Palestine Activism Spammed

Within days of the April incursion of the Israel Defense Forces into Jenin, pro-Palestine activist Thomas Olson received first a trickle, then thousands, of e-mails with menacing subject lines such as: “Mecca is for Muslims, Jerusalem is for Jews,” “Die Hitler Scum” and “I take it in the ass from Arafat.” What then became daily e-mail bombardments of pro-Israel diatribes, racist cartoons and pornography soon progressed into a much more sinister form of cyber-harassment: Olson became a victim of a type of identity-theft dubbed a “joe job” by experts, wherein someone using Olson’s name and e-mail address sends out thousands of messages that grossly misrepresent his position with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One such “job” had Olson declaring “I love Hitler” to hundreds of his fellow activists. Welcome to the concerted (and ongoing) cyber-campaign to frustrate and intimidate US-based pro-Palestine activists who attempt to organize on the Internet.

While spammings continue to crash servers and shut down inboxes, these joe jobs in particular have been smearing identities and wasting countless hours valuable to the activist community. University of Illinois law professor and pro-Palestine organizer Francis Boyle, for example, returned from a summer vacation to find 55,000 e-mails waiting in his inbox—most of them return-to-senders from a mass e-mail he supposedly wrote saying, “When I see in the newspapers that civilians in Afghanistan or the West Bank were killed by American or Israeli troops, I don’t really care.” Boyle—a former board member of Amnesty International USA and outspoken critic of the war in Afghanistan—spent four days sorting through the e-mails, deleting failed deliveries and apologizing to angry colleagues.

Similarly, Monica Tarazi, director of the New York chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), discovered that her e-mail account had shut down after someone using her address spammed some eighty Yahoo! groups. And Yale medical school professor Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh has on three separate occasions learned that e-mails he wrote to various activist lists were altered and forwarded to 1,500 members of the Yale community. Qumsiyeh has also been the victim of outright forgeries, many of which attempt to slander him by alleging that he is a Muslim advocating terrorist acts. A recent e-mail even had Qumsiyeh rallying for revolution: “Comrades and friends, the only solution to the miseries of the world we live in today is with revolutionary change that overthrows the US capitalist system and its bourgeois supporters once and for all.” Reading this aloud, Qumsiyeh chuckled, “They discovered that I’m not a Muslim, so they decided to make me a Communist.”

All accounts of this cyber-harassment point to the targeting of activists who subscribe to pro-Palestine e-mail lists or belong to Palestine-related e-groups, as well as various academics, news groups and human rights organizations that either support Palestinian statehood or are simply critical of Israeli policy. Even celebrated MIT linguistics professor Noam Chomsky, outspoken critic of Israeli policies toward Palestine, has been hit. “There is an awful lot of stuff going out in my name that’s totally insane and that I haven’t written,” the professor complained. For the last month or so, Chomsky’s personal inbox has been regularly inundated with return-to-senders, which obviously constitute only a small fraction of the e-mails being sent from his address. When asked to characterize the campaign, Chomsky sighed, calling it “somewhere between infantile and Stalinist.”

So who’s responsible? Interestingly, the bulk of the e-mails appear to be coming from within the United States, specifically from a Kinko’s or Internet cafe where the sender can remain anonymous. They are then routed through various servers around the world. Olson traced messages back through servers in Brazil, China and Mexico, only to find they were sent from a Kinko’s in Colorado; likewise, some of the spam Boyle receives is sent from a Kinko’s in the St. Louis area and routed through open relays in Brazil, China, Taiwan and Dubai. Though the campaign is no doubt elaborately sustained, and its architects determined, it is not necessarily the work of sophisticated hackers. What many of the victims are learning is that it is easy to change the “from” line of an e-mail. As Nigel Parry, co-founder of the Electronic Intifada website, told me, “This could have been done by 16-year-olds.”

“It’s a very organized, tenacious campaign,” explained Boyle, “and it’s clearly designed to knock me off the Internet.” Indeed, the e-mails are intended to cause enough confusion to ultimately prevent pro-Palestine activists from organizing online. Thanks to a team of computer technicians at his university, Boyle is standing his ground; the computer users’ office sifts through his e-mails and sets up blocks in an effort to keep spam manageable. “I’m not going anywhere,” Boyle assured me. But for others like Olson (who have fewer resources), the resulting frustration and fear have made it so they can barely communicate with other activists electronically and have had to unsubscribe from politically oriented e-mail lists like Al-Awda and Free Palestine. “It’s an impossible situation,” explained Olson. “We’re wasting hours of our time trying to figure out what’s going on; it’s making all of us paranoid; it’s totally disabling the entire community and causing activists to withdraw from the Internet.”

Adding to the activists’ frustration is a sense that all this comes at a time when communication within the international pro-Palestine movement is more dependent than ever on cyber-communication. The strongest connection between pro-Palestine activists in the States and the people living in Palestinian camps and settlements exists online, where chat-rooms and warblogs (politically oriented web-logs) constitute a crucial component of the discourse. As one Palestinian blogger recently put it to the Jerusalem Post, “It comes down to the permission to narrate one’s experiences, thoughts, and expressions. Basically, it is a way to communicate with the outside world.” Moreover, as Edward Said noted in these pages (May 6, 2002), what does not make it through Israel’s restricted coverage of the West Bank, the Internet provides in the form of hundreds of verbal and pictorial eyewitness reports. These accounts and reports are crucial to US-based pro-Palestine activism, where the struggle is for accurate reporting in the media rather than for homes and lives. “In Palestine they’re fighting for their lives; here we’re fighting for the truth,” explained Olson. Numerous pro-Palestine activists in the United States feel it is this crucial communication the cyber-harassment is meant to stifle, which is why many share Nigel Parry’s feeling that the campaign is an assault on freedom of speech.

Ironically, if the campaign as a whole constitutes an assault on freedom of speech, so too might efforts to prevent it. (Aside from being difficult and expensive to enforce, antispam laws are often challenged in court on constitutional grounds as violations of the First Amendment.) The clearer issue is that a majority of these e-mails are threatening and should seemingly qualify as harassment, intimidation and, in some cases, character assassination. But even along these lines, activists have encountered a slippery slope. After receiving a message that said “maybe one day I will kill your children,” Monica Tarazi contacted the FBI. In a conference call with the Cyber Crimes and Civil Rights Section, Tarazi, along with Nigel Parry, were told that as frustrating as the e-mails may be, there was nothing illegal about them. The message “maybe one day I will kill your children” was not specific enough to qualify as a real threat. “There haven’t been threats that rise to the level of hate crime,” Tarazi told Wired News. “No money has been stolen, public safety has not been endangered and, as far as we can tell, our computers have not been hacked or ‘technically intruded’ into, as one agent put it.”

When Olson received an e-mail containing a window shot of his personal c-drive, signed “thank you for sharing the contents of your c-drive with us,” he too alerted the FBI. In his case, the Anti-Terrorism Task Force did concede that someone had gained partial access to his computer. But in order to help him, the federal agents claimed they would need to take his computer and make a copy of the hard drive. Olson did not feel comfortable handing his computer over to the FBI. (Under a provision of Ashcroft’s USA Patriot Act, if it is determined that you are a supporter of terror, the FBI can plant in your computer the Magic Lantern, a device that records every activity performed on your computer.) When ultimately he opted not to give his computer to the agents, they accused him of hiding kiddy porn and left.

Subsequently, two organizations, the March for Justice (a Miami-based human rights organization) and Palestine Media Watch (a Philadelphia-based media watch group), are trying to foster more of a response from the FBI. Tired of finding their websites hacked, their servers shut down and thousands of incriminating e-mails written in their names, these organizations (in alliance with Palestinian Justice, Citizens for Fair Legislation, Essays and Commentary on Contemporary Middle Eastern Issues, Jewish Friends of Palestine and The American League for Justice and Peace) have put together an action coalition to get to the bottom of the cyber-harassment campaign. According to Ahmed Bouzid of Palestine Media Watch, the aim of the National Coalition Against Cyber Terrorism is “to gather as many victimized organizations and individuals under one umbrella so that we can collectively put pressure on the authorities.” They are demanding that law enforcement and government agencies immediately respond to the repeated waves of cyber-harassment by pro-Israeli hackers, and enforcement of the law to the fullest.

The question looms as to how much of this disruptive activity is actually illegal. Because antispam laws have proven difficult and expensive to enforce, state and federal legislation have defined cyber-harassment statutes in different ways, and identity theft must involve financial loss to qualify as illegal, the outlook has seemed murky at best.

But there may be hope on the horizon. Since Monica Tarazi’s initial conference call with federal agents, the ADC’s legal advisers and one particularly helpful agent from the Civil Rights Section have dug up the relevant harassment statute of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and brought it to the attention of the FBI, which, in turn, agreed to launch a formal investigation next week.

© 2002 The Nation