The phones of four foreign staff members of one of the largest international NGOs in the occupied Palestinian territories are reportedly being used by a Palestinian agency that subcontracted with the Russians to spy on Israel’s political and military leaders, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and a group of nine human rights organizations said Thursday.
The researchers allege that Fideos, a Palestinian diplomatic organization that promotes the Palestinian Authority in the international community, used Russian President Vladimir Putin’s own cyber division to intercept text messages and phone calls to provide information about the independence candidate in recent Palestinian elections.
“This report has a chilling message for civil society groups in the West Bank: Don’t fight against Israel’s occupation,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement. “If you do, Israel’s security services will monitor your work, break your phone, and harass you with bogus charges.”
The researchers alleged that the organization, which was reportedly hired by the Palestinian Authority to gain access to the internal workings of its political party, financed by international donors including the United States, and using Russian intelligence and cyber expertise, intentionally infiltrated any organization outside their network to spy on Palestinian political activists and candidates, HRW and the other organizations said.
The organizations also allege that Fideos used a hacking tool called Pegasus, used to gather information about the international community and its civil society bodies.
“This is a new kind of secret war,” said HRW’s documentarian, Bual Joumana, in a statement. “It is one where the targets don’t even know they are being secretly monitored or recorded. It is one where citizens and organizations don’t even know how their computers are being tracked.”
In a response to the report, Russian government spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Russia does not support the use of such spy tools and that the espionage service at its embassy in Israel does not possess these capabilities. Peskov did not respond to calls for further clarification of the Fideos contract with Russia and Moscow’s plans for collaboration with Fideos.
“In spite of the attempts by Russian security services and subcontractors to conceal the fact that the data is used under false names and materials – produced by their internal teams – they are relying on extremely sophisticated methods and carrying out espionage against Israeli officials and others on Israeli territory,” the report said.
The report included four cases cited by the researchers in which Fideos broke the law and asked Israeli officials to prosecute the staff members: Tala Halaby, a Palestinian human rights activist who used his phone to email information about efforts against a Palestinian terrorist; Ajwan Abu Musa, an independent journalist who was arrested by Israeli forces after posting on Facebook that he was being arrested; Basem al-Sheikh, a court interpreter who was the victim of a smear campaign that circulated false information about his background and wanted by the Shin Bet; and, most recently, Odeh Hamdan, who was awarded the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) Award for Courage for publicly criticizing Hamas.
They further alleged that Fideos used the Russian government’s embassy in Israel, which is not an official diplomatic mission under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, to procure credentials for Tala Halaby and that foreign diplomats from other countries whose embassies it directly deals with tried to hire the same Russian mobile intercept technology.
The report notes that Fideos has several subsidiaries, which are registered with the Palestinian Authority, but which may be foreign-owned and foreign-funded. The Israeli Foreign Ministry was not immediately available for comment.
Fideos declined to comment but called the report one-sided and said HRW “misrepresented” its work and added that no material from the organization was used by Fideos to prepare and publish the report.