Israel wages covert online battle

An Egyptian man shouts anti-Israeli slogans in front of banners with the BDS logo. BDS lobbies academic institutions, companies and artists to sever ties with Israel and promotes Palestinians' fight for independence.


TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israel is using its world-leading expertise in cybersecurity to take on the growing threat of the global pro-Palestinian movement to boycott Israel.

The Israeli government recently allotted nearly $26 million in this year's budget to combat what it sees as worldwide efforts to "delegitimize" the Jewish state's right to exist.

Some of the funds are earmarked for Israeli tech companies, many of them headed by former military intelligence officers, for digital initiatives aimed at gathering intelligence on activist groups and countering their efforts.

"I want to create a community of fighters," said Sima Vaknin-Gil, the director general of Israel's Ministry for Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy, to Israeli tech developers at a forum last month dedicated to the topic.

Initiatives are largely being kept covert.

Among the government officials involved in the efforts are some of Israel's top secret-keepers, including Sima Shine, a former top official in the Mossad spy agency, and Vaknin-Gil, who recently retired as the chief military censor responsible for gag orders on state secrets.

Israel has established itself as a world leader in cybertechnology innovation, fueled by graduates of prestigious and secretive military and security intelligence units.

These units are widely thought to be behind some of the world's most advanced cyberattacks, including the Stuxnet virus that attacked Iran's nuclear energy equipment last decade.

Each year, these units churn out a talent pool of Israelis who translate their skills to the corporate world. Now, Israel is looking to harness their technological prowess for the fight to protect Israel's international image.

Vaknin-Gil said her ministry is encouraging initiatives to expose the funding and curb the activities of anti-Israel activists, as well as campaigns to "flood the Internet" with content that puts a positive face on Israel.

She said that some of these actions will not be publicly identified with the government but that the ministry will not fund unethical or illegal digital initiatives.

Established about 10 years ago, the pro-Palestinian "BDS" campaign is a coalition of organizations that advocate boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel.

Inspired by the anti-apartheid movement, BDS organizers say they are using nonviolent means to promote the Palestinian struggle for independence.

The movement has grown into a global network of thousands of volunteers, from campus activists to church groups to liberal Jews disillusioned by Israeli policies. They lobby corporations, artists and academic institutions to sever ties with Israel.

The movement has made inroads. U.S. and British academic unions have endorsed boycotts, student governments at universities have made divestment proposals, and some famous musicians have refused to perform in Israel.

The BDS movement also claims responsibility for pressuring some large companies to stop or modify operations in Israel.

Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the BDS movement, said "quite a few Web pages" that BDS websites linked to have mysteriously disappeared from the Internet.

"We assume Israel's cybersabotage is ongoing, but we are quite pleased that its detrimental impact on the global BDS movement has been dismal so far," he said.

Israel says the movement is rooted in anti-Semitism and seeks not to change Israeli policies but ultimately to put an end to the Jewish state.

Many online activists driving anti-Israeli campaigns on social media are tech-savvy, secondand third-generation Muslims in Europe and the U.S. who have grievances against the West and also lead online campaigns against European and U.S. governments, said Elad Ratson, who tracks the issue for Israel's Foreign Ministry and spoke at last month's cybersecurity forum.

He said they often create code that allows activists to blast thousands of messages from social media accounts — creating the illusion that many protesters are sharing the same anti-Israel or anti-West message online.

Israeli officials lobby Facebook to remove pages it says incite violence against Israelis, and there has been talk of advancing legislation to restrict Facebook in Israel.

A Facebook representative met with Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan in Israel last week about the matter.

Ratson said social media giants are beginning to close inciting users' accounts. Twitter said in a statement this month that since mid-2015, it has closed more than 125,000 accounts that were "threatening or promoting terrorist acts, primarily related to ISIS," the Islamic State.

But Ratson said Islamist activists are simply moving to "Darknet" sites not visible on the open Internet.

Some Israeli tech companies are starting to build sly algorithms to restrict these online activists' circle of influence on the "Darknet," so activists think their message is reaching others when in fact it is being contained, Ratson said.

Other Israeli companies work on forensic intelligence gathering, such as detecting digital or semantic signatures buried in activists' coding so they are able to track and restrict their online activity.

Commenting is limited to Omaha World-Herald subscribers. To sign up, click here.

If you're already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Please keep it clean, turn off CAPS LOCK and don't threaten anyone. Be truthful, nice and proactive. And share with us - we love to hear eyewitness accounts.

You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.