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After NSO bombshell, Gantz asserts that Israel complies with international law

Defense minister says ministry ‘studying’ claims company’s Pegasus software has been used by governments to target journalists and activists

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks during Tel Aviv University's cyber week conference on July 20, 2021. (Tal Oz/Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks during Tel Aviv University's cyber week conference on July 20, 2021. (Tal Oz/Defense Ministry)

Responding to an in-depth investigation that revealed that Israel’s NSO Group has been selling spyware used by foreign governments to target journalists and activists, Defense Minister Benny Gantz asserted Tuesday that Israel operates fully within international law.

“We are aware of recent publications regarding the use of systems developed in certain Israeli cyber companies,” said Gantz in a speech to Cyber Week at Tel Aviv University, without mentioning NSO Group by name. “Israel, as a liberal Western democracy, controls exports of cyber products in accordance with its defense export control law, complying with international export control regimes.”

Gantz added that, “as a matter of policy, the State of Israel authorizes the export of cyber products solely to governments, only for lawful use, and exclusively for the purposes of preventing and investigating crime and terrorism. The countries acquiring these systems must abide by their commitments to these requirements. We are currently studying the information that is published on the subject.”

On Sunday, an in-depth investigation led by 17 major international news organizations claimed that NSO Group has sold cellphone malware used to target journalists, activists and politicians in dozens of countries.

The reporting focused on Pegasus, a spyware tool sold by NSO that the investigation said is being used by dozens of governmental clients. The analysis carried out on a leaked list of 50,000 phone numbers found that the list included people targeted by the governments of Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Hungary, India, and the United Arab Emirates.

The Guardian’s report on Pegasus claimed that Gantz “closely regulates NSO” and approves each individual export license before the surveillance software is sold to a new country. In its response, NSO stated that “you falsely claim that the Israeli government monitors the use of our customers’ systems, which is the type of conspiracy theory that our critics peddle,” adding: “Regarding export licenses, NSO is subject to various export control regimes including the Israeli MoD, similar to existing regulations in other democratic countries.”

In this file photo taken on August 28, 2016, a woman walks outside the building housing the Israeli NSO group, in Herzliya. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

In a statement on Monday, the Defense Ministry said if it finds that the NSO Group violated the terms of its export licenses, it will “take appropriate action.” The ministry said that Israel only permits companies to export cybersecurity products to “government figures only for legal purposes and to prevent and investigate crimes and to combat terrorism. And this is dependent upon commitments regarding the end use/user from the purchasing country, which must abide by these conditions.”

In his speech on Tuesday, Gantz also weighed in on an overnight exchange of fire between Israel and Lebanon.

“The State of Israel is interested in seeing a prosperous, peaceful and stable Lebanon,” said the defense minister. “Unfortunately, the situation in Lebanon is worsening, since Hezbollah and additional terrorist organizations are operating against the interests of Lebanese citizens. We have responded overnight to the rocket fire, which violated Israel’s sovereignty.”

Gantz emphasized that “the State of Lebanon is responsible for this violation. Israel extended a helping hand and offered humanitarian aid to Lebanon, yet every security threat will be met with an iron fist from the same hand that was extended.”

In his remarks, the defense minister said Israel has become a leader in the cyber field “thanks to the exceptional collaboration between the various relevant institutions,” including the IDF, Mossad and the National Cyber Directorate.

“Our enemies know no boundaries — just as they fire rockets at civilians, they aim to harm civilian facilities via cyber space while endangering human lives,” he said. “Israel works continuously to defend against cyber-attacks.”

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