New Delhi: The Modi government in 2017 bought a package of sophisticated weapons and intelligence systems from Israel, with the spyware Pegasus — used to surveille people by hacking their phones — as the centrepiece, claimed a detailed investigation by The New York Times, published Friday.
A missile system was another key component of the $2-billion deal for intelligence gear and weapons, according to the year-long investigation by journalists Ronen Bergman and Mark Mazzetti.
The report discussed how governments around the world had allegedly used the spyware — in Mexico to target dissenters and journalists, and in Saudi Arabia against journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered and dismembered by Saudi operatives in Istanbul in 2018, as well as his associates and women’s rights activists.
It also stated that the US FBI had bought and tested the spyware “for years with plans to use it for domestic surveillance until the agency finally decided last year not to deploy the tools.”
The investigation claimed that Pegasus was supplied to countries including India, Poland, and Hungary under deals by the Israeli defence ministry.
Last year, an investigation by an international consortium of media organisations claimed that Pegasus, a spyware manufactured by the Israeli firm NSO Group, had been used by multiple governments to spy on people including activists, journalists, politicians, and officials, by hacking their mobile phones.
In India, those reportedly snooped on by Pegasus include former Congress president Rahul Gandhi, political strategist Prashant Kishor, Union minister Ashwini Vaishnaw and his wife, former election commissioner Ashok Lavasa, virologist Gagandeep Kang, and Trinamool Congress MP Abhishek Banerjee, along with more than 40 journalists and activists. The Indian government has neither confirmed nor denied that it had obtained or used Pegasus.
Warming relations between India and Israel
The investigation by The New York Times said that for decades, India had maintained a policy of “commitment to the Palestinian cause,” while relations with Israel remained frosty. However, this changed after 2017, when Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi were seen walking together barefoot on a beach during Modi’s trip to Israel.
“They had reason for the warm feelings. Their countries had agreed on the sale of a package of sophisticated weapons and intelligence gear worth roughly $2 billion — with Pegasus and a missile system as the centerpieces,” said the report.
Then, in 2019, Netanyahu made a surprise visit to India — and in June that year, for the first time, India went on to vote in support of Israel at the United Nations Economic and Social Council to deny observer status to a Palestinian human rights organisation.
(Edited by Rohan Manoj)