While Palestinians and Israelis do plenty of fighting on traditional battlefields — the most recent such engagement being the Gaza War of summer 2014 — a new front has emerged that is just as vicious, albeit devoid of bloodshed and bullets. The so-called cyber war is fought on the Internet this time.
The latest round of confrontations between Palestinians and Israelis occurred on the Internet April 9, when Israeli hackers leaked the Palestinian Population Registry containing data on 4 million Palestinians and published personal information about 700 Palestinian Authority employees, among them ministers and journalists.
The Israeli attack came in retaliation for actions by Palestinian hackers April 7, when they penetrated Israeli websites — among them those belonging to the office of the Israeli prime minister, the Ministries of Defense and Education, the Shin Bet, the stock exchange and the Tel Aviv police.
The hacking of Palestinian and Israeli websites can be just as dangerous as conducting military operations on the ground. Attacks on these sensitive websites — such as those belonging to military bases, airports and banks — can potentially result in devastating losses. These attacks could expose bank accounts or military and security installations and are considered a threat to national security.
Al-Monitor’s Ben Caspit discussed in June the cyber war being waged between Palestinians and Israelis, and the pace of the conflict seems to be growing by the day. It is a war of wits and a conflict between minds, leading to concern and confusion in the ranks of security agencies on both sides of the border.
A Palestinian security official who requested anonymity told Al-Monitor, “Gaza security agencies succeeded in uncovering the identities of dozens of spies recruited by Israeli intelligence through a specific website. This was accomplished when Palestinian technology experts penetrated the servers of an Israeli security agency and retrieved the list of agents kept there.”
Ashraf Mushtaha, a Gaza computer and IT security expert, explained to Al-Monitor, “Israeli intelligence services use the Internet and social networking sites to spread rumors, conduct psychological warfare against the Palestinian people and recruit agents. [They do this] by taking advantage of the Palestinians’ misuse of the Internet and their laxity in appreciating the real danger posed by Israeli security agencies on the Web.”
Israeli intelligence services can sometimes track down wanted Palestinians through the Internet, as was the case with Hamza Abu al-Haija, a leader in Hamas’ military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) uncovered Haija’s location through his Facebook account, leading to his assassination in March 2014.
Prominent Gaza blogger Khaled Safi told Al-Monitor, “Israeli intelligence services try to bring down Palestinian activists on the Internet. Toward that end, Israeli intelligence operatives impersonate certain figures and adopt various extravagant Facebook identities that appeal to Palestinians, such as by calling themselves ‘Lover of the Cause’ or ‘Defender of Jerusalem.’”
Thus, it is no secret that Israeli intelligence closely monitors social networking sites frequented by Palestinians to track any intention to perpetrate armed attacks against Israelis.
Israeli intelligence services arrested a number of Palestinians in Jerusalem last December after they posted on social networking sites their intent to commit armed attacks. Their writings were carefully documented, as well as the “likes” and replies they received.
The Facebook page of Avichai Adraee, the IDF’s Arabic spokesman, is a site of intense electronic clashes between Palestinians and Israelis, where political stances and insults are aired, particularly during times of bloody confrontation.
Palestinian activist Mokhlis Borzok told Al-Monitor, “The pages of Israeli political and military figures are not personal, but published by the military intelligence apparatus. They are of an espionage nature, overseen by a specialized Israeli team that monitors every syllable and word and records reactions to whatever is published thereon. They are used to advance the interests of the Israeli enemy in its psychological, moral and media war waged against Palestinians. Any contribution made to those pages facilitates spying and the uncovering of Palestinian secrets.”
Electronic warfare between Palestinians and Israelis is highly dangerous. Both sides have conducted attacks and counter attacks, tightened surveillance on all forms of electronic communication, attacked the technical capabilities of the other factions and established security teams tasked with tackling those threats.
Despite the ferocity of the technological confrontation, Palestinian efforts to address the risks of Israeli attacks remain confined to individuals or disparate groups. No central agency coordinates their activities, as awareness spreads about the use and dangers of the Internet and how they can be addressed.
Al-Monitor learned from anonymous security sources in Gaza that Hamas intelligence agencies have established secret counter-hacking units and departments tasked with countering Israeli attacks and preparing Palestinian attacks against Israeli websites.
Last October, the popular Hamas-run Palestine Dialogue Forum published a detailed report about Israeli recruitment of new agents through the Internet.
In addition, a high-ranking Gaza security officer, who requested anonymity, told Al-Monitor, “Gaza security agencies arrested, in past years, agents recruited by Israeli intelligence services through the Internet and social networking sites, with those Israeli departments also being tasked with penetrating computers on Palestinian territories and finding back doors to operating systems, allowing them access to all information and data stored on those computers, with that information subsequently used to blackmail victims.”
It seems that while Palestinian fighters are taking a break from the military confrontations with the IDF, other battles are raging in which fighters are using computers instead of rifles. While the Palestinians' military operations were limited to Gaza's environs in the past, they are now waging their bloody battles with Israelis across the virtual world.
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