The phones of seven human rights workers employed by the Palestinian group Shifa were infected with spyware that allows remote monitoring of and collection of data, Human Rights Watch and Israel’s Ministry of Public Security said.
Among the group’s workers was Issa Qaraqe, a Shifa head of security who previously was employed by the Palestinian Authority’s internal security forces, HRW and the Ministry of Public Security said. He was in charge of running the group’s human rights investigations.
Israel’s Ministry of Public Security issued a statement on Sunday saying Shifa’s devices were “systematically infected by an agent and was used for interception of mobile phone communications and data from civil society organizations.”
The statement said Shifa had removed the devices from use. It warned that the amount of malware in the devices was high.
A representative of the Israeli intelligence ministry told The Jerusalem Post that, among other things, the agency was examining the group’s activities.
“We’re not talking about sitting down and hunting to do something,” the ministry source said. “We’re looking at a whole lot of data and ways to track it.”
Shifa in a statement said it was cooperating with Israeli security officials and denied any wrongdoing. It said Shifa’s security protocols allowed for use of spyware and that the devices were used for security purposes.
“Operations concerning the phone devices used by some of our employees were taken seriously. All precautions were taken to protect confidential information,” the group said.
“However, as we are obliged to protect the lives and property of our employees in a real war situation, we take these activities seriously. We are cooperating with Israeli authorities in order to obtain the truth, and our procedures for the devices used by our employees remains in force and are being applied.”
Shifa, one of the Palestinian territories’ biggest hospitals, also runs a prominent men’s rights clinic. It has a doctorate level medical school and is known for being among the best-run hospitals in the Palestinian territories.
The group’s employees were the first to report the matter to the Israeli Ministry of Public Security. The group said that the malware was found in “various electronic devices” — presumably those used by the workers — including phones and computers.
In response to the news of the device deployment, Shifa said it would continue to cooperate with Israeli officials.
“Working with the Israeli authorities is a routine process and we consider it to be a true partnership between our two countries,” it said.
The report comes as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo prepares to leave Tuesday for a trip to the Middle East and Jordan.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has been accused by human rights organizations of mounting a crackdown on activism that included arrests, detentions and even the closure of more than a dozen Palestinian human rights groups.
Netanyahu has said such criticisms are rooted in anti-Semitism and that the Israeli security establishment is ultimately the target of human rights abuses.
He also said in October that his government had approved a few hundred grants to Palestinian non-governmental organizations for the current year, noting that the figure has been on the rise every year.
Palestinians in the West Bank have long relied on domestic non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that provide human rights and humanitarian aid to help them respond to everyday life. But Israelis say they have the same rights and freedoms as Israeli citizens.
About 10 percent of Israel’s population is foreign-born, the vast majority of them Palestinians who were born in the Arab world.
The Jerusalem Post contributed to this report.
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