Israel to establish commission to probe into claims of police hacking using Pegasus spyware


Photo:AFP

Jerusalem: The Israel government announced on Monday that a state commission of inquiry will be set up to probe into the explosive claims made by a newspaper that the police force allegedly used a sophisticated spyware to hack the phones of top government officials, business magnates, journalists and associates of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The move comes after widespread condemnation from several quarters and the clamour for an investigation from Israel's President, cabinet ministers and politicians, who have dubbed these allegations as “disturbing and deeply concerning”.

Public Security Minister, Omer Barlev, said that he was going to establish a commission to look into the claims that the Israel Police had conducted extensive extrajudicial spying, with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett asserting that “if the reports are true, they are very serious.”

“I have decided to set up a government-appointed commission of examination to investigate in depth the violation of the civil rights and privacy of citizens in the years in question,” Barlev said.

Unlike a state commission of inquiry, a government commission, known under the law as a government-appointed committee of examination, does not require approval by the full cabinet for its establishment, media reports said. The decision comes in the wake of an explosive revelation made by a business daily Calcalist, a few weeks back, alleging that police used the NSO Group's Pegasus spyware to hack into the phones of government officials, mayors, activists, journalists and family members and advisers of Netanyahu.

A massive controversy erupted last year when the NSO Group hit the headlines with the alleged use of its Pegasus software by some governments to spy on journalists, human rights defenders, politicians and others in a number of countries, including India, triggered concerns over issues relating to privacy.

On Monday, the business daily published the second half of the investigative report on police spying against dozens of individuals, including the then-directors general of the finance, justice, communication and transportation ministries, prominent businessman Rami Levy, Ilan Yeshua, the former CEO of Walla and currently a top witness in the trial against Netanyahu, Netanya Mayor Miriam Feirberg, Avner Netanyahu, the son of the former Prime Minister, West Bank settlers, leaders of Ethiopian-Israeli protests against police, and many others without any judicial approval.

It appeared from initial evidence that “the failures, if any, were under previous [police] commissioners, previous public security ministers and under previous governments”, Barlev explained.

He also stressed that such “failures” would not happen “under my watch”.

“The police are under my responsibility and my authority, and I will make sure that if there was a violation of democracy in previous years, I will denounce it and not let it be repeated”, the minister said.

While acknowledging that Pegasus and other similar spyware programmes “are important tools in the fight against terror and serious crime, Bennett, who replaced Netanyahu as Prime Minister in June 2021, said that they are not intended for widespread ‘phishing' among Israeli citizens or public figures in the State of Israel, so we need to understand exactly what happened”.

The Prime Minister hinted that the investigation in the matter would be led by Gali Baharav-Miara, who is likely to be approved as the next Attorney General.

“I would say it's an advantage that she is not from the establishment,” Bennett said of Baharav-Miara.

“We will sit and discuss; we will understand the situation and we will not leave the public without an answer. We understand the severity of the matter”, Bennett emphasised.

Following the claims, Israel's Police Commissioner, Kobi Shabtai, called for an external investigation in the matter.

“In the light of the recent reports regarding the Israel Police operation of technological systems in the years before I took office, I requested that the Public Security Minister order the establishment of an external and independent judicial review committee, headed by a judge, to examine the issue in all its aspects,” Shabtai said in a statement.

“The goal of such a probe”, he said, “is both to restore public trust in the Israel Police and to regulate the use of technologies in the police force”. Speaking at a conference on Monday morning, President Isaac Herzog said he felt compelled to comment on these allegations.

“The law enforcement system cannot be careless when upholding the law,” Herzog said.

“Those who enforce the law must be meticulous, more than anyone, in all aspects. We cannot lose our democracy, we cannot lose our police and we certainly cannot lose public trust in them”, the President commented.

Herzog added that these allegations demand “an in-depth and thorough investigation”.

PTI

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