Hybrid wars in the Middle East – Israel responds in “real-time” to Hamas

An student issue analysis for MIS41240 at University College Dublin.

Written by Benjamin Hoz, Summer 2019. Dublin.

In 2001, the terrorist group Hamas launched their first rocket at Israel, marking the beginning of strenuous efforts by the Islamic militant terrorists to destroy Israel with heavy artillery. Their attacks left no room for discussion – there would not be a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When the so-called “conquest of Palestine” marked its 40 years in 2007, the then Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh made his position clear in an interview, stating “the issue of recognition of Israel has been settled once and for all” in particular, through “our political literature, in our Islamic thought and in our Jihadist culture, on which we base our moves”. He further added that an independent Palestine had been advocated since 1967 “with Jerusalem as its capital and the return of the refugees. In exchange for all that, we will declare a truce, but no recognition of Israel.” So, the Palestinians are ready to put down their weapons when their claims are met, but this is unlikely to happen. How have the relations been recently? According to research, the number of rockets from the Gaza strip hit a peak of 3,852 rockets fired at Israel in 2014 during Operation Protective Edge. The fire and brimstone from the decade before had been relatively low with numbers of rockets ranging between 39 and 1,159 rockets per annum. There was much activity from the Gaza strip in 2018, with 1,119 rockets launched.

Airstrikes by the IDF destroyed the building from where the cyberattacks against Israel supposedly originated from

Above is a brief outline of the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas over the last two decades. Recent events have changed that landscape, most notably when Hamas started attacking Israel in the form of cyberattacks. Although the nature of the cyberattack is unknown, the aim was to harm the country’s stability and sovereignty. Cyber-attacking is nothing new, having been used by other powerful nations such as China, Russia, the US and countries in the Middle East. As a matter of fact, the Middle East has become a hotspot for cyberattacks as it has the densest ICT networks and the highest number of internet users in the world. That makes the area very vulnerable and attractive for cyber attackers.

A real turning point in the Israel-Palestine conflict happened at the beginning of May this year, when the Israel Defence Force responded to the Hamas cyberattack not by a counter-cyberattack – but in form of a physical attack. Airstrikes by the IDF destroyed the building from where the cyberattacks against Israel supposedly originated from. But that’s only one part of the turning point in modern warfare. The most prominent fact is that the military response happened immediately, almost in “real-time”. That speed of retaliation is unprecedented compared to the killing of ISIS computer hacker Junaid Hussain in 2015. Back then it took several months of preparation before US air strikes could eliminate the enemy.

The incident in May gives rise to some important questions. Why has the state of Israel responded to a cyberattack with an airstrike and not by a counter-cyberattack? International humanitarian laws include the principle of proportionality that requires “the effects of the means and methods of warfare used must not be disproportionate to the military advantage sought.” In other words, a cyberattack should be responded by another cyberattack. One can say that the recent real-time bombing of the Hamas headquarters that was used for cyberattacks was obviously disproportioned. Maybe it was necessary to use such powerful forces to stem all opportunities to repeat a cyberattack by Hamas once for all – as IDF emphasized: “Hamas no longer has cyber capabilities after our strike.”

The destruction of Hamas’ capabilities to launch cyberattacks against Israel is without a doubt a shift in paradigm. Although met with some disapproval, from an Israeli point of view it made sense to “erase” every potential cyber threat from Hamas in order to significantly reduce the chance of another cyberattack. There was a real threat that Hamas would try to hack and exfiltrate data from the Israeli government and businesses or to attack critical infrastructure. That sounds like an excuse – but since Israel has been surrounded by countries that don’t acknowledge its sovereignty, Israel demonstrated their military abilities by conducting “hybrid warfare” in real-time. IDF asserted their military capability bluntly: no matter the attacks – whether “kinetic” or virtual – Israel acknowledged that it is capable and ready to respond quickly and decisively to enemy attacks.

Israel’s kinetic response to a cyberattack was also a test for other nations and international humanitarian laws. How will the global landscape change? Will other nations follow with hybrid wars? How Hamas and their supporters will react in the future is an intriguing and important question. Will Hamas increase their technological capabilities in light of the attack? Is Iran – as a well-known Hamas supporter – going to raise funds for improved cyberwar technologies against Israel? Perhaps Hamas won’t be able to or won’t want to repeat their cyberattacks, realizing their limited capabilities for cyberwar against the superior Israeli cyber forces. But, there is also the very real threat that Hamas will come back even stronger— “virtually”—in the future. It is clear that Israel’s kinetic “real-time” response proved decisive against Hamas’ cyber attack.