Exporting the Tools of Apartheid

NSO Group, the Israeli firm that sells its spyware to authoritarian regimes around the world, emerged from a military unit that perfected its surveillance techniques on Palestinians.

Yousef Munayyer
July 26, 2021
An office of the Israeli intelligence firm NSO Group. Photo: REUTERS/Amir Cohen/Alamy Stock Photo

LAST WEEK, a joint investigation by 17 media outlets—including The Washington Post, The Guardian, and Haaretz—revealed that Israeli intelligence firm NSO Group had licensed military-grade spyware known as Pegasus to a long list of authoritarian regimes. The report drew on a leaked list of more than 50,000 phone numbers; a close forensic analysis of some of the phones confirmed that they had been hacked by surveillance software capable of monitoring the targets’ movements, listening to their conversations, and accessing their private data. 

The list included the phones of several people close to murdered journalist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi: His wife’s phone was targeted in the months before his gruesome murder, while his fiancée’s phone was hacked in the days after his death. The phone number of Princess Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum was added to the list shortly after her escape from the United Arab Emirates and just days before she was captured on her way to Sri Lanka by Indian commandos, who returned her to Dubai. Numbers belonging to some 14 current or former heads of state were found on the list as well. 

The investigation into NSO precipitated criticism of the Israeli government, which licensed the sales; the technology could not have been exported without the explicit consent of the Israeli Defense Ministry. Indeed, The New York Times has reported separately that the Israeli government not only allowed but encouraged the company to continue selling its software to Saudi Arabia, even after the murder of Khashoggi. The Post has raised questions about NSO’s relationship with Israel’s government, citing speculation in the US intelligence community that the company may share some of the information it collects with Israeli security agencies. 

But the involvement of the Israeli government in the NSO saga is not limited to the licensing of a private corporation’s sales, or even to the possible use of its data, gathered through the company’s contracts with brutal regimes. The NSO group, like many Israeli “high-tech” outfits, was founded—and is likely largely staffed—by individuals who came through the Israeli military’s Unit 8200, which is responsible for intelligence collection and surveillance, or in other words, for cyber espionage. The investigation has failed to fully comprehend this link, or to understand the unique advantages that the Israeli military enjoys when it comes to the creation of surveillance tools. Most Western-allied, technologically advanced states are confronted with limits on how military and intelligence technology can be deployed against—and thus developed on—the populations over which they exert control, which usually consist of citizens whose civil liberties are guaranteed by law. That isn’t to say that those liberties are never violated. But Israel’s situation is fundamentally different: With an occupied and stateless population of Palestinians under its rule, to which it has granted no citizenship rights or civil liberties, Israel is free to develop, test, and perfect its surveillance technology on millions of unwilling subjects. 

So how did Israel, a small country running a military occupation, become the premier facilitator of transnational repression through cyber-espionage technology? The answer most likely involves the $3.8 billion a year that Israel receives in US military financing. Though the US Foreign Military Financing program generally requires that participating countries use the money they receive to buy weapons from US manufacturers—the idea being that US taxpayers’ money should be spent with US suppliers—Israel, the sole exception to this rule, is allowed to spend around 25% of its allotment on its own military industry. Since this “off-shore procurement” exception for Israel began in 1984, American taxpayers have pumped billions of dollars into the Israeli military industry. Partly as a result, Israel has become the largest per capita arms exporter in the world—and no small part of those exports fall into the category of military intelligence. Between 2016 and 2020, Israel was eighth on the list of global arms exporters despite ranking around 30th in GDP and 100th in population. 

Israel’s prowess in the arms trade is also made possible by the tight relationship between the state’s military intelligence industry and its military intelligence forces, a relationship largely fostered by Unit 8200. Haaretz has reported that 80% of the founders involved in establishing Israel’s 700 local cyber companies “belong to the exclusive club created in the IDF’s intelligence units, notably Unit 8200.” A former leader of Unit 8200 stated it plainly: “This correlation between serving in the intelligence Unit 8200 and starting successful high-tech companies is not coincidental: Many of the technologies in use around the world and developed in Israel were originally military technologies and were developed and improved by Unit veterans.”

What methods of surveillance has Unit 8200 developed in order to surveil Palestinians? The public received a rare glimpse of these practices in 2014, when 43 former members of the unit refused reserve duty, citing the abuses they witnessed as soldiers in a statement they released at the time. “The Palestinian population under military rule is completely exposed to espionage and surveillance by Israeli intelligence,” they wrote. This surveillance, they continued, “is used for political persecution and to create divisions within Palestinian society by recruiting collaborators and driving parts of Palestinian society against itself.” The statement’s authors told The Guardian, which reported on the defections, that there were “no rules” governing the surveillance of Palestinians. As one soldier elaborated in testimony to The Guardian, “Any Palestinian may be targeted and may suffer from sanctions such as the denial of permits, harassment, extortion, or even direct physical injury . . . Any information that might enable extortion of an individual is considered relevant information. Whether said individual is of a certain sexual orientation, cheating on his wife, or in need of treatment in Israel or the West Bank—he is a target for blackmail.” Another signatory told The Guardian that he decided to refuse reserve duty “when I realised that what I was doing was the same job that the intelligence services of every undemocratic regime are doing.” 

Now, Israeli intelligence products are quite literally performing surveillance work for other undemocratic regimes around the world, and ties built and cemented with arms and intelligence deals are embedding Israel in the very center of a global authoritarian axis. This is another clear reminder that what happens in Palestine doesn’t stay in Palestine. The abuses of the Israeli state against Palestinians—in which US taxpayers are complicit—have consequences around the world.

Yousef Munayyer is head of the Palestine/Israel Program and senior fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC. He also serves as a member of the editorial committee of the Journal of Palestine Studies and was previously executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights.