Cyber attack on Israel falls short of promised havoc

Hackers vowed that yesterday's attack would be 'the largest Internet battle in the history of mankind,' waged in defense of freedom, not a particular political preference. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Skyscrapers are seen in this file photo of downtown Tel Aviv.

A much-hyped cyberattack on Israeli websites yesterday caused some disruption, but fell well short of hackers' promise to “wipe Israel off the map of the Internet” and certainly did not turn out to be the “largest Internet battle in the history of mankind.” 

While so-called hactivists have increasingly used the prominent brand of Anonymous to threaten Israel, yesterday’s performance suggests that they don’t always have the means to make as big a splash in cyberspace as promised.

“Sometimes they’re just really not as good as they say they are,” says Guy Mizrachi, chief executive officer of the Israeli data protection consultancy Cyberia, of the weekend attack. “It’s not a flop, but it’s far from taking Israel [off] the Internet.”

Various Anonymous channels broadcast word of the April 7 attack well in advance. Dubbed #opIsrael, it was billed as a continuation of a cybercampaign that started last fall during the conflict between Israel and Hamas-run Gaza. Typically Anonymous uses distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, in which certain websites are deliberately flooded with traffic, causing them to slow to a crawl or shut down altogether. Announcing such an attack ahead of time helps in marshaling the necessary forces from among Anonymous's loose confederation of activists to carry it out. 

Several Israeli government sites were reported to have been briefly shut down or defaced over the weekend, and an estimated 100 Israeli sites – many run by small businesses that haven’t invested in cybersecurity software – were also affected. In addition, hackers posted at least several thousand Israeli e-mail addresses and some credit-card data, although it was unclear whether that personal information may have included some previously hacked data.

Freedom fighters?

Israeli officials and cybersecurity experts played down the impact of the April 7 #opIsrael attack, but many expect another assault in the future. Just how effective it will be depends on who decides to join; the numerous activists operating under the anonymous label are relatively amorphous and have a range of skills.  

In recent years, particularly since the wave of Arab revolts across the region in 2011, Anonymous activists have increasingly aligned themselves with Arab or Muslim interests or taken direct action against Israel.

Some say that shows an anti-Zionist bias. But Gregg Housh, a Boston-based activist associated with Anonymous, says it’s a reflection of the group’s commitment to freedom rather than a certain political leaning among fellow activists. Anonymous events, he says, will draw everyone from devout Republicans to left-leaning Roman Catholics.

“[Anonymous] doesn’t care what you believe: You can believe that a groundhog is your god and your holy land is the Empire State Building. They just want everyone to be free,” says Mr. Housh. “To a lot of people in Anonymous, they see what’s happening to the Palestinians as a form of oppression.”

In a statement published Nov. 19, 2012, during the conflict between Israel and Hamas, Anonymous described itself as “a world wide collective of individuals whose means pursue human rights, justice, and universal equality for the citizens of every nation,” it laid out its case for why Israeli policy in the Palestinian territories constitutes oppression.

“[Palestinians] have no navy, no army, or air force. There is no war in Gaza. There is only the continuous application of military force by Israel in an attempt to push every last person out of the Palestinian state, despite international laws that make these efforts illegal.”

The statement did not mention the thousands of rockets that Gaza militants were sending into Israel, which spiked after Israel’s assassination of a top Hamas leader Nov. 14 and subsequent eight-day campaign of airstrikes.

Since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in 2007, Israel has used a combination of military pressure and an economic blockade to check the power of Hamas, which has not recognized Israel’s right to exist and is considered a terrorist organization by Israel and the West.

Symmetrical warfare

Cyberattacks are perhaps seen by Arab and Muslim groups as one way to level the playing field with Israel, whose military superiority over its neighbors has long been established. But Israel, one of the top nations in the global field of cybersecurity, can play that game as well.

Yesterday, The Times of Israel reported, Israeli hackers brought down dozens of sites in Iran, Turkey, Indonesia, and North African countries, where the anti-Israel cyberattacks originated. In addition, the Israeli Elite Hackers claimed to bring down the websites of Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad for several hours.

Meanwhile, LulzSec hackers – who sometimes work in tandem with Anonymous initiatives – targeted Palestinian Authority websites. They claimed to obtain a gigabyte's worth of documents.

“We r realy sorry for People of Palestine being fooled by scum that rules them,” read a message at the end of the announcement, accusing Palestinian leaders of conspiring with the United States and Israel. “Wake up people of Palestine it’s not about your land or religion – its all about $...”

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