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Israel and the electronic war

January 24, 2014 at 11:29 am

Despite the wide scale reaction caused by recent electronic attacks on Israel which targeted ministry websites and government facilities on the internet, it may be asserted that this attack is far from being electronic warfare of significant concern to the government and its strategic think tanks which work around the clock to protect the country from harm.

What stirs fear in Israel is facing an electronic attack that directly targets its strategic facilities connected to the internet, such as infrastructure (electricity, water, transportation, and banking … etc.), leadership committees, military control networks and satellites as well as all advanced technologies connected to the internet.

Scenario of Israeli panic

Israel believes in a hypothesis that says the higher the level of technology that is used in its infrastructure facilities and sensitive civil and military institutions, the higher the chances of them becoming susceptible to “hostile” electronic attack. This, it is believed, will not only bring to a standstill the functioning of these facilities and institutions and lead to paralysis in the life of the state, but could even lead to the death of a large number of civilians and militants.

It is very important that we give a small example that explains the size of damages that Israel is afraid it may incur as a result of an electronic attack on its infrastructure such as the damage that could result from attacks on the computerized control that manages traffic lights.

A number of Israeli officials warned that any hostile side that had the ability to access electronic control panels in the traffic system could cause the death of hundreds of Israelis in minutes; settings of these controls could be changed activating green lights in opposite directions at the same time, which would lead to the death and injury of a large number of people in sure-to-happen traffic accidents.

Damages resulting from attacks on the computerized controls that manage traffic lights are considered little as compared to possible damage that would result from targeting more vital facilities. For example, Israel is afraid that “hostile” entities may be able to access computerized controls at Ben Gurion airport and cause crashes between planes that are taking off and others that are landing, or to jam systems that control the height of planes through take off so they would crash with each other or with natural obstacles.

Using the same mechanisms, Israel’s supply of electricity, water and various communications services could also be disturbed. What applies to civil facilities can also apply to various military facilities which are controlled by computers, specifically military manufacturing facilities.

For example, Israel fears that the monitoring system at a factory that manufactures military armour would be disturbed in a manner that could lead to its explosion, in addition to influencing control units tied to air defence in order to target Israeli military or civil planes.

Israel is also panicking about the possibility of “catastrophic” results due to electronic war in which “hostile” parties could access computerized systems which mange petrochemical factories leading to unwanted reactions that could result in clouds of poisonous gases and lead to large numbers of people dying, in addition to the environmental catastrophes that could result. 

Offensive strategy

Israel realizes that the scenario of terror mentioned above could be realized if someone possessed the electronic abilities that could allow it to carry out this level of hacking, and it believes such abilities are only available to countries that have major capabilities in the electronic field.

Thus, it thinks that initiatives taken by hackers usually do not succeed in accessing computerized control boards that are associated with infrastructure or the different military systems because hackers are not qualified to hack into the defence mechanisms linked to such systems.

Israel’s sensitivity and fear regarding the dangers of an electronic war are mainly due to the fact that it understands the hidden potential in electronic war, as it practices this kind of war on a significant scale in an attempt to achieve tactical and strategic goals.

It is no longer a secret that Israel, in cooperation with the United States, managed in 2009 to disable the centrifuge on which Iran depends for enriching uranium by using the “Stuxnet” virus. Israeli Minister of War, Moshe Ya’alon, did not hesitate to admit that Israel was responsible for the electronic attack which sensitive Iranian computerized systems were subjected to in June 2012 via the “Flame” virus.
Moreover, in September 2006 Israel hacked into the control panels responsible for directing Syrian air defences the night Israeli planes launched an air attack against the Syrian nuclear facility near Deir ez-Zor in north-eastern Syria. It disabled these systems which lessened the chances of exposing raiding planes to Syrian air defences.

In addition to this violent use of it capabilities, there is also the “smooth” use of electronic warfare which Israel has been working on for years. Members of Israeli intelligence employ social networks to recruit agents by using false identities. Data provided by Palestinian security services confirm that based on the interrogations of people who confessed to collaborating with Israel, it was found that they were recruited to work for Israel after having virtual relationships with Intelligence members who pose as Palestinians on social networks.

It is clear that electronic warfare has become one of the main tools used by Israel to achieve its strategic goals without getting involved in an open confrontation with targeted sides. An example of this is the attacks on computers at Iranian nuclear facilities as it would not be easy to provide concrete evidence that proves the responsibility of a certain side for hacking into these systems.

Cyberspace has become a major part of Israel’s offensive strategy and is now employed in the military efforts adopted by Tel Aviv as part of its comprehensive strategy. The Israeli army took a major step in 2009 when it announced that cyberspace had become one of its strategic operational fields.

Thus, the army established an “electronic warfare committee” which is part of the Israeli staff army leadership and whose task it is to coordinate and plan electronic warfare operations, and in doing so, is copying the US which has already established an “electronic war committee”.

Defence strategy

Israel, which pays so much attention to employing electronic warfare in its military efforts, has realized that one day it could be attacked by the same mechanisms. To avoid such a scenario of terror, Israel has formed a comprehensive defence strategy to use in cyberspace.

On May 18th, Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, announced the establishment of “the national committee for electronic warfare” with the main aim of taking defence measure which can provide protection for cyberspace and protection for infrastructure and civil and military facilities connected to cyberspace. According to the announcement, the aim of establishing this committee was to expand the defence capabilities for dealing with any type of electronic warfare launched by either countries or organizations.

This committee is responsible for all military and civil wings participating in this effort and works in coordination with Shabak’s “official authority for protecting information” and the “Tehilla” company which provides web browsing services to the ministries and their institutions.

Those working in the committee realize that the biggest challenge facing them is designing a comprehensive electronic defence system knowing that formulating such a system requires prior coordination and full cooperation between civil and military institutions, unlike in the traditional military field which is controlled solely by the security institution.

The new committee works on the principle that coordination and cooperation between civil and security institutions is very important, because it is difficult to differentiate between civil and military infrastructure in cyberspace. At the same time, and even though the security institution is the one directing electronic warfare against external sides, it realizes that improving defensive abilities requires cooperation and coordination with the private sector, especially advanced technical companies considering that they have large skills and capabilities in the field of cyberspace.

Interest in electronic warfare in Israel has reached the point that there are now calls within the security institute and the external and security committee of the Knesset to re-formulate Israeli security doctrine, which was first formulated in the early fifties, so as to fit with cyberspace warfare now.

Finally, the outperformance of some parties in the field of electronic warfare depends mainly on Israel’s ability to employ and use its own resources, mainly human resources. So if there was an Arab or Islamic party concerned with retaliation against Israel in the field of electronic warfare, it would have to invest in the preparation of suitable human teams in suitable learning environments so as to guarantee the required outcomes.

Needless to say, the national democratic political regimes are those keen on doing all they can to employ the internal resources of their countries.

The author is a Palestinian writer. This article is translation of the Arabic which first appeared on Al Jazeera, 12/4 2013

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.