The UK’s intelligence agency GCHQ carried out surveillance on the Israeli military, defence firms and diplomatic missions, French newspaper Le Monde has reported, based on leaked documents from whistleblower Edward Snowden.
“The Israelis constitute a true threat to regional security, in particular because of the position of this country with respect to the Iranian dossier," a top secret file from Britain's intelligence-gathering unit reportedly read, despite the UK's professed support for Israel and the closeness between the two countries.
The document dates from 2009, when a Labour government led by Prime Minister Gordon Brown was in office. Mr Snowden worked for GCHQ’s American equivalent, the NSA, before releasing classified documents and fleeing abroad in 2013.
Among those spied on were an unnamed person described as the “second-highest ranking official in the Israeli foreign ministry”, the Israeli ambassadors to Nigeria and Kenya, and a fibre optics firm called Ophir Optronics which has contracts with the Israel Defence Forces, and the and research departments at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Racah Institute of Physics.
GCHQ also monitored official Palestinian communications, including the phone calls of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his two sons. The interceptions were carried out just three weeks before Israel’s offensive on Gaza in January 2009, leading Le Monde to suggest that the information gathered may have helped Israel gear up for the offensive. In other documents in the latest leak, GCHQ workers say that Israeli authorites had thanked them for carrying out spying tasks on their behalf.
The communications of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation secretary general, former Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, and several foreign Palestinian delegations including those in France, Belgium and Pakistan, were also tracked throughout 2009.
Le Monde’s revelation follows a January 2016 story by The Intercept and Der Spiegel which showed that GCHQ and the NSA cracked Israeli army encryption codes in the 1990s and had spied on communications between planes, drones and army bases for a total of 18 years.
The UK and US had used the information collected to monitor the possibility of a strike on Iran at a time when relations between Israel and Iran - at the time governed by hardliner Mahmud Ahmedinijiad, were strained be a series of covert operations against each other.
In 2013, Der Speigel also found that the NSA had been spying on the 2009 phone calls and emails of then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the Minister for Defence, Ehud Barak.