Interview'They had no capability of accepting criticism'

Emi Palmor: Police hacked my phone for retribution

As director-general of the Justice Ministry, she was tasked with investigating the police; now it’s alleged that the police illegally investigated her back

Carrie Keller-Lynn

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Then Justice Ministry director-general Emi Palmor speaks at the Jerusalem Conference of the 'Besheva' group, on February 11, 2019. (Noam Revkin)
Then Justice Ministry director-general Emi Palmor speaks at the Jerusalem Conference of the 'Besheva' group, on February 11, 2019. (Noam Revkin)

When Emi Palmor’s phone was allegedly hacked into by the police, she was director-general of the Justice Ministry and was leading an investigation into police racism against Ethiopian Israelis. On Tuesday, Palmor told The Times of Israel that she believes the police targeted her phone for infection with Pegasus spy software in personal retribution for her professional actions.

Palmor learned of the alleged hack on Monday, when reading Hebrew business daily Calcalist’s report alleging that the Israel Police used the NSO Group’s Pegasus spy software to break into the phones of high-profile and politicized Israeli citizens, without judicial oversight. Palmor was listed among the three senior civil servants targeted, and Calcalist reported that there was no indication that Palmor faced criminal suspicion, leading to questions as to why she was targeted.

As the Justice Ministry’s top bureaucrat from 2014-2019, Palmor was tasked in 2016 with leading an investigation into the Israel Police’s treatment of Ethiopian Israelis. Her conclusions, published in the Palmor Report, were critical of police conduct.

“I’m not someone who investigated [because I was] angry with the police,” she said. “The State of Israel gave me the responsibility to investigate the issue of institutional racism against Israelis of Ethiopian descent.”

Her team, which included police participation, “brought up very serious complaints, with data, against the police, [including the use of racial] profiling.”

Palmor said that her relationship with the police during the investigation was charged. “Every time I had something to do with the police it was almost as if it were personal, and not that it was professional,” Palmor said. “They had no capability of accepting criticism.”

Ethiopian Israelis protest in Tel Aviv on January 30, 2019 against police violence, after the killing of teenager Solomon Tekah. Using the community’s name, the Beta Israel, the posters say ‘Police Murder the Beta Israel.’ (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“[Then-police commissioner] Roni Alsheich confronted me in every possible way, and the relationship with the police was very tense all along my tenure,” she said. “I had the feeling that they would love to find something [damaging] about me. I just never imagined that they were actively looking for something.”

Alsheich is presumed to be at the center of the controversy surrounding Pegasus, having commanded the force from 2015-2018 when the software was said to be deployed illegally against spurious investigation targets.

Roni Alsheich speaks at the Herzliya Conference on May 9, 2018. (Screen capture/Herzliya Conference)

The findings of an initial police probe presented to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Tuesday evening claimed that of the 26 names cited by Calcalist as hacking targets, just three were attempted to be spied on and the phone of only one of them was successfully hacked.

Palmor claimed that she had received contemporaneous warnings from reporters that they were being encouraged by the police to investigate her.

“Some reporters told me at the time that the police were trying to [encourage them] to write [damaging] articles about me, but it never occurred to me that it could be worse than that,” Palmor said.

On Tuesday, Channel 13 also reported a claim that police and Shin Bet invited a reporter to a meeting in 2016, in which they presented information on and encouraged investigation into Palmor, in the context of her involvement with Ethiopian Israeli protesters.

Palmor, an expert in human rights and criminal procedure, said she considers the targeting of a civil servant — one who is charged with ensuring police accountability — to be an abuse of power, but that power should be checked by better oversight, not by gutting law enforcement.

“Everyone has been making efforts to weaken the police instead of supervising the police. Policing is important, we cannot do without it,” said Palmor.

Then-Justice Minister Amir Ohana (left) with then-Justice Ministry director general Emi Palmor during a welcome ceremony for Ohana at the ministry in Jerusalem, on June 23, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Over the past years, the state has been accused of weakening the police, reducing budgets, delaying appointments, and even failing to approve a permanent commissioner for the two years between December 2018 and December 2020.

“I think the attorney general has the means to create better oversight, better reporting, better protocols of supervision, of risk management on those issues,” she said.

Such a task would fall on the desk of Gali Baharav-Miara, who on Tuesday was sworn in as the new attorney general. Baharav-Miara said that restoring public trust in the justice system and law enforcement is her first priority, and that she will address claims about police use of spy technology on citizens’ phones.

While calling for a government inquiry, Palmor said the attack against her privacy was personal, and so may be her healing.

“Personally, I don’t think something will restore my trust in the police in the near future,” said Palmor.

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