Government military secretary spotted partying with NSO executives

Military secretary Avi Gil criticized over large, unmasked New Year’s gathering, where he was seen alongside NSO CEO Shalev Hulio and the underfire spyware company’s spokesman

Tal Schneider is a Political Correspondent at The Times of Israel

Government Military Secretary Avi Gil (right) poses for a selfie with NSO spokesman Oded Hershkovitz at a New Year's party in Tel Aviv. (Channel 12 screenshot)
Government Military Secretary Avi Gil (right) poses for a selfie with NSO spokesman Oded Hershkovitz at a New Year's party in Tel Aviv. (Channel 12 screenshot)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s military secretary Brig. Gen. Avi Gil was spotted at a large New Year’s party that did not follow the state’s COVID regulations — and was seen partying alongside senior executives at the embattled NSO Group.

Channel 12 news reported Tuesday evening that Gil was seen at a gathering organized by the OTD event production company. Gil was criticized for partaking in a large event where masks were not being worn as the Omicron variant has sent daily case rates skyrocketing.

But Zman Yisrael, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew sister site, also revealed that Gil was partying alongside the founder and other executives from NSO Group, the controversial Israel-based spyware company that is the target of multiple lawsuits and sharp international condemnation.

OTD’s co-founder Shai Baron is said to be friends with Gil, and invited him to the party. According to OTD’s website, the company’s clients include NSO as well as Pfizer, amdocs, Sodastream and other firms.

NSO founder and CEO Shalev Hulio was also seen at the gathering in a video of the event posted on social media by OTD. Oded Hershkovitz, NSO’s spokesman, was also present at the event, and even posed for a selfie with Gil. Hershkovitz served for more than 20 years in the IDF and was deputy IDF spokesman.

Hershkovitz and Gil, who are said to be friendly, did not arrive together to the gathering, but met at the party alongside a wide range of other prominent businessmen. The proximity between the prime minister’s military secretary and NSO officials is yet another layer in the ties between the company and government officials. One of Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked’s closest friends is Shiri Dolev, president of NSO.

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The Prime Minister’s Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In November, the US Department of Commerce blacklisted NSO Group, adding it to the list of foreign companies that engage in malicious cyber activities.

The Israeli companies “were added to the Entity List based on evidence that these entities developed and supplied spyware to foreign governments that used these tools to maliciously target government officials, journalists, businesspeople, activists, academics, and embassy workers,” according to a Commerce Department statement.

NSO developed Pegasus, a sophisticated tool that can switch on a phone’s camera or microphone and harvest its data. There have been repeated allegations that the software is being used to abuse human rights.

NSO CEO Shalev Hulio seen at an OTD New Year’s gathering in Tel Aviv. (OTD screenshot)

The company was at the center of a storm of controversy in July after a list of about 50,000 potential surveillance targets worldwide was leaked to the media.

NSO has been accused of selling its spyware to the governments of Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Hungary, India, and the United Arab Emirates, which used it to hack into the phones of dissidents, journalists, and human rights activists.

NSO has insisted that its software was intended for use only in fighting terrorism and other crimes, and the reported targeting list was not related to the company.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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