Palestine Pulse

Palestinian wiretap scandal raises ire, but no action so far

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Article Summary
The Palestinian Preventive Security Service is under fire for allegedly wiretapping citizens.

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Lawyers and civil rights advocates are calling for the government to investigate allegations that Palestinian security services are tapping phones and surveilling some citizens and prominent figures. The accusations sparked outrage, especially as they are supported by leaked documents that include transcripts and photographs.

A Palestinian security officer leaked the documents after leaving his job in the Preventive Security Service (PSS), which is affiliated with the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank. He included in the documents a letter of apology asserting that he is exposing the activity as repentance for the wiretapping operations.

Several Palestinian media outlets reported Jan. 10 on the leaked materials, which appear to show that Palestinian leaders in the Gaza Strip were put under surveillance after their phones were tapped. The most prominent recorded phone conversations were between Hamas officials and Egyptian intelligence following the recent Palestinian reconciliation talks.

The documents include intelligence reports about phone conversations between top Hamas leaders, such as Khaled Meshaal and Hamas political bureau chief Ismail Haniyeh, as well as other prominent leaders. They also include reports about phone conversations between Hamas security officials and Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, as well as a conversation between Haniyeh and the emir of Qatar. (The United States just added Haniyeh to its terrorist blacklist.)

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The documents reportedly show that security services tapped the phones of members of the Palestinian Bar Association who had organized protests Nov. 9 in response to the violent arrest of lawyer Mohammad Hussein the previous day while he was inside a court in Nablus. There are also reports that officials taped conversations of supporters of dismissed Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan.

Al-Haq, a nongovernmental organization for human rights, on Jan. 20 called on the Palestinian attorney general to investigate the alleged wiretapping, bring perpetrators to justice and compensate those who were affected.

The Palestinian Bar Association also filed a complaint Jan. 18 asking the attorney general to investigate the wiretapping scandal. The leaked documents include numerous transcripts of phone conversations and text messages sent from and received by Bar Association Chairman Jawad Obeidat. The bar also issued a statement that day confirming that some of the recorded phone conversations the media had published were in fact genuine.

Bar Association Secretary Daoud Derawi told Al-Monitor that some phones indeed were tapped and some calls were intercepted. He noted that some conversations by the bar chairman were truncated and used in contexts other than their original ones in a bid to harm some of the bar members.

However, he denied the bar had directly accused the PSS. He called on the attorney general to quickly take the necessary legal measures and asked the PSS to assume responsibility for revealing the party behind the incident.

“The bar has yet to receive any response from the Palestinian attorney general,” he said. Derawi added that all necessary legal procedures will be taken in the case to pressure all parties to disclose details about the wiretapping operation and bring those involved to trial.

A Palestinian security service official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that the wiretapping operations are not as broad as some descriptions imply. “Wiretapping operations are conducted, but in very narrow contexts and targeting persons suspected of security breaches or criminal offenses,” he said.

He maintained that these operations are only conducted after obtaining the attorney general’s written approval. He stressed that confidentiality has been preserved and no intercepted calls, voice notes or text messages have been disseminated.

In a statement published Jan. 14 by WAFA, the PA's news agency, the Palestinian security establishment lashed out at media outlets that published the report. It accused the media of weaving a conspiracy targeting it and the Palestinian political system to undermine the Palestinian cause.

Al-Monitor contacted the office of Palestinian Attorney General Ahmed al-Barrak and the cellular network operator Jawwal for more details about this issue, but they declined to comment.

Ammar Dweik, the director general of the Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR), called for an official investigation into the matter and for the results to be published. He said some of the leaked information is accurate, which, he alleged, proves the wiretapping took place. He pointed out, however, that some of the conversations were misinterpreted.

It should be noted that some transcripts of the conversations included profanity and insulted the ICHR for its supposedly weak position on Hussein's arrest.

Dweik indicated that monitoring telephone and internet conversations requires court approval based on a request by the attorney general in relation to an investigation into an actual or potential crime. “In any case, wiretapping operations should not be public. They should be justified and under judicial supervision, otherwise they would violate the law,” he said.

Mutaz Qafisheh, a Hebron University law professor, told Al-Monitor that Palestinian law prohibits violating individuals' privacy, including by wiretapping, except in specific cases and at specific times involving suspected criminals.

“Should it be confirmed that the Palestinian security services are conducting wiretapping operations, then the military public prosecutor must investigate the issue, bring the perpetrators to trial and punish them," he said.

Qafisheh added that mobile operators like Jawwal and Wataniya have the right not to disclose any information about their subscribers to security authorities if the authorities aren't specifically authorized by the court. He warned that operators can be prosecuted for disclosing subscriber information without written judicial approval. “When the disclosure causes the subscriber any harm, the operator can be held liable for compensation,” he said.

The wiretapping complaints were filed two weeks ago and the prosecutor hasn't responded so far — leading many observers to believe there will be no response.

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Found in: Technology

Ahmad Abu Amer is a Palestinian writer and journalist who has worked for a number of local and international media outlets. He is co-author of a book on the Gaza blockade for the Turkish Anadolu Agency. He holds a master’s degree from the Islamic University of Gaza.

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