israeli police denied the allegations, saying they operate according to the law, and the NSO Group said it does not identify its clients.
Sophisticated spyware made by the Israeli company has been linked to eavesdropping on human rights activists, journalists and politicians. The US has barred the group from American technology, saying its products have been used by repressive regimes.
The company says its products are intended to be used against criminals and terrorists, and that it does not control how its clients use the software. Israel, which regulates the company, has not said whether its own security forces use the spyware.
The report — which cited no current or formal officials from the government, police or NSO corroborating the paper’s claims — referred to eight alleged examples of the police’s secretive signal intelligence unit employing Pegasus to surveil Israeli citizens, including hacking phones of a murder suspect and opponents of the Jerusalem Pride Parade. The report did not name any of the people whose phones were allegedly hacked by the police.
“In all the cases mentioned in the article, and in other instances, use of Pegasus was made at the sole discretion of senior police officers,” the report said. “The significance is that with Pegasus, the police can effectively hack without asking a court, without a search or entry warrant, without oversight, to all cell phones.”
The report sparked an outcry across Israel’s political spectrum, briefly uniting everyone from Jewish ultra-nationalists to Arab opposition lawmakers in shared outrage.
Cabinet Minister Karine Elharrar told Israeli Army Radio that such surveillance “was something that a democratic country cannot allow.”
Opposition lawmaker Yuval Steinitz said that surveillance of citizens by law enforcement without judicial oversight is improper and that if the claims are correct, it should be investigated.
Public Security Minister Omer Barlev, whose department oversees the police, tweeted that he would verify that police received explicit authorization from a judge to use the spyware.
The ultra-Orthodox Shas party called on the Knesset speaker to launch a parliamentary investigation. Merav Ben Ari, an Israeli lawmaker who heads the Knesset’s internal security committee, said the panel would hold a hearing into the report’s claims.
Israeli police issued a statement after the report’s publication, saying that “there’s no truth to the claims raised in the article” and that “all police operations in this field are in accordance with the law, in line with court orders and meticulous protocols.”
Amir Ohana, who was public security minister during the protests, said he had no knowledge of the reported surveillance.
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.
Pegasus software surreptitiously grants full access to a person’s cellphone, including real-time communications.
Tuesday’s report was the latest blow for the company, which has faced growing scrutiny and criticism for its software’s use by repressive governments.
NSO’s software has repeatedly been blamed for cellphone surveillance of activists, dissidents and journalists. Last month, the Internet watchdog Citizen Lab said dozens of journalists and human rights defenders in El Salvador had their cellphones repeatedly hacked with sophisticated spyware over the past year and a half.
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.
Citizen Lab has been identifying Pegasus victims since 2015, when abuses of the spyware against journalists and human rights activists were discovered. Dozens of cases have since been uncovered, including of a dozen US State Department employees in Uganda, British lawyers and a Polish senator who led the opposition’s 2019 parliamentary campaign.
The NSO Group said that it could neither confirm nor deny any specific clients, adding that “the company does not operate the system once sold to its governmental customers and it is not involved in any way in the system’s operation.”
“NSO sells its products under license and regulation to intelligence and law enforcement agencies to prevent terror and crime under court orders and the local laws of their countries,” the company said.


Israel approves ultranationalist Jewish march in Jerusalem

Updated 4 min 23 sec ago

Israel approves ultranationalist Jewish march in Jerusalem

  • The office of Internal Security Minister Omer Barlev said the march would take place on May 29 along its “customary route” through Damascus Gate
  • Each year, thousands of Israeli nationalists participate in the march, waving Israeli flags, singing songs and in some cases, chanting anti-Arab slogans

JERUSALEM: Israeli authorities on Wednesday said they have given the go-ahead for flag-waving Jewish nationalists to march through the heart of the main Palestinian thoroughfare in Jerusalem’s Old City later this month.
The decision threatens to re-ignite violence in the holy city.
The office of Internal Security Minister Omer Barlev said the march would take place on May 29 along its “customary route” through Damascus Gate.
Each year, thousands of Israeli nationalists participate in the march, waving Israeli flags, singing songs and in some cases, chanting anti-Arab slogans, as they pass by Palestinian onlookers and businesses.
Barlev’s office said the decision was made after consultations with police.
The march is meant to celebrate Israel’s capture of east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war. Israel subsequently annexed the area in a step that is not internationally recognized. The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as the capital of a future state.
Last year’s Gaza war erupted as the march was just getting underway, even after authorities changed the route at the last moment to avoid Damascus Gate.
The Old City, located in east Jerusalem, has experienced weeks of violent confrontations between Israeli police and Palestinian demonstrators, and the march threatens triggering new unrest.
Tensions also have been heightened by an Israeli police crackdown during the funeral of slain Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh last Friday. As the funeral procession got underway, police pushed and beat mourners, causing the pallbearers to lose control of the coffin and nearly drop it.
Abu Akleh, a well-known journalist, was fatally shot while covering an Israeli military raid in the occupied West Bank last week. The Palestinians, including witnesses who were with her, say she was shot by Israeli troops. Israel says that Palestinian gunmen were active in the area, and it is not clear who fired the deadly bullet.


Pentagon finds no wrongdoing in 2019 Syria strike that killed civilians

Updated 18 May 2022

Pentagon finds no wrongdoing in 2019 Syria strike that killed civilians

  • The Times report said that 70 people, many of them women and children, had been killed in the strike
  • The US ground force commander for the anti-Daesh coalition received a request for air strike support from Syrian Democratic Forces fighting the extremists

WASHINGTON: An investigation into a 2019 strike by US forces in Syria that killed numerous civilians found no violations of policy or wanton negligence, the Pentagon said Tuesday.
The internal US Army investigation focused on an operation by a special US force operating in Syria which launched an airstrike on a Daesh bastion in Baghouz on March 18, 2019.
The investigation was sparked last year after the New York Times reported that in the original strike the US military had covered up dozens of non-combatant deaths.
The Times report said that 70 people, many of them women and children, had been killed in the strike.
The Times report said a US legal officer “flagged the strike as a possible war crime” and that “at nearly every step, the military made moves that concealed the catastrophic strike.”
But the final report of the investigation rejected that conclusion Tuesday.
It said that the US ground force commander for the anti-Daesh coalition received a request for air strike support from Syrian Democratic Forces fighting the extremists.
The commander “received confirmation that no civilians were in the strike area” and authorized the strike.
However, they later found out there were civilians at the location.
“No Rules of Engagement or Law of War violations occurred,” the investigation said.
In addition, the commander “did not deliberately or with wanton disregard cause civilian casualties,” it said.
The report said that “administrative deficiencies” delayed US military reporting on the strike, giving the impression that it was being covered up.
The Times cited an initial assessment of the incident saying that about 70 civilians could have been killed.
Pentagon Spokesman John Kirby said that 52 combatants were killed, 51 of them adult males and one child, while four civilians died, one woman and three children.
Another 15 civilians, 11 women and four children, were wounded, he said.
Asked if anyone was being punished for the civilian deaths, Kirby said the investigation did not find the need to hold any individuals accountable.
The probe “did not find that anybody acted outside the law of war, that there was no malicious intent,” Kirby said.
“While we don’t always get everything right, we do try to improve. We do try to be as transparent as we can about what we learn,” he said.

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World’s tallest building engulfed as Mideast sandstorms hit UAE

Updated 18 May 2022

World’s tallest building engulfed as Mideast sandstorms hit UAE

  • The 828m Burj Khalifa, which towers over Dubai and is usually visible across the financial hub, retreated behind a curtain of airborne dirt that shrouded much of the country
  • The Middle East’s sandstorms are becoming more frequent and intense, a trend associated with overgrazing and deforestation, overuse of river water and more dams

DUBAI: The world’s tallest building disappeared behind a grey layer of dust on Wednesday as sandstorms that have swept the Middle East hit the United Arab Emirates, prompting weather and traffic warnings.
The 828-meter (2,716 ft, 6ins) Burj Khalifa, which towers over Dubai and is usually visible across the busy financial hub, retreated behind a curtain of airborne dirt that shrouded much of the country.
The UAE is just the latest country in the path of sandstorms that have smothered Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iran and others in recent days, closing airports and schools and sending thousands to hospital with breathing problems.
Capital city Abu Dhabi’s air quality index (AQI) soared into the “hazardous” zone overnight, according to waqi.info and the Plume pollution app.
The Middle East’s sandstorms are becoming more frequent and intense, a trend associated with overgrazing and deforestation, overuse of river water and more dams.
Experts say the phenomenon could worsen as climate change warps regional weather patterns and drives desertification.
Emirati authorities issued a nationwide warning urging residents to remain vigilant.
“Abu Dhabi Police urges drivers to be cautious due to low visibility during high winds and dust,” the police force tweeted, as residents took to social media to publish photos and videos.
“Please do not be distracted by taking any videos or using your phone,” it added.
A National Center for Meteorology graphic showed nearly all the country covered by the storm, with the warning: “Be on the alert: hazardous weather events are expected.”
Winds with speeds up to 40 kilometers (25 miles) per hour are blowing the dust, it said, reducing visibility in some areas to less than 2,000 meters (2,200 yards).
However, a Dubai airports spokesman said there was no impact on air traffic. Weather conditions were expected to remain the same for the next few days.
In neighboring Saudi Arabia, badly hit on Tuesday, conditions eased in the capital Riyadh on Wednesday but continued to restrict visibility in the city center.
Emergency rooms in Riyadh hospitals received some 1,285 people suffering from respiratory problems over 24 hours from the sandstorm, the state-run Al-Ekhbariya channel reported late on Tuesday.
The Saudi national weather center reported that dust was also affecting visibility in the west and south, specifically in Assir, Najran, Hael and Medina provinces. Medina is home to Medina city, the second-holiest city in Islam.
The center predicted another sandstorm would arrive in the kingdom by Sunday.


‘Conflict, destruction’ prevent return to Iraq’s Yazidi heartland: NGO

Updated 18 May 2022

‘Conflict, destruction’ prevent return to Iraq’s Yazidi heartland: NGO

  • ‘Nearly two-thirds of Sinjar’s population — over 193,000 Yazidis, Arabs, and Kurds — remain displaced’
  • The Yazidis are a Kurdish-speaking minority who were persecuted by Daesh for their non-Muslim faith

BAGHDAD: Violence and sluggish reconstruction have prevented the return to Iraq’s northwestern town of Sinjar of its predominantly Yazidi population after the abuses of militant rule, the Norwegian Refugee Council said Wednesday.
Five years after the defeat of the Daesh group, which committed massacres against the Yazidis and used their women as sex slaves, the town’s Yazidi, Muslim Kurdish and Arab residents are no closer to returning home, especially after a surge in violence earlier this month.
The aid group said that “nearly two-thirds of Sinjar’s population — over 193,000 Yazidis, Arabs, and Kurds — remain displaced.”
The Yazidis are a Kurdish-speaking minority who were persecuted by Daesh for their non-Muslim faith after its capture of the town in 2014.
“Widespread destruction of civilian houses, new clashes, and social tensions” are preventing returns, NRC said in a report.
Out of 1,500 people surveyed by the aid group to determine how decisions to return home are made, about 64 percent “said their homes were heavily damaged.”
“A staggering 99 percent of those who applied for government compensation had not received any funding for damaged property,” it said.
“Families from Sinjar remain in displacement, with thousands still living in camps,” NRC’s country director for Iraq, James Munn, said.
“We need durable solutions put in place so Iraqi families can once again start living their lives and plan for a safer future.”
The aid group called on the Iraqi government and the authorities in the autonomous Kurdistan region to “prioritize the rehabilitation of infrastructure and the restoration of services to allow for safe housing, land, and property, alongside public infrastructure.”
Some “80 percent of public infrastructure and 70 percent of civilian homes in Sinjar were destroyed” during the conflict years ago, the NRC said.
In early May, fighting broke out between Iraqi troops and Yazidi fighters affiliated with Turkey’s banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), killing at least one Iraqi soldier.
The Iraqi army was seeking to apply an agreement between Baghdad and the Kurdistan region for the withdrawal of Yazidi and PKK fighters from Sinjar.
More than 10,000 people fled the latest fighting, adding to the population of displaced.


Iran seizes foreign ship with smuggled fuel, detains crew – IRNA

Updated 18 May 2022

Iran seizes foreign ship with smuggled fuel, detains crew – IRNA

  • Iran has been fighting rampant fuel smuggling by land to neighboring countries and by sea to Gulf states
  • Ship carrying over 550,000 liters of smuggled fuel was seized in Gulf waters, escorted to harbor in Hormozgan

DUBAI: Iranian authorities seized a foreign ship attempting to smuggle fuel out of the country and detained its crew, state news agency IRNA said on Wednesday.

Iran, which has some of the world’s cheapest fuel prices due to heavy subsidies and the plunge in value of its national currency, has been fighting rampant fuel smuggling by land to neighboring countries and by sea to Gulf Arab states.

The ship, carrying more than 550,000 liters of smuggled fuel, was seized in Gulf waters and escorted to harbor in the southern province of Hormozgan, where it was handed to judicial authorities for investigation, the agency added.

“We were able to identify and detain a ship carrying smuggled fuel intended to transport large-scale smuggled fuel shipments east of Maru Island,” chief of provincial border guards Hossein Dehaki said.

Several ships in recent months have been detained for smuggling fuel in the Gulf by Iranian authorities.