RAMALLAH, West Bank: A former Palestinian intelligence chief and the head of the West Bank bar association are suing the Palestinian self-rule government after a purported whistleblower alleged the two were targeted, along with many other allies and rivals of President Mahmoud Abbas, in a large-scale CIA-backed wiretapping operation.
Allegations of continued intelligence-sharing with the US could prove embarrassing for Abbas who has been on a political collision course with Washington since President Donald Trump’s recognition in December of contested city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
The claims are contained in a 37-page anonymous document that was been shared widely among Palestinians, mostly on WhatsApp. The document alleges that three of the Palestinian security services set up a joint electronic surveillance unit in mid-2014 and monitored the phone calls of thousands of Palestinians, from senior figures in militant groups to judges, lawyers, civic leaders and political allies of Abbas.
The author describes himself as a former member of the surveillance unit who quit “this dirty job” several months ago because of his growing opposition to Palestinian government practices, including intelligence-sharing with the US. He wrote that Trump’s policy shift on Jerusalem provided another impetus to go public.
Bar association head Jawad Obeidat said on Monday that transcripts of his phone conversations, as published in the document, were accurate.
“I made these phone calls and this is evidence that the leaked report is true,” said Obeidat, who spearheaded recent protests by lawyers after one of them was arrested from a court room during a legal case against the government.
“This is a blatant violation of human rights,” he said.
Tawfiq Tirawi, an outspoken Abbas critic and West Bank intelligence chief from 1994 to 2008, said he checked with his contacts and believes the document is authentic.
The CIA declined comment.
In mid-January, when the document first surfaced, Palestinian security services said in a joint statement that it was part of a “plot” seeking to harm the political and security establishments.
Adnan Damiri, the spokesman of the security services, dismissed the document Monday as “nonsense.”
The allegations come at a low point in Palestinian relations with the US, following Trump’s policy pivot on Jerusalem, whose Israeli-annexed eastern sector the Palestinians seek as a future capital.
Abbas said at the time that he was suspending contacts with US officials dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The US shift on Jerusalem angered many Palestinians, and in this context, allegations of continued intelligence-sharing with the US could pose a domestic political problem for Abbas.
The 82-year-old has also faced pushback from critics who say his rule has become increasingly authoritarian.
Elected in 2005, Abbas has ruled by decree since 2007, when the Islamic militant Hamas overran Gaza, leaving him with autonomous enclaves in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The territorial split and deep animosity between the Abbas- and Hamas-led camps paralyzed political institutions, including parliament, and prevented new elections.
Last week, Tirawi and Obeidat filed a complaint over the alleged wire-tapping against the Palestinian self-rule government, calling for a criminal investigation. The lawsuit asked that those who ordered the monitoring of their phones be punished and demanded an end to all wiretapping as a violation of privacy.
Attorney General Ahmed Barrak confirmed that he received the complaint, but declined further comment.
Separately, the Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq demanded an investigation of the extent of the wiretapping and an explanation from the government. The head of Al-Haq, Shahwan Jabareen, said he has not received a response from the attorney general or the office of Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah.
Jabareen said an investigation must determine if the wiretapping went beyond monitoring militants who pose an immediate security threat. If the bar association was targeted, he said, the government might also be spying on other civil society organizations and ordinary people.
“We are not against security, but it has to be legal,” he said.
The document alleged that thousands of phones are being monitored without legal authorization, including those of leaders and senior operatives in Hamas, the militant group Islamic Jihad and other factions.
Others being monitored include members of Abbas’ inner circle, such as the No. 2 in his Fatah movement and members of the decision-making body of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the document said. Abbas rivals are also on the list, including the family of imprisoned uprising leader Marwan Barghouti and supporters of Abbas’ former top aide-turned-nemesis, the exiled Mohammed Dahlan, according to the document.
It said that in 2013, the then-head of the Palestinian Preventive Security Service asked the CIA for help with wiretapping and that the CIA agreed, in exchange for oversight.
The document said the equipment was provided by ISS World, a company based in Virginia.
Jerry Lucas, the president of the ISS World parent company, TeleStrategies, declined comment when contacted by email Monday.
The document said members of the Palestinian surveillance unit were trained on the new equipment on the sidelines of an ISS World conference in Dubai.
The document included a copy of an invitation letter purportedly issued by TeleStrategies to two senior Palestinian security officers to attend an “ISS World Middle East Intelligence Support Systems Conference” at the Dubai Marriott from March 3-5, 2014.
The date and venue of the conference in the invitation match those on the ISS website.
Palestinian security officials acknowledged in the past, in private conservations, that they were engaged in domestic phone monitoring and other types of surveillance, going back to the 1990s.
However, the latest allegations, if confirmed, suggest spying has become more sophisticated and broader in scope.