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New NSO spyware scandal triggers alarm 'Israeli democracy closer than ever to demise'

A woman checks the website of Israel-made Pegasus spyware at an office in the Cypriot capital Nicosia on July 21, 2021. - Reports that Israel-made Pegasus spyware has been used to monitor activists, journalists and politicians around the world highlight the diplomatic risks of nurturing and exporting "oppressive technology", experts warned. Private Israeli firm NSO Group has denied media reports its Pegasus software is linked to the mass surveillance of journalists and rights defenders, and insisted that all sales of its technology are approved by Israel's defence ministry. (Photo by Mario GOLDMAN / AFP) (Photo by MARIO GOLDMAN/AFP via Getty Images)
The website of Israel-made Pegasus spyware at an office on July 21, 2021 [MARIO GOLDMAN/AFP via Getty Images]

Critics of Israel have long maintained that the occupation state's claim to being "the only democracy in the Middle East" is a deceitful fabrication, peddled to score political points in the West. Insisting Israel is far from being a democracy, they would point to the seemingly never-ending occupation, and the countless human rights violations that inevitably follow, in trying to keep millions of people, who happened to be of a different race, under political subjugation. They also cite human rights group and the UN, who have concluded that far from being a democracy Israel is, in fact, an apartheid state.

Some, nevertheless, continue to insist that at least within the Green Line, Israel is a democracy, even though it may be hanging by a thread. However, new revelations and years of chipping away at civil liberties have swept away the hopeful optimism of Israel's soft critics.

A recent case in point is an opinion piece by Einav Schiff in Ynet News which argued that Israeli democracy is "closer than ever to demise." A senior journalist at Yedioth Aharonot, Schiff cited the latest scandal in Israel involving the NSO spyware. Israeli police reportedly used the Pegasus spyware to hack phones of civilians, including anti-Netanyahu protesters and mayors. Apparently, such violations of civil liberties have been going on for years.

A report in the Israeli daily business newspaper, Calcalist, found that a former Shin Bet official was the first to make massive use of the spyware system to target Israeli citizens. The police is said to have first bought the spyware in 2013, and it has since been used to target protest leaders, politicians and many others.

The NSO Group has been mired in scandal after scandal. It was accused of supplying technology to foreign governments to maliciously target government officials. In July, a global investigation by the Washington Postthe GuardianLe Monde and other news outlets reported that Pegasus spyware has been used to monitor human rights defenders, journalists and politicians around the world.

READ: How Israel's 'Facebook Law' plans to control all Palestinian content online

Schiff asserts that the "alleged use of Pegasus malware against civilians is a nightmare come true." He describes the NSO scandal as an example of the "latest irresponsible corporate interests working hand in hand with a corrupt institution proving Israel is much more like its neighbours than it seems."

Discussion about the death of democracy in Israel, Schiff says, is routine. "Over the last decade, and particularly during the political turmoil of the last couple of years (both in Israel and around the world), the fear of 'the end of democracy' has become an involuntary reflex," writes Schiff.

Israeli citizens, argued Schiff, were being given the Palestinian treatment without any consideration to due process and the rule of law. "Is it really that surprising to hear that the former deputy director of the Shin Bet did not see fit to waste his time on gathering evidence or legitimate investigations when he could simply use tactics taken out the Palestinians' playbook against Israeli civilians?" he said.

Schiff's warning to Israeli citizens was that the tools and technology deployed in keeping Palestinians subjugated would be directed at them. "This is what they mean by 'occupation'" says Schiff. "It creeps from one place to the other, not out of sight, but out of mind, until it gets to your phone."

The biggest story, as far as Schiff is concerned, is the "cooperation" between the state and private sector to spy on Israeli citizens. When the NSO scandal broke, Israel deflected responsibility and criticism by maintaining, what now appears to be clear fiction, that the NSO group was a rogue private entity.

"The real drama here," says Schiff "is not the inevitable clash between corporate sector and state, but the cooperation between them," which he claims "has the biggest potential to truly bring 'the end of democracy.'"

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