Just how serious was Hamas' recent cyberspying foray into Israeli intelligence? It wasn't a full-fledged breach, but it was embarrassing.
Israeli Channel 10 reported Jan. 11 that the Israeli army and Shin Bet discovered that Hamas operatives had been communicating with Israeli soldiers and officers for months.
After being "outed" by the press, Israel's military admitted its soldiers had been duped, announcing that same day that Hamas had been able to tap dozens of phone calls between Israeli officers and soldiers after luring them to interact with fake Facebook accounts that appeared to be those of attractive women. Israel's long investigation revealed that the real faces behind the fake Facebook accounts belonged to Hamas operatives.
According to Israeli news reports, Hamas operatives had long conversations with their targets to get information about them and their military units. They convinced the soldiers to download a fake chat app containing malware, through which Hamas was able to obtain some sensitive information.
Khaled Safi, a Palestinian engineer specializing in communication networks, told Al-Monitor, “Hamas operatives managed to download spying applications on the phones of Israeli officers and soldiers. The application is called a Trojan horse and can be controlled remotely. They listened to phone calls, read all incoming and outgoing messages and could turn on the phones’ cameras to see inside Israeli military sites on the borders with Gaza. No one knows how important and dangerous the information Hamas operatives were able to gather from soldiers [was], although Israeli intelligence has very advanced technologies it could use to do the same to the Palestinian resistance.”
On Jan. 12, Israeli Channel 2 aired an interview with an anonymous soldier who said he had been lured by Hamas. “A beautiful girl contacted me [on Facebook] and we started talking. After we got to know each other and I started trusting her, she asked me to download a special application for private messaging. I downloaded the application and it did not work, but I kept it on my phone and we went back to chatting on Facebook Messenger. It took me a while to discover that I had fallen into the trap and that I was chatting with a Hamas member.”
The day after that interview, the Israeli army published a report on its website explaining the ruse to soldiers and telling them to be careful while using smartphones.
Islam Shahwan, a professor of security studies at al-Awda University College in Gaza and a former Hamas official, told Al-Monitor, “The fact that Israel admitted this has one of two explanations: Either Hamas did indeed succeed in spying on Israeli soldiers, which raises questions about why Israel would actually admit to that and give Hamas [credit], or Israel is trying to exaggerate Hamas’ security and military capabilities and show Israelis that the movement poses a threat to their country, which could pave the way for a pre-emptive strike against it. Either way, Hamas has military sites all along the Gaza border and it can easily monitor the security situation in Israel without this kind of security breach.”
It was remarkable for Israel to admit to the infiltration. It was also odd that Hamas didn't claim credit for what could be considered a security achievement for the movement, making it even more popular among Palestinians.
Al-Monitor tried to contact Hamas, to no avail. The movement isn't commenting yet.
That hasn't kept others from commenting, however.
Social media users had a field day under the hashtag #Hamas_Hacker. Most tweets made fun of the Israeli army and its "weak" intelligence capabilities. Some Hamas supporters, however, ruled out the Israeli narrative, claiming Hamas would not resort to such a cheap trick, which would contradict its religious values.
Mahmoud Mardawi, a Hamas member who was previously detained and released by Israel under a prisoner exchange deal in 2011 and who follows Israeli affairs closely, told Al-Monitor, “Israel admitted to Hamas’ attempt [as a way to] to shed light on the dangers of technology and exaggerate how much harm it could cause Israel’s security. It wants its soldiers to be more careful while using smartphones … and wants to alert soldiers not to save secret and sensitive information and pictures of military sites on their phones, which could cause severe damage if hostile parties get their hands on them.”
But a senior Palestinian official who refused to be identified told Al-Monitor, “Cyberspace has become a battlefield between Palestinians and Israelis. Palestinians are attacking in three different ways. First, they are hacking into military networking groups, which are a source of security information. Second, they are securing information from Israeli soldiers through fake online dating. Third, Palestinian hackers have been hacking mobile phones of Israeli soldiers in order to locate their whereabouts, tap their calls and track their messages.”
Hamas’ hacking has sparked much controversy within Israeli circles and debates. Israeli military spokesman Avichay Adraee said Jan. 13 that Hamas operatives used sophisticated technology along with Hebrew slang to appear more believable, and used 16 fake online identities to lure Israeli soldiers.
Amir Rababur, an Israeli military expert for Makor Rishon newspaper, said Jan. 13 that Hamas will not halt its cyberspace spying on Israel and that the Israeli army is well aware of the amount of effort Hamas is putting into intelligence work.
Alaa al-Rimawi, director of Al-Quds Center for Studies of Israeli and Palestinian Affairs, told Al-Monitor, “Israel does not only fear that Hamas operatives would have access to military information, but it is also concerned that Hamas might move to the cyber-recruitment of soldiers and officials to help smuggle equipment into Gaza through Israeli crossings.”
Yossi Melman, an Israeli journalist who specializes in security affairs, praised Hamas intelligence officers in a Jan. 12 article in Maariv newspaper for showing master hacking skills. He noted that Hamas has an electronic warfare unit with capabilities to be reckoned with.
However, IsraelDefense magazine begs to differ. In a Jan. 12 website story, reporter Amir Rapaport said Hamas' actions could have been accomplished by any novice hacker and "are a far cry from the cyberwarfare capabilities of Israel and other players in the global cyberwarfare arena." Rapaport called Hamas a "marginal player" in cyberwarfare, adding that the problem arose less from Hamas' skill and more from Israel's failure to properly educate its soldiers.
This is another round of confrontation between Hamas and Israel, one waged without bullets or bombs. The cyberspace battle is led by dozens of fighters from both sides, sitting behind computer screens and smartphones, dealing heavy blows to one another. Although there is no bloodshed, the leaked security and military information could cause a great deal of harm to both sides.