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Israeli police have illegally used Pegasus malware to hack the phones of dozens of prominent figures including Benjamin Netanyahu’s son, according to new reports.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett vowed government action would be taken as the country’s privacy scandals thickens.
The latest bombshell from business daily Calcalist alleged that Pegasus was used against a son of former premier Benjamin Netanyahu, Avner, and his advisors, as well as activists, senior government officials, businessmen and others.
Calcalist had previously reported that the controversial malware, which can turn a phone into a pocket spying device, was used by police against leaders of an anti-Netanyahu protest movement.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett vowed government action would be taken as the country’s privacy scandals thickens. Pictured: Benjamin Netanyahu with his sons Avner (right) and Yair (left)
Hours after Monday’s report emerged, Bennett vowed that his government ‘won’t leave this without a response’.
‘The reports apparently describe a very grave situation that is unacceptable in a democracy,’ Bennett said.
He added: ‘These cyber tools were designed to fight terrorism and serious crime, not be used against citizens. We will see to a transparent, in-depth and quick inquiry because all of us – citizens of the State of Israel, government ministers and all establishments – deserve answers.’
As Bennett pledged action, Minister for Public Security Omer Barlev, who oversees the police, said he would seek authorisation for a government commission of inquiry.
Barlev said that, if approved, the probe would be led by a retired judge who would question anyone necessary in the political, legal and security system to uncover ‘violations of civil rights and privacy’.
Pegasus is a malware product made by the Israeli firm NSO at the centre of a months-long international scandal following revelations that it was used by governments worldwide to spy on activists, politicians, journalists and even heads of state.
Bennett (pictured) said: ‘These cyber tools were designed to fight terrorism and serious crime, not be used against citizens. We will see to a transparent, in-depth and quick inquiry because all of us – citizens of the State of Israel, government ministers and all establishments – deserve answers’
Israel had come under fire for allowing the export of the invasive technology to states with poor human rights records, but the Calcalist reports have unleashed domestic outrage.
President Isaac Herzog suggested the credibility of key Israeli institutions was at stake.
‘We must not lose our democracy. We must not lose our police. And we must certainly not lose public trust in them. This requires an in-depth and thorough investigation,’ Herzog said.
Calcalist said dozens of people were targeted who were not suspected of criminal conduct, and without police receiving the necessary court approval.
They include senior leaders of the finance, justice and communication ministries, supermarket magnate Rami Levy, mayors, Ethiopian-Israelis who led protests against alleged police misconduct and former Netanyahu advisors Topaz Luk and Jonatan Urich.
Avner Netanyahu, one of the premier’s sons, was also on the list. ‘I truly am shocked,’ he wrote on Facebook.
In another revelation set to rock Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial, Calcalist reported that key witness Ilan Yeshua, former chief executive of the Walla news site, was a target.
Netanyahu is accused of seeking to trade regulatory favours with media moguls in exchange for favourable coverage, including on Walla. He denies the charges.
His lawyers on Monday demanded the trial be halted until the latest revelations were probed.
The trial also suffered a blow last week when multiple Israeli broadcasters reported that police may have used spyware on Shlomo Filber, a former Netanyahu ally turned state witness.
Those reports, which Netanyahu described as an ‘earthquake’, did not mention Pegasus.
Pegasus is a surveillance programme that can switch on a phone’s camera or microphone and harvest its data.
NSO has consistently denied wrongdoing throughout the multi-stranded Pegasus scandal, stressing that it does not operate the system once sold to clients and has no access to any of the data collected.