Israel; Friend or Foe

Let us make it clear that we will never turn our backs on our steadfast friends in Israel, whose adherence to the democratic way must be admired by all friends of freedom.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy1959

Israel has become a nation synonymous with freedom and democracy, particularly in the Middle East, since its foundation in 1948. By and large, it does function as a democratic state, however, this does not tell the full story of this complex country. There are numerous examples of cosying up to tyrannical regimes when it suits them and sometimes betraying their so-called allies.

International diplomacy can often come across as nations behaving like squabbling children, but even by these standards, Israel’s actions are underhanded and, at times, downright criminal. These may seem like unfair brushstrokes to begin with and perhaps they are, but let’s get into some examples. We don’t have to look back further than the very recent past.

Apple issued a statement urging its customers to download the latest security patch as a flaw was uncovered that allowed NSO Pegasus Spyware to infect iPhones, iPads, Apple Watch and Mac computers. The flaw was discovered this week by Canada’s Citizen Lab but there are already reports of this security weakness being used to infiltrate the mobile phones, including of members of Bahrain’s Wa’ad.

Before we go any further, it’s important to understand what this software is and what it was claimed to be designed for. In their own words; “NSO creates technology that helps government agencies prevent and investigate terrorism and crime to save thousands of lives around the globe.” They go on to further add; “Terrorists, drug traffickers, paedophiles, and other criminals have access to advanced technology and are harder to monitor, track, and capture than ever before.

“The world’s most dangerous offenders communicate using technology designed to shield their communications, while government intelligence and law-enforcement agencies struggle to collect evidence and intelligence on their activities.”

While I don’t think any rational person would dispute that these are good and even necessary intentions there is now, strong evidence to suggest that rather than this software being used to unearth ‘bad guys’ it’s being used to suppress democratic activists around the world.

Where Did It Start?

A number of organisations around the world have come together to investigate NSO, and they include The Guardian, Le Monde, Süddeutsche Zeitung, The Washington Post, Haaretz and many others contributed over 80 journalists and studied NSO over a number of months. Their findings are startling. According to Forbidden Stories; “contrary to what NSO Group has claimed for many years, including in a recent transparency report, this spyware has been widely misused. The leaked data showed that at least 180 journalists have been selected as targets in countries like India, Mexico, Hungary, Morocco and France, among others. Potential targets also include human rights defenders, academics, business people, lawyers, doctors, union leaders, diplomats, politicians and several heads of states.”

Some of the countries involved a true rogue’s gallery of international affairs. The list includes bastions of freedom and democracy such as Azerbaijan, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Hungary and India. Just to illustrate where these countries fall in terms of freedom of expression and just general freedom their standings in the Reporters Sans Frontieres 2021 World Press Freedom Index and the Freedom House Freedom in the World Report.

The World Freedom Report combines the scores of a nation’s political rights and civil liberties to give its overall scores. The RSF index ranks countries from 1-180 based on their freedom, 1 being the best. To give some context, Ireland is ranked 12th on the press index and has a score of 97 on the freedom index, which is very high.

The Abraham Accords and Other Dodgy Dealings

As mentioned before, none of these countries are bastions of democracy and freedom, but it is much worse than that, they are actively trying to prevent freedom of expression. Before we delve into that a bit more, it’s important to realise the role of the Israeli Government in all this. The Israeli Ministry of Defence is allowing the sale of this spyware and has to approve every order to governments around the world, usually ones it has a good relationship with. As stated by the Israeli daily Calcalist; “The Israeli Ministry of Defense allows the NSO to sell the Pegasus only to governments, not to business entities, because intrusion or takeover of mobile devices is an illegal act in reformed countries. The Ministry of Defense does not approve sales to any country, and it tends to approve defence exports only to countries with normal security relations with Israel. But the Ministry of Defense is less preoccupied with internal human rights issues in those countries, so there is certainly a possibility that in the end, Israeli technologies (not necessarily those of the NSO) will be used by foreign governments to violate their citizens’ rights.

“Moreover, the Ministry of Defense, and certainly the companies developing the systems, do not have the ability to track and know where the said technologies are later rolling. The countries that purchase security products from Israel undertake that these products will be used for national purposes – maintaining public order, fighting terrorism, and so on – but there is no way of knowing where the technology will go.”

It may seem fair to argue the point that the Israeli Government, or its Ministry of Defence in this case, could not possibly know or track how this technology is going to be used. However, looking at the track of these countries, it is obvious how it will be used and on whom.

A Safer Middle East?

The Abraham Accord denotes a “full normalisation of relations” between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. Since the foundation of Israel as a country, relations between itself and its Arab Muslim neighbours have been fraught, mainly due to the continued subjugation and annexation of Palestine. This uneasy tension has led to outright violence in some circumstances, like the Six-Day War, the Yom Kippur War and the Lebanon Civil War. If it was a case of the countries in the Middle East finding ‘common ground’ and leading a peaceful existence I don’t think any rational person would complain. The opposite actually. Is that the full story though?

Even the Saudis, under the direction of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, are cosying up to the Israelis even if they deny it. There is enough evidence to suggest there may be a normalisation of relations here, too as reported by The Brookings Institute. But bin Salman himself is a major issue.

When becoming the Crown Prince of the Arab Kingdom in 2017, bin Salman was lauded as a moderniser. Backing initiatives like Saudi Vision 2030 and bringing in reforms that loosened the strict control over women, he looked like the visionary the Kingdom needed and one the rest of the world would welcome. In the meantime, he seems to have gone out of his way to destroy that early goodwill bestowed upon him.

There is the continued war in Yemen, –leading to a massive cholera outbreak that goes unabated– the severing of ties with Qatar, the bizarre kidnapping of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri (I can’t believe more was not made about this in the media) and then the major PR clusterfuck; the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Although the Crown Prince has denied involvement in this assassination, it is hard to imagine he didn’t at least know of it in advance given the level of power he has over Saudi Arabia in light of his father’s continued health issues. And guess what. Pegasus may have been involved, too. His fiancée’s phone was hacked and also those of his close family members. This may have given the Saudi hit squad valuable information on his whereabouts and his plans.

Azerbaijan

Already mentioned was Bahrain’s Wa’ad Party members, but Azerbaijan is another good example. The Aliyev’s have created something of a dynasty. Ilham Aliyev, he of Pandora Paper fame, was elected president in 2003 after his father died in a highly contentious election with many observers claiming it was rigged. His father, Heydar, was president from 1993 to 2003. Both men have been described as authoritarians. Not the most pleasant, no doubt.

It’s probably no surprise that rumours of corruption are widespread with allegations of money going missing from the Azerbaijani central bank going missing the Aliyev family owning millions in international property, particularly in Dubai, including Ilham’s then 11-year-old son owning waterfront mansions worth $44million.

And this is where Khadija Ismayilova comes in. She has been a thorn in the side of the powers-that-be in Baku. She has repeatedly highlighted their corruption and wrongdoings. How did they respond? They placed cameras in her home and filmed her being intimate with her then-boyfriend. They sent footage of this to her brother. When their tactics didn’t work they released the footage online for all to see. Their ploy backfired and all it did was bring more attention to the corruption they caused.  They eventually arrested her on trumped-up charges. She was released on bail and then moved to Turkey. With all this in the public domain, her phone has been infected with Pegasus spyware since 2019. The rest of her story can be read here.

Ilham Aliyev President of Azerbaijan

 Cecilio Pineda Birto

Cecilio Pineda Birto was a Mexican journalist killed in cold blood in 2017. He was murdered in Ciudad Altmirano in the Tierra Caliente region. Only hours previously he had accused local politicians of colluding with the local cartel. His phone was targeted by a Mexican client of NSO, like 26 other Mexican journalists between 2016-17. Although NSO deny any involvement in his death, and the cartel may have known of his whereabouts through other means, it’s also very possible it’s through the Israeli spyware they found out his location given the level of corruption Birto was reporting on. So, why is this company, and by extension, the Israeli Government, dealing with such corrupt and anti-democratic characters? Does Israel really support democracy?

The EU

Europe isn’t immune to this spyware either. As already mentioned, the Hungarian Government are a customer of NSO. Even high-ranking members of the European political class are not immune from these hacks. Emmanuel Macron is one of many victims. This software was developed to combat criminals and terrorists. Is Macron a criminal or a terrorist? Okay, don’t answer that. With that in mind, it’s no wonder politicians like MEP Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield wants measures taken against those that use Pegasus.

Harsh Criticism?

This all may seem a little unfair. Perhaps it’s just a once-off. But Israeli has a history of underhanded tactics, sometimes even on its supposed allies. Just ask the crew of the USS Liberty. The Liberty was a US spy ship patrolling international waters at the time of the 6 Day War, the conflict between Israel and Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq in 1967. The Israeli military carried out an unprovoked attack which resulted in the deaths of 34 US servicemen being murdered and over 170 being injured. It could be a case of mistaken identity or an accident but there are a number of aspects that make this really troubling. It’s important to recognise this was a spy and not a warship so the crew were virtually defenceless. Their life rafts were attacked in the water and even those still on board were destroyed so they could not be used. It’s hard to believe those conducting the attack did not know it was an ally vehicle given it had an American flag, American insignia and freshly painted US military markings. Also, the incident went on for two hours, it’s difficult to believe that nobody realised it was not an enemy ship.

 In the aftermath, both the US and Israelis launched investigations which both came to the same conclusion; it was an accident. The Israelis apologised and even gave out compensation to the victims. However, the surviving members believe it was a deliberate attack and there is more than enough evidence to support those claims. The link below highlights many of these;

The Lavon Affair

The Lavon Affair is a really troubling episode in Israel’s history. The Israelis contacted a number of Egyptian Jews with the hope they would carry out a number of terrorist attacks in the name of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood or Egyptian Communists, essentially a False Flag Operation. The goal of Operation Susannah as it was known was to unsettle affairs between the Egyptians and the US and Britain to bring the latter back into the fold and stall their withdrawal from the Suez Canal. The operatives carried out a number of attacks that underlined their amateur status and resulted in no deaths. Unsurprisingly, the authorities in Cairo uncovered the operation and arrested those involved. The fiasco led to the resignation of Israel’s Defence Minister Pinhas Lavon, hence the name.

Pinhas Lavon

A Nuclear Power?

Something like having nuclear capabilities is obviously important, but Israel’s stance on this is deliberately murky. They have an official policy of neither confirming or denying whether they have nuclear weapons. In fact, they have a policy of “counter-proliferation” which is aimed to prevent any of their neighbours from obtaining nuclear weapon-making capabilities, including Syria and Iraq. And this might give some insight into the use of a tool like Pegasus. Any information they can get on nuclear weaponry, or weapons in general, is invaluable to the Israeli intelligence community. Are they the only nuclear power in the Middle East? The case of Mordechai Vanunu would suggest that’s the case.

 Irish Passports

None of these actions involve Ireland though, so why mention any of it? Well, that’s not strictly true. In 2010, the murder of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai caused an international scandal. The member of a group linked to Hamas is widely believed to be assassinated by Mossad. Not only is it a big deal by itself, add in the element of this taking place in a country that is neither Israel or Palestine. Add into this the passports used by the supposed assassins. They used British, French, German and Australian passports. And Irish. All these countries are either allies or enjoy friendly relations with Israel. So why jeopardise this? The UK and Australia carried out investigations and found Israel was behind the murder. Israel has neither confirmed or denied this. Have we heard this before?

Only Israel?

On a recent podcast I was listening to about the build up to the Invasion of Iraq, one of the contributors was a man named Bill Murray. Not that Bill Murray. He was a former CIA spy and often used fake Irish passports to traverse the globe without suspicion. So, it’s not just the Israelis then. In fact, in the murky world of espionage and international diplomacy, most countries have blood on their hands. The Brits and French carved up the world in a way that is still creating tensions in the world, the CIA carried out experiments on their own people and the US has a long history of toppling governments they simply don’t agree with, many of them democratically elected, or just supported despot regimes. Viewed in this light, Israel is far from the worst in this rogue’s gallery, but their wrongdoing deserves highlighting nonetheless.

Of course, it might be stating the obvious, but Israel’s actions must be viewed through the history of the Jewish diaspora. Most notably, and shockingly, Hitler tried to eradicate the European Jews. Truly humanity’s most shameful moment. But the Jewish have a long history of persecution going back past Roman Times, including the Babylonian Exile.  However, there is something in recent history that is nearly as troubling as these events and that’s anti-Semitism in so-called progressive Western nations. We saw waves of anti-Jewish sentiment amongst Donald Trump supporters at his rallies, but this is not a one-off in US history. Famously, the Ku Klux Klan are notoriously anti-Semitic as well as the America First Committee in the early 40s. In Britain, Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists had clear hatred of Jewish people in pre-war Britain. So, even amongst its allies, Jewish people suffered a huge amount of discrimination and hatred. Imagine living in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv or Haifa; can you look at these nations and trust them knowing the ‘wrong’ person might be elected and bring in anti-Semitic policies?

The State

“What Einstein, Oppenheimer, and Teller, the three of them are Jews, made for the United States, could also be done by scientists in Israel, for their own people”


David Ben Gurion

None of this is to say the state of Israel shouldn’t exist. Of course, it should, but while it is a state, it should act like one. I do have grave reservations about how Israel was founded and what it has done since then, especially in relation to their Palestinian neighbours, but that said, Jewish people are deserving of a permanent home. If any group of people know this is it’s the Jewish. And it’s because of this need and their often brutal history that may explain some of the paranoid behaviour of the government, military and intelligence services to perceived threats. As mentioned earlier, Israel is far from the only country doing shady shit, but when they do it should be highlighted. Welcome to international diplomacy.

Questions

Let us know, what your thoughts are on Israel; Friend or Foe?

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