As Israeli artillery and aircraft relentlessly pound Gaza, Palestinians and their supporters are trying to strike back — in cyberspace, by launching Internet attacks on Israeli websites.
The attacks show how cyberspace has become the new battleground. Israel’s military and Hamas terrorists already have engaged in a war of words on Twitter.
But the cyberassault, under the umbrella of the leaderless hacker collective Anonymous, appears to be having little impact on the Israeli government’s Web presence. It appears to have taken down only sites belonging to small businesses and individuals, including pro-Israel bloggers in the United States.
Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz told reporters over the weekend that operation “Pillar of Defense” — the Israeli military code name for the offensive in Gaza — now had “a second front of cyberattacks against Israel.”
Mr. Steinitz said that in the past four days, Israel had “deflected” 44 million attacks on government websites. “All the attacks were thwarted except for one,” which took a targeted website offline for six or seven minutes, he said.
He did not name the affected site or give details about the nature of the attacks. Neither his spokesman nor the Israeli Embassy in Washington responded to a request for clarification.
The minister credited Israel’s investment in hardening its computer infrastructure.
“We are enjoying the fruits of our investment in recent years in developing computerized defense systems,” he said. “This is an unprecedented attack, and our success has been greater than we anticipated.”
The attacks began last week, after a call issued in the name of Anonymous.
A statement posted online, couched in the group’s trademark fiery rhetoric, said: “When the government of Israel publicly threatened to sever all Internet and other telecommunications into and out of Gaza they crossed a line in the sand.”
“We are ANONYMOUS and NO ONE shuts down the Internet on our watch,” the statement declared.
Like all Anonymous “operations,” as the hackers label their protests, this one was given a name, #OpIsrael. The attacks were coordinated via Internet chat rooms called channels.
The Finance Ministry said there typically are a few hundred hacking attempts a day on Israeli government sites. The 44 million attacks in the four days since #OpIsrael started represents a massive growth in the cyberassaults.
“The [Anonymous] channels were packed,” said Gabriella Coleman of McGill University in Montreal, who studies the hacker subculture and keeps abreast of the ongoing online conversation within Anonymous.
“There was tons of a support” for #OpIsrael,” she said.
Some of the group’s supporters, known as Anons, also were distributing so-called “digital care packages” in English, Arabic and Hebrew, she said.
The “care packages” are a set of electronic documents containing instructions for avoiding Internet surveillance and connecting to the Web if the authorities try to cut off access, as the Egyptian and Tunisian governments did last year in the face of popular uprisings.
Other observers suggested that the scale and targets of #OpIsrael showed the diminished state of Anonymous, after the arrests of more than a dozen hackers associated with the group and with a splinter group called LulzSec.
“As the days go by, we’re seeing a weak, confused Anon, not a group of Internet freedom fighters,” wrote Sam Biddle, an editor at the news website Gizmodo, calling its latest campaign “embarrassing.”
He added that most of the websites that the group claimed in Internet postings to have successfully knocked down or defaced appear to belong to small businesses, many with no discernible connection to the Israeli military. A brief survey of the lists released by Anonymous revealed none in the government domain, gov.il.
Security specialists say it is no accident that the Web servers of Israeli government departments and large commercial enterprises have proved hard to take off line.
“From my foxhole,” said a former U.S. military cyberwarrior, who asked for anonymity because of the sensitivities of his current employer, “Israel has known for at least a decade that they could be attacked.”
He noted that the country had hardened its Internet infrastructure in both the public and private sector.
“They have spent a lot of money, invested in training their people, especially at the advanced technical level like Ph.D.s,” said the former cyberwarrior, who still works in cybersecurity.
The information-sharing between government agencies and the private sector in is Israel is “better than any other country in the world,” he added.
“The war is taking place on three fronts,” said Carmela Avner, Israel’s chief information officer. “The first is physical. The second is on the world of social networks, and the third is cyber.”