Rebooting Israel’s cyber wars

Salah Nasrawi , Tuesday 11 Jan 2022

Despite reports of closing down a key media monitoring agency, Israel is escalating its cyber-warfare capabilities against Arabs, writes Salah Nasrawi

Rebooting Israel s cyber wars

Avichay Adraee, the top Arabic-speaking spokesman for the Israeli military, has a reputation as a no-nonsense. For more than a decade, he has been the head of the Arab media division of the Israeli occupation forces and has often found himself in the spotlight.

Adraee, whose family hails from Middle Eastern Jewish origin, has become a household name across the region, ruffling some feathers and drawing attention to Israel’s newly adopted strategy of propaganda warfare.

From his computer in Tel Aviv, Adraee’s messages in fluent Arabic have been attracting attention by communicating Israel’s intentions to the Arab public.

“The Arab peoples know what they want if they are left to decide. Is it not so,” he recently asked in a tweet in response to a question from an Aljazeera broadcaster who had polled his audience on whose reputation was worse in the region, that of Israel or that of Iran.

Adraee’s confrontational approach seems designed to trigger exchanges with the Arabs on social media, though most of his posts are pedantic or cynical and his style mimics Israel’s increasing belligerence towards its enemies.

The goal of the Israeli intelligence officer seems to be to spin everything as part of Israel’s “soft war” to impose its narrative in this exceptionally volatile period in the long Arab-Israeli struggle.

Cyber-operations have become Israel’s tool of choice to gain intelligence superiority over its Arab neighbours and to control the narrative of Middle East conflicts despite scepticism that in the age of cyberspace the strategy could be futile.

Since at least its establishment in 1948, Israel has forged a sophisticated network of agencies that perform espionage on the Arab states and has also formed various spy rings and conducted many propaganda and disinformation operations.

While Mossad is responsible primarily for foreign-intelligence work along with Aman, the military intelligence branch of the Israeli army, there are also other agencies active in Israel’s shadow war against the Arabs.

One of Israel’s entities established to focus on obtaining and analysing intelligence information from Arab sources is Hatzav, a unit within Aman intended to gather information from publicly available materials about the Palestinians and the Arab world.

The unit was initially responsible for monitoring traditional media sources in the Arab world such as newspapers, radio and television, but it later shifted its attention to the Internet and social media such as Facebook, Twitter and other online platforms.

Hatzav’s monitors, mainly army recruits, provide information that can support intelligence insights channelled to the Israeli military’s command chain. The task is fulfilled by the unit’s personnel without leaving their offices in Israel.

Surprisingly, the Israeli military decided last month to downgrade Hatzav after a review that also considered shutting it down. The Israeli media reported that the decision was made by director of military intelligence Herzl Halevi.

It is unclear why Israel has downgraded Hatzav, but a spokesman of the occupation forces said the move was made for professional reasons and would not affect the activities or importance of the unit.

Some reports have suggested, however, that the occupation forces contracted civilian Israeli firms to monitor Internet traffic, and this outsourcing may have been behind the talk of closing Hatzav.

Israel has unofficially outsourced some of its intelligence work to private organisations that collect anti-Israel sentiments in the Palestinian media and are associated with right-wing politics.

Since the outset, Israel’s appetite for data about the Arab world has been one of the biggest open secrets of modern intelligence. With the advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and other emerging technologies, Israel has sought to master data-gathering, supercomputing and analytics in its conflicts with its neighbours.

Hatzav is part of a larger information-gathering unit in Aman known as Unit 8200. Though this dates back to the period of the British Mandate in Palestine in the 1930s, its existence was barely acknowledged until a decade ago.

The unit, known in Hebrew as Shin Mem 2 (information service), played a key role in efforts by Zionist militias in the 1948 War and in later wars against the Arabs.

Along with other spy agencies, it became part of the myth of Israel’s national security expertise, showing that Israel is ahead of the game when compared to its regional rivals in cyber-warfare.

But a turning point in the history of the unit came in October 1973 when Israel was caught off guard by the surprise offensive that Egypt and Syria launched to liberate territories captured six years earlier by the Israeli army.

It was the largest intelligence failure in Israel’s history, as its famed spy organisations bungled in providing warning of the war on the horizon. The result was national humiliation for Israel and a reboot for its intelligence agencies, including Aman and its information-gathering units.

However, today’s efforts to restructure Israel’s cyber-warfare units seem different from the moment of national soul-searching that followed its defeat in the 1973 War with the Arabs, making many ask what is now planned.

Israel remains ahead of many of its rivals in waging cyber-operations, and there is no reason to believe that it will abandon its investment in offensive and defensive cyber-capabilities.

Israel continues to claim that it is facing severe threats including cyber-attacks from its regional rivals. It remains committed to taking preemptive action to blunt its enemies’ intentions.

Over recent years, Israel has engaged Iran in a covert cyber-conflict that has been targeting the latter’s nuclear programme. The Israeli attacks have been so diversified that they have seeped into Iranian civilian life, including the country’s railroads and fuel-distribution networks and its banking system.

The efforts, which are aimed at slowing down Iran’s progress in its nuclear plans, climaxed in late 2020 with the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the father of Iran’s nuclear programme, by using AI and a satellite connection to trigger a machinegun mounted on a parked pickup truck, spraying him with bullets.

While Israel’s cyber-warfare with Iran remains ongoing and aims at the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme, its cyber-offensive on the Arab world is marked by “non-belligerency” and aims to challenge the Arab narrative in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The Israeli offensive, as exemplified by Adraee’s social-media crusade, aims both to demoralise the Arabs and to discredit their claims about Palestine, targeting their mindsets and decision-making through human inputs, emerging technologies and smart algorithms.

The decision to downgrade Hatzav thus seems to be an upgrading and rearranging of priorities to provide Israel’s intelligence community with more resources to cope with the new era of normalisation with the Arab world following the signing of agreements between Israel and several Arab countries in 2020-2021.

The Arab-Israeli conflict has shaped 20th-century Middle Eastern geopolitics, and Israel’s advancing cyber-capabilities are adding another domain to the struggle. They should become part of the regional public discourse at a time of greater electronic connectivity and increasing online culture.

The new push to cloak cyber-operations behind civilian entities in Israel comes with new norms at various international technology forums to integrate the service with civilian models in order to achieve greater efficiency.

A report in the US magazine Forbes in 2016 detailed electronic startups in Israel working in the business of intelligence-gathering. The report disclosed that most of these companies were established by former members of Hatzav or Unit 8200.

According to the Israeli media, these private entities have established a sophisticated network of hackers who have a wide customer base in the government, military, public security, telecommunications and finance.

A few have been contracted by the occupation forces to monitor Internet traffic and additional outsourcing will likely be added in future.

The implications of Israel’s growing cyber-operations on the national security of the Arab countries are many and game-changing, ranging from electronic espionage and information-gathering to psychological warfare.

Are the Arab nations hacking back? “They are trying,” say Israeli experts.

Meanwhile, Iran seems to have already hit back at Israel, since according to the Israeli website Ynetnews, cyber-attacks emanating from Iran have targeted Israel’s infrastructure in addition to its military and intelligence computers.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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