The Electronic Intifada Podcast 29 December 2021
As more human rights abuses inside Israel’s cyberwarfare industry were exposed, we talk about the technology itself and the Israeli military’s use of spyware that has been long field-tested on Palestinians.
“It’s not really about who this surveillance technology is being sold to,” says Tamara, “but whether such a technology should be able to exist in the first place.”
“Israel has always done this [surveillance], but it has greater tools to do this now,” Maureen adds.
We also reflect on our reporting during Israel’s May attacks on Gaza.
During the 11-day escalation, at least 260 Palestinians in Gaza were killed in Israeli strikes, including 66 children.
Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, inside Israel and at the boundaries with Lebanon and Syria, participated in unified resistance against Israeli colonialism and violence.
And Hamas’ armed wing displayed key advances in its resistance strategies.
Israel “didn’t know how to respond to this kind of national unity and power [of] the resistance, despite them not having the kind of military technology that Israel has,” Tamara says.
“And so it did things like bomb the Associated Press building, and the Al Jazeera building; it obliterated entire families in their homes, because that’s the only language it knows how to speak.”
Maureen explains that’s why “it’s up to people on the outside to organize more effectively, so that there is a cost on Israel – and to help change, as much as we can, that power equation. So [that] Israel can’t keep getting away with this like it does after each assault on Gaza.”
Articles we discussed
- “Israel’s cyberwarfare industry had a bad year,” Tamara Nassar
- “Could ICC try Palestinians as Israel gets away with murder?,” Maureen Clare Murphy
- “How Human Rights Watch favors Israel,” Maureen Clare Murphy
- “Podcast Ep 36: How Palestinian resistance defeated Israel,” EI Podcast
- “Terror designations promote tolerance of apartheid,” Maureen Clare Murphy
Lightly edited for clarity.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Welcome back to The Electronic Intifada Podcast. I’m Nora Barrows-Friedman with Asa Winstanley. It’s the end of the year, and we have a very special episode today.
Asa Winstanley: Yeah, we’re excited to be joined by our two colleagues, Maureen Murphy and Tamara Nassar to talk about some of the most important stories of 2021 from inside Palestine and from around the world. So yeah, that’s what we’re gonna talk about. A wrap-up of the year episode, and it’s great to have you both on.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Yeah, thanks for coming on, guys.
Maureen Murphy: Good to be with you both, and Tamara too.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: So we’re going to cover a lot of ground today. But I wanted to start by having Tamara talk about her new story, “Israel’s cyberwarfare industry had a bad year.” You write, “As more news of its role in human rights abuses surfaces, the company has been hammered with lawsuits from tech giants and US government sanctions. It may even be on the verge of collapse. But that does not mean Israel’s state-sponsored cyberwarfare and espionage industry would disappear with it.” And it’s such an important story, I think, and encapsulates a lot of what’s been happening in 2021. Tamara, for our listeners who may not have heard about the NSO Group and Israel’s surveillance apparatus, can you tell us what it is and the significance of this technology being, as you say, hammered with lawsuits and sanctions, especially by the US, one of Israel’s greatest supporters?
Tamara Nassar: Right, of course. NSO Group is an Israeli cyberwarfare firm that started in 2010. And it was founded by three members of something called Unit 8200. Unit 8200 is a high-tech surveillance branch of the Israeli military. It’s comparable to the NSA. It’s like the Israeli version of the American NSA. And this branch of the Israeli military specializes in spying on Palestinians in order to blackmail them. And there is this pipeline from Unit 8200 to Israel’s surveillance industry. A lot of its veterans go on to establish spy firms, private companies that sell this kind of malware. So NSO Group really started making headlines not really this year, but as early as 2016. It is best known for its signature cyber malware called Pegasus. And Pegasus is really one of the most sophisticated malwares known in the industry, at least from what we know. It allows those doing the spying to covertly install very sophisticated malware on the device of the targeted user. And once that malware is successfully installed, and of course, this can happen on iPhones and Androids, and other devices, but mostly mobile phones. It allows those doing the spying to extract a terrifying amount of data. This includes pictures, text messages, emails, passwords, you name it. It allows those doing the spying to control the device remotely. So turning on the camera …
Asa Winstanley: It becomes a weapon against its own user, doesn’t it? Because they can remotely control it, turn on the microphone, turn on the camera. Your own phone becomes a spying device against you.
Tamara Nassar: 100%. And you’re constantly feeding it information because it’s supposedly one of the most – you said it you said it best. Earlier versions of Pegasus were a bit different. They operated a bit differently. So when it was discovered, or when expert analysts first discovered Pegasus back in 2016. Those who were trying to install Pegasus on a targeted device would require the targeted user to kind of interact with a certain bait that they would send. So, for example, they would have to send the malware in the shape of a text containing a link. And they would design the text in a way that the targeted person would be lured enough to click on the link. And once they click on the link, they would hope that the malware successfully installs on the phone, and then it becomes compromised. Later versions of Pegasus did leave a trace, for example, in the form of a missed call on Skype or WhatsApp, but did not require the user to interact with a link or a text. And now some of the latest versions of Pegasus do not require the targeted user to interact with the malware at all. And it leaves absolutely no trace, it’s called a zero-click, zero-day target.
And what that means is that, you know, you would not notice really a significant change on your phone. The malware would be installed quickly and quietly on your phone, without it being immediately knowable that your phone was targeted. And one interesting detail that I haven’t seen reported a lot about Pegasus is that it also has the power to self-destruct on command. So basically, if those doing the spying become aware that the targeted user is somehow starting to become aware that their phone is infected, they can program Pegasus to destroy itself and therefore destroy all the evidence that it was on this targeted device. And it would make it even more difficult for expert analysts to find traces of Pegasus on the phone. So one of the earliest cases of Pegasus really infecting a phone, at least earliest known cases, or targeting a phone, not sure if it was infected actually, was the targeting of this Emirati-based opponent, human rights defender, his name is Ahmad Mansour. He was sent a text basically saying there’s new secrets about UAE torturing prisoners and he forwarded the text to Citizen Lab which is a research lab in Canada that has done good work and released some really good reports about NSO Group technology. And over the years, you know, these kinds of reports have been piling up.
All kinds of lawsuits and reports accusing NSO Group of – NSO Group’s technology of targeting journalists and human rights defenders and politicians and lawmakers, all sorts of people being targeted by NSO Group technology. And one of the high profile cases that was reported on was the link between Pegasus and the killing of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. It was revealed that’s the phone, the phone belonging to his one of his really close friends activist Omar Abdul Aziz, who’s a Saudi activist living in Canada and also the phone of his fiancee being infected by NSO Group [technology]. And, of course. this was starting, you know, to stir the pot for NSO Group, they started coming up with new human rights policy and transparency reports, trying to basically whitewash their record in human rights abuses. And they started even like appointing new senior advisers – and if you look at the list of those people, I mean, it’s it’s kind of comical, like it’s, it started with, like, former Israeli officials with records of defending war crimes, not at all the kind of people that you would trust protecting human rights.
And, of course, this all came with NSO Group’s insistence that it exclusively sold its products to governments. And I’ll say more about that later because resorting to that defense is interesting in and of itself. 2021 was particularly newsy for NSO Group. A lot of reports came out this year about the NSO Group’s targeting of individuals who, you know, are human rights activists, politicians, etc. But one of the biggest stories of the year was this joint investigation that was done by Amnesty International and the group Forbidden Stories. And while it didn’t reveal for the first time that those being targeted by NSO were not really [committing] crime, etc., it revealed that the scope of NSO Group was so wide. It was used much more widely than it was ever previously known. And part of the leak was that there were 50,000 phone numbers that were on a list of possible targets of NSO technology.
Of course, Forbidden Stories cannot determine if every single one of those phone numbers was actually infected with the NSO Group technology, because they would need to examine each and every phone and that’s also a very long and difficult process because it requires in some cases for the phone to be handed over to a lab or for the phone to extract the certain report that would be sent to expert analysts. And after that, lawsuits and blacklists started piling up. Apple sued NSO Group this fall. And it’s kind of an interesting lawsuit because Apple wants to permanently ban NSO from ever using its software or devices. But I think legally it’s a bit interesting because, you know, Apple is suing NSO Group on behalf of its users and for its interests because it wants to protect people supposedly from being hacked by the groups who buy NSO technology. But at the same time, Apple doesn’t really own the phones that have been hacked, and NSO Group is also not the person doing the spying but the group that is making the spyware. So I’m curious to see what kind of precedent that will set. After that, the US government blacklisted NSO Group along with another Israeli firm called Candiru. And that’s also interesting, because that’s not really a form of sanctions because it definitely makes it more difficult for American companies and Americans to make business with those groups, but it doesn’t make it impossible. It just really moves it to an extra level of difficulty. Those groups would require a special license or an authorization to be able to make business with NSO Group.
Almost a month after that came out, after the US government really blacklisted NSO Group, Reuters revealed in a special report where they cited some unnamed sources that nine US State Department officials specializing in Uganda or are stationed in Uganda have been targeted by NSO Group technology. And after that, a group of US lawmakers, Democrats, called for sanctions to be instilled on NSO Group. And human rights groups are asking the European Union to follow suit and do the same thing. So those are the major headlines about NSO Group this year. It’s still unclear whether this is going to be the last nail in the coffin of NSO Group. But what’s more interesting than that is even if NSO Group is, Asa like you say, sued and blacklisted into oblivion, what’s more interesting is what comes after that and what that means for the rest of Israel’s cyberwarfare surveillance technology industry.
Asa Winstanley: Yeah, what I found one of the things I found most interesting in this latest article that you’ve written that Nora mentioned about NSO Group and you’ve done a great job this year, as every year covering this story, was the detail that it said that it mentioned, you mentioned two new Israeli cyber warfare groups, and one of them being formed by veterans of NSO itself. So that’s already deserting the sinking ship. And you can imagine just the exact same things going on again, you know, in a different company in a different form. And it also makes you think that, you know, Israel has been doing this kind of stuff for a long time, but it’s, you know, this particular company doesn’t have a particularly good PR department or is not positioned, it’s software being undetected.
Tamara Nassar: Yeah, I mean, arguably, it’s precisely those reports that at first were very good for NSO Group, because it attracted clients like, you know, certain clients would look at these kinds of reports in the beginning and think, wow. And NSO Group has technology that can really do something really amazing. But I think it was, there was like an overdose at some point. And it just became like a sinking ship, like you say, but it’s true. I think now that NSO Group is really struggling to not keep not really being able to keep up with the PR as it used to. There are definitely other Israeli companies that are waiting to see what would happen and trying to also attract clients from NSO. And the two companies that you mentioned are Quad Dream and Paragon. And like you say a lot of them are veterans of either NSO Group or Unit 8200. So much. I mean, it’s all like a cesspool of the same thing. They all come from the same roots, and they’re essentially trying to do something very similar. And the investors are also very interesting. Paragon has a huge bedrock, the former Israeli prime minister as one of its investors. And one of its selling points is that it’s saying that it’s not going to sell any of its products to authoritarian or undemocratic governments. And of course, like you, the interesting part is that, like, the Israeli defense ministry and the Israeli government, I mean, NSO Group would not be able to sell its product without the Israeli government without approval from the defense ministry. And it would not exist without it either, because all of its roots come from the Israeli military. But one way that the Israeli government tries to defend NSO Group, especially in recent weeks after the US state after the reports about the US State Department employees being targeted at about the blacklisting in the US.
One thing that the Israeli defense ministry did was that it said it was going to tighten controls over who gets to buy NSO Group technology, and through like, having a clear definition of serious crime and terrorism. And I mean, this is comical, because this is like the same Israeli defense ministry that considers Palestinian human rights groups to be terrorists. So the definition is all worked up. It just doesn’t make sense. But yeah, one thing that really interests me, for example, is that it’s not really about who this surveillance technology is being sold to. But whether such a technology should be able to exist in the first place. I mean, is this kind of, it’s not the danger of who’s holding the gun. It’s like it’s the gun itself. That’s the danger.
Asa Winstanley: Yeah. And also, the thing I don’t buy as well as this hands-off plausible deniability thing they have of where they say the Israeli government says, and even NSO says sometimes, oh, we don’t have, we don’t have necessarily control over how our products are used. And it’s not like doing it. I mean, I just don’t buy that. Because, you know, these are multi-million-pound contracts with these sort of Gulf dictatorships and, you know, oppressive regimes all over the world, as well as now we learn the Israeli secret police itself, and one of these companies is Shin Bet. And I just don’t buy that they’re like handing this software over. Like, it’s an old-fashioned, like, you know, CD ROM that they’re given to, given to them that could just be sort of pirated. Now, these will be like, it’ll be a highly sophisticated system of, you know, software that’s run on servers on websites that will require continued support by NSO Group operatives. And at minimum support, you know, if not actual operation, so I just don’t buy this whole line that they’re trying to kind of it’s a convenient thing, basically,
Tamara Nassar: Totally, and every single sale that is done to any of those, you know, countries if we’re going to believe the NSO Group claim that it exclusively sells its technology to countries and law enforcement agencies. The Israeli defense ministry would have to approve every single one of those sales. And, and this is something that was, you know, almost completely absent from the reports after the, you know, the biggest story of the year when the Forbidden Stories and the Amnesty International report came out. The role of the Israeli government was almost absent. And it was being downplayed when …
Asa Winstanley: I looked at the Guardian coverage …
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Sometimes they didn’t even say that it originated in Israel, like it was just some …
Asa Winstanley: Yeah, The Guardian barely mentioned it in the coverage and they weren’t really big on the whole story – it was just this kind of the story of a rogue corporation.
Tamara Nassar: Yeah, totally. And I think it all goes, I mean from my observation and if I were to speculate, it feels like NSO Group is being portrayed as this uniquely evil corporation, which produces uniquely evil products in an otherwise benign surveillance industry. And now, it’s being kind of like thrown under the bus, by people who are doing, you know, much of the same thing in order to save the rest of the industry.
Asa Winstanley: And it’s all the root of all this is, of course, Unit 8200, which seems to be this essentially a training academy for global cybercriminals, and they and spies and spooks and mercenary spies of all sorts, you know, the same people behind Black Cube that was involved in helping Harvey Weinstein to spy on his rape victims and tried to find dirt on them and smear them in the public eye and so forth. You know, these are just the ones we know about, like how much more of this is going on?
Tamara Nassar: I just wanted to say that this recruitment from Unit 8200 is not only limited to Israel. The United Arab Emirates has a spy firm called Dark Matter, which also directly recruits from Unit 8200. That’s quite it’s becoming kind of like an international industry where Unit 8200 to spy surveillance industry pipeline.
Asa Winstanley: Yeah, this is I mean, this is a real sort of intersection of your reporting, Tamara, where this kind of the whole Israeli cybercriminal industry is intersecting with normalization and the Gulf Arab dictatorships increasing the overt, I mean, just fully overt now, ties and normalization with Israel. And it’s interesting, like the role that this kind of played and must have played in the kind of recruitment of these for want of a better word, that recruitment of these monarchies and Gulf dictatorships towards normalization with Israel, because they’re sort of saying, “we’ll see the kind of things we can do for you,” you know, and then one example of that is the exporting of these oppressive technologies.
Tamara Nassar: Totally. I mean, way before any of the Abraham Accords were signed in 2020. Some of the earliest reports of covert relations were these kinds of sales. And what the Abraham Accords really did – the Abraham Accords are the normalization deals that were signed between Israel and for Arab countries, the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan, brokered by the US – is that they really made those countries into new markets for Israel’s surveillance and war industries. And, yeah, we can touch more on that later. But it was especially evident after Israel’s massacre and was in May.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Of course, the research and development of these weapons of these surveillance technologies are done on Palestinians. And, Maureen, you’ve written extensively about how Israel’s, you know, military, their weapons industry and their spy tech industry comes from actual field, you know, field-testing on Palestinians. And, you know, some of the staff of the six human rights organizations that were designated by Israel as terrorist organizations earlier this year, also, their phones were infected with Pegasus spyware. Can you talk a little bit about just like this dystopian future that Palestinians are already living with under Israeli occupation?
Maureen Murphy: Oh sure. So it was reported in the Israeli press in October that Israel had designated six prominent Palestinian human rights and social services organizations as terrorist groups. So it was Israel’s defense ministry that first made that designation. And the targeted groups learned about this designation by reading the Israeli press. So that just shows how anti-democratic and how there’s just no legitimate process by which Israel outlawed these groups. So after the defense ministry made that designation, the military followed suit and used possibly no longer applicable emergency laws in the West Bank to outlaw these six same groups, which means that the military can raid their offices at any time, seize their property, arrest their staff. So it’s really serious business. It’s basically a nuclear option for Israel to shut these groups down. And these groups have persisted in their work, including monitoring and documentation of human rights. So these same repressive technologies and weapons that Israel is using against Palestinians, they’re documenting how it’s being used.
And Israel, of course, then goes to arms fairs around the world, and sells these technologies and repression technologies as field-tested. And, of course, that means field-tested on the bodies of Palestinians. So at least three people we know of, and I think there are three other people who have remained anonymous, were targeted with NSO spyware on their phones. So I believe a field worker for Al-Haq, which is a human rights organization in Ramallah, Salah Hammouri, who is a lawyer for Addameer, and who is being Israel is attempting to deport him from Palestine, and has been embroiled in a legal battle with the state for years now. And the director of Bisan, which is a Palestinian think tank, maybe that’s not the right word, but those three folks have determined that NSO spyware was detected on their phones, after an expert review by Amnesty International and Citizen Lab. And going back to what Tamara was saying earlier about how invasive this Pegasus spyware is, the wife of Ubai Aboudi, the director of Bisan, described just the sinking feeling she experienced after learning that, like their most intimate family life was being potentially recorded by the Shin Bet. So it’s basically like having the Shin Bet in your bedroom, if you are like most people and like, carry your phone around with you everywhere in your house.
Asa Winstanley: I don’t do that anymore. Well, I say that, I try not to do that.
Maureen Murphy: Yeah. And while this was coming out about the six Palestinian organizations being targeted, or being blacklisted as terrorist groups by Israel, The Washington Post came out with this big story, reporting on this biometric database that Israeli soldiers are building to photograph any Palestinian that they interact with, especially in Hebron, where Palestinians have to go through checkpoints just to get from one place in the city to another. And so there’s a lot of contact between the military and Palestinians living in Hebron.
Asa Winstanley: This is the Blue Wolf thing that was just reported, right?
Maureen Murphy: Yeah. So they were gamifying it. So soldiers were being rewarded, and like units in the army were being rewarded for taking the most numbers of photos of Palestinians, including children to put in this biometric database. So the level of surveillance in Palestine by Israel is comprehensive, and this is like this is not new, like when I was living there, like 15 years ago, like if someone went to the DCO office, which is like the District Coordinating Officer, the Israeli military’s officer, or the military, they could like bring up a map of a Palestinian neighborhood and they would have every house, every person living in that house noted. So the level of surveillance isn’t new because they do this so they can blackmail people. If they find out compromising information about someone they’ll use that to try to get them to cooperate with the occupation or they will use information against children to inform for the military about, you know, anything that the military might want to use against to break basically any Palestinian organizing and resistance to the occupation. But the advancement of the technology is the new thing. So Israel has always done this, but it has greater tools to do this now. And that’s, yeah, that’s the novelty, I guess.
Asa Winstanley: Yeah. I mean, when the stuff about Blue Wolf was exposed recently, and you wrote about that didn’t you Maureen, in the Blue Wolf article? And I think it was published in The Washington Post. It’s interesting, because then you look back, you think about that? And then you see videos that you’ve already seen online before, they’re in a different light. So I remember there was one video of Israeli soldiers just invading a Palestinian home in the middle of the night, and just taking photos of the children who think they were probably trying to get these prizes for this Blue Wolf thing. You know, as they, as you said, that gamifying – it is absolutely insane stuff. Again, it’s not new, because yeah, when I was living in the West Bank, as well, it was the same, a very common scenario for Palestinian homes to just be sort of invaded and raided any time at the whim of the soldiers and the officers in the area. But it’s this new sort of insidious level of technology that has really brought the surveillance level to an almost absolute level, it seems.
Maureen Murphy: Yeah. And it’s ironic, that [word] doesn’t have the gravity to describe [it]. While Israel has this capability that we all know it uses. It also claims to have not known that the Associated Press had offices in a tower that it bombed and destroyed in Gaza. So you can’t have both things at the same time to claim to not know that Al Jazeera and AP were housed in this building. And maybe there was Hamas – they claimed that Hamas had some kind of special intelligence unit in the building. But even then they haven’t produced any evidence to back up this claim, and yet we know the level of information that they have on everywhere in the West Bank and Gaza.
Asa Winstanley: Yeah, they bombed it to the ground because they could at the end of the day.
Maureen Murphy: Yeah. And going back to what you were just saying, Asa, about these night raids, partly, it’s to gather information on people, but mainly it’s to terrorize them. Yeah. So remind Palestinians that we’re in charge. And we can leverage this power over you at any time. And so when Human Rights Watch put out these reports on Israel’s targeting of towers in Gaza in May, and calling them apparent war crimes, with unclear military objectives, as though there were any – when Israeli leaders said themselves that nowhere in Gaza is immune. That’s what Benny Gantz, Israel’s defense minister, said. So the whole point has been to terrorize people, that’s been their principal military strategy since Lebanon in 2006. It’s called the Dahiya doctrine. And it’s to basically terrorize civilians into submission. And that’s also the same strategy with the siege on Gaza that’s been in place since 2007. And apparently, the so-called international community is as happy for that to become as permanent as the occupation itself. So that’s what it comes down to – it’s just breaking Palestinian unity, breaking Palestinian society, and crushing any opposition to the occupation and colonization of Palestinian land.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Let’s talk a little bit more about the attacks on Gaza. And in the West Bank, in May of this year. There was, I mean, you know, again, just unmitigated violence by Israel, supported by its allies. But we also saw this cohesion of pan-Palestinian solidarity, you know, Palestinians who have been separated by Israel in, you know, in enclaves in Gaza, in the occupied West Bank, and inside historic Palestine, ‘48. There was this kind of unanimous, rising up against Israeli colonization and violence and resistance force. I mean, we covered this in a podcast back in May, with Ali [Abunimah] and Jon Elmer. You know, we’re talking about the heightened technologies of Palestinian resistance factions, and how Israel actually wasn’t able to do things like a full-scale ground invasion, because of the capabilities of Palestinian resistance. What do you both think of … looking back now, it’s, you know, it’s been seven months since then? What has changed in terms of Israel’s capabilities, to have this unmitigated violence? But what has changed in terms of Palestinian resistance, and the cohesion of Palestinian society, no matter where they’re placed, or displaced?
Maureen Murphy: Tamara, do you want to go first? Do you have any first thoughts?
Tamara Nassar: I mean, looking back at May, I think while we were reporting on it at the time, there were a lot of new things that were happening. And it was all very shocking, both in the measure of just the sheer amount of brutality that Israel was unleashing on us there, but at the same time, at the resilience of the resistance, I think, one thing that really inspired hope, is to see this national unity among Palestinians in the West Bank, in ‘48, and in Gaza, and in the diaspora, in a way that was, you know, the last time we’ve seen something like that was the second intifada. So and maybe it has to do with how connected everyone is, it was one of the most connected times we’ve had.
There was the internet, there was Instagram, people were sharing. Everywhere you look, you would see pictures and videos and news and headlines. And I think, you know, this is a thought I had at the time, but it’s important to be moderate in what we expect of the resistance to because you know, there were moments of great pride and knowing that the resistance is not going to stand by as Israel raids, the al-Aqsa mosque, and unleashes, you know, rubber-coated steel bullets and tear gas inside the mosque at worshippers. There was this sense of national pride that we have a resistance that defends us, and it doesn’t only defend people in Gaza, it defends Palestinians wherever it can reach. So that was really inspiring. And I think, you know, like I said, it’s just important to be moderate in what we expect of this resistance. And I don’t think any of those events can liberate Palestine at once. But I think it definitely taught Israel a lesson that it cannot continue to do those things without being punished by the resistance. And I think that was very important.
Asa Winstanley: Yeah, I mean, I think that it was the first time I can think of really that, as you said, the ability of the resistance in Gaza, specifically to act not only in the self-defense of the Gaza Strip, but in the self-defense of Palestinians in Jerusalem, specifically, but all over Palestine, but it’s not the first time that that was their stated aim, and it seems to be such a clear expression of defending Jerusalem, the capital of Palestine, from the attacks of Jewish supremacists, essentially, in Jerusalem attacking and driving out Palestinians, you know, chanting “death to Arabs” and so forth in a very narrow way, you might sort of think, well, you know, why would they do that? This is just an armed group in Gaza, they should stick to defending Gaza. But you know, the Palestinian resistance has never seen things that way. They’ve seen it as a national defense organization, against occupation and settler-colonialism. So it was, yeah, it seems to me that it was like – it was a real sort of unifying moment for the Palestinian body politic in a way, people themselves.
Tamara Nassar: Yeah. And I mean, Israel being the sadomasochist that it is, didn’t know how to respond to this kind of national unity and power with the resistance, despite them not having the kind of military technology that Israel has. And so it did things like bomb the Associated Press building, and, you know, Al Jazeera building, it obliterated entire families in their homes, because that’s the only language it knows how to speak, which is like punishing the weakest people in Gaza in order to try to, like you describe, Maureen, the Dahiya doctrine, to try to force them into submission. And still, that was not possible.
Maureen Murphy: Yeah, I think it points to, you know, so Palestinians in Gaza are never going to achieve a clear and decisive military victory over Israel in the conventional military sense. But that’s not what a resistance and guerrilla organization is even going to aim to do. Just surviving. And clinging on to your ground is a victory. And when we see headlines like we see this week, the AP had a story, basically saying, well, it’s been 15 years of siege and Hamas isn’t going anywhere. So Israel is having to learn how to live with Hamas. And the fact that Hamas has been able to develop and improve its capacity of it, of its armed wing under this comprehensive blockade is something I mean, I agree with Tamara, that we should speak with, you know, some sobriety about the resistance. Like it’s not helpful to glorify things necessarily, but we can recognize that they were able to develop an arsenal that they said, and Israel seems to believe, that they could launch rockets towards Tel Aviv and shut down the country for months.
Asa Winstanley: Yeah, I fully agree with that. And I think at the same time, the other side of that, is that we should continue to sort of speak out against this, there is this really annoying tendency amongst some sort of Western leftists of sort of saying, “oh, well, they’re just firecracker rockets out of Gaza.”
Maureen Murphy: I said that at the beginning … so I’m gonna own up to that. But that was to say that you can’t compare Israel’s bunker-buster bombs to what Palestinians have. And yet that is what groups like Human Rights Watch do when they unequivocally condemn the firing of unguided missiles from Gaza, versus Israel’s, you know, high precision-guided missiles that they launch into the middle of the most densely populated place on the planet. But I disrupted your thought Asa. Sorry.
Asa Winstanley: Wow, when did you say that?
Maureen Murphy: I said it on Twitter at some point, because, you know, people will say, well, what about Hamas’s rockets. What about the rockets? What about the rockets? But the rockets are the only way that Palestinians under blockade in Gaza have any leverage over Israel? And what do you want Palestinians to do when, you know, people in the Democratic Party are against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. So they’re like against any Palestinian form of unarmed organizing, and they condemn that. And then Palestinians don’t have any right to self-defense using missiles under blockade for, you know, more than a decade that has paralyzed life in Gaza.
Asa Winstanley: I think the best response to what about the rockets probably came from Yahya Sinwar, in his interview after the war when he said that, “okay, then well, you know, give us guided weaponry then, which we don’t have.” But at the same time, he made it clear that we’re not, we’re not targeting women and children. We’re trying to target military targets inside so-called Israel. You know, but yeah, I mean, it’s a balance, I suppose that we have to be realistic and sober about, as Tamara said, the capabilities of the resistance. But that also includes … I wasn’t, I wasn’t really including you in this, Maureen. But I do think there is a tendency from some Western leftists to kind of discount armed resistance altogether as illegitimate in the first place when it comes to Israel uniquely, for some reason, and also to say, well, it can’t win, which is just historically not true. Like there’s just it’s historically and factually not true. Yes, they’re not going to win a conventional, overwhelming military battle in the sense of, you know, columns of Soviet tanks fighting the Nazis, it’s not that kind of war. It’s a guerrilla war, which you can win simply by surviving, as you said.
Tamara Nassar: Right. And what I when I said, you know, we have to be moderate about what to expect of the resistance, I was really talking about a very specific moment in May during the war when there was this feeling of complete loss, of the tragedy that was happening, but then a sense of pride in how the resistance was responding. And, you know, I agree with Maureen – it’s a complete marvel that the resistance was able to not only survive, but advance under an Israeli siege where Palestinians in Gaza are monitored 24/7, and Gaza is not like southern Lebanon, it’s not filled with mountains where there’s like some kind of obscurity with the landscape, it’s almost completely flat. It’s on a coast, it’s completely aerially surveilled, and from the land. And so to be able to create this kind of sophisticated underground infrastructure, and to be able to develop this kind of weaponry, which by the way, I don’t think its intent was ever to really hurt Israeli civilians. I don’t think that’s the intent. And I don’t think it’s helpful. I mean, what it actually does is it creates a sense of permanent emergency for Israel – that if you continue to terrorize Palestinian lives, we will not sit here and die in silence. And I mean, they mock the rockets, but at the same time, it has sent the country completely under, it closed the country completely for a few days, the airport closed, and that cost Israel millions of dollars for its economy, for its tourism. And most importantly, for its image.
Asa Winstanley: The rockets are the most complete form of BDS, because the artists can’t fly into the airport, then.
Tamara Nassar: The two rockets solution.
Maureen Murphy: Israel has no military solution to the rockets – it can’t defeat it, you know, it can try to bomb individual rocket units, but it’s never going to be able to wipe out that capacity of the resistance, and it’s proven to not have any solution to the tunnels that are underground in Gaza. There was a very interesting analysis in the London Review of Books by Eyal Weizman in the last week or so, and it had a very good title – I think it was called “Tunnel Vision,” something about Israel’s military strategy in Gaza. And during the worst night of the war, we saw many Palestinians tweeting just – they never, in all the successive wars that Israel has launched on Gaza, the next one worse than the other, people had never experienced the physical sensations of – I think it was the night of May 13, when Israel dropped some I think 450 one-ton bombs that had a delayed detonation. So they would be embedded in the ground and then detonated. So it created earthquake-like effects that could be felt within Israel. So that was something that hadn’t ever been experienced before, and what Israel was trying to do, and this was under the direction of [Aviv] Kohavi, who had become famous and renowned for his strategy of basically busting through the walls in Nablus’ old city during the siege in 2003 during the second intifada, his strategy was to – what Israel was trying to do on the night of May 13, was they made it appear as though they were going to launch a ground invasion. And so they used the foreign press to report this. They made it seem like that they had tanks lined up along the boundary, in an effort to draw Hamas’ fighters into a certain concentration in the tunnels and they would target that and the goal was in one fell swoop to basically incapacitate the resistance in Gaza.
And they were very confident, it seems, that this was going to work. And it didn’t. So at first, the Israelis claimed that that was a major victory. But in the months that followed, there was acknowledgment in the Israeli press, at least, that it was actually a major failure because they did not achieve – Hamas did not fall into the trap that they wanted to. So, you know, you can look at the situation in Gaza now, it’s as bad as it ever was. And that’s maybe what I’m saying, I’m wary of, you know, glorifying – especially for people who aren’t Palestinians living outside of Palestine – to say, you know, steadfastness and sumoud, and all this, you know, when everyone in Gaza knows somebody– like the social-economic effects and of the siege, and Israel’s constant punishing of Palestinians of Gaza, for refusing to surrender, the armed resistance has such a profoundly negative impact on people there. I mean, everybody knows somebody who’s attempted to, you know, go on smuggling boats to Europe. Suicide rates are really high. And young people just don’t see – there’s like no future for them on the horizon. So that’s where I’m coming from when I’m saying the situation in Gaza is so bad. And that’s why it’s up to people on the outside to organize more effectively, so that there is a cost on Israel and to help change as much as we can that power equation. So Israel can’t keep getting away with this like it does after each assault on Gaza.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Absolutely. We just have a few minutes left. And there’s so much to talk about as always. It’s been quite a year.
Asa Winstanley: Yeah, we didn’t even get into the half of it. We have so much good journalism on our website. I was looking – in preparation for this episode. I was looking at some of my own stories. And yeah, there’s so much that you do that you sort of forget about and you think, that actually happened. That’s crazy. And I think one of the things – we probably don’t have much time now to talk about it very much – but one of the things I really enjoyed in your reporting this year, Maureen, was the whole human rights industrial complex as it were, and your articles criticizing Human Rights Watch and others for their coverage of Palestine in a really kind of – I mean, you’ve alluded to it already in this conversation really. Could you talk maybe just a little bit about that?
Maureen Murphy: Yeah. So, after the May war, sometime in August, Human Rights Watch started publishing these reports that detailed Israel’s bombing campaign in Gaza during May. And their first report was really harrowing reading, because they include testimony from Palestinians, that just – it was very difficult to read. So I want to acknowledge this …
Asa Winstanley: I don’t envy these stories, you know, because they are, I mean, it’s traumatic just to read about it, let alone to go through it.
Maureen Murphy: Yeah, so I mean, I’m trying to give Human Rights Watch credit where credit’s due, like, it’s important to do this documentation, but their framework, their analytical framework is just so narrow. So they treat Hamas, the military wing of Hamas, and Israel as though they’re equal parties. And while also giving Israel the benefit of the doubt, so as I mentioned earlier, because Palestinian resistance missiles are unguided, because they’re under sanction, they don’t have access to Boeing weapons, the United States does not sell precision-guided weapons to Hamas, it’s even absurd to even have to explain this out. So that’s what they have. And because they’re unguided, they’re inherently indiscriminate. And firing indiscriminate weapons towards civilian population centers is prohibited under international humanitarian law, which is the law of war. So therefore, Hamas firing weapons, these unguided missiles out of Gaza, by this logic means that that’s an inherent war crime. Meanwhile, Israel launching its 155-millimeter artillery shells into the most densely populated place, or one of them, on the planet, does not, for whatever reason, fall into the same category as inherently indiscriminate. Nor does its bunker-buster missiles dropped on al-Wihda street in Gaza City, which I don’t understand how that logic wouldn’t apply. So there’s an inherent bias towards states in international law. And if you dig into the history of it, the whole framework of international law was invented by imperialist states and colonizers to serve their own aims and protect their colonial acquisitions from one another. And it’s evolved and changed over time. And now we’re kind of in like the counter-terror episode.
Asa Winstanley: The law was to protect the rights of Britain against France or France against Portugal, right? It wasn’t to protect the rights of the indigenous people that they were colonizing and dispossessing.
Maureen Murphy: Exactly. So that’s the legacy of international law serving to basically consolidate and parallel interests that, I think groups like Human Rights Watch need to think more critically about because they’re perpetuating this by giving Israel the benefit of the doubt, not calling for sanctions on arms trade to Israel, which they still call “security assistance.” So if, if they were morally consistent on this, they would be calling for increased security assistance to Palestinians in Gaza by saying that if they don’t like unguided missiles being fired at them, then give them precision-guided missiles. It’s like they have the right to defend themselves, they have the right to self-defense. Israel as a colonizing power does not have that right. It’s like an illogical thing to say that Israel as the colonizer is acting out of self-defense when it’s bombarding Gaza. So I hope through writing about this that people think more critically about the human rights paradigm in Palestine, and how it can be used to criminalize resistance against a foreign colonizer, which is the story of resistance in Gaza.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: And finally, let’s look ahead to 2022. I mean, the pandemic is going – we’re going into the third year of this pandemic, there’s still vast medical apartheid happening in Palestine, along with regular old political apartheid. Tamara, what do you think we can expect in terms of, you know, the humanitarian situation in Palestine amidst this pandemic and as Palestinians continue to fight for liberation?
Tamara Nassar: I think that’s a really massive question.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: You have 30 seconds.
Tamara Nassar: And unfortunately, I think that – I tend to think things always get worse. I wish I had a better answer than that. But it just feels like, you know, when the pandemic started, there was this brief moment when it felt like at least we were all in this together. We were on the brink of something really massive, and it was difficult to understand what to expect. And, of course, the pandemic kind of exacerbated all the already-existing injustice in the world. And so this – everything just became clearer and even worse. But first, this tragedy, then as far as in, like 2021 was all about the vaccine inequality and it started to feel like more divided with COVID, with people, you know, trying their best to move forward and away from this pandemic, and, you know, vaccine equality and people who refuse to take the vaccine and etc. And so, yeah, it’s hard to make a prediction or to speculate, I try not to. And it’s also hard to be hopeful. But we have to just keep doing the work that we’re already doing. And I think that’s really all we can do.
Maureen Murphy: Well, I’m very curious to see what happens with the case of Palestine at the International Criminal Court. So going back to what I was saying earlier about international law being something that can be used, basically, or the bias towards the state against a guerrilla resistance. So far, the new Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, so just to go back a little bit – in March of this year, it’s still 2021 for a few more days. In March of this year, Fatou Bensouda, the chief prosecutor at the time, opened a formal investigation into war crimes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. And that concluded a five-year preliminary investigation, which on top of that was on top of another preliminary investigation. So it’s been a very long and prolonged process with the ICC. Whether Karim Khan, the new chief prosecutor of the ICC, who took Bensouda’s place after her term expired in June, actually pursues Palestine, that’s the big question. Seeing is believing, is how I’m feeling about that.
The case of Palestine at the ICC is basically a legitimacy test for the court, which has thus far only prosecuted African nationals. And Palestine is – a lot of the main funders of the ICC, like Canada and European states, are against an ICC investigation in Palestine. So it’s a test of the independence of the court. I think Palestine could be the thing that makes or breaks it. So I’m very curious to see what happens.
It could be, going back to what I was saying earlier about the bias in international law toward states, it could be – and other people who know more about international law and pay attention to the ICC very closely have said that it could very well be that the ICC goes after only the lowest hanging fruit, which would be Hamas in Gaza. So whether that’s going to be the case, I’m a little bit skeptical of it because Israel’s settlement enterprise in the West Bank is such an open and shut case of the violation of international law. And it’s obviously approved by the top levels of the Israeli government. I mean, it’s the whole modus operandi of the state, why it exists: to expand its territory in Palestine. So that’s something I’m going to be paying attention to. So far, Karim Khan hasn’t said anything publicly about Israel’s targeting and blacklisting the Palestinian human rights groups that the ICC works with very closely and which has provided evidence to the ICC. And the situation is such that with the blacklisting of these human rights groups, Israel can raid their offices and potentially gather information and endanger Palestinian witnesses who have testified to these groups for the ICC’s case. So to me, it’s scandalous that the ICC hasn’t said anything publicly about this yet. And to kind of tie in this to the NSO Group, which was the thing that we started off this conversation about, I forgot to mention that there was reporting in the Israeli press by Ronen Bergman, who seems very close and well-connected to Israel’s intelligence agencies, that the fact that Israel designated the six groups as terrorist organizations was to retroactively justify the use of Pegasus spyware against these organizations. So that’s why the timing happened the way it did.
Asa Winstanley: That speaks to my point about the connections, the deep and intimate connections between these mercenary cybercriminals and the Israeli state itself.
Maureen Murphy: Yeah, I would question whether there is a line. This is probably just a state agency. That’s what’s being questioned in the Israeli press to the extent that gag orders don’t prevent them from doing so.
Tamara Nassar: Yeah. Which is why it’s totally comical that their only line of defense is “how can we use these products more ethically?”
Nora Barrows-Friedman: “Oh, sorry about that. We promise to do better.”
Tamara Nassar: Yeah, but it doesn’t speak to the inherently unethical nature of the products themselves. They just simply should not exist. I find the conversation very similar to the gun rights conversation, which is it’s not really who’s holding the gun – it’s just the gun itself is that creates the danger to begin with.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Yeah. Well, with that, thank you, all of you for the work that you’ve done this year and continue to do and I know that The Electronic Intifada will remain strong and vibrant and as vital as ever going into 2022 and beyond. And if you haven’t made your year and donation to The Electronic Intifada yet, please go now to electronicintifada.net. We appreciate your support. We are 100% funded by our readers and listeners, and we can’t do this work without you.
Asa Winstanley: Yeah. Don’t forget to like and subscribe. I never say that. I should. Seriously, do like and subscribe.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Thank you so much, Maureen Murphy, our senior editor, Tamara Nassar, associate editor, Asa Winstanley and I thank you as well. Let’s do this again next time.
Tamara Nassar: Thanks, everyone. Happy new year.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: You too.
Video production by Tamara Nassar
Theme music by Sharif Zakout
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- NSO Group
- 2021 May attack on Gaza
- armed resistance
- International Criminal Court
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