Israel will continue to export harmful surveillance technology until Washington turns a blind eye.
On November 3, the United States Department of Commerce announced that it was blacklisting the Israeli technology firm, NSO Group. The decision to add the company to the list of entities engaging in activities contrary to the interests of US national security or foreign policy was significant.
In its press release on the subject, the Commerce Department noted: “[there is] There is evidence that these entities developed and supplied spyware to foreign governments, who used these tools to maliciously target government officials, journalists, businessmen, activists, academics and embassy staff. These tools have also enabled foreign governments to conduct international repression, the practice of authoritarian governments targeting dissidents, journalists and activists to quell dissent outside their sovereign borders. Such practices threaten the rules-based international order.”
Nevertheless, the Israeli government and the NSO decided to treat the matter as a public relations problem, not a human rights crisis, and tried to downplay it. The company at first tried to appear confident and published a statement saying it was “shocked by the decision”. It then sent a “secret” letter to the Israeli government that “leaked”, asking for aid to help the US government cancel the blacklisting and save hundreds of Israeli jobs.
The Israeli government, for its part, also tried to engage in some damage control. On 25 November, Israeli media reported widely on an alleged decision by the Defense Ministry to stop sales of cyber technology to some 65 countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, etc. Subsequent examination of these reports revealed that this is not the case; The ministry has simply added another bureaucratic step – requiring permission to initiate export negotiations with these countries – to an otherwise seamless process.
None of these damage control efforts helped. Moody’s downgraded NSO and warned it was at risk of default, while US tech giant Apple filed suit against the company for targeting iPhone users.
Indeed, US blacklisting could be a game changer, beginning a strong US response to the challenge that the thriving surveillance systems industry stands up to civil society and democracy movements around the world.
Organizations like Amnesty International, Citizen Lab, Forbidden Stories, Access Now and many journalists and activists around the world, from India to Mexico and Hungary to Israel, have long been ringing alarm bells about NSO and other spyware companies. , expect officials to be heard in the US and elsewhere when they make policy decisions.
In doing so, critics have been accused by the NSO and its supporters of being liars and even being part of an anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic campaign. There has also been a current fear of being sued for defamation by a highly influential company with vast financial resources capable of paying expensive lawyers.
For us, Israeli activists, it has also been a hindrance to convince the Israeli public of the dangers of the surveillance system, as many Israelis approve of 24/7 Israeli surveillance of Palestinians living under repressive military rule in the occupied territories .
While the US blacklisting of the NSO is a victory for civil society, it also marks a disgrace to Israel’s parliament and judiciary, which have refused to rein in surveillance companies or monitor the Defense Ministry’s dealings with them.
For decades the Knesset avoided any real discussion about defense export licenses to countries in conflict or under repressive regimes. It did not respond to the Defense Ministry’s refusal to share details of surveillance technology exports.
In 2015, with MK Tamar Zandberg (current Minister of Environmental Protection), I co-authored a proposed amendment to the 2007 Law for the Inspection of Defense Exports, which would allow defense exports only to countries under UN sanctions. prohibits. We based the text on the US “Lehi Law”, which restricts the provision of US military aid and exports to governments and security forces who violate human rights with impunity.
Israel’s ministries of defense and foreign affairs opposed synchronizing Israeli law with US law. Subsequently, the Knesset failed to pass the resolution.
Repeated attempts by a group of Israeli human rights activists to expose the Defense Ministry’s complicity in crimes against humanity and genocide in other countries and to block export licenses to conflict zones and undemocratic regimes through the Israeli judicial of which I was a part. The system was also largely unsuccessful. In fact, we faced constant institutional gaslighting.
Judges and state representatives regularly tried to trick us into believing we were crazy or naive, and inadvertently manipulate us into being part of one if we weren’t already part of the anti-Israeli movement. Was. In a hearing about arms shipments in a bloody civil war, a Supreme Court judge asked who was financing us and who was actually behind the petition; In another, an administrative court judge sought clarification that we are not part of the boycott, disinvestment, sanctions movement.
Despite the humiliating and disappointing court hearings, we kept pressing with the petitions because it was a way to express solidarity with the growing list of victims of Israeli surveillance technologies and weapons, and because we still had a glimmer of hope that we would eventually Will be successful We achieved our rare victory, such as in late 2017 when the Defense Ministry decided to halt all defense exports to Myanmar.
But our defeat was also demoralizing. For example, in June, the Supreme Court dismissed a petition seeking to revoke the export license of Celebright’s system to Russia, which was used to hack the mobile phones of activists linked to opposition leader Alexei Navalny. was done for. The judges used this opportunity to block future petitions by ruling that the court system in Israel does not have jurisdiction to oversee defense export policy.
Without the cooperation of the Knesset and the courts, pushing for a change in domestic policy within Israel has become very difficult or impossible. And that is why the decision of the US Department of Commerce is so important. This puts much-needed external pressure on Israeli officials, who were perhaps quite surprised by the blacklisting.
After all, they have been quite used to non-interference by the US in their defense export policies. Perhaps the only major skirmish between the US and Israeli governments on the subject occurred in the late 1990s, when the latter wanted to supply Falcon surveillance aircraft to China. An agreement was eventually reached, which prohibited the supply of certain Israeli-made military equipment to Beijing and imposed the requirement of prior US approval for other defense exports.
For everything else, America is mostly turning a blind eye. This policy goes back to the Cold War, when successive US administrations were happy with Israel doing Washington’s dirty work and supplying military technology to murderous dictatorial regimes facing US sanctions or aid cuts.
For example, the Israeli government and the Reagan administration famously collaborated on the Iran-Contra case, which saw the covert Israeli sales of weapons to Iran to be sanctioned. Documents that have been declassified in recent years suggest that senior US officials knew Israel provided training and arms shipments to dictatorial regimes, such as the military juntas in Argentina and Chile in the 1970s and 1980s, but in fact Didn’t try to stop them.
After the Cold War ended, America’s inaction on problematic Israeli defense exports no longer made sense, especially when they appeared to serve the interests of China and Russia or various dictatorships.
One has to wonder why the Clinton administration did not stop the shipment of weapons from Israel to Serb forces during the war in Bosnia. Why was Israel allowed to continue providing weapons, surveillance systems and training to Myanmar’s military until the outright genocide against the Rohingya people began? Why was Israel able to sell the Celebrite hacking system to Venezuela, Belarus, Russia and China? And why did Israel continue to house Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s illegal private security unit while his regime clashed with the US and accused its embassy of interfering in local elections?
Now the big question is whether the US will stay on the NSO or will it make a major policy change and move away from its Cold War methods and mindset. If NSO evades the blacklisting and Washington fails to expand its action against uncontrollable spyware exports, it will only strengthen the sense of impunity within the industry and the arrogance of the Israeli Defense Ministry, whose workers are usually retired. Having want to integrate into the intelligence industry. from public service.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Al Jazeera.