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Palestinian Diplomats Targeted by Israeli Spyware, Official Says


JERUSALEM — A senior Palestinian official said Thursday that the phones of three high-ranking Palestinian diplomats had been hacked by military-grade spyware made by the private Israeli firm NSO Group.

The accusation, which has not been verified by independent hacking experts, has amplified recent scrutiny of NSO, a surveillance company recently blacklisted by the Biden administration for having supplied spyware to governments that use it to hack the phones of activists, journalists and lawyers. The accusation has also raised further questions about the whether the Israeli government is using the company’s Pegasus spyware itself.

The Palestinian official, Ahmed al-Deek, an assistant foreign minister, accused Israel of having used Pegasus to hack the phones of three senior Palestinian diplomats.

“Of course it’s the Israelis,” Mr. al-Deek said in a phone interview. “They are the only ones that are capable and interested in doing that. And yes, we do accuse them of this attack.”

He did not provide any evidence of such hacking or release phone data logs that might confirm the accusation. He declined to comment further.

A second Palestinian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that at least two of the hacked officials had been working on a campaign to prosecute Israeli officials for war crimes at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

The Israeli Foreign and Defense ministries declined to comment, as did the Israeli domestic intelligence agency, known as the Shin Bet.

NSO said in a statement that it had no information on who was being monitored by the governments using its software. The company has previously said that its list of clients is private and would not say whether the Israeli government was among them.

The accusation, first reported by The Associated Press, follows a similar announcement earlier in the week by international cyber experts, who said they had detected Pegasus on the phones of four Palestinian rights workers belonging to groups under investigation by Israel.

The Israeli government, which licenses the sale of the spyware to other countries, denied it had used NSO spyware to target the activists. However, according to Israeli policy, only Israeli officials would have the power to deploy the spyware against the activists’ Israeli phone numbers.

The Pegasus program allows users to remotely and secretly extract a phone’s contents and monitor its calls, location and messages.

NSO has faced criticism for years for selling its software to clients who have used it to target people close to Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident killed by the Saudi government; human right lawyers in Mexico; investigative journalists in Hungary; and two reporters for The New York Times.

Scrutiny of the company, and of the Israeli government’s relationship to it, heightened last summer, after a global investigation revealed the scale of NSO’s reach and suggested that Pegasus had been used to penetrate the phones of dozens of activists and reporters in several countries.

Last week, the Biden administration placed sanctions on the company, barring United States companies from doing business with it. Israel, which considers the software critical to the national security of both countries, is lobbying to have the sanctions withdrawn.

This week, a U.S. court gave the go-ahead to a lawsuit against NSO for using the WhatsApp messaging service to infect dissidents’ phones. The court dismissed the company’s claim that it had immunity from the suit because it had acted as an agent of a foreign government.

On Thursday, the sense of crisis deepened when a new senior executive resigned from his post at the company before he had formally taken up the role.

Patrick Kingsley reported from Jerusalem, and Rawan Sheikh Ahmad from Haifa, Israel.

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