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  last edited: Tue, 18 Jan 2022 22:33:47 +0200   
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Police Using Pegasus Spyware Against Israelis Shows: NSO Is an Arm of the State
Not only has Israel used the offensive cyber firm for its foreign relations, but a new report shows its law enforcement and defense agencies have used it for their own needs, too — all with minimal legal oversight

At the time, Israel's Shin Bet security service was making a great effort to exempt itself from the dubious mission the government had imposed on it: Using sophisticated cellphone traffic tracking systems (also known as the “tool”) to trace contacts between people infected with the virus and those they could have infected.

Former Shin Bet director Nadav Argaman really didn’t like his agency being inserted into what was an expressly non-security mission, and Bennett thought he had found a replacement. The offensive cyber company NSO Group offered to the then-defense minister – and today’s prime minister – that the firm take over the huge project.

Luckily, there were those who blocked the daft proposal. Argaman, a man of the dark security organizations, turned out in this affair to be more of an enlightened democrat than most of his superiors in government. Like Bennett, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked also viewed NSO’s employees as the good guys. She even had a personal friend among its top management.

Other politicians, led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, found a much more effective use for NSO. Over the past few years, a general campaign of Israeli cyber diplomacy has been launched. In places where Netanyahu and Israel's intelligence agencies forged new paths and found new friends, mostly with autocratic regimes, NSO came along as a bonus. Its most advanced spyware product, Pegasus, found its way into the hands of friends, some of whom rushed to put it into action in clear violation of its mission.

While the software was used against terrorists and pedophiles, as promised, it seems that it was also exploited to spy on journalists, human rights activists and government opponents in many countries — from Eastern Europe through the Persian Gulf and across the developing world.

'We’re on the U.S. blacklist because of you': The dirty clash between Israeli cyberarms makers
When the Shin Bet's "tool" was put into operation to monitor the spread of COVID, many – including in several articles in this newspaper – warned of a slippery slope. After a government authorizes its intelligence services to use technology to map where millions of citizens are at any given moment, it inches much closer to using the same tracking methods on people whom it doesn’t like very much.

We must remember the times we are talking about: Netanyahu was prime minister because of a dirty trick he played, in which he split Kahol Lavan and joined up with Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, in violation of the promises they made to their voters. The coronavirus regulations forbade citizens from going more than 100 meters from their homes, and the protest movement that demanded Netanyahu’s resignation started to gain steam. The risk of the government appropriating the technology to track the organizers of the demonstrations against the country's lockdown policies or the legitimacy of the government seemed real.

Now it has been revealed that this fear materialized indirectly, and not through the Shin Bet. This was exposed on Tuesday in an investigative report by journalist Tomer Ganon in Calcalist, Yedioth Ahronoth’s business daily. According to Ganon, who seems to have based his reporting on a large amount of information and a great deal of checking up – the Israel Police used NSO’s Pegasus software to break into the cellphones of mayors, someone close to a senior politician, and even the leaders of the "Black Flag" protest movement, which called for Netanyahu’s resignation. In other words, the police, using the flimsy excuse of protecting public order, tracked the previous prime minister’s political rivals and exposed their protest plans.

The story reveals a true moral eclipse, which lasted for a while. The response from Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev, and the silence – at least for now – on Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar's part, show neither minister grasps the severity of the matter. A thorough investigation is needed, not vague statements.

The police discovered that cyber break-ins to cellphones were much more effective for them, according to Ganon. Instead of installing wiretaps (signal intelligence eavesdropping) on specific phone numbers and tracking phone calls, they began to spread their fishing nets much wider – by breaking into the phones themselves and monitoring everything that passed through them – in a manner that allowed them to extract unlimited information.

There is another major difference: As far as it is known, all this was done without the approval and oversight of a judge, as is required when installing a wiretap. All of this was hidden from the targets of the monitoring, including from those charged and their lawyers.

Police have vehemently denied many details in the investigation, chief among them the claim that it acted without the approval of judges. This expansive, unrestrained approach by the police was discovered in other investigations, too – by the way – such as in the unbearable ease in which it rummaged through the cellphones of Netanyahu’s advisers.

In an initial probe ordered by Bar-Lev, police said they identified seven of the nine cases reported in the article, though their details differ from the way they were described in the report. The police claim that in some of the cases there was no cyber surveillance, while in other specific instances the monitoring was approved in advance by a judge, as is required by law.

Bar-Lev tends to believe the police examination, but will request additional details. However, if it's proven otherwise, people close to the minister believe, it may turn out to be the start of an epic scandal for Israel's police force.

The police are also examining the possibility that in certain cases, the use of the software was permitted for the purpose of finding the location of suspects, and that perhaps someone used it extensively, without a permit.

In light of the discoveries piling up on the use of Pegasus by dark regimes around the world, NSO is now viewed as a sort of poisonous brand. It is unclear whether the company will survive this crisis, which is certainly encouraging many of its employees to consider other job opportunities. But Gonen’s investigation also reinforces another suspicion: NSO is part of the very heart and soul of the Israeli establishment.

Not only has the government made use of the offensive cyber firm for its foreign relations – Israel's law enforcement authorities, and certainly its defense establishment, has used it for their own needs, too. And all of this was carried out with minimum legal oversight.

Paradoxically, it is possible that the report in Calcalist will even indirectly help the company. NSO – which in its official response to the newspaper report denies, as usual, any knowledge of the nature of the use made of its products – certainly has a lot more information about the methods used not only by the police, but also by other security organizations, while using NSO’s products.

If the company does collapse in the end, under the pressure of the sanctions and investigations coming from the United States and other countries, it will have repercussions for government bodies in Israel, too, and Israel’s international relations. A magnificent final battle is to be expected, which will only come with a great many more casualties.

Mahmoud opened the door to find Israeli troops pointing guns at him. Then the violence escalated
Gideon Levy, Alex Levac - 10 minutes

Mahmoud Opened the Door to Find Israeli Troops Pointing Guns at Him. Then the Violence Escalated
IDF soldiers invaded a Palestinian home to take a young man to meet a Shin Bet agent. He was released, but meanwhile, four of his relatives were hospitalized after being beaten or suffering shock

The three brothers, from left to right:Ahmed, Mohammed and Mahmoud.
The three brothers, from left to right:Ahmed, Mohammed and Mahmoud.Credit: Alex Levac
The Israel Defense Forces acting as a subcontractor for the Shin Bet security service. That’s the situation when a Shin Bet agent wants to meet with a young Palestinian man: A force of 20 soldiers is sent to his home after midnight, they wake up the whole family, throw 15 people into a small room, where they are left for several hours, pummel a few of them with rifles and fists, and kick them when they collapse. The wanted young man is taken to meet the Shin Bet agent for an incredibly brief interrogation – for reasons never explained – and is then sent home. In the meantime, four family members need to be taken to the hospital in ambulances, after their beatings by the soldiers, and one is taken into custody until the conclusion of the proceedings against him – he has been accused of assaulting a soldier. All this to arrange a short meeting with a Shin Bet man.

“What was all that for?” – that is the question now being asked in this house, where some of the occupants are still in physical pain from the blows they were dealt by the troops. “You know, he could have been summoned by phone and he would have gone,” one member of the family says. But if a brutal nighttime raid can be mounted, why make do with a phone call? Just more proof of the fact that in the occupied territories the way of violence is the preferred modus operandi of the Shin Bet and the IDF. To be honest, it’s always the first option. A late-night invasion of someone’s home is apparently a good exercise for the troops, keeps them on their toes. It’s useful for demonstrating power and control over the area, and also good for breaking routine and dispelling boredom. The victims? Who’s counting?

The Salhab family lives in Qalqas, a small neighborhood of Hebron, adjacent to the settlement of Beit Haggai, on Highway 60, the main road in the West Bank. Qalqas consists of a few handsome stone homes in which the four Salhab brothers and their families live, all of them quite well-to-do and with good livelihoods. In the early morning hours between December 11 and December 12, soldiers raided the home of Mahmoud Salhab, 58, a father of eight, who teaches religious studies at Hebron’s Al-Hussein School. Six of the children still live with him and their mother, Nida, a 55-year-old teacher, in their two-story home; the youngest of them is 16.

Hebron, earlier this month.
Hebron, earlier this month.Credit: Hadas Parush
The soldiers were after Mahmoud and Nida’s son Anas, a 23-year-old agriculture student at Hebron University, where he’s a campus activist. In 2019 he was convicted of “performing services for an unlawful association” under Article 85 of the Defense (Emergency) Regulations, enacted by the British Mandate authorities in 1945. He was sent to prison for 14 months, or more accurately, jailed for political activity, and resumed his studies after his release, a year and a half ago.

In the wee hours of that Sunday, when everyone in the house was sleeping, loud pounding was heard. Soldiers were battering the steel door downstairs with their rifles. Mahmoud Salhab leaped out of bed and shouted that he was coming down right away to open the door, but the pounding didn’t let up. When he opened up, the soldiers aimed their rifles at him and ordered him to keep silent. He estimates that there were about 20 of them, and he remembers that some of them wore officers’ insignia. They ordered him into an empty room on the ground floor, which is tiled in blue flooring. The shouting woke his wife and children. They emerged from their rooms and were herded into the same room, which contains not so much as a chair to sit on.

The shouting in the house intensified, waking Mahmoud’s brothers, who live with members of their families a few dozen meters away; some of them came out to see what was going on. Anyone who emerged was also ordered into the room in Mahmoud’s house: They included his brother Mohammed, 55, a worker in a shoe factory, dressed in a brown robe; and Ahmed, 56, the owner of a Chevrolet garage located at the entrance to the family’s compound, who speaks fluent Hebrew as a result of having Jewish settler-clients. The brothers’ wives and a few of their children were also herded into the room. Almost everyone was in pajamas. All told, the soldiers crammed about 15 or 16 people into the cold, unfurnished room.

Ibrahim Salhab. When his uncle Mohammed asked the soldiers why they were hitting his nephew, they told him to shut up and began hitting him as well.
Ibrahim Salhab. When his uncle Mohammed asked the soldiers why they were hitting his nephew, they told him to shut up and began hitting him as well. Credit: Reproduction: Alex Levac
According to testimony from the family, the soldiers took Anas, the wanted person, into an adjacent room and started to beat him. They also pummeled 16-year-old Ibrahim, Anas’ youngest brother, who refused to obey the order to sit on the floor. Mohammed relates that when he entered the room, he saw soldiers hitting Ibrahim with their rifles and kicking him after he fell to the floor. When he asked why they were hitting his nephew, they told him to shut up and began hitting him as well.

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Then came the turn of Osama, 23, Ahmed’s son, to be brutalized, when he too resisted the soldiers’ order to sit on the floor. His father tried to protect him, but to no avail. About 10 of the troops present took part in battering his son, Ahmed tells us, when we visit earlier this week. After Osama collapsed, the soldiers dragged him down the stairs and out into the yard, leaving him there in the cold of the Hebron night. Mohammed also took a few rough rifle-butt blows to the ribs when he tried to come to his nephew’s aid – it would later be found that he suffered two broken ribs. He still groans with pain when he describes how the nightmarish incident unfolded to us and to Musa Abu Hashhash, a field researcher for the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem. Ahmed now needs a cane to get around.

Osama lost consciousness from the battering he took; his uncle Mohammed relates that he saw blood oozing from his head. An empty plastic aquarium crashed down on him as the soldiers dragged him out. Mohammed heard one of the soldiers say, “This one is dead, dead.” He shouted to the troops that they had to get Osama to a hospital immediately, but they told him to shut up. Osama’s mother, Nahala, 45, started to scream.

Osama at the hospital.
Osama at the hospital. Credit: Reproduction: Alex Levac
Neighbors summoned two Palestinian ambulances, but the soldiers initially refused to let them approach, and they remained out on the highway. The soldiers brought a stretcher for Osama into the yard. The members of the household say he lay on it for around 20 minutes before soldiers carried him to the roadside, where a military vehicle was parked. Ahmed tried repeatedly to get the soldiers to release his son so he could get him to a hospital, but they silenced him. “I told them, ‘My boy is dying, my boy is dying – give him to me so I can take him to a hospital!’”

Finally the soldiers relented and allowed Ahmed to take Osama to one of the two waiting ambulances, where he was given first aid. The ambulance was about to leave with Osama when the soldiers shouted, “Halt, halt! Don’t take him, he’s under arrest.” They ordered the youth to be removed from the Palestinian ambulance and transferred to an Israeli Magen David Adom ambulance that had in the meantime arrived at the scene.

Ahmed, distraught, called an Israeli Bedouin acquaintance and asked him to rush to Soroka Medical Center in Be’er Sheva, which was nearby, to find out what happened to Osama. An hour later the man called to say his son was alive. He had been examined, his head wound had been stitched up and he had been taken for interrogation to the police station in Kiryat Arba, the settlement that abuts Hebron, after which he was incarcerated in Ofer Prison near Ramallah.

Mohammed at the hospital.
Mohammed at the hospital. Credit: Reproduction: Alex Levac
A video clip shows Osama being led out of the hospital by two soldiers. He is wearing light pajamas, in full view of everyone. (His father later brought him clothes, while he was being interrogated in Kiryat Arba.) Ahmed says Osama was shivering from the cold, with five stitches in his head, and an injury to his leg from being kicked. Ahmed begged the police officers to release his son, because he had exams to take at university. To no avail.

The soldiers left the family compound around 3 A.M., several hours after arriving to execute – and succeeding in – their daring mission: taking Anas away to the Shin Bet offices at the Etzion facility. As soon as they left, the two Palestinian ambulances took four wounded members of the extended family to Princess Alia Governmental Hospital in Hebron. The casualties: Mohammed, with two broken ribs; Ibrahim and his cousin Amjad (one of Osama’s brothers), both of whom had been battered; and Asma, Osama’s 16-year-old sister, who was traumatized. Their cousin Maryam, Mohammed’s daughter, 20, was also in shock, but remained at home. Mohammed was the most seriously injured; he was hospitalized for two days and, as mentioned, has not yet fully recovered or returned to work since that night.

The others were discharged after a few hours; the wanted man, Anas, whose brief interrogation at Etzion triggered all the events, also returned home.

The soldiers confiscated all the kitchen knives in the house. There are still bloodstains on a wall of the room where the family was concentrated. The photos taken by the family after the soldiers left, and in the hospital, evoke a battlefield. Osama’s blood on the wall and on the floor. Osama in Soroka. Mohammed on a stretcher in Alia. The Palestinian ambulances with the four casualties. Osama’s blood on a letter that was in the room. Ibrahim on a stretcher, his eyes closed. Ibrahim and Mohammed on the floor of the house before being taken to the hospital.

Mohammed Salhab, left, with his brother Mahmoud. Photos taken by the family after the soldiers left, and in the hospital, evoke a battlefield.
Mohammed Salhab, left, with his brother Mahmoud. Photos taken by the family after the soldiers left, and in the hospital, evoke a battlefield.Credit: Alex Levac
The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit this week stated to Haaretz: “On December 12, 2021, operational activity took place to arrest a suspect on suspicion of involvement in terrorist activity, in the village of Qalqas which is under the jurisdiction of the Judea Territorial Brigade.

“During the arrest activity, some of the residents of the house in which the suspect lives physically interfered with the force’s operation. One of the residents resorted to violence, tried to pull the strap of a commander’s weapon and attacked the fighters. In response, the fighters took action to halt the assault, in the course of which the resident fell and was evacuated by the troops to receive medical treatment in a hospital.”

A week later, on December 19, Osama appeared in court before His Honor Judge Lt. Col. Shlomo Katz, according to the transcript. The prosecutor, Lt. Yaron Kanner, asked that Osama be remanded in custody until the conclusion of proceedings against him. “Even though this was not a planned event, but spontaneous,” Kanner said, “the circumstances surrounding the incident are extremely grave. It was not just a matter of shoving or of minor violence, but an attack on a soldier with serious violence, including fists, hitting the soldier on the head with a stool and other serious violence that went on for some time, and not a spontaneous, momentary outburst.”

The accused’s father was quoted in the minutes, saying, “I should prosecute them and not they us.”

Osama remains in custody.

Al Jazeera - (Monica Gill)

Western interference in India’s agricultural policies threatens to destroy small-scale farming and devastate farmers.

On November 19, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi repealed three contentious farm laws after more than a year of farmers’ protests. The legislation was meant to remove subsidies for farmers and price regulation on crops.

Supposedly designed to “modernise” the agricultural sector, these policies ultimately would have actually left millions of people without desperately needed government support, and at the mercy of the private sector and international corporations in an industry that is plagued with inequalities.

These harmful laws have been heavily influenced by Western countries who are willing to drive Indian farmers into poverty for their own capitalistic agendas. To prevent this, the Indian government must implement policies that can sustain a livelihood for farmers and reject these inauspicious designs from the West.

While the government was forced to reverse course, farmers in India still face significant challenges including a crisis of poverty and mounting debt driving many to suicide. At present, there are no government regulations regarding how much or how little a farmer can earn.

Current subsidies help farmers stay afloat, but it is still often impossible to turn a profit given the high cost of production against the low prices for which crops are sold. Farmers are now asking that the government implement regulations that prevent crops from being sold below real input costs and guarantee a reasonable profit for farms.

One solution would be for the Indian government to legislate a minimum support price (MSP) in its agricultural policy throughout the country, as it is currently available only in some states. Indian farmers are now pushing for MSP to be mandated to ensure that prices of their crops are set to a formula that will make farming sustainable for the small farmer and the price of crops affordable to the public.

So what is stopping the Indian prime minister from moving forward and implementing MSP? Besides his well-known closeness to the Indian corporate sector and tacit support for monopolies, he is also facing intense pressure from the World Trade Organization and countries such as Canada, the United States, and Australia.

During the past few decades, these Western countries have been pushing India to remove subsidies in its agricultural sector through the WTO. In 2018, the US claimed India underreported the MSP for wheat and rice. In 2019, both Canada and the US aggressively objected to the high level of MSP in India, which in WTO terminology is labelled as MPS, while Australia specifically criticised subsidies for sugarcane and made a formal complaint. In July 2020, Canada joined Paraguay accusing India of bringing up subsidies beyond permissible levels.

The WTO imposes regulations on farm produce within countries, as well as agrarian trade between countries, to promote free trade and restrict subsidies that create “market distortions”. It allows subsidies to go up to 5 percent of the value of production for developed nations and 10 percent for developing nations.

These policies, however, are based largely on the structure of the agricultural sector in rich Western countries where farm sizes tend to be large – 400 acres (162 hectares) in the US, for example. A 5 percent subsidy for such agrarian enterprises is more than enough.

By contrast, the average farm in India is around two acres (0.8 hectares). A 10 percent subsidy permitted by WTO is not enough for a farming family to survive. That is why some Indian states have implemented MSP as high as 50 percent of production costs for some crops. However, farmers have argued that the formula that state authorities use to calculate the MSP they offer often does not reflect the true costs that are incurred.

Furthermore, in their campaign against India, what the developed countries fail to recognise is that they offer other types of income support for their citizens, including farmers, which are not available in developing nations. In the US, for example, there are food stamps, welfare, spending cheques during economic downturns, unemployment benefits, social security and some health insurance to assist struggling families.

The infrastructure of developing nations simply does not support the creation of similar social policies. An Indian citizen cannot rely on any other support besides their primary income.

In the case of farmers, who make up around 60 percent of the Indian population, being at the mercy of the global market and local speculators without any kind of social or economic support can be devastating. This is why India has shockingly high rates of suicide among people dependent on farming.

Without a guaranteed minimum income, farmers cannot survive. Without MSP, the threat of small farms dying out is imminent. When this happens, where will foodstuffs come from? India will have to import – and here is where the interest of Canada, the US and Australia lies.

The South Asian nation with a population 1.3 billion is a highly lucrative market for these Western countries. To capture it, they seem to be perpetuating neocolonial policies, with the WTO serving as a new East India Company.

While for the West, agriculture might just be an economic sector, for India, it is much more. Indian farmers do not just produce the food their compatriots consume, but they are also closely connected to their land in their culture and personal lives. They call their farmland “mother” and see their relationship to it is that of kin – an “umbilical” bond that cannot be severed by politics.

While the West may not understand the cultural significance of farming, the Indian government does. There is no reason why it should follow failed Western agrarian policies and put Indian farmers at the mercy of imperialist nations or corporate greed.

Its job is to protect the Indian national interest which lies with the prosperity of Indian farmers. Adopting a national MSP would be a major step in this direction.