New evidence indicates Israel may be directly involved in attacks on the websites of the Palestinian BDS National Committee and other organizations supporting Palestinian rights.
The report came just days after a senior Israel lobby official indicated that Israel’s previously announced plans to fight the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions movement online were already being implemented.
The online security service eQualit.ie analyzed six major attacks on the bdsmovement.net website in February and March this year.
These distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks involve flooding a website with traffic generated by botnets, overwhelming the site and making it inaccessible to legitimate users. Such attacks can last hours or sometimes days.
“Attackers build networks of infected computers, known as ‘botnets,’ by spreading malicious software through emails, websites and social media,” according to Digital Attack Map, a Google-sponsored project that tracks DDoS attacks. “Once infected, these machines can be controlled remotely, without their owners’ knowledge, and used like an army to launch an attack against any target.”
“While DDoS has been used as a sign of protest, this is an excellent example of how DDoS attacks can also be used to silence activists and organizations,” Jillian C. York, director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group that works to defend civil liberties in the digital world, told The Electronic Intifada.
In its investigation, eQualit.ie found that one of the botnets that attacked the bdsmovement.net website had also been used to target an Israeli human rights group.
A substantial number of the computers in that botnet were also used to attack another Israeli media organization during the same time period.
The primary similarities of the targeted sites, according to eQualit.ie, “can be found in their emphasis on issues relevant to the protection of human rights in the occupied territories and exposing violations in the ongoing conflict.”
The online security organization has promised to present more detailed findings on these connections in an upcoming report.
eQualit.ie runs Deflect, a service aimed at mitigating DDoS attacks, that works free of charge with independent media, human rights organizations and activists, including the bdsmovement.net website and other groups that focus on Israeli abuses of Palestinian rights.
“Since joining the Deflect service, the bdsmovement.net website has been one of the most frequently targeted domains in our portfolio,” a spokesperson for eQualit.ie said.
eQualit.ie noted in its report that these attacks have displayed “a level of sophistication and commitment not generally seen on the Deflect network.”
“Now that we have developed infrastructure and tooling to capture and analyze cyber-attacks targeting our clients, we hope to reduce the impunity currently enjoyed by those aiming to silence online voices,” the eQualit.ie spokesperson added.
The Electronic Intifada and other Palestine-focused news sites have also previously been targeted by DDoS attacks, but those incidents are not part of the eQualit.ie report.
Israel’s “war on social networks”
“These latest cyber-attacks against BDS seem to be part of a full-fledged Israeli war on the movement that includes McCarthyite legal repression, use of intelligence services and yet more funding for ‘brand Israel’ propaganda,” Mahmoud Nawajaa, general coordinator of the Palestinian BDS National Committee, or BNC, said in reaction to the eQualit.ie report.
The publication of the report came just days after Shoham Nicolet, the president of the Israeli-American Council, a pro-Israel lobby group, spoke about Israel’s efforts to halt the momentum of the Palestine solidarity movement in the online sphere.
“The war on social networks is important and many organizations are doing a lot in this area,” Nicolet told the Stop BDS conference Israel held at the UN headquarters in New York on 31 May.
Nicolet said that some of Israel’s top technology minds had been brought together at a recent conference to figure out “how we can leverage their unique knowledge to fight BDS.”
“All I will say here is that these ideas do not remain ideas,” Nicolet added. “We are already beginning to implement them.”
Nicolet may have been referring to a gathering of Israeli tech developers in January to discuss how to thwart the movement for Palestinian rights.
“I want to create a community of fighters,” Sima Vaknin-Gil, the director general of Israel’s Ministry for Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy, told the gathering.
The Associated Press reported that the Israeli initiatives “are largely being kept covert,” but among the Israeli officials involved are former members of the Mossad spying and assassination agency and the military censor.
The period of intense attacks on the BDS movement websites also coincided with the high-profile conference held in Jerusalem in March at which several Israeli ministers declared all-out war on the BDS movement.
Following that conference, Amnesty International expressed concern for the “safety and liberty of Palestinian human rights defender Omar Barghouti, and other boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) activists, following calls alluding to threats, including of physical harm and deprivation of basic rights, made by Israeli ministers.”
Israel has since imposed an effective travel ban on Barghouti, a Palestinian human rights defender and co-founder of the BDS movement.
The DDoS attacks on websites look like another element of Israel’s increasingly aggressive effort to silence the BDS movement by all means.
“These attacks smack of Israel’s despair at its growing isolation around the world, after failing for years to stem the growing support for the nonviolent BDS movement as a strategic and effective means to achieve Palestinian rights under international law,” the BNC’s Mahmoud Nawajaa said.
Additional reporting by Rania Khalek.