Israel & Palestine: To Cyberwar

It was particularly – if also perversely – interesting to watch Israel wage its quasi-digital offensive against Hamas. The internet wasn’t just a tool for broadcasting their cyberwar message, it was an integral part of the conflict.


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A spate of deadly conflict breaks out, the latest collapse in the notoriously unstable Israel-Palestine quest for peace. Lives are lost – as one might expect in any armed conflict – including those of no small number of innocents. However, in November 2012 there was a difference: the conflict was carried out through a complicated blend of online-offline skirmishes.

Elsewhere, and a scant few weeks later, the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), which “was supposed to be simple and straight-forward… Insert a few platitudes about the importance of universal communications access. Celebrate internationalism, congratulate the ITU on its stewardship of the negotiations, and go home“, failed spectacularly the minute the internet became an issue.

This probably isn’t surprising, given that the lead-up to the Conference supported events like a panel asking whether the WCIT would spell “the end of the internet.” Nonetheless, internet policy advocates looking to move forward after the WCIT would do well to pay attention to the Israel-Palestine conflict, and what it suggests about the relationship between businesses, individuals, and governments online.

As a scholar of cyberlaw and international cyberconflict, I found it particularly – if, admittedly, also perversely – interesting to watch Israel wage its quasi-digital offensive against Hamas. The internet wasn’t just a tool for broadcasting their message, it seemed to be an integral part of the conflict.

Yes it was, in part, a war of images broadcast into cyberspace in an attempt to win hearts and minds for each side’s cause, and the internet undeniably has greatly leveled the playing field in this regard. It also had more immediate, on-the-ground implications; as one commentator observed when describing the internet’s role in the conflict: “This is something new.”

Israel began the conflict with a tweet, warning “We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces in the days ahead.” Hamas, as one might expect, responded with an assertion – also via twitter – that they would retaliate in kind. If it had stopped there, or even with the myriad tweets to come in subsequent days, it might have simply been the typical political posturing of leaders in conflict situations.

Instead, Israel took it further: they posted a YouTube video showing the strike that killed a prominent Hamas leader. This type of public display of violence and force is very much part of the act of war itself, and its introduction into the online sphere (by a government, no less) is unprecedented. It is striking to consider that a “country can declare — via Twitter — that it is at war,” and, beyond that, continue to carry out the various actions of war online.

The internet, moreover, allowed private citizens– once relegated either to enlistment or ideological battles on the sidelines– to get involved as well. Anonymous quickly responded to a purported threat against Palestinian internet access by hacking Israeli websites. More telling still, once a cease-fire was declared, cyberattacks against both Israeli and Palestinian websites increased by a huge margin.

And therein lies the rub.

Governments not only have new means by which to wage war, but sympathetic citizens and outsiders can easily inflict widespread damage to ideological opponents without any of the messy concerns that the acts might be found attributable to the state (the standard for which, the International Court of Justice tells us, is whenever the state can be said to have effective control of a third party– a high standard, but not an impossible one, particularly when cyberattacks require so much less to enable them).

Governments thus have simply too much to lose for any attempt to raise the internet as a telecommunications issue, or even as a trade issue, to succeed.

The WCIT was replete with examples of just such a discourse, with debates about the internet often being framed as “a global split between those countries that favor openness or “Internet freedom” and those that want to control their citizens’ activities online.”

(Consider, for instance, the US State Department’s assertion: “We believe [the proposed] provisions reflect an attempt by some governments to regulate the Internet and its content, potentially paving the way for abuse of power, censorship and repression.”)

The true story is more complicated, of course – the foregoing discussion should underline that all governments, in favor of “freedom” or not, have a stake in internet governance that serves to strengthen their own power. The internet is, as Babak Rahimi highlights, a space of contestation where states seek to negotiate the boundaries of their power against both their own citizens and other states.

Thus, internet policy and international law – particularly as it relates to international conflict – are deeply intertwined in ways that ideological battles about protection of certain core rights, on the one hand, and cybersecurity, on the other, fail to capture. Individuals from both fields must attempt to integrate their insights to create policies that take into account the internet’s unique role in our public and private lives.


Photo credit: Vectorportal

One thought on “Israel & Palestine: To Cyberwar”

  1. I found this very interesting.

    The only gripe I have with this piece is the claim that this case can be considered a ‘cyber-war’ – which I do not believe it can. It should be borne in mind that all known instances of politically motivated cyber-attack are essentially modern versions of three activities; ‘sabotage’, ‘subversion’, and ‘espionage’. Whilst these may be as ancient as warfare, they do not constitute an act of war in the classic Clausewitzian sense, as the three constitutive elements of ‘war’ are not present: violence and the potential lethality of the act, the direct instrumental imposition of will, and political impetus and so discernible culpability.

    Sabotaging a government website whether by hacking, defacing, or deploying a DDOS attack, or even attempting to subvert a population or win international support via media propaganda and an aggressive PR campaign, (whilst utilising a high level of technical expertise and complexity) is not by its nature explicitly instrumental, let alone violent. Sabotaging, espionage or subversion may indeed be an integral part of a military campaign, but their utility in warfare (even in a digital sense) are by no means a recent development eg. Georgia. No building has ever been destroyed by malicious code, no person has ever died.

    Whilst this may only be a matter of semantics, it is actually an extremely important distinction to make. Especially when considering a cyber-attack as casus belli for a traditional, kinetic, military offensives – where people are actually hurt and real lives are lost. As academics specialising in cyber security, I see our role as providing a level of analytical objectivity, including the language we choose to use, and not needlessly reinforcing sensationalist public discourses, and apocalyptic moral panics over cyber-attacks (think Panetta’s almost Nostradamian “cyber Pearl Harbour” predictions, or Vanity Fair’s Stuxnet analogy as the “Hiroshima of cyber-war”) The end-of-days, Cold War-esque rhetoric surrounding cyber security has become an recurrent narrative in both Washington and Whitehall, I hope we can avoid it in academia.

    Again, interesting piece. I look forward to your next article.

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